You discover that the popular celebrity you like and have enjoyed watching on television has a dark side, abusing his position to engage in predatory sexual contact with children. Not only do you feel betrayed by him but also by the broadcasters who turned a blind eye. It makes you wonder who to trust.
You want to applaud your favourite sporting heroes but there is that lingering doubt. Did they cheat to win, unfairly seek an advantage by taking a phoney dive on the playing field, or use performance enhancing drugs to beat their rivals?
You have a problem with the car, or the house roof, or you suffer tooth pain. Who to trust — the mechanic, builder, or dentist not to exaggerate the problem and thus the cost? You want to develop your business by taking on extra staff but surveys find that employers report nearly half of the CV’s received contained lies and over half of all employees admit phoning in sick when they weren’t.
We live in sceptical times but life has always been about mutual dependence. We all need to rely on other people to a varying extent. But will people really do what they say they will do? Who to trust that will keep secret that personal information you shared? Who to trust to look after your pet properly when you are away? Choosing who to count on isn’t always easy.
Yes, you try to be right about people. So you use common sense to size people up, taking account of their track record and you don’t go into something with someone with your eyes closed. We learn to read other people. We acquire skills in social perception detecting those individuals who get irritable and easily offended when criticised, or who will respect the spirit of constructive criticism even when not agreeing with it. We realise that the person who gossips to you about others is likely to be the sort of person who may gossip about you too behind your back.
You may pause before deciding who to trust if your fellow workers are not open about their feelings. You may be doubtful who to trust if you find out the people you are with are critical of you behind your back. Likewise if they use evasion, spin and weasel words or choose email, or a text message to convey difficult messages to you.
Someone may do none of these damaging things. However, even when the signs are very good, you can never know enough about someone to be absolutely sure of them. When it comes down to it, life is just not risk-free. No matter how hard you consider the character of likely individuals, in the end it is a risk who you take on to look after your children, who to ask to mend the chimney, who to lend money to.
Of course, when it comes to personal relationships the issue of trust is more complex. Who do you try to get closer to? This is likely to be someone you want to spend more time with; the kind of person who has similar interests, and shares your values and principles. If a personal relationship is to start someone has got to make the first move and if it is to grow someone has to make further moves. For all you know, your friendly overtures may be snubbed, or you voicing an uncomfortable truth to someone may result in your head being bitten off. Playing safe all the time never won a fair lady. You don’t get trust because you earn it; you get it because you give it. Take the risk of showing trust to someone and you may be trusted in return.
Most people have probably been let down by someone some time in their life. But to expect otherwise is to believe in the illusion of a perfect trusting relationship. You would end up always worrying about who to trust. If there were always a wonderful understanding between people and complete commitment, there would never be any pain of conflict and personal hurt. Experience teaches differently. But life goes on and we are obliged to take some chances with people.
One view is that trusting others involves an attitude towards life and that trusting life is something that goes beyond a reaction to how someone treats us. Trusting in life is no guarantee that nothing painful will occur. But it is preferring the chance of being hurt and let down once in a while to the alternative of living in fear and suspicion; of not having to try to protect yourself from all eventualities. Psychotherapist Scott Peck has said that the attempt to avoid legitimate suffering lies at the root of all emotional illness. One’s path in life is unknown and unpredictable. Without some trust in the journey, one is always going to be distrustful and suspicious.
I believe one useful motto in line with all this is to prepare for the worst but hope for the best.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems