Reflection 25: The Vise of Money

Money is rivetingly important. What topic is more shrouded in secrecy, or more fraught with emotion? Some years ago Madonna had a filmmaker record her life. She told him everything was fair game. He could film her having sex. He could film her going to her bathroom. But when she met with her financial advisors, no cameras.

In our tell-all world, ask yourself this question: How many people tell-all about their finances?

One experiment I used to run with groups was to ask them to reflect silently on two sets of questions.

  • The first: Who do you have sex with? How often? How do you do it?
  • The second: How much money do you make? How much do you spend? What is your net worth?

After silently contemplating their answers for a couple of minutes, I would then ask which set of questions caused greater anxiety as they thought about sharing their responses. Typically, 80-90% of participants chose the money questions.

The obvious lesson? Our most pervasive and powerful taboos are around money.

Introducing this exercise to one of my men’s groups, events took an unexpected turn when one of the participants, unprompted, simply answered the money questions. Influenced by his example, the others followed suit. The conversation that followed was fascinating. Financially undressed, every man confessed to an area of marked shame or fear: One about over spending; another about his income; still another about unwise investment decisions.


None of this is happenstance. The values that predominate in our culture are compete and win, dominate and control – and money is their single most compelling measure. Why? To begin with, it is so quantifiable. An $80,000 income is, unquestionably, more than a $60,000 income.

Money is moreover wonderfully fungible, providing a universally applicable measuring stick that judges all of us without regard to our interests, passions or disposition. Artists, academics, and religious leaders – just like business people – are typically honored in proportion to their ability to sell the “product” (books, paintings, etc.) and to command large audiences and fees. And stay-at-homes moms – who offer leadership in raising our children and organizing our family and social lives, but don’t make money – struggle with issues of self worth far more than, say, accountants and lawyers.

In the movie Inside Job, academic department heads at Columbia and Harvard were asked if they perceived any conflict of interest in the extraordinary fees they and their colleagues received from the industries they studied. Their almost identical response was a disingenuous “no.” The lesson? Even in this supposedly more principled world, making money trumps other competing values – even academic integrity.


This obsession with money is chillingly effective in locking us into lives that condone and promote the culture’s mainstream values. The prospect of economic instability pushes the vast majority of us into a lifetime of indenture to mainstream jobs for which we feel little or no passion.

Indeed, in my psychotherapy practice, I am shocked at the number of clients who don’t even dream of something better. Even contemplating a choice that might place the mortgage and health insurance at risk – and, possibly, consign them to society’s bin of financial losers – is, it seems, too scary or discouraging. Since there is no way out, why even try? Just play the game and do best you can to make peace with it.

The sad part in all of this is that almost no one wins the money game. Since it is a comparative sport, someone is always doing better. And today’s “winner” will, in the great majority cases, be tomorrow’s loser.

Moreover, even when the comparative aspect of the money game is ignored, there are few winners. The person that said “we live up to our means” was right. In Bonfire of the Vanities (written over 20 years ago) Tom Wolfe explained how a bond broker making $900,000 a year was just getting by, what with the expense of private schools, a Park Avenue condo, and a summer home in the Hamptons.

Closer to home, I will always remember a young law partner in the 1990s – with a wife, kids, and house in the suburbs – who explained to me that he could give nothing to the United Way because he was “broke.” His annual income: $125,000.


An important first step in coming to grips with money’s vise-like hold on our lives is to challenge the culture’s conspiracy of silence. We need to move beyond the idea that it is unseemly or impolite to talk openly about what we, and others, make and accumulate, and how these assets are used.

This social taboo has a serious purpose, and it is not good manners. To the contrary, it is designed to shield all of us – but particularly the wealthy – from virtually any personal responsibility around money. Who in our midst is committing meaningful resources to the needs of the disadvantaged? And who is doing nothing? Beyond occasional bits of information – usually volunteered for a self-interested purpose and seldom critically examined – we simply don’t know.

This silence spares all of us from any extrinsic pressure to examine our behavior when it comes to money. And while it is easy to take comfort in this escape from responsibility, the price we pay, individually and as a society, is far too great.

At a macro level, here is the shell game that this conspiracy of silence has made possible: First, we have progressively privatized the programs that support the disadvantaged; starving governmental programs and, then, relying on donor-supported nonprofits to fill the void. Celebrating the virtues of volunteerism and individual initiative, we leave the financing of vast parts of the safety net to the whims of individuals who, cloaked in anonymity, feel virtually no social pressure to step up to the plate.

The results are utterly predictable. Wealthy people – with statistically insignificant exceptions – invest either nothing or a grotesquely tiny proportion of their resources in programs for the needy.

In truth, rich people have been given license – even encouragement – to abdicate any sense of social responsibility even as, in their quest for ever greater wealth, they tighten their grip on the levers of power. Unchecked, this is a prescription for an unraveling of society. Lacking a larger sense of responsibility, what is to stop them from relocating their assets overseas, to better maximize profits? And, indeed, this is happening every day, at an accelerating pace.

Our secrecy around money also inflicts an unacceptably high price in our personal lives. If we hope to live differently and better, we need the support of intimate communities than can help to move us through and beyond our paralyzing fears.       But doing so is an impossibility so long as money and the pressures and fears that surround it – the very issues that lead to so many of our sleepless nights – are enveloped in a cone of silence. Thus, at a personal level as well, a frank and open discussion of about money is a vital.


Another key step toward improving our unhealthy relationship around money is to ease its hold on our sense of well-being. We think that we will be safe if only we have “enough” money. And yet, the opposite is actually much closer to the truth: No amount of money, reasonably within our grasp, will ever make everything ok. Given the risks and uncertainties that are at the very center of our competitive economic system, almost no one is immune from financial peril.

Embracing this hard reality can, in fact, be empowering and life changing. Doing so, we are in a much better position, psychologically, to wean ourselves from the reflexive tendency to view financial security as life’s unquestioned priority.

And what should replace it? An approach to living that, while tending to financial realities, makes our hopes and dreams the central focus.

Beyond that, we need to persistently experiment at the edge of our fears around money: Foregoing a work opportunity to attend our daughter’s swim meet; increasing our charitable commitments beyond a place of comfortable tokenism; considering a new, lower paying job that more closely reflects our life’s passion.

The work is hard but, with focus and persistence, it has the potential to make us far more effective agents for change – in our lives and in the world.

Reflection 24: Holistic Healing – A Five Pronged Approach

Radical Decency is a comprehensive approach to living. It is not about feeling better – or about treating others more decently – or about saving the world. It is about all of that. Moreover, a central premise is that each of these areas is mutually reinforcing. If one is emphasized over the others, our efforts in every area will be hamstrung.

The reason? We are creatures of habit. For this reason, how we treat our self and others tend to converge. If we judge and take advantage of other people, we will tend to be harsh and overly judgmental of our selves. Conversely, decency to others and the world cultivates self-empathy and self-acceptance – and vice versa.

Being creatures of habit dictates a systematic approach to change. Seeking to act differently at home but not at work, or in politics but not in our self-care, we fatally underestimate the extent to which the culture’s indecent values insinuate themselves into the overall texture of our lives. When our efforts are focused on a single area of living, the mainstream values that continue to operate elsewhere, without meaningful challenge, inevitably infiltrate and subvert these more limited islands of decency.

Many healing venues embrace these ideas, at least in principle. Hence the frequent references to holistic healing. The problem, however, is that they seldom follow through on their implications.

Holistic healing typically refers to approaches that encompass mind, body, and spirit. Notice, however, the extent to which this definition focuses on the individual as a discrete and separate entity; on becoming more conversant with what is happening inside the four walls of our body; on how to make our internal systems serve us more effectively.

The shortcoming in this approach is that is fails to fully take account of the context within which we exist. We do not live solely, or even primarily, inside our bodies and brains. To the contrary, we are, at our core, relational beings.

Everything a baby becomes – the way its thinks, feels, and self-regulates – is fundamentally molded by interactions with its primary caregivers. And throughout our lives, the people we live with, and social contexts in which we exist, are the primary drivers of our evolution, growth, and change. As Daniel Siegel, one of our leading neurobiological theorists, describes it, “a person is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains.” In short, it makes no sense to think about a single brain in isolation.

To account for these contextual realities we need to develop a five pronged approach to healing. In addition to mind, body and spirit, our strategies also need to encompass “the practical” and “the radical.”

The Practical

Our healing strategies need to fully account for our need to effectively negotiate the world as it is – the practical. Meditation – increased body awareness – a spiritual connection with God or the universe – these sorts of initiatives can be extremely helpful. But standing alone, they are incomplete. Equally important are our efforts to carve out a place of reasonable stability and satisfaction, at work and in the larger world. And, as the “money” example discussed below illustrates, our mainstream approaches to healing and growth offer tools, in this area, that are far too tepid.

The Radical

Because we live in a world that is endemically indecent, simply “fitting in better” – the practical – is not enough. Why? Because fitting in requires us to play by the rules of the mainstream culture, with all of its indecent, spirit-draining demands. We also need to be active agents in molding the environments in which we live: The part of healing I call “the radical.”


My own journey of healing and growth offers an example of what this radical aspect of healing can look like. For much of my adult life, I was an attorney in private practice, operating in a highly demanding and competitive environment. In those years, I found therapists and other teachers who offered many invaluable insights and tools. But, then, I would return to work, where I would rehearse – with enormous focus and energy – the competitive, manipulative, self-aggrandizing values of the mainstream culture.

Certainly change occurred. But it always seemed frustratingly compromised and limited. The really important stuff was squeezed into the relative corners of my life – luncheons carved out of extended work days; evenings that too often started at 7 pm, 8 pm, or later; workouts and runs at 6 am. And with so much time devoted to work, most of my social contact was with people living similar lives; people who, by their example, continually reinforced my conventional ways of operating in the world.

In 1993, I participated in the Essential Experience workshop, an experiential, weekend retreat. While the workshop was great, it was not unique in one very important respect. Like other similar events in my life, it was destined to recede into a warm memory, beginning the very next day – a Monday – when the routines of my life reasserted themselves in earnest.

What was unique about “EE,” however, was the community that earlier workshop graduates had created and sustained. My whole-hearted involvement with this community shifted the context in which I lived, continually placing me in new and different environments that emphasized openness, empathy, and nurturance.

The cumulative impact was, in many ways, subtle and imperceptible –understandable only in retrospect. But it was also seismic. Standing on this different ground, I was gradually able to wean myself from many of the seductive attractions of the mainstream life I’d been living. Over time, I stopped ‘”playing by the rules,” dictated by my job and success oriented mindset. Ultimately, I abandoned the law entirely, becoming a psychotherapist; a profession that actually supported and reinforced my accelerating commitment to healing and growth.


At a systemic level, money offers a prime example of an area where we need to more fully integrate more traditional healing – mind, body, and spirit – with culturally based approaches – the practical and the radical. Few areas are more emotionally fraught. And yet, notice how the relevant “healers” – that is, the people who purport to deal with our issues around money – are isolated from one another.

You can talk to a therapist about your money issues, but most will quickly admit that they have no particular sophistication around its practical aspects. On the other hand, there is an endless supply of financial planners, accountants, stockbrokers, insurance agents and so on to advise you on how to manage your money. But these people are just as forthright in telling you that they aren’t there to deal with the murky world of emotions.

What is needed, instead, is an approach that integrates the various healing perspectives around money. Suppose, for example, a couple planning to write a will began with a coaching session to deal with the highly emotional issues that so frequently arise in this context – with, perhaps, the attorney or financial planner present. Or, alternatively, suppose the attorney consulted with a therapist prior to meeting with the couple? The benefits to the couple are, I think, obvious.

Equally important are the ways in which the perspectives of the two professionals would expand and enrich each other. Integrating their services, the lawyers and financial experts would be far more actively engaged in the emotional aspects of healing and growth (mind, body, and spirit). And, on their side, the therapists would get invaluable, on the job training in the practical aspects of financial planning and money management (the practical).

Then, if their approaches were grounded in a systematic commitment to decency in every aspect of life – Radical Decency’s fundamental prescription for truly transformative change – the contribution of each would also invite clients to become active agents in molding the environments in which they live – the radical.

Here’s how that would work.

Steeped in this values-based perspective, the financial experts would shift away from the current mainstream norms, in their profession; perspectives that push preservation of wealth and maximization of income as the only legitimate priorities and are indifferent to the larger social implications of clients’ choices. So, for example, a more sensible discussion of socially conscious choices as a consumer and investor would emerge, not out of some theoretical do-gooder agenda but, instead, as a way in which clients could sensible extend their decency habits into new areas of living.

On the therapists’ side, the shift would be equally dramatic. In their profession, the current, mainstream norms are even more pernicious, ruling out any active support and guidance around clients’ detailed financial choices at all – practical or radical.

However, collaborating with the financial experts, and with a radically decent mindset, the therapists would become active participants in the dialogue about their clients’ choices as consumers and investors, adding their emotional wisdom to the conversation around these (and other, similar) issues.

Reflection 23: Radical Decency in Business – The Nitty-Gritty

Two key perspectives inform my thinking about Radical Decency:

  1. Because work is the most powerful driver of the values that predominate in our culture, it is also the best point of leverage for change. If we can create new, habitual ways of operating at work, we will dramatically increase the likelihood of change in all areas of living; and
  1. The greatest challenges – and greatest rewards – of Radical Decency emerge in the nitty-gritty details of its application.

This Reflection seeks to demonstrate the power of these perspectives using examples drawn from the legal business, where I spent 25 years of my career.


Several years ago, a friend and large law firm partner described the following scenario. He and his partners were reviewing their budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In doing so, the managing partner revealed proposed across-the-board cuts to healthcare benefits. As a partner making more than $300,000 a year, these cuts were manageable for my friend. However, he was concerned about its effect on the support staff, people such as his secretary who made $32,000 a year.

The managing partner was quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of my friend’s concern but then made the following points: A key component of the firm’s continuing prosperity was its ability to attract experienced attorneys and practice groups and that, in turn, was dependent upon maintaining its “per partner profits;” a key industry statistic for measuring profitability. Absent a cut in benefits, the firm’s ranking in this vital area would drop from 7th to 11th in its geographic region.

The managing partner also acknowledged that the firm could, perhaps, hold the line on benefit cuts in the next year or two. But, then, the “inevitable” cuts would be more draconic and, hence, more disruptive in the lives of the support staff.

The cuts were made.

This, to me, is the truest face of our indecent culture. Innumerable meetings, quietly taking place in comfortable offices, where “reasonable” people “reluctantly” make “inevitable” choices because they “have to.” Their unbridled greed and ambition – “we ALWAYS need to make more money” – is almost never acknowledged. And the effect of their choices on the less privileged – even those sitting right outside their offices – is barely a blip on their radar screens.


One of the geniuses of the predominant culture is its sheer pervasiveness. It is reinforced by a seemingly endless array of structural impediments and values-based assumptions that, cumulatively, make meaningful change seem like an impossible, pie-in-the sky dream. In the situation just described, for example, the very structure of the law firm made resistance close to impossible.

Most partners, my friend included, are wildly busy tending to matters that have nothing to do with firm management. Growing and maintaining their practices, in a highly competitive environment, is more than a full time job.

So the managing partner, backed by the firm’s financial people, went into the budgeting process knowing so much more than a rank and file partner (such as my friend). He also had all the firm’s organizational momentum behind him and, if he was any good at his job, had lined up support from the firm’s most powerful partners before the meeting ever took place.

In addition, any other outcome would have flown in the face of a whole series of unspoken assumptions: Generating as much profit as possible for the firm’s partner/owners is the unquestioned priority; differences in income between partners and nonprofessionals has no meaningful ethical overtones; the only way to remain competitive with a crucial constituency – lateral hires – is to be highly profitable; and so on.


The hopeful thought I want to offer is this: A very different, radically decent approach to business is possible – even the legal profession! And importantly, it can be done in ways that maintain and, perhaps, even enhance a firm’s economic viability.

But if a firm takes an ad hoc approach to change – an extra employee benefit here, a pro bono project there – meaningful and lasting change will never take place. The problem? This approach leaves the firm’s usual ways of doing business intact and unchallenged. Then, when an inevitable down year hits, its experiment in being a little more decent will be quickly sacrificed to the god of 6 and 7 figure partner incomes.

What is needed instead is a systematic rethinking of the firm’s perspective on what it means to be successful and how to go about achieving it. Profitability is essential. The firm is, after all, an economic entity. But it needs to be priority 1A, just below and clearly subordinate to decency.

Adopting this approach would demand a re-thinking of many of the industry’s business-as-usual practices: partner, associate and staff compensation; billing; associate evaluations; and so on. It would also call into question some of taken for granted ways in which law is practiced.

But these shifts would not be a utopian exercise in self-immolation. To the contrary, since Radical Decency requires accountability for all of our choices, an insistence on a quality legal product, timely delivered, would be a given. Indeed, since there would no longer be an implicit exception for certain senior partners and rainmakers, the overall quality of the legal work might even be enhanced. Moreover, to maintain decency to self – as well as to others and the world – implementation would need to occur in ways, and at a pace, that maintained economic viability.

One key to success would be the firm’s systematic, forthright and public embrace of this more decent way of operating in word – and in deed. Our cynicism about business is profound. No one expects a business to be decent. So, the firm’s commitment would initially be seen as just another marketing ploy. However, implemented in this full-bore way, that initial reaction would shift over time.

Potential clients would begin to realize that the firm’s billing policies were transparent and fair. They would also find that, at this firm, there was no risk of over lawyering or of an overhyping of conflicts to drive up fees. In short, a competitive edge would emerge that – because it is so unusual – would more than offset the loss of clients who think they need an attack dog attorney.

Its effect on the quality of attorneys and support staff would also be dramatic. Fully committed to fair compensation and work/life balance, the firm would, in this way as well, carve out a meaningful competitive niche. Many extraordinary attorneys – some with considerable books of business – would be drawn to such a firm. And the firm would be positioned to build an extraordinarily capable and loyal support staff.

Note that many firms that say all the right things. “We put clients first.” “We are a friendly, family oriented place to work.” “We offer quality legal services at a fair price.”

So a key element in establishing credibility – and uniqueness – would be to express these values, not just in words, but also through concrete and visible systems. In billing, for example, the firm could diverge from hourly billing; a system that so transparently invites (indecent) manipulation at clients’ expense. It could instead estimate cost in advance; collect a premium if the job is done for a lesser amount; and charge a rate that is meaningfully reduced but still above cost, if the estimate is exceeded. This approach would decisively differentiate the firm from its competitors’ “nice words” about putting clients’ interests first.

Similarly, metrics used to evaluate associates could fully credit time spent on pro bono projects – or at an ailing parent’s bedside. No more “we encourage community involvement but still expect 2,000 billable hours;” a formulation that demands unreasonable sacrifices at home – or padded time sheets. Smart accountants could also develop metrics that factor in values beyond profitability; that no longer treat “personnel” and “plant and equipment” as undifferentiated expense items.

In these ways as well, the firm could forcefully make the case that it is truly different. And, equally important, it would embed these new values in its taken for granted structures – helping, in this way, to guard against the ever-present danger of sliding back to the industry’s business as usual ways of operating.


Is any of this easy? Of course not. But think of the possible pay-offs. How would your life look if you were able to maintain (and even enhance) your business’s economic viability and, at the same time, make it a place where your most decent and humane instincts – instead of being marginalized and suppressed – were a central focus? And since business is the primary driver of the indecent values that predominate in our culture, think of the impact if – noticing the success of businesses such as yours – this approach increasingly became business’ new norm?

Reflection 22: Consumerism — and the Passivity it Breeds

The predominant culture relentlessly promotes two things. One is economic success. Endless cues, incentives and sanctions push us prepare for a career as we grow up and push us to devote enormous amounts of energy to it, when we come of age.

The other is consumerism. Our children are so inundated with toys that skipping a rock, kicking a can down the street, and tree climbing are becoming lost arts. And throughout our lives, there are endless opportunities to shop – promoted by nonstop ads and our uncritical celebration of the latest ingenious gadgets, and the newest and fanciest clothes, cars, and houses.

In this Reflection, I describe the ways in which this consumer mindset infiltrates our lives and hamstrings our efforts to live differently and better.


Several years ago I participated in a service trip to Mexico. Early one morning, our hosts took us, in open-air trucks, to work on an organic farm. We returned to our guesthouse to a lunch of macaroni salad and bologna and cheese sandwiches. As I ate my lunch and talked with my companions, I noticed how good I felt. My body had a wonderful ache from the work. My spirit felt energized from the shared experience and solidarity I felt with my companions. Even my bologna sandwich seemed tasty.

Our group consisted of people like me, privileged North Americans thoroughly habituated to a consumer-oriented way of living. So as eager and expert consumers, we planned a dinner, that night, at one of the fanciest restaurants in Cuernavaca.

Drinks were served on a gorgeous lawn where peacocks quietly grazed. When there was a sudden downpour, waiters with oversized umbrellas appeared, in an instant, to escort us to our tables. The place settings were elegant in every detail, the food perfectly presented and delicious.

The stark juxtaposition of lunch and dinner stunned me. Sitting at dinner I realized that the seductive beauty of what others had created had lulled me into a state of passivity. That morning and at lunch, I was an active participant in creating my experience. At dinner, I reverted to the habitual consumer posture that I know so well. In that role, I was the passive recipient of someone else’s creation. I was inert, infantilized.

This posture of passivity flows inevitably out of our engrained consumer habits. Our implicit expectation is that most everything we need has been prepared by others and can be purchased. Our only job is to choose this product or that one.

And what makes this mindset so problematic is that it extends far beyond clothes, cars, and electronics, permeating virtually every area of our lives.


Take intimate romantic relationship, for example. Properly conceived, it is a journey. People are drawn to a partner by our back of the brain “love” chemicals. Then, as the relationship evolves, its success is measured by the partners’ ability to heal and grow together; to share themselves and express their needs in contactful ways; to see the other and stretch to meet that person’s needs.

The norm that exists in our consumer-oriented culture is, however, very different. Making no distinction between people and things, it encourages us to evaluate both solely in terms of what they can do for us. So choosing a partner becomes an exercise in comparative shopping, not very different from the search for the right car or laundry detergent. If a partner meets (and continues to meet) our criteria, we keep her. If he falls short, he is replaced. And, sadly, this outlook often persists even after children are added to the equation.

Habitually adopting this approach, we pay an incalculable price.

Our neurobiology makes intimate connection an indispensible part of our self-regulatory structures, both physically and emotionally. For that reason, we need to persevere in our relationships, not only with our intimate partners but also with family, friends, and others with whom we share our lives. There is no other path if we hope to develop the intimacy that sustains us.

But with our consumer oriented focus on “what can you do for me,” we squander opportunities for intimacy. Instead of doing the hard work of relationship, we move on. In the end, our relationships are, far too often, limited and transient. The close, mutually cooperative, and enduring connections with others – so essential to our emotional well being – perpetually elude us.

People who take this approach to relationship often think they are taking charge of their lives. But this belief is illusory. Like me, sitting at a banquet prepared by others, their stance is passive. As consumers, their options are actually limited and constricted: Either take what is being offer – or leave it. There is no opportunity to struggle, learn and grow in the crucible of relationship; to be an active participant in the creation of the relationship.


This same process – at work in our intimate relationships – has massively infected our larger communities as well. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documents a massive decline in our communal involvements in the last half of the 20th century. And our consumer mindset is a prime cause.

When it comes to our communal organizations, most of us are like shoppers pushing a cart down the Acme aisle. The question we instinctually ask is this: What can this organization do for me?

What is lost in the process is a sense of involvement and ownership; an instinct to contribute to the organization’s growth and effectiveness. Instead, we join to get something and feel little, if any, obligation to volunteer for the many necessary but thankless jobs that keep the organization alive and vibrant. And, of course, we are all too ready to leave when difficulties arise (as they inevitably must), and the fun part of our participation is compromised in any meaningful way.


This same process shows up in the workplace. While management’s lack of loyalty to workers is no surprise, the extent to which workers, themselves, passively accept this attitude of casual indifference is truly astonishing.

Unions have been in decline for 50 years or more and our pervasive consumerism is one of the less appreciated causes. We now live in a world in which the prevailing attitude is that workers – like virtually everything else in our culture – are commodities, to be bought and sold. Implicitly accepting this perspective, most workers take for granted management’s unfettered right to treat them in any way they see fit. The idea of resisting management’s dictates – or, even more farfetched, organizing in opposition – seems beyond most workers’ imagination.


This consumer-oriented mindset also defines our politics. Instead of being active participants in co-creating our public policies, we look for a magic candidate – still another type of product – to cure our ills.

Barack Obama’s 2008 election is a perfect example of this process. As Peter Gabel pointed out in a 2010 article in Tikkun magazine:

“A major weakness with that 2008 moment is that it was constituted by 6 months of watching Obama on television, by an overreliance by each of us in our separate space on watching that remarkable smile and listening to that sometimes-transcendent oratory. It was not constituted out of our own social movements, emerging from our own idealistic actions over time through which we stitched ourselves together in real social relations. It was mainly a cheer led by one person through TV. Without his ‘mediation,’ we didn’t exist.”


If we hope to effectively deal with consumerism’s pervasive influence, we need to understand the breadth of its influence, as well as its debilitating effect on our ability to be active agents in our lives.

Beyond that, we need to understand that we are in a war of attrition. The only way to wean our selves from this engrained, self-defeating consumer mindset is to systematically practice new habits of living that more effectively serve our purposes. And that, of course, is what Radical Decency seeks to provide.

Reflection 21: Theory Matters

We live in a world where theory has a bad name. In business, the mainstream rhetoric emphasizes decisive action: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” A one- page summary is the preferred method of communication while a lengthier analysis, offering context or complex causation, is commonly greeted with impatience and, frequently, suspicion about the author’s clarity and decisiveness.

Theory also has a bad name in many personal growth and spiritual circles. People who claim to be in touch with a unifying spiritual force, when asked to explain what they mean, frequently say, “I just know.” And when the conversation in support and therapy groups turn to theory, it is likely to be cut off with the critical directive to “talk about your feelings.”

This theory-less approach to living comes at a high price. According to Irvin Yalom, one our most important contemporary psychoanalytic theorist, a thought in therapy, unattached to an emotional experience, has little lasting impact. But, as Yalom makes clear, the converse is also true. An emotional experience that isn’t anchored in a coherent theoretical frame is equally short lived. Both are required if we hope to maximize our healing and growth.

In addition, our widespread disdain for theory is still another way in which the values of the predominant culture are reinforced and perpetuated. That is the point Vikki Reynolds makes when she speaks of her more conventional office mate’s request that she remove her peace sign, gay rights poster and other “political” material from their shared office. When her response – I will, if you do the same – was greeted with incomprehension, she pointed to his wedding ring, the photo of his wife and kids in front of their suburban home, and his framed diplomas.

To the same effect is Meryl Streep/Miranda Priestley’s withering speech to her young assistant in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada:

“Oh, I see, you think this has nothing to do with you; that you selected that lumpy blue sweater because you’re too serious to care about fashion. But what you don’t know is that the sweater isn’t blue, it’s cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns in 2002, that Yves Ste. Laurent then showed cerulean military jackets, and that it quickly showed up in 8 different designer collections. Thereafter, it filtered through the department stores into some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of a clearance bin. It’s comical. You think you’re exempt from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you.”

As Vikki and Miranda point out, an apolitical, non-ideological position – about fashion, social justice or, indeed, any issue of significance – is an illusion. Like it or not, our choices have consequences in the world. What we think of as neutral or apolitical is really a stance of passivity; a failure to formulate an informing theory of our own.

The results are unfortunate. Failing to cultivate our own perspective, we, like Vikki’s office mate and Miranda’s assistant, easily confuse the culture’s “default settings” – that is, its prevailing attitudes – with issue neutrality. At that point, these mainstream perspectives – and the theoretical underpinnings out of which they arise – become invisible; part of the air we breathe. And being invisible, they are able to operate in, through and around us with impunity.

So how do we cultivate a new, more engaged relationship with theory? Here are a few thoughts.

First, we need to accept the fact that all theory distorts. The world provides virtually endless data to our senses and theory attempts to make this data more understandable, by identifying patterns. Doing so, some facts and factual patterns are emphasized while others are minimized or ignored. Distortion, hopefully helpful distortion, is the essence of theory.

With this in mind, we should not be asking whether a theory is “true.” No theory can be. But that does not mean that careful attention to facts isn’t important. To the contrary, we live in a world where a debased version of relativism – “every thought is as good as any other” – is rampant. In this context especially, we need theories that strive to be congruent with the facts, as they are currently known. Equally, we need theories that can evolve and change as the discovery process adds new facts and, at times, unravels what once appeared to be inarguable truths.

This threshold factual question is key because theories – particularly those that persist over time – can so easily become dogma. At that point, facts are made to fit theory rather than vice versa. As this process accelerates, the theory’s continuing value becomes increasingly suspect even as its potential to harm increases.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Some are blatant – a refusal to recognize evolution. But others are less obvious and, for that reason, more pernicious.

Take mental health, for example. Current evidence leaves little doubt that healing occurs through the emotional brain (psychodynamic theory), thinking brain (cognitive/behavioral theory), brain chemistry (psycho-pharmacology), and the body (acupuncture, yoga, etc.). Equally important are our intimate relationships, support communities, and engagements with the larger culture (a particular concern of Radical Decency).

Unfortunately, our theories endemically privilege one set of facts over others. Mainstream cognitive/behavioral theories are dismissive of empirically unverifiable psychodynamic approaches. And, body work and creative engagements with the larger culture are, in the great majority of cases, effectively ignored by both.

What mental health exemplifies is endemic in our culture. Manipulation of facts to fit theory — ignoring or rejecting other possibilities in the process — infects our economic, political, religious, and philosophical theories as well. If we hope to use theory effectively, we need to be vigilant in recognizing this process and attentive to finding theories that resist it.

This does not mean, however, that old theories should be discarded because far more facts are available today. To the contrary, people who lived 2,500 years ago were every bit as smart as we are. The insights of Jesus, the Buddha, and the Greek philosophers need to be cherished. Moreover, enduring ideas in their teaching – because they are affiliated with institutions and historical traditions – can, if used well, have enormous positive impact. But if we chose that path, we cannot temporize with the very real dangers of dogma and, with it, co-optation by status quo interests.

Once this crucial threshold issue of credibility has been dealt with, the questions we need to ask about theory are practical.

  • What does it seek to explain and how compelling are its explanations?
  • What are its limits, intended or unintended?
  • Do its explanations fit with what I know of the world and how it operates?
  • Does it expand or further invigorate those understandings?
  • Does it clarify my choices and improve my decision-making?

Equally, the question we need to avoid this: Does the theory represent the “truth. Why? First, because as the post-modernists persuasively argue, the very notion of an objective truth, “out there” waiting to be discovered is illusory. And, even if it did exist, the idea that our neurologically limited brains could possibly perceive all relevant data and, then, mold it into an accurate description of that reality is wildly implausible. Finally, at a more practical level, our preoccupation with this ultimate question is a massive and historically tragic distraction from the more pertinent – and important – “how we live” questions, listed above.

Most of us have a “home base,” a theory or theories that are our base-line point of departure. For me, it’s Radical Decency. For others it is may be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or a more personal spiritual or ethical code. And this, I think, makes sense.

But the world is far too complex, and the challenges in living well too great, to stop there. We need to cultivate an active engagement with theory, without regard to source. Doing so will enrich and transform out lives, as these examples from my life attest:

  • Jared Diamond and others have expanded my historical perspective to include 300,000 years of homo sapiens history, 7 million years of distinct primate history, and 3 billion years of life.
  • Daniel Siegel, Henri Nouwen and others have helped me understand our biologically wired affiliative nature and its implications for living well.
  • Paulo Frieire and Philip Lichtenberg have explained the psychological mechanisms that play such an important role in perpetuating injustice and exploitation, in the world and in our intimate relationships.

All theories distort — including the ones we use to define who we are. Remembering that, we need to seek out, embrace, and incorporate into our larger world-view the creative insights of others, regardless of source. If our goal is to create better lives and a better world, it is an indispensible part of the process.