The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him;
and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to
distrust him and show your mistrust.
—Henry Lewis Stimson
Have you ever walked down a dark street at night in an unfamiliar city? You feel apprehensive and uneasy; each footfall behind you seems menacing; you quicken your steps. You tend to look over your shoulder, hyperalert for any danger lurking in the shadows.
Trust can take on a similar feeling—following an unfamiliar path, encountering new people, working your way along in untested relationships, having to depend on the reliability of others—not knowing what may lie in wait in the dim, unknown future.
We’ve been making decisions about trust from the beginnings of our consciousness. Few of us can remember, but at one time we were all trusting of just about everyone. As we aged, we experienced both trust and its opposites, abuse and betrayal. Our human databank of knowledge increased tremendously. Some experiences were good, others bad. As these experiences multiplied, we began to shape our view of trust and mistrust.
Child-development educators teach today that our behavior depends to a great extent on how—or whether—we resolved the trust-mistrust conflict early in our lives. Their viewpoint largely comes from the work of the late Harvard professor Erik Erikson. He held that the conflict between trust and mistrust arises in the very first stage of a child’s development. Successful resolution of this conflict depends largely on the infant’s relationship with the primary caregiver.
If we encounter trust during our infancy, the stage is set for a lifelong perception of the world as a good and pleasant place. But if our caregiver wasn’t dependable, then the crib and nursery turned shaky, and it’s likely we grew up to be mistrustful and insecure. Both history and personal observation show us early or late that the capacity to trust, or the lack of it, bears out Erikson’s view.
Somewhere along the way, all of us in one way or another have seen our trust mishandled, either on purpose or by mistake. Slowly we became a little jaded in our view of the world. Perhaps at some point in our lives we blindly trusted someone without question. But as our experience grew, a little voice began to warn us to be cautious with every decision concerning trust. We quickly discovered that no one is immune from the pain of mistrust. Like walking down that dark street at night, we learned to trust—but also to glance anxiously to and fro for possible trouble.
Trust and mistrust carry immense power in shaping our lives. They influence our view of our parents, our friends, our mate, our children, our bosses, our government, our peers…and even our view of God. To make the issue of trust and mistrust more complicated, in recent years our trust in trust itself has been shaken. The events of September 11, 2001, fractured bodies, buildings, friendships, and families and set the whole nation on edge. Thousands had faithfully left home for work in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon that morning, trusting to return by evening. They never came back. Their routine of trust and their very lives had been smashed—by the treacherous violence of terrorists. The terrorists themselves had betrayed their trusting welcome at America’s historically hospitable borders.
Shortly after 9/11, our trust quotient took another terrible blow, this time home-grown in corporate America. Enron, WorldCom, and other business scandals shook the trust of millions of people, horribly damaging employees, investors, and retirement-account holders. The economic bubble of the 1990s first started shrinking and then collapsed amid charges of irresponsibility, deceit, and accounting trickery.
Betrayal wears many faces, so how do we find trust?
The economy is built on trust, as we learn facing shady stock-market manipulations. Civil society is built on trust, as we realize going through layers of airline security. Marriage is built on trust, as we hear couples taking vows hesitate to pledge “till death do us part.” Families are built on trust, as we observe when parents neglect and children rebel. Democracy is built on trust, as we relearn during each constitutional cycle of elections. Friendship is built on trust, as we discover across our years of life and work in groups.
Trust holds life together. Stanford law professor Joseph A. Grundfest says, “Trust is hard-wired into everything from computers to the Internet to building codes.… Societies which have a low degree of trust are backward societies.”
Today, we desperately need to discover new, workable levels of trust for our society to move forward—in our work and organizations, in our marriages and families, in our professions and our governments. And yet…and yet…trust and mistrust both live inside every one of us. Each response is an essential virtue. Sometimes we should trust. Sometimes we should mistrust. If we can’t practice either of these contradictory virtues with equal ease, calm, and assurance, we’re in trouble, whether we know it or not. And all of us, in various ways and places, are in trouble. When to trust? When not to trust? How to decide wisely?
It all begins with trust and trustworthiness up close—up close and personal—in the microcosms of our lives, in the crucibles of our character. For the decline of trust and the rise of mistrust have become hallmarks of our era.
I grew up in a time when doors to our homes were left unlocked. In our houses today, one lock won’t do; instead, we lock, double-lock, install a deadbolt, and then set the electronic alarm. My first car, a 1940s-model used Ford, was often left on the street with the keys still in it—ready to run. Today, automatic door-lock systems shut tight our cars inside and out. We then install the Club, keep our windows up, and still hear antitheft devices scream all around us. Security services proliferate—across six pages of our local yellow pages.
More and more, the erosion of trust dominates our lives.
Divorce rates have zoomed upward in the decades just past. More often than not, trust was the triggering issue. Marriage promises broken by adultery provided flagrant examples. But often it was more subtle and even more basic.
Husbands or wives, one or both, concluded: “I can’t trust this man or this woman to ever really care for me, or understand me, or adjust to me, or fully give herself or himself to meet my marital needs for love and intimacy.”
It should be a given that the church is built on trust. But even there mistrust grows. Harold Myra, the publisher of Christianity Today, wrote an article in Leadership, a magazine for pastors, entitled “Trauma and Betrayal.” It began with a story:
People had been upset with the pastor and wanted to get rid of him. They called a special meeting, and one by one, they publicly stood up and told all the reasons they didn’t like him and his performance. Sitting in the congregation listening to all this was the pastor’s eleven-year-old son and, of course, his wife.
…How could something so cruel and thoughtless happen in a church?…Other men in other professions may get fired, but seldom with such exquisite humiliation, and certainly not in front of their own families.
To publicly treat a person’s feelings so brutally is to stab trust in the back, to turn the church horribly unchristian. Leadership’s survey found that 60 percent of pastors have experienced traumatic events in their professional lives that were extremely difficult to accept. Of that percentage, 85 percent felt betrayed by persons they thought they could trust. When asked if they ever anticipated that anything like this could happen, 80 percent said no. Such experiences are not limited to senior pastors. Music directors, youth pastors, and other leaders within the church have similar stories of betrayal.
The laity—the people in the pews—also struggle with feelings of trust abused. When pastors become dictators and tyrants, when denominations turn autocratic, when clergy scandals break hearts and lives and tarnish the faith, ordinary Christians feel betrayed too.
Hardened by broken-trust experiences, some of us learn to move on, repressing the pain. Others of us can’t forget, swearing we’ll never allow ourselves to be put in such a position again. Broken trust, real or perceived, keeps shadowing our lives. If we have been betrayed before, fears of betrayal loom like dragons whenever anyone gets close. We’re like my high school science teacher, who regularly said about our lab experiments, “Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.”
So while we trust our boss, we still find ourselves fearing the worst. While we trust our friends, we wonder whether they will reveal our secrets to others. While we trust our fellow workers, we suspect they’re undermining us. Unfortunately, it can get to the point where we don’t really trust much of anybody.
In his book Jesus & Personality Theory, James R. Beck writes:
Anyone who has been deceived by a person who reneges on a promise or who simply does not carry through on responsibilities knows how devastating that disappointment can be. We want to trust others, but sometimes that trust is violated. And when it is, the hurt, harm and long-term consequences are many and extensive.
That hurt—of trust violated—can finally make the principles involved clearer: this clash between trust and mistrust forms the grid on which we live our lives. The grid is the framework for both our agonies and our ecstasies.
From infancy’s fears of falling, loud noises, and abandonment to grade school’s best-friends rankings and middle school’s off-and-on romances, we’re on a continual search for networks of love, support, and security.
Awash in and infused by the estrangement acid of distrust, we still find ourselves on a ceaseless quest for the reassuring calmness of trust.
So the trust-versus-mistrust battle rages around and within us. But you still may ask, “Why is it important to understand trust versus mistrust? All I know is that I hurt and want to know how to stop hurting.” I have a tendency to look only at the immediate problem too. Each trust-versus-mistrust conflict is so personal, so close. Yet it’s part of much larger patterns.
This trust issue goes so much further than simply dealing with the pain of broken trust. When confronted with the topic of trust, I find that most of my thoughts turn to how to deal with the consequences of the distrust I feel right at hand. But dealing with only the at-hand effects of betrayal—or just, perhaps, with the general pain of mistrust we’ve felt toward others—answers only the surface problem. Unless we learn more about the effects of our past experiences, we will be tempted to repeat those same early processes over and over again and remain locked in them.
So it’s critical that we take a closer look at the very foundations of this trust-mistrust paradox. We must understand how universal, perpetual, and pervasive its dynamics are. We needn’t make our personal trust-mistrust decisions without a broadening overview of the issues involved and a deepening grasp of how our inner histories affect us. For in them we’re actually being offered a wiser, more powerful, more joyful life in Christ.
We do need to look over our shoulder—it’s a common, necessary reflex in us all—but we dare not take it to extremes. Unmoderated mistrust leaves us isolated and alone. Pure distrust—distilled over time—shrivels us; our lives turn in on ourselves; our existence becomes unbearable.
If we only look on the surface, why trust anyone? The risk is too high, the pain too great. Why take the chance?
Certainly we all have asked such questions, especially after feeling the sharp blade of hurt in the violation of our trust. But it becomes increasingly difficult for us to run away from the issues if we hope to live a fruitful life of fulfilling work and relationships.
Something within us wants to trust. Something within us wants to distrust our excessive distrusts. We don’t want to turn suspicious and cynical, withering away. We have been built to flourish, knowing when to trust, when to mistrust, and how to discern the difference.
But before we get there, we need to face some hard truths about reality and about ourselves.