Trust is a risk taken, not an acquired skill

She wants me to help her learn to trust. Her exact words, in fact: “Help me learn to trust.”

She thinks of trust, apparently, as a skill set one can acquire. A learning curve. Like trust was a martial art that we could test for and eventually earn a black belt. The Trust Master.

She wants to master trust.

I tell her I’m not her guy. I tell her there are no “trust curriculums” in my hand. You can learn mechanics and calculus and gardening and how to shoot a basketball, but trying to “learn” trust misunderstands the word.

Trust isn’t something we learn. Trust is something we risk. Or don’t risk.

I go zip lining. First time ever. I don the helmet. I step into a harness that, when worn and strapped correctly, can transform any baritone into a first tenor. I listen carefully to the instructor. I clip my safety harness to the cable, surrender my body’s weight into the harness, place my gloved hands above me on the trolley, and dangle, suspended in midair … about 2 feet off the ground. I am now learned in proper zip-lining technique. But I hadn’t yet been required to trust anything or anyone.

And now I climb the tower. I climb and climb, up and up, into the Rocky Mountain blue sky. I look down at the tops of spruce and fir. I hear the river roar, swollen with snow melt, and see it pound the rocks. The instructors clip and unclip and clip my safety harness, caterpillering me toward … thin air. I sit, legs dangling, and walk my butt to the edge.

“Go,” the instructor says.

Now I am required to trust. There is nothing to learn, per se. I will either risk trust or not risk trust. I will either release my keister’s grip on this safe, secure platform and trust this cable and harness with my life or I will not relinquish my grip.

I have nothing to learn. I only have something to decide.

Same goes for getting in a taxi or eating at a restaurant. Or bungee jumping. Or skydiving. And the first time you let your adolescent drive away solo with your car. And falling in love. And entrusting yourself to your lover’s pledge of faithfulness. And believing that the sworn police officer behind the badge and gun meant what he/she swore. Going to the doctor. Going to a therapist. Getting on an airplane and letting it take off.

Ethics was my favorite class in graduate school. Moral theology was, for me, the most beautiful of the philosophical arts. My professor, Joseph Allen, said the very ground of ethical deliberation had to do with “trusting and accepting entrustment.” That our moral duties emerge directly from entrustment we have accepted, either explicitly (e.g., a marriage vow, a Hippocratic oath) or implicitly (e.g., holding the door for the Coca-Cola guy steering the laden hand truck, picking up a hitchhiker).

If I trust you, I give away power. Now you can care for me, protect me, nurture and sooth me, love me, contribute to my well-being. Or you can trick me. Cheat me. Humiliate me. Exploit me. Hurt me. Watch my heart starve to death for want of your love, support and friendship.

Same goes with you trusting me.

We can learn about trust, but we don’t, strictly speaking, learn to trust. We decide whether to trust. We choose.

It is impossible NOT to trust something or someone. Refusing to ever take the risk of trust is itself a risk. To wit: We risk believing that the calculated, safe and secure, autonomous and independent life will provide meaning, joy and satisfaction. If you have talked to as many hospice patients as I have, you know how few people think this risk pays off.

What we can learn is better, wiser discernment skills. We can ask better questions. Who is more likely to deserve our trust? And how do we measure this? What signs and energies do we observe over what amount of time before we trust?

In the end, perhaps, the greatest risk of trust is whether we will decide to trust ourselves. Yes, some entrustments will make us rue the day. We will be hurt and disappointed. But we trust ourselves enough to know we will survive to trust again. And again and again.

The only way to trust that zip lining won’t kill you is to let go of the platform and notice you don’t die. Instead, you fly like Peter Pan.

Same goes for love, family, friendship, peace, joy, meaning, learning, growing and just about anything else worthy of being called human.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or