Learning how to trust


THE recent divorce debate and the current debacle the Catholic Church finds itself in over child sexual abuse have been inked in the public mind. This linkage is not contrived, it is real. In truth the link is about the concept of intimacy which we have subscribed to in Ireland long after the rest of the developed world thought it prudent. As the edifice of traditional Ireland crumbles in a welter of media interrogation, an uncomfortable truth has been exposed. Trust, however sacred, cannot be taken for granted. We live in a risk society which prevades our most intimate relationships.

The nature of intimacy in traditional Ireland was based on external supports - such as the bonds of kinship, social duty or religious beliefs.

The modernisation of Irish society over the past three decades have been accompanied by the dissolution of these external supports that kept our concept of intimacy in place. The consequences of this transformation have undermined our trust in the dependability of others and the safety of childhood and with it threatened our sense of personal identity, which is why we are going through something like a collective nervous breakdown.

So what now? Le deluge? I think not. In reality we are witnessing the transformation of intimacy.

With the dissolution of traditional external supports we are being asked to renegotiate our intimate relationships on the basis of trust.

The search for intimacy in contemporary society is often negatively presented in terms of the popular absorption with the private lives of public figures. Usually this preoccupation focuses on breaches of trust. These glimpses into the private lives of the elite, such as the recent O.J. Simpson trial by television, offers the rest of us the reassurance that intimate relationships are both a precarious and fragile state that cannot be bought and sold like a commodity. The point of intimacy is its particularity and non tradability.

In modern society the connection between intimacy and sexuality is fundamental, unleashing sexuality from procreation, its traditional function. This development has led to the emergence of life politics, that assumes emancipation from the fixities of tradition and patriarchal domination.

Life politics is essentially the politics of choice best encapsulated in the slogan "the personal is political". For women this means the end of reproduction as fate because life politics gives citizens, ownership over their own bodies.

Traditionalists, seeking to colonise the language of liberation, have reacted by calling themselves "Pro Life". Their crusade against life politics has been successful in forcing the legal definition of the duties, and obligations of bodily ownership. Ironically, the political and legal successes of the exponents of traditional values have invariably further undermined the absolutism demanded by their rigorous moral idealism. The privatisation of sexuality has put its regulation beyond political and social control.

Intimacy is no longer part of the public domain.

What is now being demanded is a remoralising of social life in modern Ireland based upon the core value of trust.

BUT WHAT of "trust"? What does it mean in an intimate relationship? Quite simply trust is the transcendent quality that holds the relationship together through the trials and tribulations it is likely to encounter. It surpasses love and care in its depth touching the foundations of our personal identity. Trust ultimately involves the vesting of confidence in persons or abstract systems (e.g. religion) on the basis of a "leap of faith". Breaches of trust consequently have fundamental implications for the continuity of intimate relationships.

Whether marital, parental or pastoral, intimate relationships are being transformed. The external supports of traditional society are being replaced by the internal quality of trust. There is undoubtedly a purity and fragility about intimate relationships, which exist on the basis of trust alone, that elevates them in terms of moral expectations far above their externally supported counterparts in traditional society. This transformation in our concept of intimate relationships is reshaping our society at its very core. It is tantamount to a revolution from within our collective consciousness. That is why it is so painful and yet so hopeful.