QA 46. Motion of confidence (Part 1)

I’ve been thinking about confidence and security: how they are related, how they operate within intimate relationships, how we get it wrong and how we could do better. “Getting it wrong” is when one person’s insecurity undermines the other’s confidence, or one’s confidence reinforces the other’s insecurity, or any other twist of neediness, dependence and power.

Confidence and security are both concerned with uncertainty: I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t know if I have enough information or the right understanding or if my judgement is sound or even what I’m capable of. What I am willing to risk depends on my confidence and my vulnerability. It’s important to have an accurate sense of both.

Confidence comes from Latin fidere, “trust”, prefixed with con-, expressing “intensive force”. In the words of John Dewey:

confidence is not a name for what one thinks or feels about his attitude; it is not reflex. It denotes the straightforwardness with which one goes at what he has to do. It denotes not conscious trust in the efficacy of one’s powers but unconscious faith in the possibilities of the situation. It signifies rising to the needs of the situation.

Dewey is talking here about an inherent and unconditional confidence, but we’re much more aware of the “conscious trust… in one’s powers” that grows from skills and familiarity. This is a secondary, conditioned kind of confidence. You can point to its foundations. You can jump up and down to demonstrate how strong they are.

Vulnerability is the possibility of being wounded. It’s a possibility that’s sure to come along and this is why uncertainty is such a torment. For Hamlet, awareness of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to… makes cowards of us all”. Where we feel vulnerable, we want to take security measures. Security is provisional: it looks ahead and makes provision. It’s all about risk assessment and mitigation. From the Latin securus, from se- “without” and cura “care”, security means: “No worries!”

The Buddhist parable of the acrobats teaches that we keep others safe by keeping ourselves safe and that we keep ourselves safe by keeping others safe. To be able to provide for ourselves and look out for others is itself a mark of confidence, integrity and maturity. Confidence doesn’t scorn security – as does bravado (a “show” of confidence). But neither does it allow security concerns to constrain or undermine it. It’s courageous.

Sometimes we are incapable of keeping ourselves or others safe. Childhood is an extended time of such vulnerability and dependence. How we were cared for and how we learned to care for ourselves then probably still colours how we deal with uncertainty and vulnerability, especially in our closest relationships. Was care given generously and freely, without fuss, resentment or humiliation? Was it given sanely and intelligently, according to our needs and in accordance with the real situation? The capacity for confidence may be inherent, but it is nourished with good care.

to be continued

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