Trust in the world, others, and ourselves is fundamental to our lives. Trust is a silent companion, for when we trust, we don’t think about it; when trust is in place, we don’t usually think about the reasons for our trust, nor do we worry about the possibility of being let down. Trust means not constantly checking that what or whom we trust is going to behave as we believe they will.
At the same time, trust also depends on uncertainty. If we know without a shadow of a doubt that someone is going to perform a certain action, we do not trust: we predict. If we trust, we know there is, in principle, the possibility of something going wrong, but we believe (or we can say: ‘we have faith’) that it will not. To some extent, we give ourselves over to what or whom we trust. In a completely controlled, completely self sufficient world, trust would have no place. But that’s not the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where we are vulnerable, where uncertainty is our daily bread, and where we need the support and the actions of so much reality and so many people other than ourselves just to live. Trust, as philosopher Annette Baier famously put it, is ‘accepted vulnerability’.
In a completely controlled, completely self sufficient world, trust would have no place. But that’s not the world we live in.
If trust is so fundamental to our lives, and so entangled with uncertainty and vulnerability, then the more trust is missing, the more disrupted our lives will be. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes we need to withdraw trust, and sometimes we distrust for good reason. But we cannot do without it. And, I want to suggest, we cannot do without the substrate of trust in reality that allows us to believe that, more or less, the world is going to function as it should, that we will still be alive tomorrow, that our home is not going to explode when we go out for a walk, that – as any scientist, well, anyone, can tell us – the fact that we stepped on a crack in the pavement is not going to cause a world war.
There are people who lack that kind of trust, and whose lives are held captive by a tragic sequence of worries that the world is not going to function as it should.
There are people who lack that kind of trust, and whose lives are held captive by a tragic sequence of worries that the world is not going to function as it should; worries that are sometimes, indeed often, accompanied by the constantly checking I mentioned above – precisely what trustors don’t do.
Among these people are the ones who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. Here I want to talk about OCD in terms of trust in the world (the world: such a big and vague word; I hope fellow philosophers will excuse me, and see why I need to use it because of its breadth and vagueness). Such lack of trust is accompanied by a proliferation of harrowing possibilities in one’s mind, which ordinarily just do not occur to people. If we trust that the sun will rise tomorrow, we don’t (seriously) think that it may not. Some people with OCD think that it may not. And, often, they feel it’s up to them to make sure that it will.
For lack of trust means taking it upon oneself to make sure everything will go as it should. Just as not trusting doctors involves endless internet searches for one’s potential disease, so not trusting the world involves trying to control what we really cannot, because the mind in the grip of OCD is tormented by the unpredictable fragility of things, understandably coupled with the overwhelming responsibility to avoid disaster, and because the stakes are too high not to try at least.
What makes OCD and its distrust of the world so hard to overcome is that yes, it is possible that the exact moment after you step on the cracks in the pavement a war will break out.
What makes OCD and its distrust of the world so hard to overcome is that yes, it is possible that the exact moment after you step on the cracks in the pavement a war will break out. It is possible that our home will explode when we go for a walk. And, although there is no known fact to suggest it, it is remotely possible that the sun will not rise tomorrow. All of this torments the OCD sufferer and gives the person in the grip of the obsession a strange sense of rationality. If it’s possible, why should I not worry about it, and why should I not try to stop it? The exhausting task of holding the world on one’s shoulders is very hard to shake off, when one cannot trust the solidity of reality .
It is possible that the world won’t keep its promise: and this is why trust is at stake and not – as some philosophers might suggest here – mere reliance. When you fear that your child may come to harm if you don’t comb your hair 100 times, you are not just lacking reliance on your child’s body. You are afraid that you will be betrayed by the very ground under your feet.
Trust is not just rational, it is also emotional. So it’s no good telling the person with OCD that it’s extremely unlikely that they’ve just been poisoned by eating an apple they touched before washing their hands; it’s also no good telling them there is no causal connection between the order in which they place their books and the possibility of a flood in their region. They (in a sense) know all that. But there is still, not only the ‘what if’ of distrust in their mind, but also the fear in their gut.
Why can’t the person affected by OCD take a leap and trust a world which to everyone else presents so much less uncertainty and causes for fear?
Perhaps some of the healing can come just from accepting that trust is what is called for. That uncertainty and vulnerability are real, but they are shared uncertainty and vulnerability.
Perhaps some of the healing can come just from accepting that trust is what is called for. That uncertainty and vulnerability are real, but they are shared uncertainty and vulnerability. To try, like many other individuals, to trust that something will hold us, and accept that we cannot hold all of the world ourselves. For everyone – even the person haunted by OCD – knows that we cannot. And that’s part of their torment and its endless repetitions. Trust in the world may come through small tests, but it builds up, although it can be extremely hard even to try. But really, we have no choice: to trust the world is to be at home in it, and since we have no other home, we might as well come in, sit down on the couch, stretch our legs, take a deep breath, and rest for at least a little while.
*A disclaimer: there are many types of OCD according to various classifications. Not all of them involve compulsive behaviour, and not all of them involve magical thinking. In this post I am taking specific types of OCD as examples, and relying mostly on the sorts of examples with which I am most familiar. For more information on the varieties of OCD see e.g. https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/