A question of trust

By Caitlin Kelly


We can’t survive without it.

I’m writing this from a friend’s home in Dublin, where we arrived last night from New York.

This week, five broken-hearted sets of Dublin parents will fly to California to collect the bodies of their young adult children, all of whom died when an apartment balcony they were standing on suddenly fell in Berkeley; all five of them were visiting on work visas. A sixth, who lived locally, also died, and seven other students were injured.

It is, of course, front-page news in today’s Irish Times.

I’m a nervous flyer. I love to travel and have been to 39 countries so far; this is my fifth visit to Ireland. But every time I step into an aircraft, I’m fighting anxiety, no matter how annoyed this makes me. When, which is inevitable, we hit turbulence, it’s a battle for me to stay calm — to trust the pillots’ skill and experience, the careful work of the mechanics who maintain aircraft and the plane itself, built to withstand much stronger forces than I’d like to experience.

I've lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings
I’ve lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

It’s all based on trust.

Yet, every day, our trust — in authority, in material safety, in the food and drink we consume — is tested:

An enormous recall of Takata-made airbags, whose explosion have killed 3 people and injured 139

— The bridge crossing the Hudson River where I live is so old (now being re-built), it’s been called the “hold your breath” bridge for years

— Those recently killed on a Chinese ferry and the young students lost on a Korean ship

— The disappearance of MH 370 and the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a deranged young pilot who had, somehow, passed multiple medical tests

— Recalls of contaminated food and drink, like the Blue Bell ice cream that killed three people and put seven others into the hospital.

Everything we touch, every interaction, relies on our ability to trust one another to some degree:

That the elevator will ride smoothly and safely; that the meal we order won’t be prepared by contaminated hands; that our surgeon is sober, skilled and well-trained; that our mechanic isn’t lying when he tells us our vehicle needs extensive, expensive repairs.

Friendship relies on honesty and loyalty. So does a healthy marriage; if you can’t trust your own partner or spouse, who can you rely on? Which is why adultery is such a devastating blow — you choose your own family and it falls to pieces.

Teachers trust their students to do the work and not plagiarize or cheat. Students trust their teachers to be fair, smart, helpful and wise. Both of them have to trust in the authority of a system that more often privileges test scores or tuition fees over the needs of either group.

And yet we also bring a widely disparate set of hopes and expectations to the table. Some students lie. Some teachers are incompetent. Some surgeons gown up while drunk or high. Nurses can’t or won’t rat them out — risking patients’ lives. (As someone who’s had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, it’s an issue I’ve had to consider personally.)

Anyone looking for love, certainly when dating people they don’t know well through mutual friends or family, takes a risk.

I spent a few months in 1998 being wooed fervently by a charming, witty man I met through a personal ad. He kept proposing marriage to me — until the day he opened my mail, activated my credit card, forged signature and started using my cards — i.e. committing multiple felonies. When I confronted him, his three little words shifted from “I love you” to a chilling, well-practiced “It’s not provable.”

That certainly shifted my notions of who looks, sounds and is trustworthy. It also deeply shook my confidence in my own choices about what signals of trustworthiness are real and which are not.

The New York Times newsroom...without trust in its product, we would have no readers
The New York Times newsroom…without trust in its product, we would have no readers

As a career journalist, my entire reputation relies on my editors’ trust in me: to vet the sources I use for their veracity and authority, to meet my deadlines, to produce excellent work, to report accurately, to quote and attribute my sources properly.

When other writers screw up — and it happens a lot — all of us cringe and know we’ve lost even more of the public’s little trust in us.

The law is a blunt instrument when redressing broken trust — no amount of financial compensation will bring back a broken marriage, a dead child, a ruined career.

When, where and how much and in whom should we place our trust?

That’s the question I have yet to answer to my satisfaction.


14 thoughts on “A question of trust

  1. This is such a big issue to me, Caitlin. And with the constant bombardment each day of news about situations where trust has been misplaced, it becomes ever more difficult. Two years ago someone I thought I could trust and who I thought trusted me ripped the blinders from my eyes in a way that was shattering. I’ve moved on but I’m not sure there will ever be a full recovery. As you say, it really shakes a person’s confidence in their ability to evaluate people and situations. Thanks for talking about this issue–

  2. I was glad to see this addressed also. As complex as the issue can be it has ultimately boiled down to me over my 50+years to follow my instinct. There are those you never fully trust because of a gut instinct – which I have found has served me well. Every situation you weigh the potential harm that can come from a violation of the trust you place and what you know, or don’t, about who you are being asked to trust. Knowledge is power but your instincts should not be ignored.

      1. Yes. We are humans and err even when we try our best to learn discern and rely on our intuition. Regaining trust is a much different animal once betrayal has occurred.

  3. ACK! You sure gave us a bunch of reasons to think twice about trusting anything or anyone!

    My nature is to trust by default. Sure, this disposition has gotten me bruised, but it has never broken me. I figure that I’ve remained open to many wonderful people and opportunities because of my trusting nature and that has enriched me–much more than if I had not trusted and denied myself the relationships and experiences by closing myself off to protect myself from a possible threat or painful situation.

    Life is about taking chances…not unnecessarily risking your safety…but taking a chance on people and the hope that their goodness is what you will discover. I have rarely been proven wrong. Am I lucky? Maybe. I hope that I’m not. I hope that I am proof that trusting brings out the best in people in whom you place your trust…

  4. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail

  5. It hits me quite often how much we must trust each other to live in this world. Every time we drive down the street or hop in a cab, eat in a restaurant, etc. And yet the alternative is so bleak. I tell my boys often to do a good job regardless of the task–that this taking care of business is part of what makes the world go ’round. Mistakes happen, yes–but if we all do our part, the fabric is woven so beautifully.

  6. Excellent post! Another painful lesson comes when you realize that under certain circumstances you cannot trust yourself. As the youngest child of a dysfunctional family, I had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes being made around me. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see myself objectively. Time and experience have brought painful but invaluable perspective.

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