Fully understanding the implications of Radical Decency requires us to continually re-visit three issues:
1. The seemingly endless ways in which the values of the mainstream culture –compete and win, dominate and control – insinuate themselves into the fabric of our lives; that is, the “here” from which we need to wean ourselves;
2. What a life based on a Radical Decency practice, fully realized, looks likes; the “there” to which we hope to migrate; and
3. The all-important question of how to get from “here” to “there.”
My experience across 12 years of thinking and writing about Radical Decency is that, practically speaking, there is no definitive answer to any of these three questions. There is instead a continuing, and ever deepening, unfolding of the philosophy’s implications.
This Reflection – addressing the second, what does the “there” look like question – exemplifies this process.
Harville Hendrix, one of our most thoughtful relationship theorists (and with his wife, Helen Hunt, the co-founder of Relationships First) recently offered me the following insight, drawing on his understanding of Martin Buber’s work: While relationship always involves more than one person, its essence does not lie in the sum of its parts:
Your thoughts, feelings and actions + My thoughts, actions, and feelings = Our relationship.
Instead, its essence lies “in the space between.”
Harville then takes this idea one step further arguing, very importantly, that relationality – and the space between – are not a choice but are, instead, a simple, unalterable fact of being human.
In the discussion that follows, I explore these insights not in intimate relationship – its more obvious area of application – but in the professional spheres in which I have operated first as an attorney and, then, as a psychotherapist. The reason? To make the case that Harville is right: That relationality and, more particularly, the “space between” are foundational principles of being human and, thus, operate in every area of living.
I then discuss the implications of “the space between” for the way in which we envision the “there” to which Radical Decency aspires.
The steady message we get “out there, in the real world” – through a myriad of cultural cues and incentives – is that successful people are logical and rational: People who define a goal, craft a means to reach it and, then, execute that plan with focus and determination. That is what we are tested on throughout our schooling and what we are told to do in the mainstream jobs and careers into which we are funneled.
As a student and, then, for 25 years as a practicing attorney, this is environment in which I existed.
Even in those years, however, I always sensed that something more was going on. At business meetings, I would notice “that person,” the one who seemed to have a knack for commanding the other participants’ attention and respect. And often, that person was not the smartest or most knowledgeable individual in the room.
This quality did not go unnoticed. I regularly heard (or made) reference to someone’s charisma, presence, or natural leadership qualities. But notwithstanding its powerful impact on the course of events, this thing – intangible and elusive – remained curiously at the periphery of our collective consciousness as attorneys and business people; acknowledged but largely unexamined.
In retrospect, I can see that one of the great gifts of my second career, as a psychotherapist, is the insight it has given my into what was going in at those meetings. Like other mainstream professions, psychotherapy teaches and promotes rational approaches to its craft: Psychodynamic theory, cognitive/behavioral therapy, attachment theory, narrative therapy, and so on. And these techniques, like the analytic tools that received so much attention in my years as an attorney, are a necessary and valuable part of my professional arsenal.
But as a therapist I am urgently asked to facilitate my clients’ emotional healing and growth. So in contrast to my far more limited role as an attorney, I am being challenged, day by day, to understand what is really going on in my clients’ relationship with themselves; with others; and, necessarily, with me.
What I have learned, through long hours, striving to make a meaningful difference in clients’ lives, is that the key to our relationship – and by extension, to their relationships in general – is a kind of energetic resonance that is most apparent in our body language and looks, pauses and silences; an embodied familiarity and trust that, patiently nurtured, grows and deepens with time. While words, ideas and acknowledged emotions matter in the therapeutic process – a lot – they are, in the end, in the service of this deeper relational process. This is, I believe, the “space between;” the thing that separates “that person,” from others, in a business setting; the quality upon which Harville places so much emphasis
This understanding about the essence of relationship has important implications when it comes to understanding the “there” to which a committed Radical Decency practice aspires. My standard formula for operationalizing Radical Decency is this: Be decent to your self, others, and the world, at all times, in every context and without exception; with decency being defined as:
· Understanding and Empathy;
· Acceptance and Appreciation;
· Fairness and Justice.
Note that, while this formulation challenges us to do certain things in our relationships, it does not offer specific guidance for creating and nurturing the space between.
Does this mean that it needs to be revised to account for Harville’s insight? My answer is no – for the following reasons.
Harville’s space between does not define every aspect of relationality. Instead, it provides a definitional marker for relationality’s look and feel, when fully realized. And the values that Radical Decency promotes are complimentary, offering the essential building blocks from which this ultimate state of mind can emerge and, very importantly, be sustained.
The biggest challenge we face, as we seek transformational change, is not our ability to dissect all that is wrong with the world in which we live (the “here”), or in envision a better world (the “there’). It is, instead, the massively complicated task of getting from here to there.
Viewed in this context, it is hard to overstate the importance of practicing the building block values of relationality that Radical Decency promotes. The reason? Because the “here” – the jumping off point for our work – is our current compete and win culture; a culture that, far from promoting relationalilty, pushes us in the opposite direction: Toward seeing others as objects, to be manipulated in ways that further our desires.
For this reason – and because we are so thoroughly creatures of habit – a fulsome commitment to these values is essential if we hope to wean ourselves from the mainstream habits of living that are so thoroughly embedded in the environments in which we exist. At the same time, however, we need to embrace the reality of Harville’s space between, understanding that a heightened awareness of this phenomenon will allow us to practice these building block values in a more attuned, patient and, ultimately, wise way.
Harville’s insight also reminds us to be alive to more energetic and embodied techniques that will allow us to experience the space between more directly through, for example, dance, participatory theatre, or ecstatic religious experiences. Done well, these techniques can deepen our awareness of the space between and, in this way, jumpstart the process of getting from here to there.
Doing so, however, we need always to remember that these energetic and ecstatic states are not a secret, pain-free shortcut to the better lives and world we seek. If we hope to get from here to there, there is no substitute for the hard, day by day, moment by moment work of striving to make more decent choices, with each person and each community with whom we interact.