Alan died a few weeks ago. He was a remarkable person, devoted to his family and friends; active throughout his legal career in efforts to improve the lives of disenfranchised people. He will be missed. At his funeral, his brother remembered his trip to Mississippi in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights struggle. Asked why he went, Alan said it was the right thing to do.
I have no problem with that response. But Alan’s life exemplified another, much less discussed answer to this question: The choice to actively engage in decency, in every area of living, is the surest path to a more vibrant and joyful life.
I raise this point because of a strange and, I would argue, not accidental anomaly in our mainstream take on lives, like Alan’s, of commitment and generativity. Living in a culture that is all about shrill self-promotion we are, at the same time, trained to feel tacky and puffed up if we share our acts of kindness and generosity in a forthright and public way.
This model of modesty and anonymity, when it comes to good deeds, is not a good thing. To the contrary, it unwittingly supports the purposes of the mainstream culture, leaving society’s megaphone entirely in the hands of the forces that promote its acquisitive, “me first” values. Even as the Alan’s of this world shrink from advertising their ways of living, we are continually bombarded with TV shows that celebrate our compete and win ways – from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and The Apprentice, to Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Seeking to avoid that trap, I offer a Reflection that unabashedly presents Radical Decency as the surest path to a vibrant and nourishing life; arguing that, in the end – without regard to outcomes – its own reward.
The reason why this is true is grounded in our neurobiology. We are wired to be in relationship. As Dan Siegel says, the brain is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains. In other words, it makes no sense to think about a brain in isolation.
The implications of this insight are profound. A baby’s brain is molded by interactions with his primary care givers. Mother joins the baby in his joy, modeling and teaching how that emotion looks in a mature brain. Then, as the baby moves into sadness or frustration, the mother moves with him, modeling these emotions and, just as important, a mature transition between these two states.
And this process continues throughout life. More than any other factor, our growth and evolution, for better or worse, depend upon the social context within which we exist. If our family, friends, communities, and culture model decency we will, whatever our innate disposition, tend in that direction. But if they model competition, dominance, and control, our states of mind and habits of living will move in that direction.
The bottom line in all of this? We are profoundly affiliative beings, wired to be in intimate connection with one another.
In choosing how we live, we also need to account for the fact that we are creatures of habit. According to Hebb’s Theorem, “if it fires together, it wires together.” So when a barking dog startles a baby, a chain of neurons fire. And because they fired once, they are more likely to fire again in response to similar stimulus. Confronted with that stimulus a third time, the likelihood they will fire again is even greater; and so on. In other words, absent conscious intervention, our brains will do in the future what they did in the past.
Why do these neurobiological realities point to Radical Decency as the surest path to a better life? First, because – in stark contrast to the values that predominate in our culture – Radical Decency is congruent with our biologically wired, affiliative nature.
Bowing to the mainstream culture’s imperative to compete and win, we (very sensibly) become skilled in suppressing a wide range of emotions that put these goals at risk: Fear, confusion, weakness, even altruism and empathy directed toward competitors.
Doing so, we cut ourselves off from ongoing intimate connection; the very quality so essential to our healing and growth. The result: An epidemic of depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviors – drug and alcohol, workaholism, sex, video games – all designed to anesthetize our isolation and pain.
Radical Decency, by contrast, offers a very different path. Instead of riding roughshod over our innate affiliative nature, it systematically expresses and extends it into all areas of living; offering, in this way, a powerful antidote to the mainstream culture’s debilitating pattern of emotional suppression and interpersonal isolation.
Radical Decency also accounts for the fact that we are creatures of habit. Pick and chose decency – doing what we have to do “out there, in the real world,” and then making a 180 degree pivot to decency in our private lives – is untenable. Why? Because we spend the best hours of the great majority of our days at work and in other venues in which the values of the mainstream culture are practiced with a vengeance.
So, in the absence of a comprehensive and committed decency practice, the habits of thinking and living we cultivate in those arenas will overwhelm the small, private islands of decency we seek to carve out in our off hours. Selfishness, manipulation, defensiveness, rage, withdrawal – some or all of these will almost inevitably infect, our intimate relationships.
And, importantly, we will also punish ourselves. Driving ourselves too hard – as the culture demands – we wind up being self-judgmental and unforgiving when, as is inevitable, we exhibit any of a wide range of human emotions: Confusion, physical and emotional fatigue, fear, and so on.
In short, living in an endemically indecent world, a pick and chose decency will never work.
Radical Decency, by contrast, promises transform our habitual brain from a negative into a positive. The reason? Because applied “radically” – in every context and without exception – decency will, with time and persistence, become our new habit of living and, with that, a trusted ally in our efforts to fundamentally diverge for mainstream culture’s debilitating ways of operating.
Radical Decency is a powerful and intensely practical compass, pointing the way to a better life. The focus isn’t some far-off ultimate goal – how to be “happy” or “fulfilled.” Instead, we work day-by-day, moment-by-moment, on the task of being decent. Doing so, we trust that the habits of mind we are cultivating will powerfully support us in creating a more vibrant and nourishing life.
Here’s how it works.
When across the board decency is our priority, curiosity becomes our habitual state of mind. Why? Because we quickly learn that, in order to make good choices, we need to more deeply understand our motives, feelings and states of mind – and those of others.
One fortunate side effect of chronic curiosity is a decline in our tendency to judge our self and others. Focusing on why we do things requires openness, thoughtfulness, and reflection. And because these states of mind are inconsistent with judgment, this debilitating, culturally induced habit shrinks from inattention.
Note also that a committed Radical Decency practice regularly requires difficult choices. Moment by moment, how do we harmonize and balance decency to our self with decency to others? And what choices should we make when it comes to the thorny issue of allocating an appropriate level of resources to social causes.
In the mainstream culture, standard operating procedure is to duck these issues:
- Ignoring them in the rush to deal with the day-by-day pressures of living; or
- “Solving” them by either ignoring our needs or the needs of others; or
- Latching on to a convenient sophistry to explain them away (“the invisible hand of capitalism will cure our ills”; “giving money to a beggar is enabling”).
Good things happen, however, when we really allow ourselves to be in these “wisdom stretching” moments; fully inhabiting the seemingly irreconcilable dilemmas they create. Doing so, we hone our emotional awareness and analytic skills. We also cultivate:
- The courage to act in uncomfortable situations;
- The patience and self- control to forbear when that is the better choice: and
- The wisdom to know the difference.
Fully inhabiting this process, we become more and more skilled at loving our self and others.
Where does all of this lead? When all that we do is approached with curiosity and growing sense of discernment, we will have 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 expression of the less 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 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 vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.
These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a good life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization. So while Radical Decency is the right thing to do – as Alan might have said – the really exciting news is that it is also its own reward.