Reflection 51: Monumental Self-Absorption

As we got acquainted with our Novgorod guide, during our trip to Russia a few years ago, she mentioned that she taught world history. Right away I knew what she meant. Her history course went all the way back to “the beginning,” to the “dawn of civilization” about 7,000 years ago. This is what “world history” meant when I was in high school in New York, in the 1960s, and what it means today, half way around the world, two generations later.

Most of us never give this definition a second thought. But when we do, its weirdness is impossible to avoid. The “world” of which it purports to be a “history of” has actually existed, not for 7,000 years, but about 4 billion years. Moreover, we have existed as Homo sapiens for 300,000 years and as a distinct line of primates for another 6 million years. So even if we accept the idea that “world” history is legitimately limited to “human” history, the mainstream definition is still woefully incomplete, ignoring all but a small fraction of our species’ history.

What is going on?

As I see it, three fundamental factors are at work.


The first is fairly apparent, once you begin to reflect on the mainstream culture’s wildly distorted vision of world history: Our breathtaking self-absorption.

World history is about “us,” and us alone. Other species that coexist with us or preceded us – even the dinosaurs that dominated the world far longer than we have – are written out of world history. Equally absent, with the sweep of our conceptual pen, is any physical phenomenon that is not directly implicated in “our” dramas.

Moreover, the “us” we are talking about isn’t even all humans. History only begins when people like us first appeared; modern folks who live in sedentary communities, have a written language, and organize themselves in hierarchical/ authoritarian patterns. Everyone who lived before then is consigned to “pre-history,” the implicit message being that– having nothing to teach us – these people can and should be ignored.

Notice also, that world history is further limited to a very distinct subgroup within this already limited group. Virtually every society and ideology that earns history’s attention has one key element in common: Its ability to dominate large numbers of people during the time in which it is of historical interest. That is the common thread that draws into a coherent story characters as diverse as the Egyptian pharaohs, the ancient Greeks, Roman Emperors, Christian and Muslim thinkers and rulers, Napoleon, the British Empire, Hitler, Stalin, and the United States.

In other words, history is about winners; the people who best exemplify a dominant culture in which competition, dominance and control are valued above all else. In this myopic view, everyone else is either a foil in the winners’ drama or a non-entity, literally ignored out of existence.


The second factor that the mainstream definition of world history highlights is the extent to which our extreme self-absorption goes unnoticed. How is it that so many teachers, students, textbook writers, and professional historians can so easily and comfortably accept such an obviously distorted definition of world history?

The answer is not stupidity. It lies instead in the fact that from birth – from all sides – and, literally, for millennia – we have been massively brainwashed to think in this way. And because we are continually bombarded with myopic, self-absorbed ways of thinking, we exist in a context in which our distorted definition of “world history” is commonplace – unremarkable and, thus, seldom noticed or commented upon.

Examples of this taken for granted self-absorption are everywhere. Serious historians, for example, continue to argue the merits of American exceptionalism; the view that our country is different and unique.

Really? Seriously? Exceptionalism has been the cry of every empire and petty despot since, well, the dawn of world history. In fact, the only thing that is exceptional about the claim of American exceptionalism is how truly unexceptional it is.

Similarly, every generation’s financial bubble, including the run-up of housing prices leading up to 2008’s financial meltdown, has been an extolled as an exception to the hitherto normal rules of economics. Every 20 years or so, we are told – and millions believe – that our current investment strategies are somehow different and special.

Another rather stunning example is intelligent design; the idea that only a being with a brain like ours could have possibly created the world. Here again, massive self-absorption is at work.

Physicists, systems theorists, and students of ants have all persuasively demonstrated that many intelligences are not housed within a single skull.

In addition, contemporary neuroscientists, such as Daniel Siegel, point out that human intelligence does not arise out of a single brain in isolation, but instead results from the ongoing communion of one brain with others.

Nevertheless, intelligent design, in a classic example of blind egotism, simply asserts that “of course” our brain – that is, intelligence residing within a single human skull – is the highest expression of intelligence and, as such, is the only form of intelligence that could have possibly created such a complex universe.


The final factor that our weird definition of “world history” points to is to the extent to which our massive self-absorption is viewed as someone else’s problem. So, in writing about the ego-centrism of intelligent design, I confidently imagine the head-nodding agreement of my more secular readers. And yet, how many of these readers fall into the equally myopic trap of dismissing non-scientific thought as something from a primitive and outmoded past; a past that has been thoroughly superseded by civilization’s “progress” to its current “superior” state?

As this example illustrates, while I may see – and judge – the myopia and self-absorption in your way of viewing the world, I seldom see it in mine. Thus:

  • Religious fundamentalists believe they have found the way – and reject any history that contradicts their sacred texts.
  • Secularists view pre-scientific thought as primitive and intellectually bankrupt.
  • My country/culture/sect is unique and special.
  • Women judge men as “less than” even as men judge women as overly emotional.
  • My school/job/neighborhood/car/handbag sets me apart.

The list is endless but the common thread is this: We – that is, I and people like me – are different and better.


One very fair response to this rant about self-absorption is to ask why it is so objectionable. Can’t a passionately partisan love of country – or group – or family be an effective and fulfilling approach to living? My answer is no.

While the immediate psychic pay-offs are real, these self-absorbed approaches to living are, in the end, self-defeating strategies. When primary loyalty is to a group, it too easily puts important areas of our psyche at risk, suppressing the nonconforming ideas, temperaments, emotions, and drives that inevitably exist within our endlessly complex psyches.

In addition, it ignores the fact that we humans are intensely creatures of habit. For this reason, a split approach to living – being judgmental and dismissive of “others,” even as we seek to create an island of empathy and understanding in our smaller, self-selected group – can never work. Inevitably, the attitudes we habitually practice, out there in the larger world, will infiltrate and infect ways in which we deal with members of our group and, sadly, with our selves as well.

The proof? Living a world where a split approach is the norm has produced just such a dismal outcome: A culture in which injustice and inequity – together with anxiety, depression, and a wide variety of other addictive and self-destructive behaviors – are rampant.


Radical Decency offers a more hopeful alternative, in two fundamental ways.

First, it is based on behaviors – being decent – and not a set of beliefs. As a result, it avoids the trap of confusing and compromising our vocation of decency with a priori notions about who we’re supposed to be.

In addition, it is inclusive. By challenging us to be just as attentive to others and the world as we are to our selves, it specifically excludes the possibility of privileging one group over another – of making “world history” only about “us.”

Reflection 50: Love, Faith and Values

I find writing about love confusing. The word is used so in many different contexts, to describe so many different states of mind. Bringing clarity to this multiplicity of meanings and uses has always seemed a daunting challenge.

Further complicating the task is the word’s power. Because it is so deeply evocative, its use, depending on context, can provoke strong and, at times, very uncomfortable feelings as, for example, when it is used to it describes sexual attraction to someone inappropriately young – or an individual, group, or nation’s rapturous embrace of a crazed but highly charismatic leader.

In this Reflection, I take the plunge, seeking to bring clarity to a question that has quietly nagged at me for many years: How should we understand the concept of love and, more particularly, how should we put it into practice as we strive to live more radically decent lives?


The confusion of meanings that surround the word is brilliantly illustrated in We, a remarkable book by the Jungian theorist, Robert Johnson. In it, the author identifies romantic love, not as an enduring reality, but as an intellectual construct that burst onto the scene in the early Middle Ages. He then describes how, because of its enormous cultural impact, it has come to encompass aspects of living that are really quite distinct from the romantic love’s essence.

Johnson’s narrative vehicle, the story of Tristan and Isoulte, begins with Tristan and the Queen – Isoulte the Fair – falling in love and moving to the forest to be together. The Queen, as she inevitably must, returns to her duties and, so, their romantic interlude ends. Thereafter, Tristan marries and has children with Isoulte of the White Gloves. But Tristan, unable to let go of his overwhelming “love” for the Queen, leaves Isoulte of the White Gloves and, in the end, dies tragically.

The point of the story for Johnson? Tristan screwed up.

He hopelessly confused romantic love with what Johnson refers to a chivalric love. In his understanding, Tristan idealistic or chivalric love – a deeply felt and enduring human emotion – lay at the heart of his feelings for the Queen. But Tristan failed to understand this, or limits of that love, conflating it with the sexual/life partnership love that found expression in his relationship with Isoulte of the White Gloves.

To this day, we repeat Tristan’s error, unreflectively seeking a romantic partner who fills our every “love” need. The result? These relationships are burdened with unreasonable expectations and demands that – inevitably unmet – unleash, far too often, a sense of bitter disappointment that can corrode and destroy these relationships.


In seeking to operationalize Radical Decency in our lives, what feelings and choices, among the many that receive the “love” label, are central? The starting place for me is the distinction between love the “noun” and love the “verb.”

When used as a noun, love describes one of any number of feelings, depending on the context within which the word is applied: Love of God, love of country, romantic love, self-love, agape love, and so on. Like all feelings, these states are not choices. They are, instead, physiological and psychological facts on the ground.

For this reason, love the noun is not a values-driven state of mind. To the contrary, we can – and frequently do – fall in love with a person who we know to be cruel or selfish. And, in our love and loyalty, we too easily excuse even the most heinous of acts perpetuated by our church, ethnic group or country; persisting, without ethical pause.

Love, the verb, is very different. It is quintessentially a choice. Loving my wife, or Jesus, or the men I go to war with – love, the verb – I chose to do the innumerable acts that communicate that state of mind to the object of my love. It is here, in this action-oriented realm of love, that Radical Decency can play a powerful role; supporting us in making wise life- and spirit-affirming choices.


If love begins as an emotion (the noun), faith is the bridge that carries it into the realm of action (the verb).

Esther Perel, the psychotherapist and author, describes trust as a leap of faith. “We believe in it, all the while knowing it may not be true.” And, equally, with love: We whole-heartedly commit ourselves to “this” person or “that” cause, all the while knowing that this forever feeling may not endure.

This leap of faith, this act of claiming, is vital to love’s central role in our lives. As I describe in the Reflection 38, Three Dimensions of Love, our longing to claim (and to be claimed) is:

“Inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.”

But here is the problem.

We live in a world in which other, more humane values takes a back seat to our pervasive pre-occupation with getting ahead, with competing and winning. As a result, the moral compass we need to guide us in this claiming process – this leap of faith – is confused and undernourished. Lacking a steadily practiced, more decent values perspective to guide our choices, we too easily extend love, the verb, to most any person, idea, or movement that activates “that feeling” – love, the noun.

Radical Decency can crucially change this equation, offering a values-based roadmap for operationalizing love, the verb. Using it as our guide, we tend to another person – day-by-day, moment-by-moment – with respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and accountability (justice). And, crucially, we invite, with our expectations, similar treatment in return.

As these choices accumulate, we, and the people with whom we are in connection, are supported in feeling safe, seen, and warmly held; lowering defenses and increasing the likelihood of authentic and intimate contact, the interpersonal transaction at the heart of Radical Decency – and of love, the verb.

In terms of constructively harnessing our powerful impulse to love, the payoff in this process is this: As we steadily tend to our Radical Decency practice, we become more discerning about what is – and what is not – a loving relationship; that is, a relationship based on mutual and authentic contact. And as this sensibility grows, we become far more capable of resisting the instinct to go with “that feeling” when the object of our hormonal affection is unable to treat us in this way – or puts existing love relationships at risk.

So I walk into a room and am captivated by a new person – her look, her smile, her energy. But I am sustained by a sense of romantic love that goes far beyond “that feeling.” Committed love, the verb, as my wife and I have cultivated over the years, the cotton candy of a new romantic connection pales in comparison to the eight-course banquet we have created. I am able make choices with this new person that are measured and appropriately boundaried.

This same values-based process is vitally needed when love plays out in the context of our ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In these areas, unfortunately, the cultural norm is unrelenting pressure to make love and fealty absolute. When the chips are down, we are expected to rally to the flag – no matter what; a pattern confirmed by countless cruelties, inflicted both on nonconformists within the group and nonbelievers without.

If we hope to create a more decent world, we need to challenge this pattern. What is needed instead, as we move from love the noun to love the verb is a framework that allows us – as we do in healthy romantic relationships – to model and insist upon on interactions based on decency’s 7 values. As in a committed romantic relationship, loyalty to our country or group would be a given. But our loyalty would not be unconditional and would not be forever, no matter what.

When good values are inextricably woven into the fabric of the relationship, romantic partners grow and heal in ways that are unimaginable at the outset. This same process can occur for us, and our brethren, in the context of our ethnic, religious and national communities as well.

A new level of relational awareness and wisdom is my dream for the future; a new understanding of love, the verb that, with intent and time, would take hold in our communal engagements. We would be loving and fiercely loyal members of our religious, ethnic and national communities, of course, but we would also insist on values based interactions between people within our group and, equally, with those beyond its borders.

My fierce and abiding belief? If this relational vision ever emerges as the culture’s new, taken-for-granted norm a more humane and decent world – instead of being a far off dream – would become an unfolding and ever deepening reality.