A Scottish author, poet and Christian minister George MacDonald said, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” I can attest to that truth because I have discovered that gaining the trust of a person or an animal, for that matter, is highly satisfying.
Diane and I live in a very rural area. In fact, cows outnumber people about 4 to 1. When its warm enough we sometimes we sit outside after dark. We see so many more stars than we could when the city lights surrounded us. Most of the time, it’s really quiet too. We don’t hear cars rushing by or arguments in the street. On a summer night, you can hear an orchestra of crickets chirping, coyotes howling and cows bawling. I can even identify some of the ‘voices’ of the animals around here and I’ve even begun to understand some of what’s on their minds.
Occasionally people dump unwanted pets in the country. They try to relieve their consciences by telling themselves that these are animals, that their predatory instincts will surface, and they will survive better out where they can hunt. Chances are, if their predatory instincts do kick in, they are more likely to get shot. But most of these domesticated animals have learned to depend on humans for food. They wind up on your doorstep, moth eaten, starving and distrustful. Consequently, we have an army of cats from time to time. We supplement their food until they learn some ‘survival skills,’ but once they are adopted in, it becomes a symbiotic relationship. We feed them and they mouse.
One cat that was gifted to us by some anonymous person had kittens. A good mother, she kept them hidden from predators. We never knew she had them until we saw them out practicing their hunting skills. By that time, they were extremely wild and skittish, running away whenever we approached.
Like most farmers, it is my practice to get up early. I feed and water the animals that wait impatiently lecturing. And I milk the goats. The goats routine, I have learned cannot be deviated from in the slightest without rattling their entire day. When I am finished, I always fill a bowl with fresh milk for the cats. I love to see them impatiently pace around beneath the milking stand, yowling at me to hurry.
Probably due to being abandoned, this mother cat was not very friendly. She would crouch down under the tractor, waiting for me to leave the barn before she would approach the bowl of warm milk. I would stop outside the barn door and look back to see her checking to make sure that I had gone. Now and then she would glance over her shoulder as she drank. Morning and night, day after day, the routine remained the same, and after a long time, she seemed to relax. Finally, she came out from under the tractor and sat patiently waiting for the milk. Her two kittens would join her after I left, but due to the early example of their careful mother, they would never approach when I was around.
Then one day, the mother cat jumped up on the stand with the other cats while I was milking!
It took a lot longer to win over those kittens. But I applied the same time and patience technique. They at last became so tame that they would crawl all over me while I milked. In the end, they let me pick them up and hold them. I know that if I had tried to pick them up before they had overcome their mistrust, I would never have been able to hold them as I did.
In some ways relationships everywhere are symbiotic. But out in the rural areas, people learn to be even more dependent on one another. Friendships out here are mostly based on mutual respect. What few neighbors we have, we know. Anyone else is suspect when they are seen walking too close to buildings they don’t own or driving a tractor that you know belongs to your buddy. One man repairs tractors, another family understands the 4-H guidelines. One lady teaches cheerleading and ballet in her basement, another gives riding lessons. Men meet together at regular intervals to help move their cattle or practice roping. If you run out of something that you have to go into town to get, it’s comforting to know that your neighbor can help you get by until your next trip. Even the churches forget their differences when a local resident needs help or it’s time for a community celebration.
When my son and I bought this land and started building our houses next to each other, a little country store opened nearby. We began to frequent the place for sandwiches at lunchtime and soon met several of the locals who stopped in around the same time as well. The store closed due to lack of enough traffic to sustain it, but since I believe that God’s hand is often involved in our lives, I like to think that the store was opened just for me. It was there just long enough for me to meet a few of my neighbors, find out where they lived and learn a little about their history.
During that time, I found myself looking for opportunities to know people better by lending a hand when I could. I tried not to repeat unkind rumors or take advantage of anyone’s valuable time without offering something in exchange.
Something I always tell my wife who tends to give her heart away too easily is that she needs to learn the difference between friends and acquaintances. Some neighbors are still like the mother cat. Maybe they will always be that way. Others have become some of our closest friends, teaching us things it would have taken years to learn on our own. But, I’ve learned that I must go slowly. These kinds of friends are not cultivated overnight.
Wherever we have lived we have watched as the youth follow in their parent’s patterns. Children who are raised in the country or children raised in the city learn what to watch out for; who to trust and what they need to do to be happy and safe. We are all probably glad when our children are as cautious as those wild kittens until we give them the signal that they can come out, but if we make them afraid of the world, they may never overcome the obstacles to become truly successful.
As Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”