Step 3: Learning to Trust Everyone and Everything
"The Master...trusts people who are trustworthy," wrote Lao Tzu, my favorite philosopher. "She also trusts people who aren't trustworthy. This is true trust." Many earnest do-gooders skew this to mean that everyone is noble at the core, every crazy stranger should be invited to sleep in the children's room, every elected official is intelligent and just. But that's not "true trust"; it's another version of denial, like the one Pema Chödrön calls by the memorable label "idiot compassion."
So what does it mean to "trust people who aren't trustworthy"? I pondered this earlier today, as I watched the lions devour the buffalo, the leopard attack the impala, the baboons stealing breakfast. I am very wary of these beasts, but that doesn't mean I don't trust them. I depend on them deeply—to do what they usually do. Lions and leopards can be trusted to eat animals about my size. Baboons can be trusted to steal food whenever possible. Because I know this, I adapt my behavior to avoid getting eaten or pilfered.
By the same token, if someone in your life pulls in a dismal score on the Trust Test, perpetually failing to keep promises, tell the truth, quit drinking, or show compassion, this is exactly what you can depend on them to keep doing. Addicts can be trusted to lie. Narcissists can be trusted to backstab. And people who reliably do their best, whose stories check out against your own observations, can be trusted to stay relatively honest and stable.
When you spot faulty programming in your trust-o-meter, you may experience some deep grief. You'll have to acknowledge what you already know, deep down: that your alcoholic dad may never be reliable, that you may have picked an irresponsible partner, that the friend who never supports you probably never will. You may face some tough choices as your debugged trust-o-meter directs you away from familiar negative patterns and into new behaviors. But as you more accurately predict what will happen, you'll feel a new, growing confidence. Your life will begin to work.
This is why I feel so much safer today, in the bushveld, than I once did in my home. Yes, it's a jungle out here, but it's a jungle everywhere. Life, in fact, is just one big wilderness. But you were born for this wilderness, and you have the instruments to negotiate it safely. Does that thought feel comfortable? Really, truly comfortable? As soon as it does, you've found your way to the first part of Goethe's promise: You can trust yourself. And because Goethe was a trustworthy person, you can rely on the second part of his promise following automatically. You really will know how to live.
Does your trust-o-meter need recalibrating? Take The Trust Test to find out
More on Who to Trust
- 13 experts weigh in on what they can always trust
- The happiness trust connection
- The new face of infidelity
From the March 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.