I have — as we say here on the left coast — trust issues. Not the mundane kind: I’m happy to give most people the benefit of the doubt, and more often than not, they prove trustworthy. I’m content to trust the roads to hold me and the sun to rise tomorrow morning. No, I’ve always thought of my trust issues as existential and cosmological: when people say that they feel held by a force larger than themselves, or that they are relaxed in the certainty that doing their best, things will be okay, a voice in my head whispers, “Just you wait.”
In the busy way of the human mind, I’ve been gathering corroboration for my existential, ontological mistrust all my life. Eyes wide open, I’ve seen the good punished and the evil-doer rewarded, the innocent suffer and the guilty prosper — countless times, as have we all. I log the evidence, and having taken stock, the closest I’ve been able to come to trust is the agnosticism I’ve expressed so often in this blog: just as we can’t be certain of guaranteed happy endings, neither can we justify predictions of doom. There are too many variables — there is too dense a dark layer of forces shaping every outcome — to calculate with confidence. The position I’ve lived by — the one that has seemed to me both intellectually respectable and sufficient to honor life’s complexity — is that we never know what will be, and not knowing, we dare to pursue our desires.
Anyone as addicted to self-interrogation as I am can’t get this far into middle age without having constructed a family tree for his or her emotional roadblocks and black holes. So it’s easy for me to trace the lineage of my trust issue. Like so many other Jewish children in the post-Holocaust generation, I was brought up on the idea that at any moment, our neighbors might decide they hate us enough to force us into exile or extermination. My parents’ generation was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, teaching us to be vigilant in listening for that distant thud. My own childhood was marked by nasty surprises, as when my father died suddenly not long after my tenth birthday. And so on: rather than continue this list, I hope I can take it as understood that my reluctance to trust the universe to hold me was ingrained in me from the first.
How this has manifested in my life is quirky, I admit. You might predict I’d be very security-conscious, as are so many others whose childhoods were marked by uncertainty or loss. But the opposite is true. Between the ant (who works and stores up food for the winter) and the grasshopper (who hops about, giving no thought to provision for the future), I’m a hopper to the core. Money has always bought me time to do what I love, usually write, and when it’s gone, I need to earn more money to buy myself more time. If there’s an internal logic to this position, it is that not knowing if one’s attempts to inoculate oneself against future hardship will succeed, why forego pleasure or purpose in the here and now? When the stock market crashed a few years ago, quite a few ants I know lost their nest eggs. I was glad I hadn’t shaped my life around building one up. I’m not saying this is sensible or prudent; it’s obviously neither. I’m just trusting you with the unvarnished truth.
One downside to trust issues is not having a cushion when shocks come along. Day and in and day out, I’m pretty blithe about things (i.e., pretty expert at suppressing my anxiety). But when life delivers a wake-up call — an emergency looms, a major loss is threatened — we grasshoppers panic with the best of them, vibrating with the terror that our lack of trust in the universe will now be justified, definitively and forever. The other downside is trust envy: I find myself longing to experience the feeling that others sometimes report, that they are held by an unseen hand. I long to know what it feels like to lean back and let myself be rocked.
This past weekend, some very good friends helped me understand that I’ve been looking at my trust issue the wrong way. I liked what they said, but to try it on for size, I have to put it into practice. So I thought I’d start by trusting you with it.
The issue of trust, they told me, does not yield to evidence. It is not about the universe. It is about me. “How does your lack of ultimate trust distort your life?” they asked. Well, that’s an easy one: it keeps me on my toes until they ache. It prevents me from feeling grateful for what I have, out of superstitious fear it will be taken away. It keeps me second-guessing myself, always on guard for danger. And although I can’t know for sure, my hunch is that this type of vigilance dulls discrimination, creating a barrier that inevitably repels love or support along with danger and threat.
You can’t justify existential trust on the evidence, my friends told me. The point is to remove the distortion from your life by behaving as if trust were justified — despite the facts. That way, you can be open not only to the alarms that signal danger, but also to the wonderful surprises that sometimes reward risk. Like Nachson, I thought, the son of Aminadav, prince of the tribe of Judah. His name is remembered for this teaching: when the children of Israel left slavery in Egypt, fleeing before the Egyptians’ chariots, they came to the Sea of Reeds and could not cross. They stood in terror for their lives, fearing their escape had been in vain, until Nachson stepped into the water to his knees, to his chest, and finally until the water came up to his nose and he could go no further without drowning. At that moment, and not a second before, the waters split, allowing the people to cross on dry land.
So that is my new policy: to proceed on my journey as if on dry land. I’ll be wrong sometimes, of course: what is life but an opportunity to learn from our mistakes? But I think I’m going to enjoy the walk.