Trust, Fear and London

The problem with trust, of course, is that it involves vulnerability. By trusting, we risk getting hurt. Yet I have come to realise that failing to trust risks far more harm.

I live in the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s busiest cities. London is bursting at the seams with people. Sadly yet inevitably, where there are people, there is crime. I hear police sirens every day and I’m confronted with antisocial behaviour regularly. As such, I’m streetwise and sensible as I move around the city. Yet I also try (though often fail) to trust those around me.

Since I re-engaged with religion some years back, seeing my faith afresh through the lens of liberal Quakerism, the notion of trust has grown increasingly important to me. I hope to be considered trustworthy, as I attempt to live out Quaker testimonies to truth and integrity. But further, one of the first Quaker teachings I found truly compelling is the notion of ‘that of God’ in every one. If I long to recognise the divine, to see the good in every person, I can’t live in a state of suspicion, but must commit myself to trust.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day here in London and I spent the day at my college – SOAS, University of London – working on my MA dissertation. Rather than the library, I like to sit in the postgraduate common room. It’s a mixed-use space with desks and comfy chairs, and during busy term time, you can be sure to find at least one person snoozing on the sofas. I prefer to sit there because I can have a cup of tea whilst I work. SOAS is home to a diverse student body studying people-centred subjects such as anthropology, international development, or like me, religions. In that space I feel a sense of community even amongst those whom I’ve never interacted with. As such, I come and go from the postgraduate common room, leaving my bag and my books lying unattended when I go to top-up my tea cup. I trust that my possessions will be safe; I trust the other students.

Yesterday’s beautiful sunny day was blighted by an incident which threatened to betray that trust. Or so I thought.

A mobile phone was left on one of the sofas. From behind me, two women discussed the case of the lost phone, eventually deciding to leave it where it was; the owner would surely return and find it there. They trusted that the phone would remain in its spot until its rightful owner returned. No sooner than they had left, I felt movement behind me. A young man swiftly headed towards the sofas, picked-up the phone, and exited. As he left the room, I stared at the back of his head and his distinctive bright blue shirt feeling that I ought to call after him, to ask where he was taking the lost phone. Whether due to slow reactions or a subconscious trust that he would do the right thing and hand the phone to lost property, I said nothing and let him leave.

Sure enough, my worst fears were enacted as the phone’s owner returned to the common room, searching the sofa in vain. Her phone had been switched off; never a good sign as anyone who has ever lost their phone will tell you. I was sure that if I saw an image of the man who had picked-up her phone I would be able to point him out; not because I saw his face, but because of his very bright blue shirt. But it wasn’t to be, for the security team confirmed that there are no cameras in that part of the building.

Trust in my fellow students, and my trust in the masses of people I encounter each day in London, is perhaps naïve. But incidents here in London over the past few weeks – the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby by supposed Muslim extremists, followed by a host of Islamophobic attacks supposedly by groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) – seem to highlight not my naivety in trusting humanity, rather the dangers of loss of trust, or further, of failing to trust in the first place. These incidents, whipped up a media frenzy, throwing out adjective-heavy headlines with proclamations of ‘evil’ and ‘monstrous’ and ‘barbaric’, condemn the British public to lives of fear and helplessness in the face of ‘enemy’ threats. Be afraid, these headlines imply, be afraid and trust no one.

Well, I refuse. I won’t live a life of fear, hiding behind closed doors or ranting about communities and individuals I’ve failed to understand. Such actions can only lead to more division and increased misunderstanding. Rather I will continue to trust, I will continue to be open and I will continue, as best I can, to seek ‘that of God’ in everyone; even in the most trying of circumstances.

As I left university yesterday, I spotted outside, looking around nervously, the man in the bright blue shirt. Approaching cautiously, I began my questioning. As soon as I had been able to mutter a few words, through the crowds appeared the owner of the missing phone. Somehow, blue-shirt-man had got the word to her, and the phone and its owner were reunited. My first instinct, the one which had trusted him to do the right thing, rather than the later fear of his dishonesty, had proven correct.

I know full well that truth and trust will not always prevail; unfortunately there is not a happy ending to every story. But yesterday there was. So to the man in the bright blue shirt: thank you for reminding me that my far-reaching trust is not naïve, but is absolutely necessary.

Image: Pedweb, Flickr Creative Commons

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4 thoughts on “Trust, Fear and London

  1. Charlotte –

    Thank you for the honesty of this piece. You, truly, are a great Quaker voice in this dialogue.

    ‘I refuse. I won’t live a life of fear, hiding behind closed doors or ranting about communities and individuals I’ve failed to understand…’.

    Through your honesty, here, I think you wholly embody the Quaker advice to ‘live adventurously’ – as you comment, elsewhere (

    Thank You.



    1. Thank you Joe, I really appreciate your kind comments and encouragement.

  2. Nice personal story!

    As you probably know, the common greeting “namaste” means “homage to the divine in you” which compares nicely with the Quaker ethos you mentioned.

    Fyi, there are those who now argue that the culture of fear, paranoia, and suspicion (unaccountable security surveillance state etc) are not only responses to violence, but causes of it. (We can’t restrict gun ownership, since everyone needs to be protected because no one can be trusted)

    Looking forward to your future posts!

  3. Thanks for this insightful article, Charlotte. I think game theory is another useful tool to help explain trust issues. Many of the problems we face can only be solved if a critical mass of people agree to act together. We may be better off as a society if we trust one another, but it is often in our self interest to remain skeptical and not expose ourselves to risk. I’m grateful for your insight that helps show how by trusting one another we can improve our society and our own welfare more than we could by ourselves.

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