A headline on the Internet the other day said that 3 out of 4 Americans do not trust Washington and I thought, “Every fourth American must live or work there.”  The way things are these days the same numbers might be applied to corporate America as well as the Catholic Church if one is paying attention to their abuses of greed and power. The trust anyone places in such institutions deserves far better than that. It is not a pretty picture.

Trust is much like love: it has a million definitions; it is there or it is not; and once betrayed is never the same. Trust is a gift one gives to others who in return give it as well. One of its million definitions might be that trust is an expectation or a presumption of honesty and integrity.

Trust should be the heartbeat of every healthy organization, business or relationship. It gives those involved or committed the feeling of being safe, even when most vulnerable; of being respected for one’s choices and values. Trust among friends is usually a given, at least until one says, “Trust me,” which can be an early warning signal to start asking questions.

In team-building and leadership training groups there are usually a couple of exercises aimed at building trust: the trust walk and the trust lean or fallback and catch. In the first a blindfolded participant trusts a partner to lead him or her safely through an obstacle course; in the second, participants lean, then fall backwards, trusting their partners to catch them. Both exercises teach and offer practical examples of what trust needs to be in organizations and relationships, even though in each exercise trust is scripted.

Genuine trust cannot be scripted; it is intangible but as real as the heartbeat mentioned earlier. One only has to imagine a world without trust to become lost in the twistings of paranoia. Life without trust would be chaotic at best, and meaningless at worst. Bread without yeast is still edible but life without trust would not be livable.

When it comes to our institutions – government, business, church – the effects of their betrayals of trust are immeasurable and, even worse, indelible. Tennessee Williams wrote, “We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal.” I cannot speak for the rest of the world but I know I cannot live like that. I believe in our government, in capitalism, in my Church as I believe in my self. I have learned along the way to not always trust my humanness, however.

And I have learned the same about our institutions. Out of respect I will always expect honesty and integrity from them, even when my presumptions have become very unsettling questions.