There are two aspects to Radical Decency:
- Be “decent”: Respectful, understanding and empathic, accepting and appreciative, fair and just, see Reflection 17, What Is Decency?; and
- Do it “radically” – at all times and in every area of living – with your self; with family and friends; at work; in public and communal affairs; and with the physical environment and all other living things.
Where Radical Decency gets complicated, and interesting, is when we put it into practice. Doing so, we are confronted with a myriad of perplexing and, often, uncomfortable moments of choice as we seek to “radically” integrate and balance decency to self, others and the world.
The devil is, quite literally, in the details.
To meet this challenge, I have developed a series of operational guidelines that orient my outlook and choices – moment-by-moment, day-by-day – so that Radical Decency can become a more vibrant reality in my life:
- I am important to the people in my life. What I do matters.
- Understanding this, I am letting go of outcomes and attending to each moment’s endless possibilities for offering and accepting love.
- With intent, focus, and persistence, I am modeling and inviting mutual and authentic contact in every area of living.
When these guidelines began to crystallize, my starting point was the second half of the second guideline – offering and accepting love. However, I quickly discovered that I was falling way short in my purposes. Far too often, my generosity of spirit was diminished or quashed by anger, annoyance, or jealousy; a fear of “getting less” or “being left out.”
Letting go of outcomes – the first half of the second guideline – was equally difficult. In my gut, it really mattered if I “won”: Landed the new client, made the cleverest point, got through the traffic light before it turned red.
Over time, I realized that the common thread in all of these feelings was the sense that I didn’t matter to “this” person or “that” group of people. In other worlds, that I had something to prove; that winning mattered.
This insight brought new meaning to the story Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest and philosopher, tells about the mentally challenged woman in his cloistered community. Unable to talk, she spent her days smiling at her compatriots; becoming, in this way, a beloved member of the community.
For me, this story drove home a powerful truth. Because we are biologically wired to be in connection, the simple fact of my humanity makes me important to others. My words, looks, and energy matter – to family and friends, to co-workers and business colleagues, even to the waiter at lunch and people I pass on the street.
Indeed, the opposite – not mattering – is a cognitive distortion, insidiously promoted by a culture that equates importance with the ability to dominate others. Habitually focused on this narrow goal, we distort our energy in order to manipulate and control our environment and the people in it. In the process, our best instincts are waylaid by corrosive, competitive feelings, such as those described above.
Understanding this process hasn’t magically cured me. But persistently reminding myself that importance to others is my birthright, as a human, has helped to free my energy – more often, and in more and more situations – from these outcome-laden pre-occupations. Hence, operational guideline #1: I am important to the people in my life. What I do matters.
Freed to follow my better instincts, I am far better able to operationalize guideline #2: Letting go of outcomes, I am attending to each moment’s endless possibilities for offering and accepting love.
With regard to the second half of this guideline note that my focus is on possibility and choice, and not on simply loving everyone all the time. Why? Because loving acts increase our level of intimacy and, with it, our vulnerability. Thus, appropriate levels of safety and trust are a prerequisite.
In addition, our energy is finite. Choices have to be made.
These qualifications, however, operate in the context of a larger reality. Given our competitive, achievement-oriented culture, loving options are chronically underexplored. So, as I see it, a central challenge, as we seek to live differently and better, is to be alive to the virtually unlimited possibilities for loving and being loved that constantly come our way. For example, should I take the time:
- To call or visit a troubled friend?
- To acknowledge a child’s desire/demand for my undivided attention?
- To attend to a sad and distracted co-worker?
- To be warm and courteous with the harried waiter who brings my lunch?
Or – remembering always to love myself as well – should I interrupt my busy day to go to the gym, or say no to a request for my time and energy that is just one thing too many?
If I take the time to notice, each of my days is filled with these kinds of moments.
Cultivating this in-the-moment awareness, the outcome pre-occupations that can so easily derail me – winning, looking good, being noticed – tend to fall away, freeing me to cultivate the fullest possible awareness of the choices I can make and, then, to deploy my loving energy wisely.
My third guideline for living challenges me to model and invite contact, in every area of living, that is:
- “Authentic” – vivid and intimate; and
- “Mutual” – engaged in by all parties.
Done well, this provides me with an indispensable, orienting perspective that is the vital ground out of which Radical Decency’s most palpable upside – the loving interactions described in guideline #2 – can flower and grow.
The importance of mutual and authentic contact has everything to do with our biology. We humans are wired to be deeply and intimately connected with one another. So, when we truly know other people – when there is authentic contact – the inevitable byproducts are a growing sense of understanding and empathy, as well as a desire to “do right” by this now very human other. And when this process is mutual, the possibilities for a more cooperative, productive and loving relationship expand exponentially.
Here, once again, my approach is not indiscriminant: To make every contact mutual and authentic. My intent, instead, is to “invite” this sort of connection – by modeling its attributes and, when appropriate, by offering leadership, guidance and inspiration in situations in which my invitation engages the interest of others.
Note also that, in applying this guideline, I consciously avoid strategies that – moving beyond a warm invitation – proselytize others or otherwise implicitly demand conformance with my purposes. The reason? Because these more aggressive approaches recreate the very values – domination and control – that Radical Decency seeks to replace.
One indispensible aspect of this third guideline is its comprehensiveness. To be successful in my purposes, I need to model mutual and authentic contact – with intent, focus and persistence – in every area of living, from the most private and personal to the most public and political.
Why? Because when I allow myself to be selective in its application, I too easily slip into “pick and chose” decency; practicing this guideline when it is easy and convenient but, then, when it really matters – when money or an important career opportunity are at stake – “doing what I have to do.”
On the plus side, it is hard to overstate positive effects of this comprehensive, across-the-board approach. Simply put, when I make mutual and authentic contact a priority in every area of living, I feel challenged to grow and change in areas that – absent this persistent prompt in my brain and heart – would fall through the cracks.
So, for example, in politics – an area of living in which exceptions to decency are endemic – I am steadily reminded that I can do better:
- Remembering always that people’s political positions make sense in the context of their background, values, and world view, I resist my knee-jerk annoyance with people on the “other side” and cultivate in its place respect, empathy, and genuine curiosity;
- And, equally, I look for ways in which to offer my views, not as partisan argument, but instead as authentic expressions of my feelings, values and perspectives on life.
I close this discussion with a reminder that, as I explain in Reflection #13, Radical Decency is its own reward. So while these guidelines are challenging, their pay-offs are life-changing – transformative – a reality expressed in my 4th and final guideline:
Doing these things, I embrace my living and dying with compassion,curiosity, zest, and a deepening sense of acceptance and celebration.