The Structures We Build, the Trust We Need




The video was heart-stopping. The sudden collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore when struck by the container ship Dali was a startling reminder of the fragile nature of those immense structures that dot our urban landscapes. The nearly 1,000-foot-long vessel was heading out of Baltimore Harbor when it lost engine power and literally drifted into one of the bridge’s support pylons.

With nothing to slow the ship down, the massive steel bridge crumpled like a child’s erector set. It had been undone by a force unimagined when the bridge was built in the 1970s. Then, cargo ships were designed to carry a maximum of about 4,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), but the Dali weighed 120,000 tons, with a container capacity of 9,971 TEUs.

An Incident with Global Tentacles

There are many lessons to be learned from this heartbreaking tragedy. Indeed, the incident can be seen as a metaphor for the complexities of our current age. This was not simply a local event; its tentacles stretched across the globe. Headed for Singapore, the Dali was built in 2015 by shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea. It was chartered by Danish shipping giant Maersk. And tragically, the six people who lost their lives were hard working immigrants from Central America.                           

One thing that keeps gnawing at me after viewing the real-time video of the moment the Dali hit the bridge is how much we take for granted in our complex world, especially in our densely populated regions. Having frequently travelled from New York to Washington, DC and beyond, I have crossed the Frances Scott Key Bridge numerous times, rarely giving it a second thought. But the bridge’s catastrophic collapse reminds me of the fragility built into the complex structures that populate our lives and the intricate networks we must navigate in our day-to-day living.

Feats of engineering fashioned by human imagination, structures that provide shelter and safety in our homes and workplaces, conduits for communication and transportation, agents for commerce and cooperation are built on intricate networks that bind us together, usually hold firm so that our lives can be positive and productive. We cannot be paralyzed by fear, wondering each time we venture into public, whether the safety nets of our manufactured webs will malfunction. But mindfulness of the fragile threads that connect us is critical; we must take nothing for granted.

A Metaphor for Our Modern World?

The collapse of the bridge in the Baltimore Harbor is, in some ways, symbolic of what is happening in our society. We trust that things will work as they should. I was reminded on viewing that video of the essential nature of trust—not just in the buildings we inhabit, the roads on which we drive, the planes we fly in, the computers we rely on—but also in the relationships we share one with another.

The collapse of the bridge in the Baltimore Harbor is, in some ways, symbolic of what is happening in our society.

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I recall the phrase, especially common during the internet’s infancy: ‘the sage on the stage is dead’. In other words, the old authorities—the government, the church, historical precedent—that we once relied on as guides for living had begun to lose credibility. Accentuated by the ‘age of disinformation’, a key question has arisen, not just for whole societies, but for us as individuals as well: Who do you trust? What are the tools of discernment necessary to guide us in the quest for reliable data? There is wisdom in the old cliché that trust takes a lifetime to build up but only a moment to destroy. When we base our lives on certain assumptions, when those assumptions prove faulty or go awry, we can be cast adrift, prompting a complete reorientation of how we live our lives.

The infrastructure we have designed and built into our modern society is remarkably durable and serves us well most of the time. But it requires a level of trust—in the engineers who designed the structures that dominate our lives, in the maintenance crews who ensure their safe operation over time and the rules and regulations that order our lives. Trust is critical.

Trust is Crucial, Socially and Individually

This is not only true in our corporate lives but in our interpersonal relationships as well. Indeed, under the best of circumstances, it is hard for us to trust. It is especially hard for men to trust—harder still for American men—who have been primed to believe in the myth of the great American individualist. “We don’t need to trust anyone”, or so we tell ourselves.

But more than money or fame, trust is critical to our pursuit of human fulfillment. If I cannot rely on others (and others cannot rely on me), my life becomes lonely indeed. Especially as we face the inevitable, inexorable process of aging—as we all do—and our capacities diminish, this becomes increasingly important. The bridge collapse in Baltimore Harbor is a reminder of how fragile the infrastructures of our lives can be. Trust is the glue that binds us as individuals just as rivets and bolts connect the steel beams on that Baltimore bridge.

Is the incident in Baltimore Harbor a harbinger of things to come? It is ironic that the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Frances Scott Key, for whom the bridge was named, opened his Star-Spangled Banner with the words, “Oh, say can you see?” The tragedy in Baltimore is a call to pay attention to the need for trust not only in the structures we build, but also in the relationships we share—especially with those closest to us—if we are to find true fulfillment in our lives.

  • Thanks, Bob for these questions and overview.
    Face to face, it is easier to discern trustworthiness; otherwise we are subject to manipulative intermediaries like temp agencies, dishonest attorneys and financiers. Adam Smith’s insight was that character building and public education were necessary for a market economy to function to serve everyone. This the libertarians and Wall Street greedheads ignore, claiming Smith really was for a jungle with no rules or supporting social values. A jungle they call “freedom” which really means license to do whatever they want without oversight, rules or accountability; in a word Trumpism.

  • Bob.

    This blog is very, very, moving for me. A time for me for reflection on how I trust, and on the people who I trust. Thank you so much for your article.

    I am a man who trusts quickly and have been burned in the past for this behavior. It is my belief that people are inherently trustworthy and I am willing to risk trusting openly with everyone I meet and risk getting burned from time to time.

    I believe that people are inherently good and not out to get me, although I am getting at least six phone or email scams per day that i need to deflect.

    What concerns me is the general erosion of trust in our society. What are the consequences that the erosion of trust bodes for us ? Let’s discuss. I would love to start a conversation about this right here on your blog.

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