It had been a frustrating morning.  My physician team at the VA was taking care of a 97-year-old man who had suffered debilitating strokes.  I was meeting with the family and the patient to discuss end-of-life issues.  The discussion was not going well.  I tried to explain why resuscitation should not be an option in this extremely elderly man’s case.  A painful resuscitation attempt with chest compressions and placement on a ventilator would simply prolong death, not restore life.  The family would hear none of it.  They refused to accept my recommendations.  I left frustrated because I sensed a lack of trust.

The last half century has seen a steady erosion of trust within our society.  The generations of Americans from the silent generation (1928-1945) to the baby boomers (1946-1964) to Gen-Xers (1965-1980) to millennials (1981-1997) have seen the level of trust fade.  Among the millennials in a 2014 Pew Research survey, only 19% agree with the statement that most people can be trusted.   Every day we witness headlines reflecting why we cannot trust our government, our media, our church leaders, our police, our Congress, our President, and other countries.  Television commentators chatter away describing their opponents in Manichaean terms.  Even scientific facts are challenged by those who disparage the mantra of “in God we trust; all others must bring data”.  In particular the federal government has fallen victim to a low trust level.  As a result, within the federal government there is an enormous amount of our tax money going for “compliance,” verification, endless forms, and interminable processes.  This excessive expenditure is mostly related to a lack of trust.

Reasons to Distrust

African Americans in particular have a compelling reason not to trust physicians and the federal government.  The infamous Tuskegee study which started in 1932 in southern Alabama involved 399 African American men with syphilis.  The study was conducted by the US Public Health Service. The men were followed medically for forty years without treatment despite the development of a cure (penicillin) in the 1940s.  They were not told specifically their diagnosis and had information about treatment withheld from them.  Twenty-eight died of syphilis, 100 died with complications related to syphilis, forty wives were infected, and nineteen children were born with syphilis.  This unethical study and others led to the use of informed consent and institutional research boards.  However, the memory of Tuskegee continues to affect trust levels in our community.

The Bible is not overly helpful in advocating trust among people though Numbers 30:2 may have been the origin of “my word is my bond”.  Only God deserves trust.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).  “Trust and obey to be happy in Jesus” the old hymn says. Despite Calvinistic admonitions about the profound depravity of humanity which are somewhat biblically based, people raised in Catholic and Protestant traditions tend to exhibit higher levels of trust.  The “why” is speculative – perhaps forgiveness and love play a role.  Since trust is a fundamental characteristic of God, our commitment to Him may lead to greater level of trust in both ourselves and others.

Ways to Increase Trust

Trust is essential among people if we are to accomplish any worthy goals.  Franklin Covey training, a highly popular organizational learning series,  promotes trust among teams in the workplace.  The Harvard Business Review in 2017 reported on the criticality of trust in an organization.  High-trust workplaces have increased worker engagement, more job satisfaction, less stress, fewer sick days, and more life satisfaction.  Higher educational levels and less income inequity appear to be associated with greater levels of trust based upon a recent World Value Survey.

What can we do about lack of trust?   Here are some suggestions:  1) Start with ourselves – People who trust others are trustworthy themselves; record your promises and remember to keep them; 2) Next, gently hold people to what they commit to do; 3) Search for the truth (facts) at all times; this requires examination of all sides of an argument; 4) Use reliable sources – true journalists with multiple sources and fact-checkers are preferred over ideologically-driven commentators and social media; 5) View those around you more optimistically and more forgivingly; 6) Abjure identity politics and search for common ground among those different from you; and 7) Discourage the layers of bureaucracy that our institutions and organizations are accumulating for compliance purposes – these lead to wasted time and money.   To summarize, trust in God, but also try to increase trust in your neighbor.


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