A Matter Of Trust

In this Question Of The Week on Steem @ecotrain asks us “who do you trust and how do you trust? A timely question to pose, as I deal with a recent situation where the trust that was needed was so sorely misplaced and betrayed.

Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash

I’ve recently been immersed a very challenging situation with a work client which has brought up issues of trust for me. While I won’t go into any of the gory details, the experience itself has been rewarding even at the same time it was incredibly stressful and upsetting.

People with disabilities often have no choice but to put their trust in other people, as they require so much more assistance for every-day tasks that most of us would take for granted. When we trust someone so much we become dependent on them, we better make sure that person is deserving of that level of trust.

Then again, so too do workers/employees: we trust that our supervisors and managers will do the right thing, follow the appropriate laws, and so on. We trust that they will submit invoices, pay our superannuation and our taxes, etc.

When I was working as a natural medicine practitioner, my clients trusted me with their health; in term I trusted that they would follow my guidance, take their medicine, turn up for appointments, and so on.

Thus in many ways, trust is sort of like a glue that binds us together in relationship.


The 5th Century Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote that trustworthiness was an important virtue for the moral individual to possess. His vision was that a harmonious society was dependent on harmonious relationships between people, and a virtue such as 信 xìn was vital to maintain these connections between people.

主忠信。 Zhǔ zhōng xìn.
毋友不如己者。 Wú yǒu bùrú jǐ zhě.
過,則勿憚改。 Guò, zé wù dàn gǎi.

Be loyal and trustworthy.
Do not befriend one who is not equal to oneself [in this regard].
[Certainly] get along with them, but do not fear to change this.

Confucius, The Analects, Chapter 1 (my translation)

What he was teaching was that those who are not themselves loyal and trustworthy do not deserve your loyalty or trust. Most likely, because they will break this trust if they feel it is in their best interest. In Confucius’ eyes, this lack of integrity was not something to be rewarded, albeit tolerated. The thing is, one would never know if someone was trustworthy unless it was tested somehow.

In the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE‒220 CE) the ideas of the Wǔxíng (5 Elements) school dominated scholarship, with all areas of knowledge being categorised into a system of correspondences within this framework. Confucius taught that there were many virtues for the ‘Superior Person’, and his teachings were distilled down to five of the most important virtues — and trust was one of them.

Interestingly, it became associated with the 土 Earth element. In what is known as the ‘cosmological sequence’ of the elements, Earth sits in the centre of the other four, it binds, harmonises, and moderates them in how they relate to each other. Any idea or substance that corresponded to Earth was seen to have a similar quality.

Thus 信 xìn, trustworthiness, became integrity; the virtuousness of a person was in how the other virtues — kindness, courtesy, justice, and wisdom — were brought together to create a holistic expression of 德 , a kind of ultimate, cosmic goodness that affects the world in a special way.

Knowing me, knowing you

I’m usually willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, even if my spidey-senses tingle. I can understand it if someone acts unaware of my own personal boundaries, and immediately apologises and rectifies the situation once I state my boundaries.

However I’ve come to realise that I have all-too-often given people infinite chances to learn and acknowledge my boundaries. And then of course, I feel violated, betrayed, and hurt. These people clearly do not deserve my trust, and I immediately remove myself from any space they are in.

Then there are the implied boundaries. In my opinion, anything that is legislated or is a cultural norm is implied. For example, if the law states an employer cannot bully, intimidate, threaten, or blackmail an employee, then I expect that this will not happen to me. Even if the law doesn’t state that, that is universally something that no one would like to done for them; i.e. it is simply common courtesy to treat people with respect. I shouldn’t have to formally, explicitly state (such as in a contract or a service agreement) that this is a boundary, and will not accept or tolerate that behaviour.

While some folks like to weasel around this kind of thing using ‘interpretation and misunderstanding’ as an excuse for their untrustworthy behaviour, it is at the end of the day a reflection of their moral character.

Confucius’ advice is not so much about changing other peoples’ behaviour as it is changing our own.

On the surface level, his teaching quoted above tells me to extricate myself from such people. Don’t be their friend, tolerate them whilst their in my sphere, and then change the situation later if necessary.

However, there is a deeper level of reflection in his words, which I have spent the last couple of days contemplating.

Was their level of trust an equal response to mine own?

How much of the other person’s behaviour was an “equivalent reaction” to my own behaviour? Was I involved with this person because we had an equal level of loyalty and trustworthiness? If I am critical of their trust, am I also not being equally critical of my integrity?

The problem I was facing was not about the behaviour of the other person. The problem was that for a long time I had allowed another person (in this case, it was an ’employer’ of sorts) to continually and repeatedly ignore my personal and professional boundaries; I had stood by whilst they had behaved that way with every other person in this context. In this sense, the level loyalty and trust I possessed was no different, because I was standing by and enabling (albeit passively so) behaviour that was immoral and unethical.

However, I did do something about it. I stood in my integrity and spoke up in a ‘public’ manner and stated the reasons why I was resigning from my position, making it clear my reasons, my intentions, and my observations. What happens now in that situation is in the hands of others, but hopefully the ingredient I threw into the crucible will change the end-result in a generative manner.

I have found that trust is not only earned, but it is learned. I need to test my personal boundaries continually so that can continue to understand the complexities of human nature. If I want to be a loyal and trustworthy person, then I need to know what that looks, sounds, and feels like. I need to experience the opposite to help me understand how not to behave with others.

I've lived long enough to have learned
The closer you get to the fire the more you get burned
— Billy Joel

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