San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Keep Your Powder Dry

There can be no doubt about it: Man is a risktaking animal. He does it for a variety of reasons: to establish limits, to attract mates and discourage competitors or just because, in the immortal words of James Dean as he knifed his best friend, “Ya gotta do sump’n.”

But the basic drive, hardwired and baked in by evolution, is to demonstrate superiority – to other men, to nature, even to God. And it has served him well; we are now in a position to discard our outworn planet and move on to richer worlds.

But nothing comes without a caveat: For every risk, there have to be failures; for every winner, a loser. Survival of the fittest is a harsh and inexorable law, with no sympathy for the vanquished. But today I don’t want to talk about Darwin, but about Trust.

Trust is just another aspect of Faith, which means a firm and even unreasoning belief. We drive through built-up areas because we trust that a small child will not throw himself under our wheels. We go to war in the firm belief, precisely duplicated by the enemy, that we shall win, because our cause is just.

We are even now emerging from a long Age of Trust, in which we believed our leaders were trustworthy, our public figures basically honest. But now all that is over, and we are embarking on an Age of Distrust, which on a day-to-day basis is far less comfortable to live in than the previous dispensation.

What prompted this discontinuity? The historian Arnold Toynbee, in his massive, six-volume “A Study of History,” took a leaf out of Gibbon and analyzed in exhaustive detail the decline and fall of every empire about which we have any knowledge at all, and concluded, not surprisingly, that there were several reasons – but the one that really caught my eye, because I lived it, was Failure of Nerve. And that is exactly what is happening to us now.

Only a few years ago, we pooh-poohed the ridiculous claim that our basic habits were giving rise to global warming. We believed the wise men of Wall Street were essentially honest and knew what they were about, and that we had beaten the age-old boom and bust of the capitalist ethic. We even believed there would eventually be a cure for cancer, first promised more than a hundred years ago.

Well, now we know better, but the learning process has proven disastrous to faith; now we promptly disbelieve the claims of our scientists and the results of every election.

In fact, having lost our jobs, our hardearned savings, even our houses, we have a hard time believing in anything at all. And that could prove disastrous because, as Toynbee observed, that is exactly where Failure of Nerve creeps in.

I can go on like this forever, so before I outstay my welcome, let me leave you with a simple thought invented, I think, by Ronald Reagan’s speech writer: Trust, but verify.


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