It’s great to have people to lean on when we are not strong and when we need a friend to help us carry on. In the words of the song Lean on Me, “sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.” And as George Odell wrote, “We need one another. All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.”
The need for friendship and support is a human need. We need people who we can trust to help us carry on and see that there will be a tomorrow when things get tough. This need for others exists not only for times of loss and despair but also for the whole of life. We need people to help us learn, grow, accomplish our goals, create more justice in the world, to create meaning, share joys, be encouraged, to challenge us, to celebrate with, to inspire us, and for companionship.
This requires trust, a willingness to be vulnerable. Trusting others means opening ourselves and putting ourselves out there to one another. Not only do we need trust to show our weaknesses and fears, our foibles and failures but also to share ourselves when everything is going well. If we don’t trust in love, if we can’t rely on others in relationship, we will be unable to have rich and meaningful interactions - romantically, professionally, with friends and family, and at church.
UU minister Christine Robinson, writing about trust, says,
Perhaps it is because trust is so primal that we Americans rate this quality as the most important aspect of a relationship. Whether it’s our lover or our doctor, more than anything else we want to trust that person so we can continue to believe, ‘I can trust the world. I know what to expect. I will be cared for. It’s okay.’
But we all know trusting others can be pretty scary stuff. Trusting someone doesn’t come without risk and pain. We are human after all. People are going to disappoint us. We know that. I can’t even imagine there’s anyone in this room who hasn’t disappointed or been disappointed by another person. Even the people closest to us, perhaps especially those people, can and do betray our trust, and when they do, it stings. It brings us sorrow.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, says, “Trust love even if it brings you sorrow. Do not close up your heart.”
Yet we can trust love without being gullible or too quick to give our trust to someone. We don’t need to trust everyone or trust everyone in quite the same way. Apparently, though, this is so often what we tend to do. We trust too much, too soon, without an adequate foundation of trust.
Ronald Riggio, a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology, identifies four psychological reasons Americans trust too much. First, he says, we humans have what he calls a trusting bias. We expect people are telling the truth. Second, we think the world is fair and that others will treat us fairly. Third, we are sometimes lazy and prefer to take shortcuts, which causes us to fail to read contracts closely or analyze claims. I think of people reading the Onion, a news satire organization. People periodically fail to notice that a story is coming from the Onion and they take it seriously. A recent story had to do with an Olympic skater falling through the ice at the Iceberg Skating Palace and needing to be rescued by an emergency crew.
A fourth reason we trust too much, and the one I think we often fall prey to, is to avoid the embarrassment of being wrong about someone. Or to put it another way, we want to be nice and we want to be perceived as being nice. It can feel insulting to question another person’s honesty and trustworthiness – or to have ours questioned. It doesn’t seem very nice to suggest that we don’t trust someone, even if we’ve just met them. (“Do Americans Trust Too Much?” March 6, 2013, Ronald Riggio, PhD, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201303/do-americans...)
Unfortunately, there are people and organizations out there who know how to take advantage of a trusting nature. I remember when I started getting involved in my parents’ finances. I found that my dad was on this mail order plan and getting books that he really didn’t need or even want. But the books just kept coming and so did the bills. After numerous phone calls and paying off a few of the bills, I was able to bring a halt to it. Sadly, the elderly are prime targets for these sales tactics, and people with dementia are easy targets.
Businesses, even churches, have to be aware that blanket trust in employees and volunteers is an unwise practice that actually contributes to the potential for fraud. There needs to be trust in an organization and its people, but there also needs to be systems of accountability in place to protect both the organization and the individual. That’s just good business practice.
We do background checks here on our religious education teachers who work with children and youth. Sometimes that makes us feel uncomfortable because we know these people as part of our religious community. But doing such checks protects everyone – the teachers as well as the children. It means we have the best interests of our community in mind, and it isn’t personal.
The problem is, when we trust indiscriminately or over-trust without any checks in place, we actually end up undermining our ability to trust. The point isn’t to distrust everyone or to live in fear. The point is to learn to place our trust in people who are trustworthy, to establish appropriate boundaries, and to use our intelligence, intuition, and experience to learn to be trusting of the right situations and the right people. That’s what it means to trust love.
In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker says,
Unlike when people lived in small communities and could not escape their past behavior, we live in an age of anonymous one-time encounters, and many people have become expert at the art of fast persuasion. Trust, formerly earned through actions, is now purchased with sleight of hand, and sleight of words.
He shares the story of a woman Kelly who trusted even when her intuition was telling her otherwise. Coming home to her fourth floor apartment after getting groceries, she overestimated what she could reasonably carry in one trip and was struggling with heavy bags.
When she arrived at the door to her apartment building, she saw that it was unlatched. She felt annoyed with her neighbors who had again been lax about security. At the same time, she was grateful that with her full arms she didn’t need to struggle getting in the door. After she entered, she pushed the door until it clicked closed. When she got to the top of three flights of steps, one of her bags ripped open and a few cans of cat food spilled out and tumbled down the steps. Then she heard someone say: “Got it! I’ll bring it up.” She didn’t like the voice. Something didn’t sound right. Then a friendly looking young man came up the steps with the cans and offered some help. She declined, saying, “No, no thanks, I’ve got it.”
But he said: “You don’t look like you’ve got it. What floor are you going to?” She paused and then said “The fourth, but I’m okay, really.” But he said he was also going to the fourth floor and added: “and I’m late—not my fault, broken watch—so let’s not just stand here. And give me that.” He reached over, took one of the heavier bags from her even as she repeated her no thanks. He said: “There’s such a thing as being too proud, you know.” And at that point, she relented, feeling both apprehensive and guilty about being suspicious. De Becker writes: “She didn’t want to be the kind of person who distrusts everybody.” The story doesn’t end well. He assaulted her, and she wasn’t his first victim.
Are there genuine Good Samaritans out there? Yes. But we have to be smart about knowing the difference between someone who is setting us up and someone who is offering a helping hand. And when all the warning sirens are sounding, it’s better to be safe than it is to be nice.
Opening ourselves up is one of the most powerful things we can do. But only when we’re smart about it. This is just as true of personal relationships as with people we have just met or know only as acquaintances. Dr. Brene Brown, a bestselling author and research professor, has spent much of her career studying vulnerability, shame, and self-worth. In an appearance on Oprah, a woman in the audience asked her this question:
How do you make yourself be vulnerable with somebody you don't completely trust, like in a relationship?
You don't. Because you know what? This is it (… gesturing to her heart). What's under here is the most valuable thing you have. It's the most valuable gift you give to all of us. It's the most valuable offering you have in your life and people have to earn the right see it. They have to earn the right to see it and they have to know when they're seeing it that it's an absolute honor and privilege for you to have let them in.
We may resist this idea of having to earn trust and of setting limits. We may even see it as being opposed to some of our core religious and ethical principles. After all, aren’t we the people who believe in each person’s inherent worth and dignity? Don’t we say we believe in inclusivity and hospitality? Don’t we consider love and compassion as being at the core of our religious tradition? Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves? What about respecting our interdependence and interconnectedness with other people and creatures?
The answer to all of those questions is Yes. Of course. Yes. These represent core aspects of our values and ethics. And none of these are in conflict with making a decision about who we trust and to what extent.
I can affirm another person’s inherent worth and dignity, while also knowing that she just embezzled $50,000 from the company she works for. What that means is recognizing that the person is still a human being who deserves a fair trial, decent treatment in prison, and an opportunity to make amends. That doesn’t mean I have to trust her with money. Loving my neighbor doesn’t mean I need to invite a stranger into my home, leave my front door unlocked, or confide my most intimate experiences and secrets in someone I just met last week.
In a sermon about trusting love, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about when not to trust. That’s because I see so many people who give their trust away without thinking, who give their trust without realizing that it is a precious gift we give to another person and that is given to us. It deserves to be cherished, to be serious, not casual.
May we each learn to value the trust that is placed in us and the trust we place in others as an honor and privilege. And by doing so, may we come to trust love.
Amen. Blessed be.