Trust among strangers

 on June 1, 2023
The Eternal Handshake. Image courtesy of Orin Zebest. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.


On the ninth anniversary of my heart attack, the cardiologist who operated on me early that May 2014 morning, and has supervised my heart since, called for his yearly check up. By chance, the next morning, my wife and I were starting an early stage of a long, summer bicycle ride of 1,500+ kilometres (my body, chance and smoke from wildfires permitting).

He was excited about our project, and took extra time to explain how my heart was likely to react to the effort. He knew, and I was dimly aware, that a heart in its eighth decade responds somewhat differently than one in its third, when I did most of my long, physical trips. We confirmed much of our plan, modified our expectations, and the next morning started a difficult section over the Malahat from Metchosin to Duncan. In the roughly 400 kilometres I’ve bicycled since that telephone call, I’ve thought about trust and its effect on our lives.

Nine years ago at 5:50 a.m., I was wheeled on a stretcher into the operating room of Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. The cardiologist and three others greeted me, and we even talked a bit during the operation. Forty minutes later they had me in the recovery room with a stent in my coronary artery. Eventually, I learned the cardiologist’s name. I never learned the names of the other three members of the team, and don’t remember the names of the nurses and others who cared for me during my quick recovery.


Our eldest son in 2014 was in training to be a surgeon. I knew how physically and socially costly it is to be pulled from bed or to be kept awake all night to care for a stranger like me. Yet they did, and I and others live longer lives.

For many years, I said that we practice trust each time we pass an 18 wheel truck coming the other way, or eat in a restaurant. A mistake or inattention from someone we’ve never met can maim or kill us — and we to them. Yet, we walk, drive and bicycle past trucks many, many times a year, and we buy food and eat at restaurants. This is a working level of trust and doesn’t need to be absolute. It is supported by driving licenses, safety inspectors and others. All this is true, and when I think of the power of trust among strangers, the faces and voices of the four people in the operating room come forward.

When I was a young, moralistic man during the Cold War, George Shultz was the American Secretary of State for Ronald Reagan. While I had little respect for President Reagan — and therefore little for Shultz — I was surprised that progress was made towards peace with the Soviet Union.

Upon turning 100, Shultz wrote,

“Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room — good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen, Everything else is details.” 

Our world of 8 billion people must be full of strangers, and climate change, ending extreme poverty and maintaining biodiversity are great global challenges. People in small and large groups will have conflicts, and 8 billion people is an huge group! Nowhere except a cult will have members who agree on all the details of each global and local challenge. The final answers of our group must be better than the answer of any member of our group myself definitely included!

Each challenge is enormously complex and important, yet, in the language of Shultz, “details.” How do we build working levels of trust so that the great global challenges might be resolved?  Religious people (us!) need to bring experience and principles to groups for building working levels of trust. Every person who works towards shared trust is worthy of our support and admiration.

This column is about people with qualities that I admire. Today, I celebrate each of the 8 billion when they are building a working level of trust. In those moments, each are “blessed peacemakers, the children of God.”

Skip to content