We all have had the experience of hearing sentences, often in an entirely fortuitous way, which brand themselves in our memory and become a constant source of inspiration, something to which we keep returning in our lives. This was the case for me during a retreat some twenty years ago when the preacher said that “the most decisive conversion in our life happens when we are able to turn from fear to trust”. Over the years, the meaning of this sentence has become deeper and deeper as I have discovered how much it applies not only to spiritual life, but also to leadership and management, to politics, to harmonious relations in the life of a couple.
Of course, we do not just decide to start trusting – and it would be disastrous to put our trust in the wrong people or institutions.
I’ve already mentioned this principle of social psychology called the Pygmalion effect whereby positive expectations draw the best out of people. I have often observed how much this is true especially of trust. We should trust those who are trustworthy but, if we want to change the world, we have to learn how to do better and more than that.
I have observed this on myself on more than one occasion. I have done public speaking in one form or the other basically during the whole of my life. The real test of confidence for a public speaker is what happens when he has to improvise a speech, which happens from time to time, especially in the life of a priest. I have discovered that when in the audience there are people who have shown appreciation for me and on whose support I can count, not only my thoughts magically coalesce in a coherent speech, but sometimes I am myself surprised by the depth of some of the things that come out of my mouth. This definitely is the Pygmalion effect. Equally however, I have been in situations where for some reason I could not establish a connection with the people I was talking to and sensed if not distrust, at least a level of indifference. In these case, the only thing I could do was to bluff my way through, which never helps you to feel good about yourself, and certainly does not bring the best out of you.
We are right to be discerning when it comes to the people on whom we choose to rely, but we should also remember that often the only way of helping people to grow, flourish and be their best self is taking the risk of trusting them. Every parent, teacher, coach knows that trust is the most effective educational tool at their disposal. Trust empowers people, builds their self-esteem, foster their inner motivation, and produces everlasting gratitude. If we think about it, who are the people we are most grateful to in our life, besides our parents. Is it not the educators, bosses or friends who have believed in us, who have seen the good in us, even when we were not sure about ourselves?
Our language conveys these truths very eloquently. We talk about spreading fear, as with a disease. Just as with this wicked Covid 19, when we catch it we cannot help passing it on to others – when we are afraid, we unsettle everyone else around us.
On the contrary, trust is something which we offer as a gift, we promote, and we encourage in ourselves and in other people. We have to be proactive, creative. It results from a choice and requires a learning process. We can radiate it only when we have reached a high degree of maturity and self-knowledge, we are at peace with ourselves and have learnt to manage our anxieties.
Trust probably is the best answer to the thought experiment we have conducted in this series of podcasts: What if we were good after all? We do not have the answer to this question and the evidence from science, history, philosophy and religion is conflicting - and conflicted. In the end the answer to this question probably is less a rational or logical conclusion than a decision. We should reframe the question in this way: What if we decided to trust that human beings are good after all?
We will always have plenty of evidence to the contrary in our life, both in the face of what happens around us and as a result of the painful realization of the evil we ourselves are capable of – “Let her or him who is without sin cast the first stone”. This however should never become an alibi for cynicism, which, as Rutger Bregman perceptively affirms in his book Humankind, is a form of laziness, “an excuse not to take responsibility. Because if you believe most people are rotten, you don’t need to get worked up about injustice. The world is going to hell either way”. (379)
The antidote to cynicism is a trust which is discerning but also creative, cautious but also able to dare at the right time and in the right way, eager but also, and especially, endlessly patient -with ourselves and with others. If, as the Psalm says, Bonum est confidere in Domino, “It is good to trust in the Lord” (Psalm 118.8), it is also good, that is heart-warming and comforting, to radiate trust around us, more and more.