Rev. Douglas Taylor
A story I found tells of a little girl and her father crossing a bridge. The father was kind of scared so he asked his little daughter: “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”
The little girl said: “No, Dad. You hold my hand.”
“What’s the difference?” asked the puzzled father.
“There’s a big difference,” replied the little girl. “If I hold your hand and something happens to me, chances are that I may let your hand go. But if you hold my hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens, you will never let my hand go.”
How do we learn and relearn trust? Developmentally the obvious answer is from our parents. Cynthia L. Wall, clinical social worker, psychotherapist and author, says “No one is born knowing how to trust.” This quote gave me pause for I had been thinking just the opposite must be true. I was thinking we all begin with an abiding trust of Mother and milk. But as I considered it further I came to see that the trust is learned. Babies come into a world filled with strangeness for them: light and sound, all sensation and no control. They cry, and they learn that in crying they get a response. They learn that crying produces a response they can come to trust.
In a normal healthy scenario, babies learn to trust that their cry brings comfort from Mother or milk or the various other sources of happiness and comfort in their little lives. The word “trust” has a deep Scandinavian root related to confidence and reliance; and a parallel deep root in German meaning consolation or solace. Trust comes from confidence and reliance, where do you find your confidence? Trust is related to solace and consolation, where do you find solace? Babies learn that their cry brings comfort and solace they can rely on and thus they begin the life-long lessons of trust.
We learn to trust. “No one is born knowing how to trust,” Cynthia Wall says. She goes on to say, “Life gives us many teachers, some caring and others cruel. Few people receive a solid base of trust as children. Even fewer are taught how to trust themselves.”
Can you call to mind the teachers you have had who have offered you lessons in trust? Some of these have been positive lessons and others have been negative lessons. For a child what is at issue is trust in her own body, trust in his parent or parents, trust that we will receive enough care and nourishment to survive. As we get older the topic become more abstract: we trust those who tell us the truth, those who keep promises. We trust those whose actions are predictable.
Yet life is not fair and promises get broken. We are disappointed, we are lied to, we are abused, and in ways large and small our trust is broken. That’s life and that’s the risk. I imagine all of us have experienced broken trust. We learn that relationships are fragile. It can feel even like our whole worlds are sometimes on the verge of collapse: like we can’t even trust the world to hold together.
I think back on what I was like for me growing up with the chaos of alcoholism in the home and the fear of bullying at school and the numbing depression that grew in my heart. I think at the root, my trouble was that I had no trust or faith. I did not trust the alcoholics in my family. I did not trust potential friends at school. Ah, and I did not trust myself. Cynthia Wall says “Few people receive a solid base of trust as children. Even fewer are taught how to trust themselves.”
A story I found tells of a young woman and her boyfriend crossing a bridge. The boyfriend was a little nervous about their new relationship and a little nervous about the bridge and he said to her: “Sweetheart, can I hold your hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”
The young woman said: “No, my love. But I will hold your hand.”
“What’s the difference?” asked the puzzled young man.
“There’s a big difference,” replied the young woman. “If you hold my hand and something happens, chances are that you may let go. It happens all the time. But if I hold your hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens I will never let your hand go.”
A week ago I thought this sermon would be about trust in relationships, learning to trust others. About mid-week I discovered that this sermon would be about learning to trust yourself. The first lesson we have as children is to put out trust in others: in Mother and Father. Over time, through disappointments and disillusionments we each find the next deep lesson is to learn to trust ourselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson, unsurprisingly, said “Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” A key piece to the lesson of trust is to learn to trust yourself.
“No one is born knowing how to trust,” Cynthia Wall says. “Even fewer are taught how to trust themselves.” If you do not trust yourself, you will be susceptible to all manner of difficulties. When you do not trust yourself you are likely be too trusting of others or unable to trust anything.
Ironically, when we don’t trust our own judgment – our own capacity to affect the world – we are susceptible to the undue influence of others around us. When we are too trusting, we are easily taken in. We want to see the best in others, to believe in the best of others. At the extreme, this is gullibility. This self-distrust is not a signal that a person is unintelligent. The woman in Rachel Remen’s story that I offered as a reading (from Kitchen Table Wisdom, “embracing life” p 212) is a good example. Remen writes that Gert “did not believe that she could change things. Yet at work she was powerful and competent.” The woman in Remen’s story was not to the level of gullibility, but she was certainly not trusting of her own judgment.
I know what that’s like. When I was younger, perhaps because of the dysfunction and alcoholism in my childhood, it took me a long time to learn to trust myself and particularly my own perception. As a teenager and a young adult I was clueless about how others perceived me. It was nearly impossible for me to read social cues. My few friends learned to be very blunt with me, for which I thanked them. Eventually I realized that I didn’t trust my own sense of things, my own perceptions and intuition. I starting asking other, checking in with them: is this what’s really going on here? It was a good thing for me to do, I now see, because as I grew into adulthood I had started to swing away from being too trusting of others to being not trusting at all … of not even trusting life.
Many people, in an effort to not be overly trusting swing to the other extreme. Cynicism is the mirror of gullibility, (though our society praises its cynics, which may be some comfort.) But cynicism is only a sophisticated distrust of life. It may seem like a safe route, a way to avoid being hurt, but cynicism is a cold comfort and usually not enough for a sustainable relationship with a partner or a circle of friends. People can tell when they are not trusted, when they are kept at a distance. Cynicism may be safe but it is also lonely. Better to learn to trust yourself so you can extend trust to others.
While it is true that trust is earned, the true art of it is that trust is a gamble. At some point, we reach out even though we suspect we’ll get out hand slapped back.
A story I found tells of a woman and a man crossing a bridge. The man was kind of scared so he asked the woman: “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”
The woman said: “Better yet, let us hold each other’s hand. That way, should either of us slip and let go, the other will always be there.”
To trust too much in others while not trusting yourself is to ask others to hold your hand because you do not trust your own strength and capacity. This is exactly how we should behave at certain points in our development. But it is a healthy end point. To trust too little in others while putting all your trust only in yourself is to refuse to let others hold your hand because you do not trust the motives and interests of others to include your needs. This also is a version of a healthy perspective developmentally yet not a place to linger.
Ernest Hemingway once quipped, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” No one is born knowing how to trust, we learn to trust by trusting. Through trial and error, by reaching out; like love and hope and anything else really important: We learn to trust by trusting. Over the weekend, I thought this sermon was going to be about learning to trust yourself. But around midnight on Saturday I realize the sermon was about learning to trust life.
Trust is not just an attitude or perspective on life. Trust is not just a condition of believing, for example, that everything will work out. It is that, but it is more. It is a behavior for dealing with situations. To trust is to proceed on the assumption that things will work out. It may not work out, but that’s not the point. To trust is to treat other people around us as though they also want the best outcome. To trust is to accept that a sound process will bring us to a good solution – perhaps not the solution we want, but a good enough solution all the same.
Computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Trust is a risk; it is a reaching out without knowing what will come next.
Parker Palmer is a Quaker writer I admire and turn to for wisdom on a regular basis. Many of his books lead us deeper into this sort of conversation about trust and courage. He tells a story of the time he came up against a vocational crisis. He was a successful teacher but was very unhappy. So he went on a sabbatical retreat at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center in Pennsylvania.
While at Pendle Hill, Palmer opened up to his anxiety and talked with others about it. Whenever he did this he would be offered a response that is fairly typical among Quakers: “The way will open, proceed as the way opens.” It is a statement of trust, of faith! It says, ‘relax, be patient with yourself, and trust that the next step will become clear.’ “Proceed as a way opens.”
[from Rev. Dr. Patrick O’Neill, “Proceed as the Way Opens,” Quest, July/August 2001]
Try as he might, however, after several weeks of Quaker silence, prayer, and listening for his calling, “the way” was not opening for him. It was an elder Quaker woman who finally gave him the perspective he needed when she said, “I’m a birthright Friend, and in 60-plus years of living, the Way has never opened in front of me.” After a pause she added with a grin, “But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”
Proceed as the Way Opens. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes that “some journeys are direct, and some journeys are circuitous; some are heroic and some are fearful and muddled. But every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking us where we belong. We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potential.”
What I am talking about now is trusting life. What Parker Palmer is offering in this passage is that gamble of reaching out even when you are unsure. And the way to become sure is to reach out. The risk is part of the trust. You can’t connect the dots looking forward. We must move forward trusting that the dots will somehow connect afterward.
Inspirational author William A. Ward writes:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas, your dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
So take the risk. Here in this community we create an opening for people like you and me to try to connect our dots, to examine our panic in the face of life. Here in this community we build room for risk, create space for grace, allow trust to grow and life to unfold. So take the risk. Reach out and trust.
In a world without end
May it be so.