Modern society seems to be imploding and some might ask, “Why is this happening?”
Humanity overcame wars, revolutions, and natural disasters, but 2020 challenged us in a way none of us was prepared for. Last year confronted us with our lack of one essential ability—our ability to trust.
We are social beings and nobody is able to oversee everything that is going on for our human tribe. Therefore, evolution taught us to trust others. This is a huge part of what we call being social.
In a complex world, we have to trust that others are doing their best. This applies to all areas of our lives. Relationships, politics, and business all require a certain level of trust. The sociologist Niklas Luhmann described this phenomenon in his book “Trust and Power.” In 1968, he outlined the importance of trust by describing trust as an action to reduce complexity in a complicated world.
How does that apply to our lives in 2021?
Luhmann describes trust as something that is necessary to give us comfort. We simply cannot double-check everything we hear—it would literally drive us crazy (as some of us found out in 2020). At the same time, trust is something that is built by experience. As children, we are supposed to learn to trust. Erik Erikson described the age of adolescence as the time when we learn to trust—or not.
But what if we did not learn to trust? What if we grow up with parents who we cannot trust for whatever reason? What if we continuously get hurt in relationships? What if we experience sexual misconduct at work? The list goes on.
It is not easy to trust others these days. A friend of mine once gave me advice he got from his mom and held dearly to his heart, “Never trust anyone, always fight for yourself.”
If that is our attitude toward others, we expect them to do the same. Not trusting anyone to avoid disappointment takes away what makes us social beings; it makes us lone wolves who are only hustling for our own survival.
In 2020, we experienced what happens when trust levels are at an all-time low. As mentioned earlier, trust is a tool to reduce the complexity around us. We could trust a renowned virologist because we have no clue about modern medicine—or we could do our own research.
I hear some of the spiritual folks asking, “But what if this is just a huge scam to take away our freedom and money?” Well, I am sorry to say, but that risk remains.
It is fully understandable that some people have difficulties trusting Big Pharma. We heard about Johnson & Johnson being accused of and trialed for enabling the opioid pandemic that struck the United States long before COVID-19, we know about lobbyists and their influence in Washington, and most of us have a feeling that we don’t know everything that is happening on the stage of world politics.
Why not believe that this is all a hoax to take away our basic human rights? A lot of trust in corporate America and its government has been lost over the last decades. On top of that, we are living in a time that is defined by the individualism that leads to discussions around narcissism, egoism, and recklessness toward others. Countless human beings got hurt, disappointed, and abused by other human beings. It has become a vicious circle that endangers our society as we know it. If we can’t trust anyone, what are we going to do?
We cannot be a doctor, financial expert, pilot, teacher, scientist, and politician in one person. We need each other.
So the main question for 2021 is, “Can we learn to trust each other again?” Are we able to overcome the division by trusting the right people? And most importantly, will we be able to decide who to trust?
There had been numerous smart explanations why people voted for Trump. His narcissistic behavior seemed to connect with his supporters—they felt represented by a man who mainly cares about himself. Looking at the entertainment business, we see similar patterns. Why didn’t we see the “me too” movement coming? Wasn’t it always obvious to everyone that these types of situations—where individuals must audition and cast for roles—could lead to situations where people abuse their power? Last but not least, we have to admit that dating has also changed over the last decade. Did we really believe that we play a special role in the life of our one-night stand who we met on a dating app?
As COVID-19 hit our society, some of us tried to escape this inconvenient reality by falling for something psychologists call cognitive dissonance. This term describes how human beings tend to bend reality and mold every piece of information into a narrative that helps them to make sense of it all. It is the breeding ground for conspiracy theories. When agitators like Alex Jones, the producers of “Plandemic,” or QAnon-networks tell their audience that everything they used to believe in is fake, then some folks rediscover their ability to trust.
“Finally, someone says it. I had been feeling this for years,” is something we would hear them say. They pretend to care about child abuse, suicide rates, and corrupt governments while actually just trying to find reasons for not wearing a mask or not staying at home during a pandemic. The scepticism we held toward Dr. Fauci and other scientists seems to disappear when someone yells at us in a shacky clip and explains that we are governed by psychopaths who drink blood to achieve longevity.
It is a common narrative in movies that one person knows the truth and has to prevail against those in power. Our pop culture was feeding that desire to have a saviour who fights the system—well, here we are.
The last time we saw so many conspiracy theories popping up was after September 11, 2001. There seems to be a connection between fear and finding alternative explanations in the face of dramatic events. As long as everything is going well, we can pretend to be fine while not trusting anyone around us. It is us against a world of morons—but this narcissistic arrogance doesn’t work in times of crisis.
There had been much talk about lack of education causing the MAGA cult and the QAnon movement, but I am not sure about that anymore. I have seen folks who I would consider educated and smart falling for this type of bullsh*t. It is too easy to call these people simple-minded—actually, it is pretty arrogant and misses the point.
This crisis that we identify as divisiveness is a crisis of trust. We cannot agree on who we trust. Is it the scientist with decades of experience or the dude who started a YouTube channel last week? Is it the man who devoted his life to politics, or is it the guy who went bankrupt multiple times? Is it the nice, caring man who shares his feelings, or is it the loud gorilla who intimidates others with his presence?
Unfortunately, this goes far beyond politics. We want to trust someone; we need to trust—that is a key part of what makes us human beings. Only we have to learn who to trust—we need to make better choices when it comes to that.
There are plenty of reasons to not trust politicians, business leaders, and doctors—but there are even more reasons to not trust influencers, conspiracy bloggers, and other content producers who actually make tons of money by spreading misinformation.
Maybe Dr. Fauci is lying to us and Bill Gates is about to control our lives with a vaccine—or maybe this is only a narrative to spread fear, distrust, and make some bucks with clicks on YouTube.
It is upon us to decide who we trust, but we have to trust someone—and we need to get better at that. That goes for politics, friendships, and relationships.
Trust is something that grows over time, it is nurtured by every single experience that helps to build it, and it is the most valuable gift we have to offer to others.
Without trust, there is no partnership, friendship, or love—we need to learn to trust again.