Reflection 74: Radical Decency — A User’s Guide

Radical Decency is an idea that began coming together, for me, in the summer of 2000. 

With a long history of involvement with both social justice and personal growth activities – and too much time on my hands (I was between jobs) – I began to puzzle over this perplexing fact: Most social justice activists are unsympathetic with personal growth initiatives and, on the flip side, personal growth types are seldom among the committed few that made social justice a priority.

To unravel this mystery, my wife and I started a small public foundation, offering grants to organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth.  This 3-year adventure into grant-making led to this realization:  At bottom, the best initiatives on each side of this divide seek to apply a single set of values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – the difference being that one is focused on the individual, the other on politics.

Armed with this realization, I began suggesting that fully empowered change initiatives need to apply these values across the board – to our selves, others, and the world – and to do so at all times and without exception; hence Radical Decency.

Since then I have been working out the implications of this approach to living, exemplified by Reflection series, now in its 6th year.  What has emerged is series of principles and outlooks – implicit in Radical Decency – that are key to creating and sustaining a vibrant Radical Decency practice.  This Reflection describes these practices.  

1.     Strive to understand the limits – and potentialities – of your biology.

Since decency to self is an essential aspect of Radical Decency, the idea of ignoring or quashing (as opposed to appropriately managing) key parts of your self – your anger, vulnerability, sadness, or fear of death and dying – is a non-starter.   Decency to self demands respect for the limitations of your biology.

On the other side of the equation, however, Radical Decency practitioners need to be equally committed to testing their potentialities.  One reality of our biology is that we can heal and grow, at times in amazing and unanticipated ways.  And since we live in a culture in which the predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – push us toward indecent choices, very few of us have explored the upper limit of our capacity for decency. 

Thus, as practitioners of Radical Decency, we need to vigorously explore this potential for decency; the taken-for-granted (indecent) habits of living that, with focus and persistence, can be changed, even as we respect the limits our complex biology imposes on this process.

2.     Embrace Radical Decency’s endless “wisdom-stretching” moments.

Striving to be simultaneously decent to your self, others and the world is a heck of a juggling act, even in the best of circumstances.  And, unfortunately, we live in a world that values decisiveness and domination, and not reflection.

In this environment, you will find very little support for patiently sitting in the many perplexing and uncomfortable situations in which, for example:

  • Your needs and those of your spouse, friend or co-worker seem hopelessly at odds; or
  • You are challenged to be empathic to – and, even, accepting and appreciative of – the humanity of a person whose political views are deeply at odds with yours.

And yet, Radical Decency demands a whole-hearted commitment to this process.

The really good news, however, is that the results of this commitment are magical, once you learn to tolerate (and, even, embrace with equanimity) its frustrations.  Avoiding a rush to judgment, sitting in not knowing, you will deepen your insights and broaden the context in which you view these wisdom-stretching issues, all in effort to find common ground.  This process is the essence of  “wisdom-ing,” the activity whose expectable (though not inevitable) by-product is increasing discernment, balance and wisdom.   

3.     Be an avid student of how the world works.     

The cues, incentives and sanctions that keep us rooted in the predominant culture’s compete and win, dominate and control mindset are deeply embedded in every aspect of our lives.  Thus, one of Radical Decency’s key challenges is to break free from the seemingly endless habits of living that pull us back toward the culture’s behavioral norms – and away from the day-by-day choices that operationalize decency in our lives. 

To do this well, we need to be students of the mainstream culture in all of its aspects.  Our habitual attitudes and ways of being with our selves, and family and friends; our low expectations when it comes to politicians; our “grades are everything” approach to education – we need to understand how these and so many other mainstream ways of operating infiltrate and mold our lives – if we hope to free ourselves from their influence.

4.     Practice decency across-the-board, and not on a pick and choose basis.

To be successful in changing our lives and making a meaningful contribution to a better world, we need to practice Radical Decency at all times, in every context, and without exception. 

One very positive aspect of this across-the-board commitment to decency is that you begin to see Radical Decency’s possibilities in areas that might otherwise seem to be infertile soil or, even, enemy territory. 

Here’s how this process works.

Radical Decency’s seven values provide a constant reminder that we all make sense given our history, innate disposition, and hopes and dreams for the future. Committed to bringing this understanding to each person with whom you interact – even “that” person who viscerally pushes all your buttons – you will dramatically increase your ability to stay present and to create a common ground of understanding.  

But the more fundamental point about across-the-board decency is this:

  • Biologically, we are intensely creatures of habit; wired, absent focused and sustained effort, to do in future what we have done in the past; and
  • The values that predominate in our culture are deeply embedded in our taken for granted ways of being and in virtually all of the schools, businesses, media outlets and other organizations through which our lives are organized.

For these reasons, a pick and choose approach to decency – with our family and friends but not at work; in our spiritual community but not our politics – will never work.  Faced with the mainstream culture’s relentless pressures, a part-time decency practice will inevitably recede back toward the culture’s business as usual ways of operating.

5.     Remember, always, that Radical Decency is aspirational. No one is radically decent.

Vikki Reynolds said it best:  We are all in the dirty bathtub.  No one escapes the influence of the mainstream culture’s values in their lives.  For this reason, Radical Decency is more sensibly seen, not as a stable state of being, but as an ongoing journey into the unknown.  

Working from perspective, “being” radically decent is no longer the Holy Grail.  Instead, success is measured by our willingness to make Radical Decency our highest priority and by the focus, persistence, imagination, and sheer guts with which we pursue it.

In this respect, meditation provides an excellent analogy. While long-term practitioners never eliminate their brain’s distractability, this does not mean they have failed.  To the contrary, persisting in their practice over the years – trying and falling short, trying again and “failing” again – they fundamentally shift their outlook and way of living. In this way, a committed meditator chips away at engrained, biologically determined mindsets.  And, in an analogous way, a dedicated Radical Decency practitioner chips away at our engrained, social determined ways of being.  

6.     Because Radical Decency is its own reward, never let your shortcomings and disappointments derail you.

If all this sounds like hard work, it should.  Radical Decency is a demanding discipline.  But here’s the thing.  Because the day-by-day demands of a committed decency practice also nurture the attributes of vibrant and nourishing life, it is not just the right thing to do.  It is also its own reward, cultivating 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;

Appreciation, empathy, acceptance, and love for your self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control;

Clarity and coherence about your priorities and choices, which leads to less anxiety and an increased sense of ease in life; and

An ennobling sense of purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust and an increased sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.