Trust is the force that breaks the chains of fear. It frees us to connect with others, to co-operate, to love, to release compassion, to realise our best potential. Functioning like DNA, it’s an instructor in forming the building blocks of human relations. In its highest state it aids in the creation of altruism, the elixir that saves us from the meanness of the quid pro quo.
Trust is fragile but its need is strong. Without it, our natural social instincts become twisted into a fatal spiral of selfish isolation. At that point we lose the redemptive assistance of others and fail to hear the summons of life. Societies, even civilisations, sometimes trip into this dark abyss, the grim prelude to decadence. Regrettably, ours is stumbling around the edges. As David Brooks said in The Road to Character:
We live in an age of institutional anxiety, when people are prone to distrust large organizations. This is partly because we’ve seen the failure of these institutions and partly because in the era of the Big Me, we put the individual first.
We have a term for the Big Me—narcissism, a word that bears the cautionary wisdom of ancient times. In the Greek myth, as retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the forest nymph, Echo, saw the superlatively handsome Narcissus while he was hunting and fell in love with him. But he rejected her, as he would all the nymphs, for his self-absorption barred relationship to another. Distraught, she was left mournfully wandering in the woods until her flesh wasted away and her bones changed into stone, leaving only her voice that forever repeats the last words spoken. Later, while hunting, Narcissus came upon a clear pond and stooped down to drink. There, he saw his reflection in the water and marvelled at its charm, falling in love with the lovely face. “How often did he vainly kiss the treacherous pool, how often plunge his arms deep in the waters, as he tried to grasp the neck he saw. But he could not lay hold upon himself.” In grief at his frustration he cried, “Oh you woods, has anyone ever felt a love more cruel?”
This essay appears in the April edition of Quadrant.
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Nemesis, intent on punishment for his transgression of the natural order, made him linger in self-love, unable to tear himself away from the watery picture despite the passage of time. Gradually his beauty faded, his strength decayed and his human form vanished. In its place grew a little purple flower the Greeks named after him.
Trust rides on the waves of human relationships. It cannot live alone, apart. The self-obsession of Narcissus precluded even its beginning. It needs human connection, absent in him. In less extreme cases, which are the norm, over-concentration on the self impedes the formation of connection, retarding the growth of trust.
There can be many manifestations of trust, but two principal aspects define it. The most emotionally rewarding but the riskiest is faith in the benevolence of the other. The second is confidence (from the Latin fides or faith) in the competence of the other. The two are often intertwined, but not always. Trust in aircraft pilots doesn’t require faith in their benevolence; known training and self-interest are enough. And competence is not needed for faith in the benevolence of a family member or close friend—perhaps some degree of it is but not much.
A breach in the first aspect can play out in the tragic drama of betrayal—a moral assault that stabs the heart of human relationships, sometimes in bloody form like the assassination of Caesar by his friend Brutus, but more commonly in non-violent but nevertheless distressing ways.
The deeper the trust, the more beautiful it is but also the more hurtful and consequential in its rupture. Essentially trust requires the courage to accept and expose vulnerability, the giving up of self in the humility of dependence. Therein lies the magnificence of the risk.
One of the benefits of this grand surrender can be the release from care and stress, albeit at the cost of temporarily abandoning the primacy of self-reliance. I thought like this when I was in an intensive care ward after a major operation. When I woke up I was so weak I could scarcely move, just lie on my back and wait, alone in the alienating sterility of steel equipment and white tiles. And then I saw a little Asian nurse nearby, crisp and clean. She bustled around cheerfully, doing what was necessary. I thought how wonderful she was, caring for me, keeping me alive. I realised how dependent I had become, someone who had always felt pride in self-reliance. That dependence was trust, trust in her competence, trust in her good intentions and her honesty in giving them form. At that point pride melted away, giving way to a feeling of well-being, even though physically I was in some discomfort despite the medication.
The neuroscientist Paul Zak has shown that the reposing of trust releases the neurochemical oxytocin, a pleasurable hormone that inhibits fear and anxiety produced in the amygdala. Strongly associated with empathy and sometimes called the “love hormone”, its role is to facilitate trust and attachment between individuals. The most notable case is the bonding between mother and child, indicating it has a marked evolutionary role. It also has an anti-depressant effect. The relationship between it and trust is circular: the more one is produced the more the other is generated.
Trust is interlinked with hope. In its action hope is born, hope that the vulnerability exposed is safe. As Samuel Johnson said, “Hope is a species of happiness, and perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.” And both are stimulated by gratitude, for we are naturally disposed to trust and lay hope in someone who has done us a good turn, even in a minor degree. Compliment a person and a little moment of trust arrives, in the garb of gratitude.
We deal with the issue of trust every day, mostly in trivial cases, but sometimes in instances that really matter. We have to, because it obviates the need for exhaustive weighing of the evidence. It’s intuitive. At his home in Guildford, John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time and not the most trusting, told me a story about one such instance. He spoke of his younger years, when his oil company, not large at that point, had a 50-50 joint venture with the famous zaibatsu, Mitsubishi, for exploration and production of petroleum. One day when shipping oil to Tokyo Bay, he received a telegram from his Japanese partner, “Turn tanker back.” Getty was in a dilemma. That tanker represented a large portion of his wealth then and sending it back would cause significant loss. Nevertheless, he trusted in the loyalty of his partner and ordered the captain to comply with the telegram. A few days later the Imperial Air Force bombed Pearl Harbor.
I have often reflected on this staggering demonstration of discharging the sacred duty of trust. If the Japanese authorities had discovered that telegram, the best Getty’s partner could have expected would be a quick death. After all, obtaining access to raw materials, especially oil, was one of the principal reasons Japan went to war. And what about duty to country?
Trust inhabits many places. A particularly illuminating one is sport, the proxy for war which the ancients, from Mesopotamia to Greece, invented, first to be played at funeral ceremonies of the famous and later to enliven the time when peace broke out or it was too hot to fight in armour. A sporting team’s success depends not only on the individual expertise of its members but on how well they play together, and that largely hangs on trust. Its magic empowers a championship team to beat a disparate one of all-stars, as often happens.
In football for example, the players take daring risks, such as passing the ball when they wouldn’t if they didn’t trust their team-mates’ competence. And, perhaps most of all, trust in their fellow players to rise to supreme effort, particularly in a final match, inspires all to push past the ramparts of exhaustion and pain. Alive within everyone is the intent not to let team-mates down; knowing one is trusted generates responsibility.
In warfare, soldiers characteristically put their faith in comrades to “have their back”, naturally producing a reciprocal obligation. It’s well known that they care more about honouring the sacredness of that trust even than winning battles. A corollary is the imperative to rescue comrades in danger. The Romans exemplified this in their highest award for bravery, the corona civica, which was for saving a fellow life.
Trust is aided by faith, religious or secular, in the basic goodness of humankind. That cast of mind makes it easier to believe that the trusted one will do the right thing. When existential attacks are mounted against faith, faith of any kind, and it is destabilised, the general disposition to repose trust tends to be diminished. Because religious faith has always been such an important form of trust, albeit not the only one, for it’s possible to have faith merely in humanity, it seems to me that the decline in religious faith so emblematic of our age is more than correlative in the widespread distrust of institutions today.
The willingness to take the risk of trust and the measure of it are determined largely by where people stand on the pessimism–optimism spectrum. The more optimistic, the more likely they are to trust others. They see the risk as lower. The same is true when the risk is applied to institutions, for the reposing of trust begins at the individual level and spreads outwards.
By optimism and pessimism here, I mean the disposition inherent not only in individual personalities, but also in the extent to which people are influenced by the normative inclinations of their society. These vary throughout history. In the Victorian era Browning could say, “God is in his heaven. All’s right with the world”. Shortly after, the scourge of the First World War arrived to destroy the established order and set off a contagion of pessimism from which the Western world has not yet recovered.
The blight was aggravated in the 1960s and 1970s by the incompetence and biases of what Dwight Eisenhower pejoratively called the Military Industrial Complex in its handling of the Vietnam War and various social issues, especially unjustifiable discrimination and social marginalisation. The demographic complexion at the time set the scene for especial disappointment, for the young, alive then in unprecedented numbers, demanded, as youth is prone to do, perfection in human affairs that ultimately stumbled against the palisade of reality. Their dashed hopes evolved into distrust in the organs of society they held responsible—which was most of them. And that frustration has followed them into maturity.
The global financial crisis in 2008, visited upon us by the misbehaviour of the big banks, shredded all safety nets in such a catastrophic breakdown of trust that, for a worrying while, money transfers among banks froze like an actor forgetting his lines. Its effects are still footprints in the sand. And the satanic crimes of child sex abuse recently brought to light have pulled at the underpinnings of trust in religious institutions, which were already under attack by atheistic tendencies in society.
Cynics claim, with widespread acceptance, that we have entered a post-truth age, a not unreasonable conclusion given the deconstruction of truth into different views of the facts and its dethroning from the absolute to the relative, preached for years by postmodernists. And the calling of anything one disagrees with “fake news” further erodes the cause of truth.
Another sign of our era is the heightened attention paid to politics. Not content to stay within its usual realm of governance and jockeying for position within organisations it has intruded into virtually all aspects of life—teaching at schools and universities, characterisation of literature and history, art, matters of gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, together with socio-economic disadvantage and advantage of all sorts. Talk shows on television and radio, articles in the press, posts on social media, seem to have time for little else but issues infused by politics of one kind or another.
It used to be that in the minds of most people politics hibernated, awakening solely at election time. Only the odd snore before then disclosed it was still alive. Now, everything is viewed through a political lens; all definitions relevant to humanity are deconstructed to demonstrate an innate political motive or explanation. Relations among people, even in sport, once immune from the virus, are infected as never before. The tagline “Total Politics” fairly applies to almost all public discourse. Certainly the descent into angry partisanship so noticeable in the Western world these days has scratched the political itch but that does not explain fully the embrace of Total Politics.
Politics, by its nature, is divisive; it pits one interest and opinion against another, pressing people apart, increasing the sense of difference and masking the underlying truth that links us all together. Someone has said, “If the mathematical proposition 2 + 2 = 4 ever became a political issue, immediately there would be a party for and a party against.”
Trust is built on the awareness of sameness, not difference. One is more likely to trust a person or institution that shares a basis of perceived commonality. Politics is an enemy of that. The fragmentation it produces increases the tendency to find fault in the other, not to repose trust. Its heightened presence today has markedly contributed to the level of distrust we see in institutions and the people who run them—politicians, journalists, bankers, lawyers, corporate executives, academics, clerics.
The one possible exception to this dystopia, it can be argued, is science. The beneficial advances so manifest over recent times, the rigours of the scientific method and the stiff punishment so certain to follow aberrant behaviour are all conducive to reposing trust, even in our jaundiced world. However, the odd brush with politics recently, such as the climate change controversy, and lack of comprehension on the part of large swathes of the public, render its crown uneasy to wear.
Ironically science is responsible for a development that is having a further erosive effect on the existence of trust. In social media, its contemporary creation, the element of risk that characterises trust in ordinary relationships is diminished, a blemish that reduces its nature to an entity of lower order. Virtual friendships made in the land of the click do not normally require the exposure of vulnerability of the sort needed in the building of trust. Any reaching out is mainly without danger (unless one does something stupid or crosses swords with clickers whom one would never trust) for everyone knows that the connection to the so-called friend can be deleted at any time by the press of a finger by either party, an action provoking only a moment’s irritation, a superficial scraping of the ego’s knees, soon forgotten. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent in this to the gravity of betrayal that occurs in a normal breach of trust, except in the most unusual cases. I wonder whether the lure of pseudo-friendships degrades the willingness to nourish real ones.
Though cynicism shares our lunch these days, trust survives. It must, for we are human. It may be under assault in our institutions but at an individual or small group level we still see the shining light of its truth. Personal relationships can be infused with it, and so can teams of people. There’s relief in that, since a tendency to trust others, according to psychologists, is a strong predictor of subjective well-being.
Tony Grey contributed “The Assault on Optimism” in the January-February issue