Reflecton 28: An Aspirational Approach to Living

The Case for Radical Decency, a recently published blog, brought the following provocative and thoughtful reaction – the subject of this week’s Reflection:

“If ‘picking and choosing’ where to practice Radical Decency is ‘doomed to failure’ does that mean only saints can succeed? How does one incrementally improve?”

“If Radical Decency is doomed to failure unless applied at all times to everything, must I be a Buddhist monk or the equivalent?”

This issue has gnawed at me for years. Am I doing enough? If I tend to myself, am I neglecting clients, family, and friends? How do I explain my continuing habit of shopping for the best deal, even when I wind up making the purchase from a patently indecent company? Surrounded by so much hardship and deprivation, how many $200 excursions to Eagles’ games or $3,000 vacation trips are enough, before I stray into habits of excessive entitlement and self-indulgence?

There have been times when, on a comparative basis, my wife and I would have been described as highly charitable. But decency is not a comparative sport. And even in our best years, our contributions were always in the single digits as a percentage of income, and an uncomfortably small percentage of our net worth. Moreover, when our income and net worth declined, due to my switch from the law to psychotherapy and coaching, our charitable budget was among our deepest cuts.

How this Mindset Traps and Defeats Us

Radical Decency seeks to diverge from the culture’s wildly out of balance emphasis on competitive, win/lose values, advocating a decisive shift in priority toward a more humane set of values. That is its central purpose.

With this in mind, notice the extent to which this self-judgmental approach replicates the very values the philosophy seeks to replace. Tally up the evidence and make a judgment: Have I succeeded in being radically decent – or not? Am I a saint – or a failure?

One unfortunate byproduct of this unforgiving, all-or-nothing mindset is a sense of ineffectiveness and helplessness. That, in turn, invites passivity and a retreat from Radical Decency’s seemingly impossible challenges. The result: Radical Decency is transformed into an unwitting ally of the mainstream culture; dissipating and marginalizing the very reform energies it seeks to unleash.

Resistance to this self-judgmental approach is, therefore, a key aspect of a successful Radical Decency practice. We need to understand how our efforts will, inevitably, be deeply complicated and compromised by:

  • Our biology; and, equally,
  • The culture within in which we exist and operate.

Only then will we be able let go of the demoralizing shame, guilt, and self-judgment that our shortcomings can, so easily, provoke.

Impact of the Culture

The culture’s debilitating impact on our efforts to be radically decent is deep and pervasive. The relentless focus in our schooling is on testing and grades, indoctrinating us from an early age into a competitive mindset. And throughout our lives, we are saturated with “heart warming” stories that remind us that good people can accomplish anything (that is, win) if they just try hard enough – and, by clear implication, that we are losers if we fail in our purposes.

In stark contrast, the values we associate with decency – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – are pushed to the relative margins of the mainstream narrative and, all too frequently are demeaned as soft and naïve.

Adding to this toxic mix is a mainstream mindset that encourages us to be warm, friendly and congenial – except, that is, when it really matters. Then, go for the jugular. The result: Buildin communities of support for a more decent way of living – already a challenging task – is further complicated by the difficulty in distinguishing between true allies and those who talk a good game.

Impact of Our Biology

In doing our decency work, we also need to remember that we are, by our very nature, highly susceptible to environmental influences and predisposed to reflexively repeat past behaviors. So in addition to everything else, we need to continually resist our innate tendency to recede, in large ways and small, to our habitual, mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

Cultivating An Aspirational Approach

These complicating factors leave us humbled before the challenge that Radical Decency presents. Indeed, my operating (though unprovable) theory is that no one is radically decent – and that seeing the philosophy as an attainable, concrete endpoint is an illusion; a false god.

The better approach?

To view Radical Decency as an aspirational ideal that provides an empowering framework for the complex, day-by-day choices that are its meat and potatoes. Working from perspective, “being” radically decent is no longer the Holy Grail. Instead, success is measured by our willingness to make Radical Decency our highest priority and by the focus, persistence, imagination, and sheer guts with which we pursue its practice.

The Buddhist approach to meditation offers a useful model. In the basic practice, you are taught to focus on your breathing as a way of rooting yourself in the present moment. But you are also told that, inevitably and repeatedly, your thoughts will drift to memories from the past and thoughts about the future. When this occurs, you are instructed to notice what has happened and – without judgment – to re-focus on your breathing.

Similarly, with Radical Decency, we need to attend to each moment’s endless possibilities for being decent – to our self, others, and the world – and the ways in which we can balance and harmonize these disparate goals. But then, inevitably and repeatedly, our attention will falter, distracted by old habits that:

  • Pinch and limit our time with loved ones as we strive for “success”; or,
  • Divert us, in our drive to accumulate more and more, from more meaningful contributions to social justice causes – or to a financially strapped co-worker or friend; or
  • Push us to manipulate and control “this” conversation or “that” business transaction, with too little regard for the needs of others.

When these things happen, we need to notice our faltering attention and, then – without judgment – return to our Radical Decency practice: Learning from our lapses; doing effective repair work; stretching toward new, more creative and effective decency choices.

Committed, long-term meditators never succeed in eliminating their brain’s distractability. But this does not mean that they have failed. To the contrary, persisting in their practice over the years – trying and falling short, trying again and “failing” again – they fundamentally shift their outlook and way of living.

A similar process is at work in Radical Decency. Just as a committed meditation practice chips away at an engrained, biologically determined mindset, so too, a dedicated Radical Decency practice chips away at engrained, social determined ways of being.

We will never succeed. We will always fall short. But my hope – and passionate belief – is that, in the process, we will craft better lives and more effectively contribute to a more decent and humane world.

Reflection 27: The Case for Radical Decency

I came of age in the Civil Rights era, a time when people of dignity and vision set an agenda of greater decency, fairness and justice – and perceptibly moved the needle of public policy in that direction. An abiding gift from those years is my passion to contribute to a better world; a passion that has persisted through 25 years as a community minded attorney and another 15 as a psychotherapist and coach.

Along the way I have been involved in many creative and inspiring initiatives. But my sense throughout has been that I was dealing with symptoms –“this” injustice or “that” place of unnecessary pain and suffering – and not with the underlying cause of what ails us. The question that, for me, remained stubbornly unanswered was this:

How can we craft strategies that meaningfully challenge the seemingly out of control cultural forces that – year by year, decade by decade – create an ever coarsening, unjust, and inequitable world.

What came to me about 15 years ago was that, at its core, the problem we face is values based. There is a specific set of values that drives decision-making in virtually every area of our lives and, so long as they predominate, we will never meaningfully diverge from our current course.

The sensible response? To embrace a very different set of values that I call “decency”: Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice. And to practice them “radically”: At all times and in every area of living.

In this Reflection I make the case for Radical Decency as an approach to living that speaks with special force to the central challenge we face – in this time and place – as we seek to create better lives and a better world.


We live in world that is driven by a very specific set of values: Compete and win, dominate and control. And these values – while not inherently bad – are wildly over-emphasized in our culture, infiltrating virtually every area for living, causing incalculable damage our selves and others.

Living this way, the evidence is irrefutable: We have created a failed culture.

Why do I say this with such certainty? Because, starting a culture from scratch, we would want it to support us in pursuing at least one of the following goals:

  • Being decent to our selves; or
  • Being decent to others; or
  • Being decent to the world.

Sadly – remarkably – our world fails to support us in any of these purposes.

Consider, for example, these questions:

With regard to how we treat our selves: Does the culture support us in doing the things that truly nourish and satisfy us? Or do we feel compelled to devote our most productive hours of the great majority of our days to making money, and to jobs that drain our energy and distract us from our deepest longings?

With regard to how we treat others: Does the culture make concern for others a priority? Or is the operating rule of thumb to focus on how other people’s actions affect us; or, even more narrowly, on what they can do for us? Does the culture model and reinforce curiosity about other people’s ideas and opinions? Or does it teach us to judge and dismiss people who are different? Does the culture encourage us to treat people in need with respect and generosity? Or does it condone and implicitly encourage half measures and outright indifference?

With regard to how we treat the world: Does the culture encourage us to marshal the environment’s resources with caution and care? Or does it place primary emphasis on their unrestrained exploitation for our material advantage? Does the mainstream culture provide any significant support for life choices that actively consider the fate of other living things?


Operating in an environment that is saturated with cues, incentive and sanctions that push us toward indecent behaviors, the compelling question before us is this: What can we do to reverse this dismal equation? How can we craft ways of living that are more decent to our self, to others, and to the world?

This is the question Radical Decency seeks to address.

Doing so, we first need to deal with the realities of our biology. We humans are profoundly creatures of habit; wired to do in the future what we did in the past. And far more than we care to acknowledge, the culture’s predominant values are woven into the very fabric of our taken-for-granted, habitual ways of living. In large ways and small, they pull us toward the “safe,” “smart,” and “obvious” choices that, in the end, root us in indecent ways of operating that, being borne into this culture, are our unfortunate birthright.

Given this reality, the process of diverging from our mainstream ways cannot operate solely or predominantly at a cognitive/logical level: Identify the problem, craft a solution, implement. Instead, what is called for is a re-habituation process. We need to systematically cultivate new habits of living that can, with practice and persistence, replace our status quo ways of operating.

Working from these premises, Radical Decency invites us to be decent to our self, to others, and to the world and – crucially – to do it on an across-the-board basis: At all times, in every context, and without exception.

At its core, Radical Decency grows out of this simple premise: If we whole-heartedly commit to this different way of living, allowing it to guide our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, we have a fighter’s chance of leading a better life and more effectively contributing to a better world.

The reverse is also true. If we adopt a pick and chose approach to decency – with family and friends but not at work; in our self-care but only in half-hearted ways in our politics – we will fail. Given the pervasiveness of the mainstream culture’s predominant values, if we continue to practice them – out there, in the real world – they will inevitably invade and compromise the small, private islands of decency we seek to create.


By focusing on our day-by-day choices, Radical Decency expands our vision, pointing to ways in which we can more effectively deploy our energies. So, for example, it highlights the extent to which work and business dominate our lives, and is an uncomfortable reminder of our complicity with the culture’s indecent values when we succumb to the workplace’s bottom-line oriented, “do what you have to do” ways of operating.

On the positive side of the equation, Radical Decency highlights the importance of change in this crucial area of living. Imagine how different the world would be if business’ were routinely committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on – and, if business’ profits and accumulated capital funded a decency agenda rather than the self-aggrandizing policies that currently dominate its public agenda?

Radical Decency’s operative principles also lead to an analogous shift in focus in the political arena. Living in a compete and win, dominate and control culture – in which money and power are the coin of the realm – the political system is fixed. While elections and legislative battles are unquestionably important, the likelihood of ever electing a critical mass of good-hearted politicians, interested in putting a priority on decency, is surpassingly small.

Radical Decency, however, with its focus on the underlying values that drive our public policy choices, seeks to change the rules of the game – a daunting but, ultimately, more promising avenue of attack. Thus, by way of example, the logic of the approach invites:

  • Major initiatives to redirect our public discourse away from its current adversarial, win/lose mindset toward one marked by respect, understanding, and reasoned compromise; and
  • A far deeper commitment to collaborative efforts that bring people together, from across the political spectrum, who share an underlying commitment to decency.


A very good piece of additional news about Radical Decency is that a committed practice can have a dramatic, positive impact on our personal lives as well.

Here’s how it works.

Seeking to harmonize and balance decency to self, others, and the world, we are confronted with a seemingly endless series of difficult choices. When, for example, does self-care take precedence over the needs of others – and vice versa? And when we truly face up to our responsibility to people who are socially or economically disenfranchised, what is an appropriate allocation of time and money to their needs?

With these challenges, however, come a whole series of life changing benefits. When grappling with these “wisdom stretching” dilemmas becomes our habitual way of operating, there is a perceptible shift in outlook and approach. We instinctually reach for a richer understanding of the diverse needs, motives and feelings that we, and others, experience – and need to be dealt with in our ongoing effort to be more and more decent. And with that, we become more open, curious, thoughtful, and reflective.

As we settle into these new habitual mindsets, increased emotional awareness and analytic acuity are inevitable byproducts. We also develop an increased ability to act, even in uncomfortable situations; the patience and self-control to forbear when that is the better choice; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The endpoint? When all that we do is approached with these new habits of openness, curiosity and a growing sense of discernment, we wind up with an increased sense of:

Living in the present, which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future – and, with it, greater focus and clarity; states of mind that are a natural extension of the less the complicated emotional landscape we inhabit;

Appreciation, empathy, and acceptance for our self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control – and, with it, more warmth appreciation, and joy in our own company and in the company of others;

Clarity and coherence about our priorities and choices, which leads to less anxiety – and, with it, an increased sense of ease in life; and

An ennobling sense of purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust – and, with it, a growing sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.

These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a vibrant and nourishing life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization.

In my view, Radical Decency works. If the goal is to create a better world, it is the strong medicine we need to deal with the virulent, values-based cultural disease that ails us. But, happily, the argument for adopting a committed Radical Decency practice does not rest solely on my analysis being correct. In the end, a radically decent life is its own reward.

Reflection 26: Our Primary Emotional Tapes – A Case Study

It had snowed in Philadelphia the night before. When I arrived at my office, shortly after noon the next day, the driveway and parking areas were unplowed; no access.

With my first client due to arrive in less than an hour, I called the landlord but got no answer. I then called the people that clear our driveway at home. They arrived about 45 minutes later and got enough plowing done to make the office accessible.

Minutes later, the landlord arrived, prepared to clear the snow. He yelled at me (something he apologized for the next day) and remained angry throughout an exchange of emails over the next 24 hours or so.

So here is a brief, unpleasant, but not unusual interlude between two people who otherwise have an entirely friendly and cooperative relationship. Why do I raise it? Because it offers an excellent example of how, throughout our lives, key emotional systems, internalized in childhood, deeply affect our psyches.

In this Reflection, I offer a case study of this phenomenon, with me as the example. Doing so, my premise is that I am an utterly typical human, “just another bozo on the bus” as my teacher, Nedra Fetterman, would reassuringly remind me.

While the story I tell is unique to me, it is emblematic of who we are as humans. We all carry around our own set of primary emotional tapes. Understanding their influence allows us to better manage their unwanted consequences, freeing us to be more decent to others and to ourselves.


Two key pieces of neurobiology provide the context for this discussion. The first is Hebb’s Theorem: “If it fires together, it wires together.”

When, for example, an infant – baby Jeff, for example – is startled by a barking dog, a chain of synapses fires. Then, because they fired once, they are more likely to fire again in response to a similar stimulus. Confronted with that stimulus a third time, the likelihood of a repeat firing is even greater, and so on. In other words, my brain – like every other brain – is wired to do in the future what it did in the past.

Hebb’s Theorem influences virtually every aspect of living. But there are certain patterns of behavior that overload the baby’s system, thereby activating his or her fight or flight brain. These patterns – the ones I refer to as primary emotional tapes – exercise a special power over us because of the peculiarities of that part of the brain.

As a key physiological mechanism for dealing with danger, fight or flight clicks in quickly and powerfully.

Moreover, it wouldn’t do for an evolving species – intent on survival – to forget the danger presented by a crouching lion months or years later. As a result, this part of the brain never forgets. When an event triggers an old fight or flight pattern – even decades later – the emotions and bodily reactions we felt back then come flooding back, full force. It is as though time stands still.

Notice, importantly, that we are dealing with danger as an infant or small child perceives it. So, while primary emotional tapes are often generated by an obvious danger – physical or sexual abuse – they may also be the product of much more subtle patterns: Dad’s cutting looks, mom’s self absorption at moments of crisis, even the smell of grandma’s apartment. The key is that the child’s system is overloaded, triggering his or her fight/flight response.


So how does this relate to the conversation I had with my landlord? Well, my mother was devoted and loving – and very angry. Warm and funny she could turn dark in a heartbeat, screaming and berating whoever was in her line of fire – me included.

Each of her children dealt with her temper differently.

Me? I fought back.

From infancy, I was a screamer. Until I was 10 or 11, if she yelled at me, I yelled back, with our pitched verbal battles often continuing to the point of emotional exhaustion. In the end, I would retreat to my room, sobbing and forlorn. Eventually, I would slink back downstairs, rejoining the family but still feeling wrong and humiliated; a jumble of unresolved emotions.

A big part of my healing and growth as an adult has been (1) to understand this pattern, so deeply burned into my psyche, and (2) to create a more adult script for dealing with anger and conflict. I have made progress to the point where people will now remark – always a bit of a shock to me – on my calm and soothing nature.

But make no mistake, my struggle with this old pattern continues. So when my landlord yelled at me – 6 decades later! – the old tape reactivated, just like that. My body tensed, I instantly felt tightness in my throat, chest, and shoulders. My brain was on hyper-alert, ready to defend and counterattack.

At 5, or 10 or 40 I might have done exactly that. But over the years, I have slowly learned to behave differently. So in this situation, emotionally catapulted back into my old tapes, I was still able to interrupt the pattern. Instead of yelling back, I retreated to my office.

This growing ability to interrupt my programmed responses is a real plus. It has minimized the practical consequences of my temper. It has also been integral to the deeper emotional healing I have experienced; a growing understanding, at a gut emotional level, that angry attacks are not my mother reincarnate.

But the incident with my landlord was a reminder that, while the old tapes are muted – and, now, largely invisible to the outside world – they continue to powerfully affect my emotions, my physical state and, albeit in more subtle ways, my behaviors.

First, the behaviors: While I didn’t yell back at my landlord, I was literally impelled to communicate to him in writing, explaining in detail the reasonableness of my actions. My wife, who is also my business partner, reviewed these emails and confirmed their polite tone.

But my compulsion to write them belied my intentions. I was battling back, showing the landlord I was right and he was wrong. Using my adult writing skills to mask my true identity. I was really a traumatized child, reliving my primary emotional tape – yet again.

Not surprisingly, my physical and emotional state also reflected the reassertion of these old tapes. The tension in my body persisted. A week later, I could still feel its residue.

Emotionally, try as I might, the incident – the “injustice” of the landlord’s position – my detailed defenses – continued to infiltrate and dominate my thoughts. Even knowing how minor the incident was, I still felt powerfully at risk and desperate to “prove” I was right. The old, all too familiar feeling of being that wronged little boy, an outcast – so integral to the old tapes – was back.


One lesson I draw from this incident has to do with the relationship we have with our primary emotional tapes. Our control-oriented culture focuses on overt behaviors, implicitly telling us that our work is done once we have learned to manage the visible consequences of our primary tapes. But, as important as more functional behaviors are, that should not be our ultimate goal.

Instead, we should be aiming for habits of healing and growth that allow us to live with greater ease, vibrancy and self-mastery. Rather than simply controlling our old tapes, our goal should be to move through and beyond them.

This run-in with my childhood tapes provides an excellent example of the pay-offs that can occur when we persist in pursuing this larger goal. After years of self-reflection – and long after I was “cured” of my temper – you would think that the healing and growth that could occur from my continued attention to these old patterns would be small. But you would be wrong.

In the days following the incident, I employed my usual healing strategies: Support, self-talk, self-soothing, distraction. Then, with my wife’s support, I tried a less tested approach: An unqualified apology. To my surprise, it resulted in an immediate and perceptible easing of my pain.

In retrospect, it makes sense. My traditional healing strategies do little to challenge the highly conflictual – and painful – system my primary emotional tapes activate. And “winning” actually perpetuates that pattern, the only difference being that I become the (temporary) victor. But when I apologized, I was far better able to walk away from the old pattern. I was no longer fighting, no longer defending.

Needless to say, this healing moment did not cure me. But the hopeful lesson I take from the incident with the landlord is this: If, when the old tapes reassert themselves, I persist in doing my healing and growth work, these kinds of moments – when I am able to embrace new behaviors and more comfortable ways of “being with” my old tapes – will accumulate and gain momentum.