We, human beings, seek a connection to what we perceive as being there, what we are surrounded by and what co-determines our existence by looking at the world and reflecting upon ourselves in the world. What we experience in such a process can at first cause various feelings and thoughts. These may then lead to impulses and actions. In so far, we can see how fundamental and formative the ongoing dialogue that we have with the world and ourselves is. The awareness of this dialogue can of course be more or less pronounced, depending on the situation; the current moment, the possibilities we have.
However, we can state that the will to dialogue is already there from the very first moment of birth. The little child enters an environment and is completely dependent on this environment, responding to what the baby wants to communicate upon its needs. To communicate with this environment and vice versa is there from the first instant of life. This reliance on the people in the nearest environment lasts many years before the human being can become independent. As the anthropologist Adolf Portmann postulated, the human being is “a physiological premature birth”. This means that many abilities that are necessary for survival, including the capabilities of the human body, do not fully develop until after birth.
the conditions in which we come to earth are ones in which trust and mistrust can be experienced from the very first moment of dialogue with the environment.
Due to these circumstances, we, human beings, are bound from the very beginning to the environment and to the dialogue with the environment in which we enter. When encountering this environment, the first experience is whether one’s own needs are being met. One’s own needs have to be met – if this does not happen, we would not survive. These initial encounters already lead to the experience of trust, in that security is experienced; or of mistrust, which can find expression through fear. These are the first experiences. In this respect, we can state that the conditions in which we come to earth are ones in which trust and mistrust can be experienced from the very first moment of dialogue with the environment.
In psychological theories of the 20th century, trust was only introduced as a concept for the first time in the 1950s. At first, definitions of trust were transferred from the philosophical field to the psychological field. Later, “trust” is defined and described differently depending on the area of application. One of these areas is developmental psychology, which was greatly influenced by Erik Eriksson. He develops the so-called “stage model of psychosocial development” and talks about trust and mistrust, as experienced in the first year of life, as being crucial for the development of the personality. This first year is meant to be a foundation where one’s being is constituted through dialogue with the environment. Basically, if we take these two thoughts further, of coming into the world in a state of being dependent on the environment and the first experiences that become constitutive of being on earth, we can say that there is an act of trust in existence before coming to earth. To be more precise, coming to Earth can be an act of trust in life and what one will encounter throughout it. Everything that follows as developmental steps builds on this coming to Earth in trust.
Coming to Earth can be an act of trust in life and what one will encounter throughout it.
Erik Eriksson underlines the first year of life as the basis for the development of a human being’s personality. This does not mean that only trust should be experienced in order to undergo healthy development. But rather that trust and mistrust are balanced in such a way that the infant has more often, or more important, experiences of trust. And yet the question arises: are these experiences concluded at the end of the first year of life? What happens when infancy has been shaped by many experiences of mistrust, of unsafe circumstances within the immediate environment, even of natural disasters and wartime?
This question also preoccupied a group of researchers who initiated a long-term cohort study in 1980. This was one of the most elaborated studies in this field in Germany, and was called “Mental Health in the Long-Term Course”. It was completed in 2010. Three generations were followed for 30 years to investigate the effects that the Second World War had on the mental health of people belonging to these generations. The participants were born in 1935 1945 and 1955, a selection which was related to the primary question of the study. The expected outcomes of the study were statements about the effects of the Second World War on personality development and mental health, a topic that was looked at through various elements. One of these was the following issue: What are the effects of the absence of an important person during childhood on a person’s development into adulthood? In particular, this question was asked because for many of the people surveyed, their father had been away at war during childhood. The result was that over 50% of the individuals involved developed various mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, etc.
A further question followed, raised by the researchers: what led to resilience in the cases where this was the situation, or what led to the possibility to move on, to develop so-called coping strategies, to deal with these experienced difficulties in spite of them? To investigate this question, a qualitative part was added to the quantitative part of the study, where interviews were conducted. In some of these interviews it appeared clearly what might lead to the ability to cope with the difficulties. This is directly related to trust, or rather to how trust is developed later in life than in infancy. A healing experience in this sense was for one participant to have felt seen by another human being later in childhood or in life. She illustrates her experience with an encounter with a nurse. This nurse would have recognized the young girl as a person, had paid attention to her in such a way that the girl at that time felt recognised with dignity. This encounter gave her strength and led later indeed to the choice of her vocation as a nurse.
The recognition of the other as a potential for the development of trust is something that can be experienced not only in the first year of life, but throughout the course of life.
The recognition of the other as a potential for the development of trust is something that can be experienced not only in the first year of life, but throughout the course of life. Furthermore, it can become a field of practice in one’s own relationship with other people, with the world. This can become a healing power and, again and again, a potential – each time that we are given the opportunity to put ourselves in relationship with another human being, with a current situation and through this, with ourselves.