Radical Decency is a comprehensive approach to living. It is not about feeling better – or about treating others more decently – or about saving the world. It is about all of that. Moreover, a central premise is that each of these areas is mutually reinforcing. If one is emphasized over the others, our efforts in every area will be hamstrung.
The reason? We are creatures of habit. For this reason, how we treat our self and others tend to converge. If we judge and take advantage of other people, we will tend to be harsh and overly judgmental of our selves. Conversely, decency to others and the world cultivates self-empathy and self-acceptance – and vice versa.
Being creatures of habit dictates a systematic approach to change. Seeking to act differently at home but not at work, or in politics but not in our self-care, we fatally underestimate the extent to which the culture’s indecent values insinuate themselves into the overall texture of our lives. When our efforts are focused on a single area of living, the mainstream values that continue to operate elsewhere, without meaningful challenge, inevitably infiltrate and subvert these more limited islands of decency.
Many healing venues embrace these ideas, at least in principle. Hence the frequent references to holistic healing. The problem, however, is that they seldom follow through on their implications.
Holistic healing typically refers to approaches that encompass mind, body, and spirit. Notice, however, the extent to which this definition focuses on the individual as a discrete and separate entity; on becoming more conversant with what is happening inside the four walls of our body; on how to make our internal systems serve us more effectively.
The shortcoming in this approach is that is fails to fully take account of the context within which we exist. We do not live solely, or even primarily, inside our bodies and brains. To the contrary, we are, at our core, relational beings.
Everything a baby becomes – the way its thinks, feels, and self-regulates – is fundamentally molded by interactions with its primary caregivers. And throughout our lives, the people we live with, and social contexts in which we exist, are the primary drivers of our evolution, growth, and change. As Daniel Siegel, one of our leading neurobiological theorists, describes it, “a person is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains.” In short, it makes no sense to think about a single brain in isolation.
To account for these contextual realities we need to develop a five pronged approach to healing. In addition to mind, body and spirit, our strategies also need to encompass “the practical” and “the radical.”
Our healing strategies need to fully account for our need to effectively negotiate the world as it is – the practical. Meditation – increased body awareness – a spiritual connection with God or the universe – these sorts of initiatives can be extremely helpful. But standing alone, they are incomplete. Equally important are our efforts to carve out a place of reasonable stability and satisfaction, at work and in the larger world. And, as the “money” example discussed below illustrates, our mainstream approaches to healing and growth offer tools, in this area, that are far too tepid.
Because we live in a world that is endemically indecent, simply “fitting in better” – the practical – is not enough. Why? Because fitting in requires us to play by the rules of the mainstream culture, with all of its indecent, spirit-draining demands. We also need to be active agents in molding the environments in which we live: The part of healing I call “the radical.”
My own journey of healing and growth offers an example of what this radical aspect of healing can look like. For much of my adult life, I was an attorney in private practice, operating in a highly demanding and competitive environment. In those years, I found therapists and other teachers who offered many invaluable insights and tools. But, then, I would return to work, where I would rehearse – with enormous focus and energy – the competitive, manipulative, self-aggrandizing values of the mainstream culture.
Certainly change occurred. But it always seemed frustratingly compromised and limited. The really important stuff was squeezed into the relative corners of my life – luncheons carved out of extended work days; evenings that too often started at 7 pm, 8 pm, or later; workouts and runs at 6 am. And with so much time devoted to work, most of my social contact was with people living similar lives; people who, by their example, continually reinforced my conventional ways of operating in the world.
In 1993, I participated in the Essential Experience workshop, an experiential, weekend retreat. While the workshop was great, it was not unique in one very important respect. Like other similar events in my life, it was destined to recede into a warm memory, beginning the very next day – a Monday – when the routines of my life reasserted themselves in earnest.
What was unique about “EE,” however, was the community that earlier workshop graduates had created and sustained. My whole-hearted involvement with this community shifted the context in which I lived, continually placing me in new and different environments that emphasized openness, empathy, and nurturance.
The cumulative impact was, in many ways, subtle and imperceptible –understandable only in retrospect. But it was also seismic. Standing on this different ground, I was gradually able to wean myself from many of the seductive attractions of the mainstream life I’d been living. Over time, I stopped ‘”playing by the rules,” dictated by my job and success oriented mindset. Ultimately, I abandoned the law entirely, becoming a psychotherapist; a profession that actually supported and reinforced my accelerating commitment to healing and growth.
At a systemic level, money offers a prime example of an area where we need to more fully integrate more traditional healing – mind, body, and spirit – with culturally based approaches – the practical and the radical. Few areas are more emotionally fraught. And yet, notice how the relevant “healers” – that is, the people who purport to deal with our issues around money – are isolated from one another.
You can talk to a therapist about your money issues, but most will quickly admit that they have no particular sophistication around its practical aspects. On the other hand, there is an endless supply of financial planners, accountants, stockbrokers, insurance agents and so on to advise you on how to manage your money. But these people are just as forthright in telling you that they aren’t there to deal with the murky world of emotions.
What is needed, instead, is an approach that integrates the various healing perspectives around money. Suppose, for example, a couple planning to write a will began with a coaching session to deal with the highly emotional issues that so frequently arise in this context – with, perhaps, the attorney or financial planner present. Or, alternatively, suppose the attorney consulted with a therapist prior to meeting with the couple? The benefits to the couple are, I think, obvious.
Equally important are the ways in which the perspectives of the two professionals would expand and enrich each other. Integrating their services, the lawyers and financial experts would be far more actively engaged in the emotional aspects of healing and growth (mind, body, and spirit). And, on their side, the therapists would get invaluable, on the job training in the practical aspects of financial planning and money management (the practical).
Then, if their approaches were grounded in a systematic commitment to decency in every aspect of life – Radical Decency’s fundamental prescription for truly transformative change – the contribution of each would also invite clients to become active agents in molding the environments in which they live – the radical.
Here’s how that would work.
Steeped in this values-based perspective, the financial experts would shift away from the current mainstream norms, in their profession; perspectives that push preservation of wealth and maximization of income as the only legitimate priorities and are indifferent to the larger social implications of clients’ choices. So, for example, a more sensible discussion of socially conscious choices as a consumer and investor would emerge, not out of some theoretical do-gooder agenda but, instead, as a way in which clients could sensible extend their decency habits into new areas of living.
On the therapists’ side, the shift would be equally dramatic. In their profession, the current, mainstream norms are even more pernicious, ruling out any active support and guidance around clients’ detailed financial choices at all – practical or radical.
However, collaborating with the financial experts, and with a radically decent mindset, the therapists would become active participants in the dialogue about their clients’ choices as consumers and investors, adding their emotional wisdom to the conversation around these (and other, similar) issues.