Through some serendipitous Facebookery I came across this Nature Channel show called Into the Pride, the episodes of which are posted in parts on Youtube. The show follows the efforts of zoologist and big cat trainer Dave Salmoni in his effort to desensitize a pride of lions who were known to be particularly hostile to humans to his presence, and to the presence of ecotourists who would pay the rent on the cats’ habitat. If the cats are not able to become more comfortable with people, then they would ultimately be killed.

Salmoni attempts this desensitization primarily through what he calls “bush walks”. He drives a small vehicle he calls a “quad” that looks like something my grandfather would have sat on to mow the lawn, and he drives up to where the pride, including four cubs, are hanging out. When Salmoni is ready, he disembarks from his quad and attempts to (slowly and cautiously) close the distance between himself and the lions. Much of the time, the lions are angered by this trespass and end up charging him. He carries only a wooden crook and some pepper spray. An example:

It’s quite a harrowing process. But Salmoni is as tenacious as he is brave, and eventually does make some headway with the lions. They get used to seeing him, and they come to know what they can expect from him, in spite of their previous presumably bad experiences with people.

This process of repeated exposure is an incredibly important part of how relationships are formed. Meeting someone once or twice, no matter what the nature of our interaction with them, is simply not enough data to allow us to make up our minds about someone, about whether we can trust them and what we might expect from them. We all know that people are often on their best behavior, and it’s only through a series of interactions that we come to believe that we actually know someone. We have all had the experience of believing prematurely that we know someone, only to ultimately discover that they are someone quite different from who we had imagined them to be.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella-for-children-and-adults, The Little Prince, the protagonist encounters a Fox who expresses his wish that the Prince “tame him”. When the Prince asks what that means, the Fox replies:

It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties…To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .

When the Prince asks what he has to do to tame the Fox, the replies:

“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”

What this implies is that the process by which the Prince acquires significance for the Fox, and by extension by which anyone acquires significance to anyone, is this process of repeated exposure. Because we all know that people are capable of a huge spectrum of acts and attitudes, it is only when we have seen them across multiple occasions that we can form attachments to them, that we come to value them. Note that this is the same process that Dave Salmoni engages in with the lions: he attempts to change their assessment of him through the process of repeated exposures over time, during which he establishes what the cats can expect from him.

What happens through this process of repeated encounter is that a tacit contract evolves. I learn what I can expect from you, and what I cannot. Since this usually remains unspoken, there are opportunities for misunderstanding or misinterpretation in this contract, and these misunderstandings or misinterpretations are tested and refined over the course of a friendship.

Now, it’s not uncommon for actors to be told that scenes are about relationships, but it is often left at that. Actors have to digest this truth themselves, or are invited to forget about it in focusing on something else. But in this picture of what the process of forming a relationship involves, we can begin to see why a relationship is something that might be difficult to fake, and how much is assumed by the labels we use to define relationships. It’s one thing to define another person as a “sister”, a “friend”, a “colleague”, a “boss”, or a “subordinate”. It’s one thing to say it. It’s a first step. But a lot of the time, the actor needs to do some significant imaginative work about the relationship and its evolution over time, how the contract that defines the friendship has evolved, and about the moments in which the contract has been tested and either affirmed of betrayed. It is this work that begins to create what one theater critic has called “the great spaces of life and quantities of experience” that stand behind the characters that we observe when we watch a play, or any other kind of drama. It’s because of this kind of imaginative work, in part at least, that we can accept an actor as actually being in a relationship with another actor, as actually being “tied” to another person, to use the Fox’s phrase, and not simply as someone going through the motions of being tied to another in this way.

Conferring authority is hard work.