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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Trust - foundations and fixes

As I suggested in the last post on this topic, though not in so many words, I want to say that trust* is crucial in human and societal relationships.


To further this argument, I'd like to claim that trust per se is foundational in both the formation of social groups and in the development of the individual.


Christopher Boehm's book Moral Origins, the scholarly exploration of all the literature gathered by anthropologists concerning hunter-gatherer tribes, claims that the origins of morality are found in the needs and dependencies of relatively weak, relatively slow, relatively vulnerable mid-sized mammals who need to co-operate as an egalitarian group to survive. Although there is clearly the suggestion that members of the group are watchful for infractions of certain kinds - dominance behaviour, cheating, nepotism and so on - at a basic level they have to trust each other enough to hunt together, sleep and relax within the group and so on. To be in a group implies that there is an assumption of safety within that group.


Thus, I would like to make the case that in order to be in society at all requires this level of trust. Given the mortal dangers presented by either large predators or possibly other groups, there is clearly something critically different between the way one regards such threats and the way one responds to one's colleagues. That is the proto-trust that is foundational in human interactions. Of course, it is limited and restricted; it is, perhaps unconsciously, inter-related with self-interest; it is contingent and, if not fragile, certainly, defeasible; but that it must exist as a starting point is significant.


In the individual, utter trust, or utter proto-trust, is an inevitable consequence of the fact that humans are born completely helpless and dependent. At this level, one may consider it somatic of pre-conscious, but it is nonetheless real. In Upheavals of Thought Martha Nussbaum devotes a chapter to developmental psychology. In this she explores attachment theory, the deep bond formed between infant and caregiver. If the infant's needs are met (well enough) by caregivers, the infant grows into a more secure child and adult. The infant, of course, has no concepts like trust or betrayal, just somatic experience and the meeting or not meeting of various needs - for food, comfort, warmth and so on. She has a lovely image of the infant lifted from its bed into the arms of the caregiver, held above the earth, yet utterly secure. Nussbaum argues that '[t]hrough holding, the infant becomes willing to live in the world, develops the conviction that the world is sufficiently benign, despite its dangers.' (Upheavals of Thought) This, she goes on to say, is an essential foundation for development. The child has to be willing to trust that the world will not drop her, starve her, leave her crying.


So, in both the group and the individual case, a 'kind of trust' is the starting point.


In a good-enough world, the child's proto-trust will be reinforced or at least supported by good-enough friends, schools, institutions and nations.


Of course, there will be breakdowns. The discovery that one's parents are not always there at one's beck and call, for example. In this case, Nussbaum tracks the use of transitional objects and imagination as supports for maintaining trust-in-the-world in the absence of the trust-providing caregiver and the later development of 'perspective-taking' and empathy which help to offer reasons to explain why the needs of others can take precedence over one's own. But the broadening scope of moral or psychological reasoning is not my focus here. Most betrayals of trust - given an infant was able to develop trust at an early stage - can be overcome as anomalous events or as occasions when trust was misplaced. More critical breakdowns - being ignored or harmed by caregivers, bullied at school with no support from teachers or peers, unfair or prejudiced institutions - can at any stage of development damage, limit or even destroy the capacity to trust.


Within the individual, given the breakdown occurred either developmentally in infancy or within certain restricted spheres (a single school, perhaps), therapy may offer a route out of pathological distrust. Nussbaum analyses one of Donald Winnicott's case histories as evidence for a framework in which trust can be regained. As I claimed in the previous post, this process enables the creation of not so much trust per se but the fully mature and both universally applicable (as it is the way one approaches others generally) but also rationally restricted (it doesn't mean one lets every salesman in the door) trust* (as defined in that post). And it is dependent on the therapist treating the client with trust*.


Indeed, having spoken about this to two friends who are or have been therapists, both stated that seeing the client as a 'thou' (which was a way in which I characterised an encounter of trust*, using Martin Buber's term) was critical to the process and that once the client was seeing the therapist too as a 'thou', then the therapy could be regarded as successful.


Another friend who is a therapist brought up an important factor that I haven't mentioned yet: treating others with trust* seems to rely on one having some trust - or trust*! - in oneself. It can be seen how this could develop over the course of successful therapy. I think it is an important addendum to or corrective of the case I have been making, particularly in the case of trust*. Whereas one can trust in innocence and without a fully conscious level of self-accepting self-knowledge, trust*, which is resilient in the face of the unpredictable and inevitably flawed nature of humans, but which also has to acknowledge those very unreliabilities and failings in both self and other, may be more likely to demand some level of compassionate self-understanding.


The compassion or acceptance is relevant in that any shame about one's fallibilities and vulnerabilities (and every person will be fallible and have areas of vulnerability), would, as I suggested in the first post on trust, lead to a self-protective closure or other-directed condemnation of like fallibilities and vulnerabilities. Without this openness about our own imperfection, we will struggle to see others as deserving of dignity and respect as unique individuals. As mentioned in the post about love, this aliveness to the shared human condition is crucial. It may be something that we all have to learn to progress from unreliable or highly context-dependent trust to world-welcoming trust*.


A quote from Nietzsche might help to enliven this point:


We have to learn to love, learn to be charitable, and this from our youth up; if education and chance offer us no opportunity to practice these sensations our soul will go dry and even incapable of understanding them in others - All Too Human.


In fact, because it is so beautiful, I also include here a longer quote on the same subject from another of his books:


One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.— But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned. - The Gay Science.


I think that covers the point perfectly.


As for self-knowledge, as Timothy Wilson points out in Strangers to Ourselves, we can't just achieve this through introspection, for we may just find within a host of self-enhancing (or self-destroying) narratives. The stories we tell ourselves to justify our behaviour are not always reliable. So, there is huge benefit in two other means of understanding ourselves better. One is to look back at what we have done: our actions are a far better guide to who we are than our internal propaganda (or hate mail). the second means is to consider how others see us. Though Sartre was unwilling to admit this, I think, others can see us more clearly at times than we see ourselves. We will find a host of contradictions and confusions, for we are all multi-dimensional and will behave differently in different contexts. We will find inconsistencies, undeserved self-congratulation and just as much undeserved self-condemnation. Recognising our fragility frankly, our incongruities compassionately, our weaknesses gently and our strengths without arrogance allows for greater clarity, humility and openness. This process, far from being narcissistic, is part of a valuable practice: the practice of being a person in a world of persons.


Through both compassion and such an inventory, we can, I think, have trust* in ourselves - even if we often distrust our decisions, assumptions and other specific qualities or conclusions.


Such an analysis, though, tends to suggest that trust* - both in ourselves and in relation to others - is, like Aristotle's 'practical wisdom', something that we can only develop with time and practice. Many people, I think, do this naturally. I say 'many', but come to think of it, the majority of those I know who are best at it are counselors (who have learned it, though not by this name). A considerable percentage of people exhibit something like this in in-group relationships and safe situations (like the hunter-gatherers). And I can think of some, people with a certain 'innocence' about them, for whom it is actually, it seems, rather natural. Therapists and innocents, though, are a minority of the population and the real benefits of trust* are, in my view, most critical, or at least as critical, in relating to those who are not in one's in-group. The point, for me, is to enlarge possibilities of connection.


I have written enough, here.


But there remain two areas that I have not properly addressed.


One is that I have not explored the breakdown of trust and brakes to trust* caused by wider forms of injustice, and how to respond to that. The other is that I think I need to expand on why I feel that this quality is so important in healing divisions - both as individuals but most crucially as societies.

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