Reflection 19: Wisdom Stretching and Across the Board Decency

Radical Decency is a practical, action-oriented philosophy, thoroughly rooted in our day-by-day choices. As a result, there are important “how to” lessons that only emerge from its sustained practice. In this Reflection, I discuss two of these lessons; aspects of Radical Decency that need to be understood if we hope to make it a living reality in our lives and in the world.

  1. The Vital Importance of Across-the-Board Decency

Most approaches to living put a priority on one area of living over others. The mainstream culture, for example, puts financial (and physical) security first, making work the priority. We feel compelled to stay late at the office or go in on weekends because we “have to.” But we have a much more difficult time taking Thursday afternoons off for our kid’s soccer game or to visit mom’s nursing home.

Many “do gooders” are similarly one-sided in their point of emphasis but go to the opposite extreme, privileging others over themselves. The golden rule speaks about “doing unto others” but, even in its most expansive interpretation, soft-pedals how you treat your self.

With Radical Decency, by contrast, our efforts to live differently and better require us to attend to all areas of living. Why? Because our biology demands it.

We are intensely creatures of habit. We are saddled with brains that are designed to work on automatic pilot; that quickly revert to the familiar absent sustained and conscious efforts to do something different.

For this reason, partial approaches to change – what I call “pick and choose” decency – will never work. We tell ourselves we can be decent in one area – to our self and our family (for example) – and, at the same time, “do what we have to do, out there, in the real world.” In the end, however, we continue to:

  • Compulsively compare our self with other – seeking to be the “best” or, at least, “better than”;
  • Slip into manipulative behaviors – lest someone gets the better of us;
  • Squeeze our fun times and private passions into nights and weekends – out of fear that easing up, in any substantial way, will risk our ability to survive and get ahead.

In other words, the indecent values and states of mind that pervade our culture and inform our behaviors at work and in the larger world wind up infiltrating and polluting the small islands of sanity we seek to create.

Recognizing this reality, a successful Radical Decency practice requires an across the board commitment to decency. Our engrained, indecent habits of living can only be changed if we systematically cultivate a new, better set of values at all times, in every context, and without exception.

This is the strong medicine we need to counteract our virulent cultural disease.

  1. Wisdom Stretching As a Way of Life

Radical Decency insists on decency to self even as it challenges us to be decent to others and the world. Even in a perfect world, integrating and balancing these often-conflicting goals would be a tough and uncompromising discipline. But the compete/win cultural context in which we live makes the challenge even more difficult. So, for example, we struggle to be decent to our self and others, even as we deal with the daily onslaught of competitive, me-first behaviors from bosses, co-workers, and customers.

Given these realities, we will inevitably fall short of our “decency” goal, being insensitive to the needs of co-workers (less decency to others) – or neglecting environmentally prudent choices (less decency to the world) – or passively tolerating an abusive boss (less decency to self).

How can to we escape the spirit melting discouragement that these circumstances can so easily provoke? A key answer that has emerged for me, as I have sought to “walk the walk” in my own life, begins with a steady reminder that the philosophy is aspirational; an ideal that we will never fully realize. See Reflection 28, An Aspirational Approach to Living.

Fully embracing this perspective, I am increasingly able to bring a very different mindset to the seemingly insoluble dilemmas that the philosophy regularly presents. Instead of feeling discouraged and defeated, the times when I fall short become “wisdom stretching” moments, opportunities to cultivate and sharpen my “wisdom-ing” skills; to do better the next time.


How does wisdom stretching look in practice? Here is an example, using a familiar hypothetical: What to do I do when a beggar asks me for money?

In this situation, most of us start with an instinctual conclusion – either yes or no – that we then bolster with a handy rationale or two. With Radical Decency, however, my approach is very different. Focusing on process and not the result, it invites me to “sit” in this wisdom-stretching moment and to reflect on its implications for decency to self, others, and the world.

Since only a person in extreme need would beg, giving him money has merit. Focusing solely on decency to this person, I might even offer to buy him a meal.

But what about decency to individuals other than the beggar – and to the world – and to my self?

Encouraging public begging condones a violation of other people’s space (decency to others). And a donation to an appropriate agency, instead, would certainly be more strategic (decency to the world). On the other hand, a charitable donation, at a later time, would negate my publicly modeled act of caring (promoting decency to the world) and the good feeling I derive from a spontaneous act of generosity (decency to self).

Thinking in radically decent terms, other considerations abound. Being approached for money, without my permission, disrespects me (decency to self). On the other hand, equity and justice – 2 of decency’s 7 values – are integral to its implementation. And while the culture’s system of rewards and sanctions has materially enhanced my economic status, it has, in all likelihood, severely penalized his. So perhaps this reality should trump his rudeness.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Given the complexity of the world, and the compromised cultural context in which we operate, our ultimate decisions are seldom fully satisfactory. And that is the case here.

However, a radically decent approach, habitually practiced, changes us. Consistently sitting in wisdom-stretching dilemmas, such as this one, the philosophy highlights the implications of each possible course of action and deepens our understanding of their consequences.

As this “wisdom-stretching” perspective increasingly becomes our habitual perspective, the outcome in any particular moment, while always consequential, increasingly becomes part of a larger mosaic. We see our self, and each of our choices, as part of a larger, ongoing trial and error process. And, the quality of our decency practice is less a function of the quality of the choice we make, in this moment, on this issue, and much more about our ability to act, over time, in ways that more fully and creatively integrate and balance all of decency’s aspirational goals within the context of the imperfect world in which we live.


When we put these 2 “lessons learned” together – applying our wisdom-stretching mindset on the across-the-board basis – note the powerful role Radical Decency can play in overcoming our tendency to quietly retreat from our decency practice in areas of living in which it application feels too scary or uncomfortable; just too big a stretch from our habitual ways.

  • For some, the challenge is decency to the world: Struggling to pay the bills and desperately wanting the “best” for our kids, they retreat from any involvement in the larger community.
  • For others, its decency to others: An inability to take significant time from a demanding job to be a steady, consistent presence in the lives of their children, siblings, or aging parents.
  • And for others, decency to self: Overcoming their fears to stand up to an emotionally abusive spouse or co-worker.

These rubber hits the road issues are huge de-railers of Radical Decency. Unable to follow through on the philosophy’s demands in a key area, we too easily slide quietly back into our mainstream ways; avoiding, in this way, the felt sense of failure that our compromised choices would otherwise provoke.

The key here is not to hide from our shortcomings but to embrace them. Of course we will fall short. As Vikki Reynolds says, we are all in the dirty bathtub.

But with this attitude of self-forgiveness, we also need to be willing to change and grow; to acknowledge the wisdom-stretching implications that our choices, especially in these deal-breaker areas, present; to act in ways that, taking us out of our habitual comfort zones, extend our decency practice more and more fully.

Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for deciding when to act boldly and when to respect our limitations. But if we hope to create better lives and contribute to a better world, these leaps of faith will be required, again and again.

On the more hopeful side, we need to remember – always – that when we embrace this difficult work, we are tending to our own healing and growth. The perspectives, outlooks, and feelings that grow out of our willingness to fully engage with these wisdom-stretching dilemmas are, in the end, their own reward. See Reflection 13, Radical Decency Is Its Own Reward.