Trust: Who can you trust?

Did you drive here this morning?


When I lived in the states, driving was an essential part of my life. Driving and cars are a part of the American culture. Can you even imagine an American film where the hero always takes the bus? It just doesn't happen.


When I was growing up, one of my greatest yearnings was to eventually be able to drive and then to have my own car.

Driving meant freedom in my suburban world where there were no buses - only walking, bikes, and driving.

When at last that dream finally came true and I - as a grownup had a car - my relationship with cars changed dramatically - and not for the better.

A car was now a necessity. It was how I got to work. It was how I got home. It was how I collected my son from preschool, and then primary school. It was how I got food. It was an essential part of our lives. And every morning when I went out, opened up the car, sat down, put on my seat belt, and turned the key, I expected the engine would start. Most of the time it did. I relied on it. I trusted it.

But on some mornings - especially at this time of year when bitter cold New England temperatures could turn engine oil into to a thick syrup - instead of quick roaring to life, I heard the distressing ruuruuruuruur of an engine with a problem.

Of course, that wasn't the only problem that happened. There was the squeal of worn breaks, the flat tires, the steering that oddly began to fail, the lights that burned out, and all the many ills to which the modern motor-car is subject.

The cars I've had over time were pretty reliable. They would be problem free most of the time - maybe 95%. So I trusted them to get me and mine where we needed to go. When they failed, it was a disappointment and a hassle because I expected better.


We've been talking about trust this month. We began talking about trusting each new day and indeed, the new year. Of course, we agreed, we can't trust that it will be a good year or that terrible things won't happen, but we recognise that the alternative to placing trust in the new day is a fearful, closed existence that may not be worth living.


Last week we talked about becoming a trusted person and the power of listening to heal, to build up, and to create deep connection.


Today, I want to talk about our ability to trust other people. 


The cover of your order of service shows a set of computer-generated photos that are based on the result of a study of which facial features we trust and which ones we don't. To some extent, biology is destiny in who we trust. Fortunately, we can overcome some of that instant reaction when we get to know people better.


So, who can you really trust? Who can you trust to never ever let you down? Who can you trust to be there for you whenever you need them, putting your needs first? Who can you trust to react always with love and without judgement? Who can you trust never to act out of anger or jealousy or greed?


Well...  I'm thinking maybe the Buddha, but he's not exactly around anymore - and I'm not sure we can entirely believe all his good press in any case.

Can any human being live up to this standard? Not one that I've met. In fact, I'm quite sure that - if this is the test for trustworthiness - more than 99% of us fail. 98% of us fail often.


What does this mean? 


Forgive me now for returning to my American fixation on automobiles.

Every morning, I went out to the car, got in and turned the key. That is trust. I knew, of course, that there was some chance the car would fail me that day, but I tried anyway. What was my alternative? If I did not trust? I could have a back-up car ready - I could have a taxi waiting for me at all times - or, least expensive, I could never go anywhere with all the horrendous negative consequences that would bring.


The only way for me to live - to really live - was to place trust in that machine - to assume that any particular morning it would, in fact, start up and get me where I needed to go.

Trust in people is not all that dissimilar. If we do not trust each other - despite our propensity to break down and fail every once in a while - the consequences are indeed terrible. 


Isolation. Fierce independence. Loneliness. 


I'm not quite done with the car thing though.

What I learned through long and painful experience with automobiles is that they always fail for a reason. It could be low oil, worn tires, worn brakes, low coolant, and many other things I don't understand. And usually, these things got that way because I had not paid sufficient attention to the tedious and never-ending business of maintenance. Yes - getting to the mechanic frequently enough. Looking for potential problems. Listening for warning signs. Dare I say that car failures usually happened when I had neglected my relationship with my car?


You may be thinking of a film or television programme where cars have personalities. There have been many. One of my favourites as a child was "my mother the car" in which the lead character's mother chose to be reincarnated as a car - a 1928 Porter, to be specific. The show was once voted the worst on television - so much for my taste...

People also let us down - fail us - betray our trust for reasons. I don't mean to say it's all about maintaining the relationship, because there is more to it than that. With a car, we need to recognise that we are relating to a complex system that bears weakness and strengths from its creation and from everything that has ever happened to it.


Sound familiar? Each of us walks around with the strengths and scars we have accumulated from genetics and from experience. The more we understand a person, the more we can trust that they will do what we expect.


Except for a very few exceptions, people do not want to make us suffer. If they cause us to suffer it is because of their own faulty mechanics.

That is to say, we can't trust anyone to be perfect and respond the way we want - start up absolutely every morning or be there for us every time we'd like.

But we can trust them to be perfectly human - to have needs and hungers and joys and sorrows just as we do. And we can trust that their humanity will lead them to sometimes be exactly what we need and sometimes to let us down.


When dealing with cars, it is essential to have certain rules. Never run your car without oil, coolant, transmission fluid, or air in the tires. Always have your engine checked every 5,000 miles. 


Yesterday, I conducted a wedding. I said, as I always do, that love grows best in an atmosphere of trust - a trust that is created by the commitment symbolised by the vows you take today.


Rules. We often bridle at rules when they are imposed arbitrarily, but rules - compassionately and democratically chosen - create trust. This is the reason that this community has a set of rules for how we are in relationship with each other. We agree to treat one another with respect. We agree to try to resolve our disagreements directly, rather than complaining to others. We agree not to engage in the delicious joy of listening to or spreading gossip. There are more - all listed on our web site.

We need rules to build an environment of trust. Here, I will finally depart from automobiles, at last.


There is something very un-car-like about people and trust that is reflected in these words from Booker T. Washington:


"Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him."

[I apologize on behalf of Mr. Washington - apparently women either did not exist in the 19th century or could not be trusted. ]

Trusting my car may mean it gets used more, but the car does not change because of the trust I place in it. Humans, however, do. The 19th century Scottish author George MacDonald wrote that " To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved."


Imagine the feeling of being distrusted. I have a taste of this feeling every time I walk into a shop with a guard and feel his eyes on me as I select what I want to buy. It doesn't feel good and it doesn't make me want to be my best. If I am not trusted, I feel as though I might as well stick that expensive smoked salmon under my jumper and walk out with it! When I not guarded, however, I strive mightily to live up to the trust that has been placed in me. 


When someone places their trust in us - looks at us with a knowing that we will live up to high expectations - it changes us. It helps us to see ourselves in a new way - in the way they see us.


To expect great things of one another is a powerful gift that benefits all. 


I hope today that you will never, ever, suffer from transportation troubles again, but this is a vain hope. Unless you never go anywhere at all, you will certainly encounter such disappointments.


I wish also that you will never be betrayed or disappointed by a friend, a loved one, or anyone else. But, if you are living and relating to human beings, you will suffer this disappointment too.


And yet, we must drive on. The journey has delights despite the occasional breakdowns by the side of the road.


Just be sure to keep up your relationship maintenance schedule and trust that we are each imperfect, but absolutely and perfectly human.


I will close with some words from philosopher Martha Nussbaum - words that speak of what it is to be human in a beautiful, wonder-filled, but often unpredictable and dangerous world:


"To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it's based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility."