HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has been nominated for several Emmys this year, including outstanding drama series. Many have said this season is the best yet, and I have to agree. The spectacle of it all, the character development, the unfolding of the plot, the various themes from religious intrigue to political alliances have captivated audiences from beginning to end. One theme I found particularly interesting, as did many others on social media, was the issue of trust involving the character Sansa Stark.
For those of you who don’t know—and you don’t need to in order to glean something meaningful from this post—Sansa is a young woman who has seen more than her share of tragedy and abuse throughout her life. She watched her father killed in the most violent manner, she was threatened and abused by her king, kidnapped, forced into marriage, beaten, lied to, manipulated, and repeatedly raped. She found herself, time and again, alone in the world surrounded by enemies and faithless friends.
This season, after escaping her nightmare imprisonment by Ramsay Bolton, Sansa is reunited with her long-lost “half-brother” Jon Snow. The two wrap their arms around each other as if there is no one else in the world. Finally, one of the few people Sansa can rely on is back in her life after many years of pain and torment.
Sansa Stark Doesn’t Trust Anyone
They plan to recapture their home and re-establish Stark rule in the North. But there’s a problem. Sansa doesn’t trust anyone. She admits this to Petyr Baelish, a political schemer who has lied to and used her on more than one occasion. Her distrust of the man who has said, with boldface honesty, “Don’t trust me” comes as no surprise given their history. But why shouldn’t she trust her brother, Jon? He’s good to the core.
When Jon is planning their battle against the Boltons, Sansa lies to him about information she had received regarding a relative in the South who has an army. Her protector, Brienne, who knew it was a lie, asks her, “Why did you lie to him?” This was after Sansa had admitted Jon is trustworthy. She offers Brienne no explanation.
This scene spurred a lot of discussion on social media about why she didn’t trust him. Was Sansa scheming behind Jon’s back? Was she planning on doing something that could hurt Jon? Later, after Jon discovers she had actually helped him by calling on Baelish’s army to save them, he tells her, “We need to trust one another.” After that, Sansa, still looking doubtful, seems to act on his admonition, allowing her brother to take control of the North once they defeated the Boltons.
But even as she did this, she makes eye contact with Baelish, who clearly doubts her decision and gives her a look that says, “You’ll pay for this. You can’t trust him.” The look Sansa gives in return seems to indicate she knows he might be right.
So trust is a huge deal for Sansa. But why is it so hard for her to trust Jon, who loves her? Anyone who has been through abuse knows the answer immediately. When you have been abused, trust is painfully difficult. You simply don’t trust anyone, not even those who have never betrayed you. They can tell you they love you. They can show you they have your best interests at heart, but it’s nearly impossible for you to really trust them. You remain guarded. You refrain from intimacy. You defend yourself even when they aren’t attacking you. You cower from the world, living in fear.
No One Can Save Me, Not Even You
Sansa had seen and experienced abuse and betrayal unlike anything most people would ever experience. When you’ve been betrayed, when you’ve been powerless and abused, trusting someone is a struggle, not only because you know what monsters people can be, but because you don’t even trust the people who are good. You don’t trust them because they are powerless. They can’t really keep the monsters from creeping into the closet at night.
While you might want to trust them, you don’t because no matter how well their intentions, they are impotent to do anything to help you. Most of the time, that’s not their fault. Life is unpredictable, and they just might not be there for you because of circumstances beyond their control. Or they could be put in situations where they have to choose themselves over you, and most people are driven by self-interest, no matter how kind and loving they might be.
Either way, when you’re already doubting people, you’re not likely to trust because you see how little people can control what happens. Somehow, some way, someone is going to hurt you. That’s what you believe in your heart. That’s why Sansa didn’t trust Jon.
If someone in your life has been abused, please show them a great deal of grace about the matter of trust. If they lash out or recoil from you, it’s not because they’re cruel or because you’re bad or even because you have done anything wrong. It’s because they’re wounded, and that pain is raw. Any threat or perceived betrayal or sense of abandonment causes them to attack or withdraw into themselves to protect the hurt.
We Snarl In Reflexive Self Defense
Our family had a little Australian Silky who came to us after having been abused as a puppy. She was lame in one leg, which we suspected was the result of abuse. She was a sweet, loving dog, but sometimes, if we moved toward her unexpectedly, she would bar her teeth and snap at us. We might not be doing anything that was a real threat, but she would become defensive.
The children didn’t understand why she acted that way, and we often had to explain that she didn’t mean it and the kids weren’t doing anything wrong. She had been abused, and this was the sad result. It was important, we explained, not to react with similar hostility or defensiveness. Be gentle by remaining calm, we told them. So we loved her and tried to help her become more trusting. She did, but never perfectly.
It’s not much different with humans, although I have more hope for humans to overcome their fear. When we’ve been abused, especially when it’s someone who is supposed to be one of the safest people in our lives (a parent or a spouse), it ignites a flame of fear within that is hard to extinguish. Every sense of vulnerability, every threat, every failure, every lie, every hurt reminds us that people can’t be trusted. They’re all betrayers. We can only trust ourselves if we don’t want to suffer. We snap and snarl, barring our teeth, in our own defense.
Since people are imperfect and will eventually let us down, we can always find something to “prove” people are untrustworthy. Every failure is proof of betrayal. Every slight is perceived as a cruelty. As I mentioned before, even if they have the best intentions, even if we know they’re good people, we don’t trust they really have the power to help us.
I Never Knew When the Attack Would Come
One time when I was a child, I was being beaten by my father repeatedly because I was failing at my math homework. My pants were down and he was hitting me over and over because I didn’t know my times tables. Besides being in pain, I was terrified that I’d lose control and urinate all over him. What would he do to me then? I can remember how I tensed up all over, repeating in my mind, “Don’t pee. Don’t pee.”
My father kept hitting me. “What’s four times three?” Wham. Wham. Wham. I couldn’t think. Even after I said “Twelve!” I got beat more until I repeated it several times, my father releasing the last vestiges of his anger until it finally expired in one last whack.
After that, while I certainly remembered my father’s beating (and I had plenty of others), what I remember most about that moment was looking up and seeing my mother standing by the refrigerator with tears in her eyes. She wasn’t hurting me. She was clearly grieving. She didn’t approve of what was going on. But she was powerless. Maybe she was afraid too. For whatever reason, she didn’t intervene.
She never did, not even when I’d be sitting at the dinner table and suddenly my father would backhand me across the cheek because he didn’t like the “look on my face” or when I was a little girl and he’d pin me against the wall as he yelled at me. I never knew when the attack would come, what I’d do or say to stir his ire, but it would come, and I was helpless. My mother also never stopped it. As a result, I didn’t trust my father or my mother. She had betrayed me as much as he had.
I learned as a child that not only could I not trust “bad” people who were powerful, but I couldn’t trust those who were “good” because they were powerless. I couldn’t trust anyone. As I went through life, that belief was reinforced as people let me down, hurt me, used me, and even abused me as an adult. It wasn’t until later that I realized how I contributed to much of this, as I was drawn to people who were selfish and abusive. But I also eventually learned (and continue to learn) that life doesn’t need to be a cycle of abuse and mistrust.
Love Means Pain, But It’s Better than the Alternative
Trust is definitely earned, and once it’s lost it takes a lot of work to rebuild it (and, with much grace, I have rebuilt it with my parents—I love them dearly and my mother is now my closest friend). But trust is also a choice. More than that, we must trust imperfect people. That means they’re going to disappoint us, even fail us. Our trust is perfectly secure only when it’s placed in someone who is both perfectly good and perfectly powerful. The only one who fits that description is God. Humans aren’t God. They’re terribly imperfect, even the best of them.
Only by trusting ultimately in God despite all the bad in my life, then choosing as an act of faith to love and trust others (unless they have blatantly proven to be untrustworthy), have I found any measure of peace. The effects of abuse can only be overcome when you realize you’re not defined by your abuse and neither are other people. You can love. You don’t have to be afraid. You can choose to trust, because there really is no alternative if you want to be happy. My prayer these days is not “Keep me safe” but “Give me strength to love because love in this world is never safe. Give me the strength to suffer if suffering comes.”
As C. S. Lewis wrote in “The Four Loves,” “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.” If you want to be perfectly safe, to never hurt again, “You must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
This quote reminds me of the animated film, “Song of the Sea,” where a magical creature, the witch Macha, turned her son into an island because he suffered from a broken heart. She never wanted him to hurt again, so she turned him to stone. As a result of her loss and pain, she began to attack others, turning anything with feeling into stone, transforming herself in the process. Only when she allowed herself to feel, to weep, to suffer, and to love, were she and everyone else released from their rocky prisons.
If we truly want to be happy, if we truly want to overcome the effects of abuse, we need to draw close to the One who loves us perfectly and choose to let down our stony guards and open our hearts to others. We do this, as Lewis says, “not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”
It is a risk to love. It is a risk to choose to trust. But it’s worth it. It’s worth the risk because the alternative—the loneliness, the bitterness, the hell—is unacceptable. That’s not a life worth living. It is better to love and suffer, to love and be betrayed, to love and be used, to love and even feel the heavy hand of cruelty, than never to love at all; and trust is very much a part of love.