This past December, I had the privilege of attending my first Ditchley Foundation experience, joining an extraordinary compilation of academics, journalists, policy wonks, industry specialists, technologists, former politicians, and so many more for a conversation on the nature and presence of trust. The event was entitled “Trust: in leaders, experts and institutions. Where and why has it gone and what can we do to renew it?” For just over two days, these conversation partners and I stopped to ask ourselves and each other these important questions. We also asked who the arbiters of trust were and who benefits by its absence. While we were completely unaware of the radical reconfiguration roaring towards us in the new year, I look back now and understand that we were gathering the language and questions that would equip us to navigate our present circumstances.
More than ever, COVID-19 has revealed the cracks in our shared domestic and global landscapes. Disjointed national responses reveal gaps in preventative planning. The digital divide illustrates the socio-economic fault lines in classrooms and catchments. The inability to socially distance in prisons and amongst the homeless reveal anew the depth of vulnerability that requires our attention. Even before COVID-19 arrived, my conversation partners at Ditchley warned that fear is a powerful tool, that institutions are broken easily but repaired with great difficulty, and that we are in an information war that has left us all more fragmented than when the twenty-first century began.
With these questions and warnings as my guides, I digest the news from around the world each night, seeing fragile states descend into authoritarian regimes. I see misinformation cause confusion, suspicion, and preventable deaths skyrocket as the disease emerges under those that might have so easily been saved. I see those who wish to profit from chaos reap the fruit of dismantled institutions and public health officials scrambling to stand in the gap in a crisis that has overwhelmed our hospitals and morgues alike. I see people hoarding basic resources, charitable giving disappearing overnight, and fear of the future projected into all sorts of apocalyptic predictions.
And yet I have also seen the seeds of trust re-sown in these unlikeliest of circumstances. In the days and weeks since the World Health Organization officially termed COVID-19 a global pandemic, I have seen closed cafes churn out meals for frontline workers, parishes transformed into homeless shelters, and posts on local chat groups reinvent themselves as social hubs, connecting the vulnerable to helpers that have materialized, seemingly overnight, right next door.
People are literally singing in the streets to and for one another. We are hopping on apps for worship services; we are picking up the phone to reconnect; we are cheering every night at 7:00pm for our healthcare workers. I’m seeing a celebration of healing ecosystems, renewed international engagement in sincerely looking at how this pandemic is affecting other nations, and critical questions being asked about supply chain management, political transparency, and socio-economic class divides. We are highly conscious of the need to care for the elderly, the immunocompromised, the mentally ill, the lonely. Political engagement is on the rise. Critical news engagement too. We are experiencing, in short, a restoration in consciousness of what has shaped us, who we belong to, and the important opportunity we each have to raise our voice in this time of recovery, renewal, and reform. Piece by piece, the world is being remade. Could it be that it is being, as Charles Dickens once said, “bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape?”
Just last week, I rejoined the Ditchley Foundation community in its first ever online gathering, this time with new conversation partners, to reimagine how the present lessons of solitude and community can fuel our efforts to re-make society in light of such a sweeping, shared experience. Together we asked: What is the role of faith in restoring our sense of trust in society and to each other? What is the relationship between community and solitude? How can we stem the almost shattering tide of loneliness? How can we be better stewards of our resources? Who are we responsible for and dependent on? What obligation must we undertake as family members, neighbours, and citizens – as humans? Perhaps most importantly, how can this rupture serve as a moment of radical realignment in our relationships, our values, and our collective consciousness?
While I continue “living the questions” as public radio host Krista Tippett would say, I have begun to see that unless we stand at attention and ask these questions together, the lonely will get lonelier, the disadvantaged more disenfranchised, and the vulnerable will be dismissed even more easily than before. Each of us has a choice. Will we see ourselves “implicated, responsible for love’s sake” as theologian Steve Garber would ask, responsible for our neighbourhoods, our children, our elderly, and our cities?
Will we see this time of painful rupture and loss also as an opportunity realign our relationship to the environment, our economies, and our political systems? Will COVID-19 be the moment that awakes and accelerates us into deeper belonging and agency? Will we allow ourselves to be catalyzed towards a shared commitment to rebuilding the trust that has been lost between institutions and stakeholders, nations and citizens, neighbours and leaders? Only you can decide. Only we can decide. But perhaps this time, we’ll decide to do it together.
The author is indebted to all her conversation partners for the gift of their presence and their language, some of which has been drawn upon for the authoring of this article