Trust: Learning to Fail at a Reasonable Rate
Why Trust Is Rooted Less in Faithfulness Than in The Desire for Social Repair
What if trust is about learning to forgive?
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The Trust of Neighbor: Nostalgia Edition
Allow me a moment of reminiscence: it was my birthday last week, and birthdays are good for, if nothing, remembering what has already happened.
When I was in my 20s, I lived in a series of houses which aspired to be intentionally present in their neighborhoods, to aid our neighbors and to be of service to the poor. Good things, right? Of course, in Waco one need not try very hard to do this— the neighborhoods of Waco, once you get beyond the golden arc of the Magnolia empire, is much the way it was nearly twenty years ago: aspirational, but mostly thirty years behind on repairs.
The king of these was a place called The Lair, a mammoth and dilapidated manor situated between a half-operating garage, a veteran’s halfway home, and another hulking manor twice its size. I’ve stopped telling the exotic stories about this house, both because the prostitution and drugs weren’t exotic to our neighbors, and because most of life there was fairly ordinary. I left dishes out too much. We threw parties in which our neighbors showed up. Too much grace was shown and not enough: usual stuff.
The one part which never became usual were our neighbors. There was Dave from the veteran’s home, who came and played chess, and Dacia, who disappeared to Dallas one day after coming by for months regularly asking for groceries. There was Glenn, who eventually went to jail, and Kathy, who’s funeral I went to after her unmanaged diabetes led to heart failure. The door was mostly unlocked during the day, by design flaw, and so, our relationship to our stream of neighbors had to be one of trust.
If you read too far into the literature on poverty, you find one of two tendencies on this question of trust and poverty. One emphasizes the tight relation between social trust and poverty, that socio-economic scarcity leads to higher trust, the thesis being that being closer to the edge of survival generates necessary links of trust. The other, assuming the same scarce conditions, emphasizes that poverty leads to increased competition and thus, less trust. It’s an endless debate, and one which is prone to over-stylizing poverty, valorizing the poor morally on the one hand, or emphasizing the way that scarcity makes us vicious.
As far as trust goes, I’m increasingly thinking this way of understanding is misguided. For this way of thinking about trust seems to assume that trust is the byproduct of faithfulness: we trust insofar as someone has proved themselves trustworthy. The precursor to this theologically, of course, is God: that we trust God because God is the One who has delivered Israel from slavery, who has been faithful while we are unfaithful.
But to start: this is a category confusion. God is not creation, and so, understanding how humans trust God or one another on the basis of how God acts is already getting muddled up. And so, it misleads us to say that we only ever trust people who have proved themselves trustworthy. This means that, unfortunately, we never begin, for how can we know that someone is trustworthy unless we’re close enough to see them, or to have been let down by them?
I am not a social scientist, so let me tell stories instead:
When Glenn showed up, I knew there was going to be an ask, because Glenn trusted that we would help, though I did not know Glenn. Dave was less comprehensible, and usually just wanted to yell at the dogs and play chess. Kathy had a system and a network of supporters, of which we were a small part. Once, as I drove off from her motel, having dropped off groceries, another car was pulling up, ostensibly answering the same appeal. And so, I learned that survival is complex, and that trust occurs, partly out of free association and partly out of necessity, and that it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
By saying this, I mean to affirm that I learned to trust Glenn and Kathy and Dave, not because I thought they were telling me the whole story, but because we both knew that neither of us were. They were not obligated to tell me all of what they knew, and I had no right to ask of it. I was not as busy as I claimed to be when I declined to help, and we both knew it. And yet, we went on in this dance.
Trust is not an action which we take on the basis of whether or not we evaluate a person’s words to be truthful.
Trust is a process by which we enter into social repair, through which we learn how to navigate our shared lives even when our words are full of holes.
In saying that this is what trust is, I am suggesting that this is always what trust is: that there is never a space in which trust does not require something like forgiveness, in which trust is something like relational repair, not something which come after that work is done.
Because that work is never done.
To return to Glenn. He is at my door. He asks for some cans, a few dollars, a drink of water. I do not know Glenn well, and he does not know me. He is not obligated to tell all he knows, and I do not have the right to ask it. And yet here we are.
Am I asking your insights because I trust your wisdom or because I am bored and making conversation? Am I faithful to you because of an irrevocable obligation, or because you are the supplier of my needs? Am I meeting your expectations because of love, because of fear, because of hope in a future? It all gets so blurry.
I do not think that, all things being equal, Glenn would trust me if this need were not in play: we have spoken at no great length, and I am new to the area. We have no history, no basis for believing the other. And yet, here we are: his need and my proximity have placed in a situation which requires that he trusts that I will answer the door, and I trust that Glenn should enter.
Perhaps you can see where this is going.