Ralph Waldo Emerson says that “Self-trust is the first secret to success.” He also famously says, “trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe similarly advises, “as soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”
Golda Meir, a teacher and the fourth prime minister of Israel, says, “trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.”
An ancient Buddhist saying teaches: “be ye lamps unto yourselves; be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.” Surely the Buddhists didn’t mean the only lamp. Or did they?
And in his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell advocates for trusting one’s gut. He explores the idea of thin-slicing to demonstrate the accuracy of snap judgments. Thin-slicing describes the ability to identify patterns based on "thin slices" of experience. According to Gladwell, “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.” (Blink, Malcolm Gladwell) Gladwell uses the story of psychologist John Gottman to illustrate. In a study of couples staying together long-term, Gottman was able to predict with 90 percent accuracy in less than 15 minutes if a couple would still be together 15 years later. That 15 minutes it took him to make that determination is a thin slice. (various sources)
When I think about all the times I misjudged a person or situation, when trusting my gut failed me, I can’t help but have some doubts about the wisdom of these various thinkers. I have made snap judgments about others that have turned out to be unwarranted. I have trusted people who turned out to be untrustworthy.
I have made errors on the job, said hurtful things to other people, betrayed others, lost my temper, acted with impatience, failed to complete projects I started, made poor relationship choices, and trusted my intuition which at times turned out to be simply about my own self-interest or unconscious biases and prejudices, which I only recognized after the fact.
And I tell you all this, not as a confession of a deeply flawed person. There is nothing in this list of mine that sets me apart from most other people. Most of us have found ourselves in these and other similar kinds of situations in which we were unreliable in some way, failing to do what we set out to do or falling short of being the kind of person we hoped to be in that moment.
And so a fundamental question I have been grappling with is: “how can any of us trust ourselves when we have insider knowledge that we got it wrong so many times?” Surely the Buddhists didn’t mean the only lamp.
And the more I grapple with that question, the more I have come to ask some slightly different but related questions. Why is it that so many leading thinkers and sages offer the wisdom to trust yourself and to be your own confidence? What is the nature of the trust they are describing? What are we to trust ourselves to do or be?”
Therein lies some clues. The point of trusting oneself isn’t that we will get it right every time. This is where we sometimes get self-trust most wrong. After a series of slip ups, self-doubt and shame can take over. Human beings can be awfully hard on themselves. Self-confidence and a sense of self-worth can get eroded, leaving people second-guessing themselves and even worrying endlessly about what everyone else thinks of them.
Rather than being about getting it right every time, what if trusting oneself has to do with the ability to bounce back, to be resilient, and to overcome a slip up or failure? Just stop for a moment to think about it. None of us is going to get things right every single time. No one.
To trust oneself has to be based in something more than having a perfect track record. To trust oneself has to do with coming to believe that we will find a way to be okay even when we get it wrong, despite the uncertainties. It also has to do with having the courage to learn, to grow, and to trust again. Writer and artist Leslie Ralph says:
The belief that you can be okay no matter what is the very essence of trusting yourself. It is also the essence of trusting the universe, God, the foundational love that guides and sustains our living. To trust in ourselves is to believe that we can and will find a way to be okay no matter what.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, describes this sense of being okay as being “to be fearless in facing dangers,” having “the heart to conquer pain,” and maintaining one’s “own strength” amid struggles. (#519 UU Hymnal)
Fortunately, this belief that you can be okay—that you can trust yourself—is something that can be cultivated. Trust in oneself can be developed like a muscle, and even when it’s been eroded, it can be regenerated. To trust oneself is to start anew. There are two ingredients to building this trust muscle that I want to highlight this morning. They are loving yourself and knowing yourself. They are pillars that undergird self-trust.
Love of self is a fundamental religious value. Love of self is a fundamental Unitarian Universalist value. The first and seventh UU principles together tell this story. The first principle affirms and promotes human worth and dignity—the worth and dignity of every person. Each and every person, including you, matters. Other people matter too, but so does the individual. Not more than anyone else, but as well as anyone else.
The seventh principle affirms and promotes respect for the interdependent web of life. Each person is part of the web of existence. Each and every person, including you, belongs. While it is true that none of us is more important than anyone else or any other part of the interdependent web, each of us belongs and is a unique part.
When a person doesn’t honor their own worth and their own place in this world, how can they effectively extend that respect to others? Maya Angelou says, “I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, 'I love you.' ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” The airlines teach this idea with words familiar to many of us: “Should a drop in cabin pressure occur, put your own mask on first.” Loving ourselves is putting on our own masks first.
This is one of those things we all know but can still struggle with. So often our urge is to take care of others before ourselves. We want to go out there and transform the world because of our passion for justice and kindness. We want to go out and trust everyone else. But first we need to offer these gifts to ourselves. One of the surest ways to teach a child to love themselves is to practice positive self-regard. Put on your own mask first.
Like love of self, knowledge of self builds trust. Self-knowledge brings an appreciation for and recognition of strengths, weaknesses and biases. There’s tremendous power in that knowledge. People who understand their own capabilities set realistic and achievable goals. People who don’t have this insight tend to set unrealistically high or unnecessarily low expectations. Those who know themselves best also make promises they can keep and resist the urge to over-promise what they can’t deliver on.
I’m so impressed when I read about people who get up at 4:30 or 5 every morning and write for a few hours before going to work. Every once in a while, I think maybe I should try that. But I know I’m not going to sustain that practice. I just know that about myself. I don’t want to get up that early. But more to the point, what’s most important to me is to ensure that I have a regular time to write and to create that in a sustainable way. So I have added time to free write immediately following my daily meditation. My point is that having more insight into what is true for us makes it more possible to succeed. I don’t mean success by the world’s standards. But the success that comes from looking within and finding that lamp the Buddhists were talking about.
The more that interior world is cultivated the greater one’s confidence. To know oneself is to discover what leads to happiness and wholeness, to discern what empowers us as agents of our own lives, and to learn how to be meaningful contributors to the world. To know oneself is to tap into that deep well of the soul. One of my favorite chants to meditate to is Snatum Kaur’s “Take Me In.” She sings:
Snatum Kaur is invoking the holy—within and without. To go inward is to connect more deeply to self and also to God and others. The Buddhist teaching to “be ye lamps unto yourselves” isn’t encouragement to be selfish or ruggedly individualistic. Instead, it speaks to the power of enlightenment and connection.
Luckily, none of us needs to do any of this spiritual work alone. We needn’t look only to ourselves. One reason we gather in religious community is to encourage each other on our spiritual journeys.
Our liberal religion calls us to be lamps unto ourselves and lamps unto each other. So let us be our own confidence and also each other’s confidence. Let us learn to trust ourselves and each other.
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.