Trust breeds trust (go ahead—try it)

by Kristin on December 3, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by John Trainor

Natural disasters bring people together, man-made disasters drive people apart.

That’s what I heard, loud and clear, as I listened to an NPR story about the long-term effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Most of the story was about the devastating rise in depression, suicides, divorces and domestic violence since the spill, but this is the part that really stood out:

Experts say there’s a big difference between what happens after a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina and what happens in the aftermath of a technological disaster such as the BP oil spill.

Therapist Pam Maumenee, who is on the oil spill crisis team at AltaPointe Health Systems in Bayou La Batre, Ala., says natural disasters tend to build helping, therapeutic communities.

But the opposite is true of a man-made disaster like the oil spill, she says.

“What you see are families against families, brothers against sisters, neighbors against neighbors,” she says. “The community becomes quite corrosive.”

This reality doesn’t surprise me, but it deeply saddens me. And it made me wonder what’s at the root of the different responses. We know bad things are going to happen in our communities and lives—that’s an unfortunate given. The part we do have control over is our response in those hard times—whether we’re willing to reach out or turn inward, to be vulnerable and trust others or to let suspicion and fear rule.

Shining a spotlight on selfishness and greed

Trust, I suspect, is also at the root of what makes our response to a natural disaster different from a man-made one. Man-made disasters, like oil spills, have selfishness and greed written all over them. They point to people—usually people who are living comfortably and safely—who were willing to gamble with other people’s lives, livelihoods and ecosystems in hopes of saving or making some extra money for themselves.

Man-made disasters are stark reminders of how selfish and greedy people can be. Those reminders, in turn, make us suspicious of even the people we know well and have trusted in the past. Man-made disasters often occur because people were looking out for the good of themselves rather than the good of everyone involved. Each time we are reminded of that sad approach to life, it feels like we’re faced with a choice: to be the naive person who wants to still trust others, and will probably end up being taken advantage of, as a result; or to join the ranks of those who look out only for themselves, and seem to prosper in the process.

Breaking the cycle in communities, corporations and families

It’s clearly a vicious cycle, but I think it’s one that’s possible to break if we acknowledge what’s going on and are determined to boldly take a different path. If you’re reading this with interest, but think it doesn’t apply to you because you’ve never been affected by an oil spill, think about the issue more broadly. Politics and corporate life are swarming with this “each man for himself” attitude.

Even marriages are vulnerable to these destructive patterns. The moment we suspect someone (a life partner or colleague, for instance) is only looking out for him/herself, our own attitude toward the relationship starts to shift. We begin directing all of our energy toward advocating for ourselves, because we can’t trust that anyone else is advocating for us. The vicious cycle commences and takes hold.

I know—it’s depressing, isn’t it? I really wish I could stop writing about depressing topics. But the good news here is that we can each do a little something every day to push back the wall of suspicion. Inwardly, we can work to override our fears and suspicions. And outwardly, we can go out of our way to look out for someone else, and let them know we see them as real people with real needs. When we advocate for them, part of what we’re giving them is the courage and energy to advocate for someone else.

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  • Giulietta Nardone

    Hi Kristen,

    We tend to write about the same theme over and over! I do like what you’re saying here about showing trust to create trust. that makes sense to me. I like the openness that it suggests.

    Part of what showing trust may bring about is the power and confidence to ask questions when one wants to feel trust toward someone else.

    Maybe when we stay suspicious and closed we don’t get the answers we seek or don’t feel comfortable asking questions.

    thanks! Giulietta

  • Karen


    This is a very thoughtful and important post. I think people are becoming more and more hesitant to trust- in personal relationships and in the workplace. I think I may have been part of a “man made disaster” at work this week! We have talked openly about this problem with our church staff, and we’ve tried to incorporate some ways to think differently when we have conflict or suspicion. Andy Stanley did a talk at the Drive conference a few years ago that we have latched onto. He encourages us to believe the best about others, stop suspicion and defend others who aren’t present, and confront issues with others(talk) instead of concealing them. Thanks for raising our awareness of the trust issues we have.

  • ThatGuyKC

    Wow. Thank you for sharing this. Needed to hear the bit about destructive patterns in marriage. Got issues with selfishness. Totally convicted.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    Yep. Pretty depressing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not right on the money. I’m dealing with a married couple — lifetime friends — who must learn anew to break the habitual pattern of suspicion. The best course would’ve been not to start, but as you said, “the good news here is that we can each do a little something every day to push back the wall of suspicion. Inwardly, we can work to override our fears and suspicions.” It’s a day-by-day process, and a helluva hard task–but do-able.

    Hey? How ’bout a blog about that evening with the custom pizza toppings? :-)

  • Kristin T.

    Giulietta, that seems like a really important part of the equation– feeling comfortable asking questions and getting genuine answers. A very interesting new layer to think about–thanks! (And I’ll have to check out your blog to see the related post you’re referencing!)

    Karen, it’s funny, as I wrote this post and started thinking about other applications (like marriage and the workplace) I couldn’t help but think of the problems we have in those settings as mostly “man-made disasters.” I’m sorry you were wrapped up in one this past week, but it sounds like lots of good discussion and steps are being made to work toward a place of openness and trust. There’s a lot of power in giving others the benefit of the doubt (a good way to think about day-to-day grace, no?).

    ThatGuyKC, your comment is very moving in its honesty and willingness to look at yourself in a new way and make practical changes. I’m inspired by you, and glad my thoughts can have any impact on yours (as yours have on mine).

    Ray, as someone who was in a 10-year marriage that gradually fell apart, I definitely know how these things can snowball. I’m glad the couple you reference have good counsel, which I’m sure gives them hope for real change. (So are you thinking I should add a food column to my blog, or just that I should mention some of our pizza combos on the side? :)