Today’s topic in this series on movements of growth is a controversial one. It is “the movement toward trust in oneself.” A lot of you won’t find this surprising at all; we talk a lot in our culture about trusting ourselves, trusting our gut or intuition, and so on. But others of you — especially those with a strong background in the Bible — will probably have a lot of immediate objections. Isn’t trust in ourselves the last thing we should be cultivating? Isn’t that the height of faithlessness and folly? After all, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov 3.5-6). So, the first step, if we’re going to affirm that it is good and faithful to grow to trust oneself more, is to sort out what we mean by trusting in ourselves.
When the Bible warns us not to trust our own understanding, it isn’t just being controlling or trying to spoil our fun. There are plenty of good reasons not to trust our own understanding. Our minds are predisposed to selfishness, to be swayed by emotion and manipulated by others’ expectations, to accept only new data that reinforces our preexisting beliefs, and to ascribe good motives to ourselves and bad motives to others. (For an excellent, evidence-informed summary of this, check out Mark Manson’s blog post on why we can’t trust ourselves.)
And so, it’s a very good thing to cultivate suspicion towards our own reasoning and understanding of the world. It’s always a good idea to seek out alternative ideas and run our thoughts and plans by people whose judgment and perspectives we trust. This isn’t to say our ideas are always bad or that faithfulness always requires us to toe the party line and behave and think exactly as our tradition, elders, or peers tell us we should. Any community — Christianity most definitely included — needs its mavericks and rebels. Most of the great Saints of history were shocking and heterodox by the standards of their own cultures. Not trusting our own understanding isn’t about always denying our thoughts and desires; rather, it’s about the need to cultivate discernment so we can ensure we are being agents of faithful change. It’s never choosing between ourselves or God, but about “choosing with God,” as Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au put it.
The thing is, this is just as true for those of us who aren’t prone to be rebels. If the mavericks perhaps need discernment to know when they maybe shouldn’t follow their ideas and impulses, we — speaking on behalf of the law-abiding follower types here — need discernment to know when maybe we should. The answer to trusting our judgment is not always ‘yes’, but it’s also not always ‘no’. We’d all do well to remember that.
But all that said, I don’t think this “trusting in our own understanding” is exactly the sort of trust in oneself the Aus’ framework is talking about. What we need to cultivate and grow into isn’t trust in our ideas and opinions, but about trusting our capacity to manage the ups and downs of life. For those of us who are risk-averse, it’s often less a fear of failure that keeps us in stasis, but rather a fear that if we fail, we won’t be strong enough to get back up. Dr. Rick Hanson, a Psychologist at UC Berkeley, has framed his own journey with trust in himself like this:
[I] didn’t trust that the authentic me was good enough, lovable enough—and that I’d still be OK if I did mess up. Didn’t have confidence in my own depths, the core of me, that it already contained goodness, wisdom, and love. Didn’t trust the unfolding process of living without tight top-down control. Doubted myself, my worth, my possibilities.
… [O]ften what looks like “the world is untrustworthy” is at bottom, “I don’t trust myself to deal with it.”
It’s been a lifelong journey to develop more faith in myself, to lighten up, loosen up, swing out, take chances, make mistakes, and then repair and learn from them, and stop taking myself so seriously.
I can relate to a lot of what Dr. Hanson is saying here. In some ways this seems like the major lesson I’ve learned over the past decade. When I had my big crisis in 2010-11 it really felt like God had pushed me from a plane without a parachute. What I discovered wasn’t that God was there to catch me when I fell, but that, as awful and painful as the landing was, I was, like a cartoon coyote, still there. Since then, I’ve taken big risks in life that didn’t really pan out, but I’m still here. I’ve given my heart to people who didn’t want it, and I’m still here. I was reluctant to take a job in emergency preparedness at work because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle working in a major public health emergency, but here I am in the midst of the biggest public health emergency in a century, and I’m still here. Growing into greater trust in myself has not been about a kind of certainty in my own opinions, but rather about trusting that I have the resilience to get through far more than I gave myself credit for.
One of the major themes on the blog here since the Summer has been the idea of faith as showing up for ourselves, for each other, and for God. I think this is exactly the core of what this kind of trust in oneself is about: learning to have enough faith in ourselves — our capacity, our resilience, our strength, our abilities — to trust that, no matter what happens, we can show up for ourselves, for our friends and community, and for God.
And that is genuine, beautiful growth indeed.