One of the wonderful byproducts, wholly unexpected when I started the weekly Reflections series 6 years ago, has been the wide variety of remarkable people with whom I come in contact each, in their own way, seeking to contribute to the creation of better lives and a better world. But this experience, so positive in so many ways, also regularly highlights the extent to which these people operate independently of one another. And this, in turn, is a troubling reminder of the extent to which the mainstream culture’s individualistic orientation permeates even the work of the most creative and dynamic among us.
Our world is structured to support single bore, issues specific initiatives rather than inclusive approaches:
- Climate change – or anxiety and depression;
- Health and nutrition – or poverty;
- Spiritual growth – or business ethics.
The result? With so much energy poured into (the monumental task of) maximizing the effectiveness of these efforts, too little attention is paid to the larger, vitally important question that begs to be asked:
How can this diverse array of people, each devoted in his or her own way to creating a more decent and humane world, work together, reinforcing and magnifying the efforts of each; becoming, in this way, more effective agents for change?
In this Reflection, and the two that will follow, I offer a vision how a shared, across-the-board commitment to decency’s values can expand and invigorate our communal engagements and collaborative efforts becoming, in this way, the key building blocks in creating a unified and, hence, far more effective change movement.
What we know is heavily influenced by where we have been in life. And, in truth, I have created a life built largely on the culture’s individualistic model. As a lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist much of my work has been in one-on-one situations in which my advice and counsel, while supported by the expertise of others, has largely been the result of my individual efforts. And while I have, over the years, been involved in a series of communal and collaborative initiatives, they have never been my central focus.
For this reason, my writing focuses is on how to re-direct our individual choices in ways that allow us to create more decent lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world. That is what I know best
But the message, in this Reflection and the two that follow, is this: While Radical Decency requires a fundamental re-orientation in the ways in which we create our individual lives, that is not enough. We also need to align and merge our efforts with those of other like-minded people.
The reason: These two initiatives – personal growth and societal change – are symbiotic.
On the societal change side, this symbiosis is driven by the fact that, absent sustained work at an individual level, we are far too vulnerable to the endless cues, incentives, and sanctions – many surpassingly subtle – that pull us back toward the culture’s fundamentally indecent, compete and win norms. For this reason, skipping over our personal growth work – jumping directly into the “more important” work of changing the world – is unrealistic. Taking this path, the culture’s mainstream ways will, in all but the rarest of cases, infect our outlook and day-by-day choices; progressively blurring, compromising, and diminishing our larger vision of a more decent world.
Equally, however, the context in which we exist massively and fundamentally shapes who we are and what we do. So if we are doing our personal work solely with family and friends, failing to actively affiliate with broader efforts to re-shape the culture, our mainstream compete and win ways of being – the very water in which we swim – will bring us, inch by imperceptible inch, back toward its indecent ways, deeply compromising our individual decency aspirations.
Sustained attention to decency to the world is integral to Radical Decency’s approach to living – and is the right thing to do. But fully understanding this personal/political symbiosis, the ideas presented in this series of Reflections become (I hope and believe) far more real, immediate and personal.
In this “call to action,” I am suggesting that is each of us translate our personal decency commitment into choices that, as they accumulate, hold the promise of:
- A re-invigorated network of communities, more fully aligned with decency’s 7 values (this Reflection #89); and
- Collaborative activities, far more expansive and mutually supportive than is the current norm (Reflections #90 and #91).
If you see merit in these ideas, my hope is that you will make concrete choices that make these ways of operating a growing reality in your life.
The Vital Importance of Community
More and more, I am struck by this thought: We humans are fiercely tribal.
Think, for example, about the many people so deeply wedded to their alma mater, favorite sports team, religious movement, or political party or faction. Here in Philadelphia, the level of psychic pain I observe when the Eagles lose is truly remarkable. And when was the last time you, as a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, were able to convince someone on the other side that you were right (or vice versa)?
In Moral Tribes: Emotions, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), Joshua Greene describes a study that sought to understand how climate change deniers were affected by increased scientific knowledge. The expectation: With more facts, their views would moderate.
The actual result, however, was very different. While there was no meaningful change in outlook, the arguments they brought to their side of the issue became far more sophisticated.
When we think in terms of our fierce tribalism, this outcome makes complete sense. Becoming a voice for climate change would alienate these budding experts from their political tribe, a major emotional loss. So the more sensible move, in psychological terms, was to do exactly what they did – and what the empirical evidence documented.
A key takeaway? Precisely because we aspire to be more effective change agents, we cannot ignore this pivotal reality. For our efforts to be effective, they need to find a vital voice in and through our “tribes”; that is, the communities of which we are a part.
Change programs, like Radical Decency, knowingly seek to upset the status quo. And as the many examples discussed in the Reflection series demonstrate, most every institution or movement of any size and duration is deeply infected by the very mainstream values we are seeking to supplant and supersede.
As a result, many reform-minded people – predictably and inevitably – feel some level of alienation from their “home base” church, political party, ethnic group, or other communal organization (unions, veterans organizations, professional associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, AMA, or ABA, and so on). Then, what frequently happens next is this: Reflexively motivated by the individualistic outlook the mainstream culture so incessantly promotes, they dial back, or entirely abandon, their communal engagements.
This outcome is very unfortunate. When the reform-minded among us lessen and abandon their communal involvements, the status quo-oriented people in these movements are, by default, empowered to consolidate and expand their influence and control; a process that repeats itself, over and over, with depressing predictability:
- The American Jewish community’s massive retreat from its social justice roots;
- The domestication of mainstream labor unions;
- The rapid erosion of the egalitarian governing visions of Gandhi in India, and Mandela South Africa;
- The transformation of Jesus’ insurgent vision into church-based bureaucratic entities, in the service of those with entrenched power.
With this in mind, a key part of the work for many of us – who want to more meaningfully contribute to a more decent world – is to re-orient away from our individualistic, go-it-alone instincts and toward a renewed commitment to community; work that will, depending on the individual, proceed in one or more of the contexts described below.
First, those of us with the inclination to do so need to reclaim leadership in our traditional ethnic, religious, political, worker, and professional communities, remembering always that our decency agenda, far from being alien to their traditions, represent the best within them.
The importance of these involvements bears special emphasis. These communities are deeply resonant for so many and, in many cases, have been for centuries. For millions and millions of people, they are at the core of their identity.
For this reason, our goals are badly served if we ignore them, thinking we can simply start new movements and communities. We should work, instead, to unleash their enormous power in service of our decency values.
Toward that goal, we need to renew our involvement with the Sunday services and church socials, union meetings, and neighborhood 4th of July celebrations that are the binding rituals of our traditional communities. In addition, we need to fully participate in the many tasks, large and small, which allow them to survive and thrive. Then, as active and empowered members, we will be far better able to advocate for the change we seek – not separate and apart from, but from within, these movements.
Reconnecting with our traditional communal roots, in a radically decent way, will challenge us to interact, far more deeply with different-thinking people; that is, the many people within these communities that reflect the culture’s compete and win mindset. But operating out of our radically decent mindset, we will do so: (1) With curiosity – that is, with understanding and empathy, and (2) with acceptance and appreciation – for their humanness apart from their attitudes and beliefs.
In other words, we will be weaning our selves away from any tendency we might have to dismiss these people, and the community itself, as ignorant, intolerant, and/or corrupt. And, more deeply, a heartening upside, inherent in this process, is this: Far from being an uncomfortable, unwanted chore, our renewed involvements, infused with this radically decent outlook, promises to revitalize our sense of shared community even as we become more effective advocates for policies and programs that reflect the best in these traditions.
As important as this process of reclaiming and re-vitalizing our traditional communities is, our communal initiatives need to operate at a second level as well. Understanding the extraordinary power of our tribal loyalties and the strong centrifugal pull of the culture’s mainstream values within these traditional communities, we also need to nurture wholly new communities that reflect our values-based objectives.
The Essential Experience Workshop Community, here in Philadelphia, is a good example. An active participant for 23 years, “EE” has offered me irreplaceable support in my personal journey; an emotional home that has given me the courage to diverge from a mainstream life that, until then, seemed to be my inescapable fate.
Another, better known example is Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that has provided essential communal support to countless individuals seeking to re-orient their lives in a more values-based ways. What is so interesting about the AA model is that, with its de-centralized structure, it seems to have retained its vitality and sense of mission throughout its 80-year history.
Finally, there are our places of business.
While not commonly viewed in this way, our workplaces are in fact communities to which, like it or not, we are powerfully bound since we depend upon them for our livelihood. Indeed, for so many of us, this community consumes far more time and psychic energy than any other community of which we are a part.
If we ignore this reality – and continue to see work as “merely” the place where we make our money – the business sector will continue to be a force for the perpetuation of our status quo ways.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Radical Decency and profitability are not inconsistent concepts. To the contrary, steadily applied over time, its values-based approach will, more predictably, enhance profitability by attracting extraordinarily capable employees and loyal customers even as it improves the day-to-day lives of everyone involved, to and including senior management.
My hope, therefore, is that an increasing number of business owners and empowered executives – understanding this hopeful reality and, with it, their enormous potential as change agents – will offer the leadership needed to create a very different culture and way of operating, within their entities, allowing them to become key communal building blocks in the larger struggle to create a more decent and humane world.