Interdependence is our theme for November, and trust is what allows our interdependence to best function and flourish.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Whatever matters, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. How is that atmosphere in your life? How is it in our congregation? Maybe it could be better.

In the 1992 Disney cartoon movie, Aladdin, there are two moments when Aladdin holds out his hand to Jasmine and asks her, “Do you trust me?” The first time, Aladdin is a street urchin, and Jasmine’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Would you trust him?

Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But both times she says yes – and takes his hand. It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can trust, what opens up for her and Aladdin is, well: “a whole new world . . .”

It’s important to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said it were, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no: if she’d said, “No, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand,” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing also taught her that she can trust herself in new situations. As the saying goes: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.” Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. She takes his hand; takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals. So we need to think about trust in a different way than we think about trustworthiness. Trustworthiness IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

At the same time, I want to urge today, that, after you have backed away, and you’re in a space that feels safe, interrogate that experience. Was that a situation where maybe daring the risk of trust would have been worth it? Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. It's good to reflect on the question.

Trust, in any case, is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. Our individual task is to discern how we can contribute our part to collectively building it – not take foolish outsize risks in clearly untrustworthy situations. David Brooks gives this example:
“In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks, "America is Having a Moral Convulsion," Atlantic, 2020 Oct 5)
It’s trusting that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time. Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary.
“If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks)
Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking each other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, the elderly don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s sometimes a factor. Another factor, though, is that those who are now our older citizens come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation whose trust allowed them to accomplish together such things that they are called the greatest generation.
“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.”
Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics -- not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. You may remember Reagan had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. Many people trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, they trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is). Reagan turned that trust into the butt of a joke.
“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.”
In 30 years, then -- from 1964 to 1994 -- trust in the government to do the right thing fell from 77 percent to 20 percent.

Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that -- for a while. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive.
“Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate” (Brooks)
It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.”

In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972. It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust.
  • Percent of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who agree "most people can be trusted": 40
  • Percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) who agree "most people can be trusted": 31
  • Percent of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) who agree "most people can be trusted": 19
We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion.
“Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” (Brooks)
Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the gap between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow. So, good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur.

Yes, it seems to be the case that those delusions did foster social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it.

What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country was once a place of trust – and might be again. But as I was saying, it’s not up to you to try to make yourself a more trusting person. That might not be a good idea. If you get an email from a Prince of Nigeria asking for your help transferring some funds – or an email purporting to be from me asking for Apple Gift cards – don’t trust it. Making ourselves more trusting in a world that is often untrustworthy is not the issue.

What we can do is be on the lookout for opportunities to relate to others in ways that grow trust, and to do that, we have to know how that happens. What grows trust between two people? What grows trust among members of a group, or within a congregation?

I turn here to Brene Brown, who wonderfully combines a scientist’s respect and quest for data with a heart-centered gift for understanding it. She says Trust is built in very small moments. When people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.” Or, “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.”

One of the top things Brown found as a small thing that engenders trust: attending funerals. Someone shows up at your sister’s memorial service, it really adds to your sense of trust in them, that they care for you.

Another big factor: asking for help when you need it. Trust emerges between and among people through the accumulation of little things done for each other. Looking over the data, Brene Brown discerned seven factors that develop trust. Don’t try to make yourself trust people or situations that are untrustworthy -- but do be on the look-out for these factors. Be attentive to the emergence of where a higher level of trust might be warranted.

Brown arranged the seven into an acronym that spells: BRAVING. When we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

B, boundaries. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.” Be explicitly pro-active about what you’re not comfortable with, and what your needs and commitments are. If you’re not clear about who you are, I can’t trust you. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do -- over and over and over again. In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. The key part to keeping commitments is not committing more than we can keep.

A, accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends.

Next is keeping confidences – but since she needs a word that starts with V, she calls it the vault.

V, the vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. It goes in the vault, and it’s sealed from public view. And it’s not just whether you hold my confidences. If you gossip with me about someone else -- share with me a story that isn’t yours to tell – then my trust in you is diminished. The Vault means you respect my story, and a key way that I come to believe you will respect my story is that I see you respecting other people’s stories.

I, integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity -- and encourage me to do the same. Integrity has three pieces: choosing courage over comfort; choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.

N, nonjudgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me.

Under some conditions, helping people can actually lower trust. That can happen if we feel that the help is coming from someone who’s judging us for not being able to work it out ourselves, judging us for needing their help. If you’re the helper, you can offer reassurances: “Oh, this happens to me all the time.” “There’s no way you could’ve known how to do that.” “Wow, it’s great that you got this far on your own.” “I’m impressed.” But there’s still that little edge of suspicion that your assessment of the person’s competence might have slid just a hair. The only way to really remove that hint of judgment from helping someone is for you to take turns asking them for their help. Only then are the vestiges wiped away of the thought that competence is a ground where we’re competing with each other to see who has more of it – which is not a ground of trust. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, if I think less of myself for needing help, then when I offer help to someone, I think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. Real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal because only when it’s reciprocal is it free of judgment.

G, generosity. Here we’re talking about interpretive charity – charitably interpreting what the other person says. Trust requires that we evince a generosity of spirit in how we understand and interpret each other. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me.

Arriving at the most charitable possible interpretation of someone else’s words and actions often takes practice and imagination. "Assume best intentions" is a wonderful slogan. I’ve noticed, though, that its usefulness is limited if our imagination is limited. If the only two interpretations you can imagine are “they are evil” or “they’re stupid” – you may have a hard time deciding which one is the more generous explanation.

When you’re hurt and betrayed, your imaginative capacity shrinks. At those times all you can do is just say you don’t know why they did that. You just don’t know. As you heal a bit, get a little distance from the wound, your creative empathetic imagination can start to do a better job of imagining a more generous interpretation.

This BRAVING acronym works with self-trust, too. If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. We can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. An African proverb says, Beware the naked man offering you his shirt. And you will know you're worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.

These are Brene Brown’s tools for interpersonal trust. To do our part in rebuilding social trust, we take those tools and join organizations, using those tools of trustbuilding in the development of clubs, associations – and congregations. That you are a member of a congregation – in these times when increasing numbers of people aren’t – already puts you at the forefront of builders and nurturers of social trust.

As David Brooks writes:
“Whether we emerge from this transition stronger depends on our ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build organizations targeted at our many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades.”

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