David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, said recently that America is buried in an “avalanche of distrust,” the failing of a society that has grown increasingly insular, one that has turned to the Internet and social media for fulfillment and gratification. Rather than seeking what we once called face-to-face, we turn to Facebook (or Snapchat, or Twitter) for, among other things, friendship. Hardly the same thing.
Studies and polls have revealed that an increasing number of people no longer have real friends, people to whom they can lay themselves bare, confide their true feelings, people they trust enough to let them see who they really are, and why.
Trust involves intimacy, “gradual self-disclosure, emotional risk,” says Brooks. It also requires conversation in the flesh, face to face.
As I read Brooks’s column I thought of my friend Hoppy, a pal since boyhood, who shot his wife several years ago, admitted the murder openly, and is serving a life sentence in prison.
I wanted to know why this horrid thing had happened, and in many long conversations he told me, knowing that it could all wind up in the newspapers. By the statutes this was murder; in reality, it was a mercy killing. His wife was so horribly ill that she had given permission for her husband not to let her wake up in the morning. Hoppy never told this to the police, or the district attorney, or his lawyer because he didn’t want anyone to know that his wife had given up.
Hoppy trusted me to get it down, and to get it right. He calls from prison twice each week and at times the talk is wide open, hearts bared, because that’s what friends – pals who trust each other – do. When we finish, I thank Hoppy for calling.
His reply is always the same: “Thanks for being there.”
ARE WE losing the practice of being there? Much of the trouble these days is that people don’t get together much, and when they do it’s often to stare at a little hand-held screen, or the screen in someone else’s hand. Look someone in the face, or the heart? A plunge into cyberworld is less risky. How nice, the reassurance in a “like,” or the digital affection of Snapchat.
Facebook may be about news, in a limited way, but it is not intimacy. Closeness is managed and ranked in cyberchat, a kind of false intimacy, an illusion in the mists, confirmed with the right swipe or a thumbs up.
Trust is vacant here. Social media is a lot like a vast newspaper city room with no editor, no way to separate fact from myth in all that writing, a public forum open to manipulation, illusion, all the precursors to suspicion, or worse.
“The true thing about distrust, in politics and in life generally, is that it is self-destructive,” Brooks writes. “Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures.”
“When you refuse to lay yourself before others, others won’t lay themselves before you,” he writes. … The rise of distrust correlates with a decline in community bonds and a surge of unmerited cynicism.” And as distrust increases, so does intolerance, which gives rise to fear, the greatest enemy of intimacy, and when intimacy is lost society becomes more isolated.
You know where this is going: “Isolation leads to more fear.
More fear leads to fear-mongering leaders. And before long you wind up in this death spiral,” Brooks writes.
He isn’t hopeful about where this is all headed, because resolution must come from within ourselves, not in a chat room.
The great religions and political philosophies, says Brooks, advise “comradeship,” the kind of bonds reinforced by trust, the kind of friendship that cannot happen if you are busy building walls.” Strength comes in a counter of opposites, meeting distrust with vulnerability, skepticism with naivete, cynicism with faith, hostility with affection.
We need to put down the smartphones – today’s great oxymoron – and ask our leaders to do likewise. Until we have candidates who realize that trust does outlast fear, and put that trust to work, we have only a prescription for more weakness, and more trouble. We must rediscover our trust, the path to new strength.
– JOHN MARSHALL