Not long ago, someone I have loved and been deeply close to for more than a decade did something I never thought possible: She stopped communicating with me. She didn't reply to my emails and phone calls, and she didn't initiate contact herself. Even in the face of a family crisis, and then the aftermath of Irene, she made no attempt to connect. Her silence may have been borne of grief; her mother had died recently and although we were close, I was no substitute. Still, I had trusted her completely at a profoundly emotional level, believing that she would never, ever hurt me. Her silence tore my heart out.
I began to think then about trust, and how we are losing it, for each other, for institutions, for government, and more. Then I read an op.ed. by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times that spoke to the issue of lost trust, specifically with regard to the global financial crisis. In the piece Friedman quoted a former diplomat who asked whether the current state of economic affairs might be due to "a sign that something fundamental has changed in the grain of human history." The man who said that believes that a fundamental change has occurred, and that change is related to the telling of lies and the subsequent death of trust. Dictators, the diplomat said, tell lies to survive and retain power. "Democracies have also been telling lies," he claimed, citing the lie that convinced nations that they could thrive through a monetary union, the Euro.
I'm not much interested in the economic argument to be made about lying, but it was alarming to read this: "No U.S. leaders dare to tell the truth to people. All their pronouncements rest on mythical assumption[s]." Then the diplomat said, "Painful truths cannot be told." Friedman added his own observations to this point of view. "Can you remember the last time you felt a national leader looked us in the eye and told us there is no easy solution to our major problems""
This reflection, and my personal experience, got me thinking about the whole issue of trust, and how we've lost it in personal and public ways, to the detriment of our psyches and our sense of well-being.
I'm old enough to remember the days when we trusted government, for example. We thought our elected leaders were smart and compassionate, for the most part, never imagining they were capable of Tuskegee experiments or Agent Orange denials or Abu Ghraibs. We believed that they could and would work together for the good of the country. Sometimes they did. They reached across the aisle to enact legislation that brought us back from the brink of 1930s despair and collapse. They provided safety nets for the less fortunate among us. Some of them tried to make our world a safer, cleaner, more peaceful place without too much bravado, ego, or ideology getting in the way. Today that aisle has become a huge chasm that very few are willing to risk crossing because of personal political interests. And so we have stopped trusting in politicians' ability to act for the benefit of the multitudes, just as we have stopped trusting in the wisdom of a highly politicized Supreme Court.
I also recall how much we trusted the medical establishment, a trust that began to erode in the 1950s when cancer patients were irradiated to death, women suffered needless Halstead radical mastectomies, and medicalized childbirth began to resemble horror movies. Later, there were the disasters of Thalilomide, Bendectin, and DES -- all drugs pregnant women were assured were safe and which, in truth, caused heinous birth defects.
Prozac and other psychotropic drugs were also pouring onto the market from hyperactive pharmaceutical companies. They were only one of many corporate giants that pledged themselves to profits instead of people, causing us to lose trust in them because they'd lied to us so often. And when seniors could no longer afford life-saving medications, children were dying for lack of generic drugs, and insurance companies were refusing benefits, who was there to trust then?
Even the media is no longer seen as a trustworthy source of information. With the advent of 24/7 cable news channels competing for market share, major corporations and guys like Rupert Murdoch owning the networks and newspapers, blabbering bloggers thinking they have the real story, Wikipedia and WikiLeaks and Tweets vying for attention, who has time to figure out whom to trust?
The general and growing lack of trust in institutions once considered reliable and inviolate speaks volumes about what has happened to us as a nation, and a global community. It shines light on why we are all so stressed, why we no longer feel safe, why our lives seem so solitary.
As for the lack of trust among individuals, whether friends or those we have chosen to call family, a more chilling question lingers. It whispers "to whom can I entrust my soul?" In the ensuing silence, it seems to me, lies the saddest of all deaths of trust.