Reflection 42: It’s Not As Bad As You Think – It’s Worse

I thought that – after six plus decades of living, two careers, and innumerable experiences in both the public and private sectors – my capacity for surprise at the depth of our moral and intellectual corruption had played itself out. Then, I read Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

Lewis tells a story that we know all too well: The explosive growth and ultimate collapse of the subprime mortgage market, in 2008. When I started the book, I was reasonably well informed about most of the movable parts that led to this historic economic debacle. I also had a sense of the greed, herd mentality, and short-term mindsets that fueled it.

But Lewis provides an unusually vivid and detailed roadmap for how it all worked and, equally, for the attitudes and taken-for-granted ways of operating that made it possible. Knowing in a general way that something is corrupt and unseemly is one thing. Getting a blow by blow description of the many, many wildly corrupt choices that so many made, at so many different levels, is quite another.

One of the story’s most powerful lessons is the sheer depth and virulence of the manipulation and self-aggrandizement that seemed to be the unquestioned mindset of virtually every participant. This was no benign financial bubble, where a product (“dot com” companies, silver, tulips in 17th century Holland) caught fire and had its price driven up by irrational optimism and the market’s herd mentality.

In this case, really clever people used their enormous economic power, and an unbounded lust for outsized profits, to create a highly suspect product: Subprime mortgages. They then transformed them, through financial sleight-of-hand, into a blue chip seeming investments – triple A rated bonds – to be sold (and re-sold) to unsuspecting investors. The pay-off: Enormous fees for the corporate originators of the mortgages and bonds, and multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses.

Lewis’ story vividly illustrates the extent to which we have devolved into an atomistic, every person for himself society. The fate of our fellow citizens, the financial system, and the country – all of these are someone else’s problem. Indeed, even Lewis’ “heroes” – a handful of people who saw what was coming – were focused, not on its social consequences, but on how to “short” this ill conceived market in order to make their own financial killing (hence, the book’s title).


An aspect of Lewis’ narrative that graphically illustrates this larger pattern of pervasive, systemically engrained corruption involves the role of the rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch. These companies provide risk assessing “grades” for bonds and other financial products. And their importance is unquestioned. Indeed, many pension funds and other investors are limited by law or internal guidelines to “safe” Triple A rated investments.

One glaring problem with the system – one no one hides – is the fact that the investment banks pay the rating agencies to grade their bonds. A reasonably intelligent investor would, you would think, be concerned that the agencies might go easy on the people who pay their bills. But as Lewis explains, the structural problems go much deeper. And this is where his story – here and elsewhere – becomes revelatory.

In many respects, the mistakes of the rating agencies and banks were identical. Wanting to flog the money machine – rather than slow it down – no one, seemingly, thought to systematically examine the underlying mortgages. Instead, the prevailing belief was that the bonds’ diversity (the mortgages were drawn from all over the country), an ever-rising housing market, and other macro factors ensured their safety.

Because their sole reason for being is to assess risk, you would think the rating agencies would have gone farther. And, in fact, they did have “secret” formulas for assessing each offering’s risk. But, as Lewis points out, rating agencies are populated with people who can’t get jobs at Goldman Sachs and the other, sexier banks and hedge funds; people who, in terms of intelligence and drive, are typically overmatched.

So when it came to ensuring the quality of the bonds backed by subprime mortgage pools, here is what we, the public, were left with: Secret formulas crafted by relative lightweights – whose dedication was already compromised by their firms’ dependence on fees received from the very companies whose products they were rating.

And – no surprise here – the financial heavy weights at the investment banks systematically gamed the rating agencies so-called secret formulas. They quickly figured out their weaknesses, exploiting them so that lousy products could still get a Triple A rating.

In other words, bald cheating was routine and, indeed, was seen as smart, aggressive business. Never mind that the junk that flooded the system was sold to the investment banks’ own customers; people to whom, you would think, they felt at least some duty of loyalty and fair dealing.

To illustrate how this gaming process worked, Lewis describes one aspect of the rating agency’s formula: Their use of FICO scores to measure the credit worthiness of the borrowers who held the underlying mortgages. To earn a Triple A rating, the FICO scores of the borrowers, in the pool of mortgages being rated, had to average out to at least 515.

Quickly figuring this out, the investment bankers realized that no distinction was being made between a “thick” FICO score – based on years of credit history – and a “thin” one. So, they would bring the overall average up by finding borrowers with high FICO scores but no reliable credit history; a person, for example, who once got a credit card, paid the bill, and never bought on credit again. And rather that craft a portfolio of 515s, they further gamed the system by balancing the 400s (almost certain to default) with an equal number of 650s – thin or otherwise.

This cynical manipulation of the rating agencies and, in turn, the purchasers who relied upon them, is just one of many stories that Lewis tells. We also learn about CEOs who didn’t understand the markets their most profitable products were traded in; reckless and sociopathic traders who were rewarded with multi-million dollar bonuses; and a system where virtually every major player’s reflexive response to the market’s looming collapse was to hide the truth as long possible – so they could sell as many of their bad investments to others, including (with no apparent compunction) their own customers.

In short we are given an in-depth X-ray into a system where lying is routine, loyalty nonexistent, and profits the only measure of success. And, sad to say, the tepid reforms that have been passed in the aftermath of the market’s meltdown have done far too little to alter this culture.


Lewis’ story, by driving home the depth and pervasiveness of these behaviors, reminds us that reform efforts are far more challenging, today, than they were even 40 years ago. When a behavior becomes the norm, we lose our ability to view it as dysfunctional. That is why entire populations can embrace fascism (as in Germany and Italy); genocide (as in Rwanda or the Balkans); and countless, senseless wars throughout history.

My sense is that we have reached that point in business. Many smaller businesses continue to operate in the old fashioned way – offering good products at a fair price; treating employees and others with some modicum of respect. But as you move up the pyramid in terms of size, the qualities that Lewis describes are, increasingly, the unquestioned norm.

We live, after all, in a world where Donald Trump is celebrated media celebrity even as he sells his name to unscrupulous developers and a bogus university. So one very serious challenge we face, if we hope to make things better, is to remold our collective consciousness so that, once again, fraud, recklessness, negligence, self-dealing, price gouging, and so on are viewed as disreputable – and not as business as usual.

Lewis’ narrative is also a dramatic reminder that, as ordinary citizens, there is so much we don’t know. Being reminded of that fact, another important take away is the huge price we pay when our leaders temporize in their critiques – as they habitually do – when it is politically expedient.

When Bush invaded Iraq, for example, virtually every political leader went along with it because, given the country’s prevailing mood, it was the “smart” move. In that case, however, since the issues were clear and the arguments against readily available, the consequences were somewhat contained.

But the subprime mortgage crisis stands in stark contrast to Iraq. As Lewis’ detailed accounting vividly demonstrates, we ordinary citizens had virtually no ability to understand the crisis as it unfolded – or, even now, after the fact. In this case, our willingness to tolerate endemically cautious, politically driven leaders – leaders who refuse to lead – is even more dangerous. Given the unavoidable, and increasing complexity of the world in which we live, we desperately need leaders who will actively identify and explain problems – and, crucially, speak aggressively and fearlessly to power.

Reflection 41: Safety and Aliveness

Life is an impossible deal.  We arrive here – and leave – through no choice of our own. While we are here, there is no roadmap for what to do, or – if there is – we have no idea what the right one is out of all the ones being proposed.  And, to seal this (impossible) deal, we know all this.

Oh to be a dog!  At 12, they never brood over the fact that their best years are behind them.  And at the moment of death, all they know is the comfort of their beloved owner’s arms and the pinch of the vet’s needle. 

But while self-awareness is our greatest burden, it also creates life’s most redemptive possibilities.   

Central to Radical Decency is a forthright acceptance of this unforgiving equation.  Instead of ignoring life’s fundamental mysteries, or presuming to answer to them, we seek to more deeply understand the inherent limitations of our biology and neurobiology, as well as its intricacies, contradictions, and potentialities.  Then, working with our flawed humanity – with all of its demoralizing shortcomings and equally stunning moments of transcendence – we seek to create lives that are more loving and decent to ourselves, others, and the world.  This is the essence of decency to self.


Daniel Siegel is one of psychotherapy’s most generative, contemporary thinkers.  In seeking to operationalize this approach to living, he offers a frame of reference that, as you work through its implications, has a lot to teach us:  Viewing life as a river, one of the banks is safety; the other aliveness. 

His thought is that, beneath all of our busy-ness, we long for a comfortable balance between these two state’s of mind, with life’s central dilemma being this:  With too much stability, we feel flat and drab.  But if we veer too far to the other extreme – constantly reaching for stimulation and excitement – we can too easily slip into overly stressed, emotionally fraught, unstable habits of living.


Siegel’s metaphor castes an uncomfortable spotlight on the typical life journey our competitive, win/lose culture invites.  The high road to a safe and secure life is, we are repeatedly told, to compete and win.  Go to the best possible schools, get the most financially rewarding job, accumulate more and more money – so the vagaries of life can’t touch us.

Immersed in this world-view from grade school forward, the idea of a job that is exciting and soul nourishing – that feeds our need for liveliness – is, for many, a nonstarter. Better to leap into a career as an accountant, salesman, or human resources administrator.  Never mind that, right from the start, it feels like a spirit deadening slog and sets us up for lives that feel flat, boring, demoralizing or, even worse, filled with dread.  

For others, an exciting, vibrant job is – at least initially – a part of the equation.  But then, all to often, the pressure to be safe overwhelms the dream.  We start off with the ennobling goal of teaching children but wind up enforcing order on 30 unruly kids, and force-feeding information so they can get better scores on the standardized tests by which the school is judged.  We endure these and other indignities – the slow death of our dreams – because we “have to;” to protect our income, benefits, and pension.

The thing that is so dispiriting in all of this is that the entire proposition – equating safety with financial security – is so deeply flawed.  So long as it lasts, a stable job and good income does provide a certain level of security.  But we live in a world where markets crash, and corporations and entire industries disappear overnight.  So the idea that money can be the secure cornerstone of safety in life is, for most of us, an illusion. 

The deeper truth, moreover, is that no amount of money can buffer us from life’s unforgiving equation.  For all of us, inevitably: A child will lose his way; a spouse, desperately seeking to rekindle her own aliveness, will leave; a loved one will die; illness and injury will diminish us. 

The net result?  Driven by our culturally engrained need to succeed, we eagerly give ourselves over to spirit draining jobs, grievously neglecting, in the process, our need for emotional, intellectual, and spiritual stimulation.  But in the end, the promised pay-off in terms of safety simply isn’t there.  We wind up with the worst of all possible worlds – a life lacking in both safety and aliveness.

But the dismal equation does not end here.  While safety is the main preoccupation in this success driven life, that does not mean that our longing for aliveness disappears.  To the contrary, the need for stimulation is a fundamental part of our nature.  But because it is so habitually de-emphasized and suppressed, it is usually expressed in less satisfying and, often, less healthy ways.

In the best-case scenario, our longing for aliveness finds constructive albeit limited expression in the relationships and activities we pursue in our “spare time” – nights, weekends, and vacations.  But all too often, we settle for debased forms of stimulation: The rat-tat-tat of computer games – a pre-occupation with the successes and failures of our favorite football team – the consuming stimulation of work’s competitive dramas – drugs and alcohol – the endorphin hit of sex.  Our flawed pursuit of safety is matched by an equally flawed pursuit of aliveness.


There is no easy way to stand apart from this culturally prescribed way of operating.  Because we have to make a living, we need to find some workable compromise with the mainstream culture.  But accepting this fact also means that the incentives and sanctions that push us – to do the “smart” thing, to go along to get ahead, to conform – will continue to bear down on us in earnest.

Radical Decency offers a pathway for navigating this territory; to get by in the world as it is and, at the same time, to craft lives that more effectively nurture our safety and aliveness.  The key to the approach is to focus, not on ultimate goals – happiness and inner peace; aliveness and safety – but on the concrete, day-by-day choices that, as they accumulate, define our lives.

Pursuing happiness directly, we tend toward behaviors that are intense and instantly gratifying.  But pursuing highs puts us on an emotional rollercoaster that is at odds with the goal – crucial to Siegel’s model – of a comfortable and sustainable balance between safety and aliveness.  In other words, a direct approach to happiness is a flawed model.

Radical Decency, by contrast, sends us out in the world, each day, seeking to be decent in all that we do – to our self, others, and the world.  Steadily attending to this task changes us.  We become more curious and less judgmental; more thoughtful, creative, and intuitive; more rooted in the present; more discerning in our choices. 

As these habits of mind become more and more engrained, happiness – a comfortable and growing sense of safety and aliveness – is its natural by-product. 

With this approach, safety is based, not on economic security, but on the comfort that comes from clear and coherent priorities and a growing sense of appreciation, empathy and acceptance for our selves and others.  Similarly, our aliveness is nurtured, not by highs, but by the vibrant, moment-by-moment sense of purpose that results when we fully commit to being decent to our self, others and the world, all times and in every area of living.

Notice also that a committed Radical Decency practice steadily guides us away from a life organized around the endless pursuit of wealth.  While economic security is a legitimate goal, decency to self also requires intimacy and companionship, novelty and play, rest and relaxation, and simple respect for our physical and psychological processes and rhythms.  And, decency to others and the world requires a meaningful commitment of time and energy as well.

If we tend to these goals with the seriousness of purpose they require, a progressive re-ordering of our priorities – away from the unrelenting demands of work and career – will naturally and progressively unfold.  Jobs that require us to habitually sacrifice our personal, family and communal goals will cease to be of interest.  Instead, we will be drawn to careers and jobs – and bosses and co-workers – who treat themselves and others with respect, and have a sense of vocation and service to others and the world. 

In short, Radical Decency invites us to systematically cultivate habits of mind that decisively diverge from the values of the mainstream culture.  And as these more decent ways of operating play a more and more central role in our lives, they offer the powerful antidote we need to resist the relentless pressures of our mainstream, win/lose culture, even as we find an appropriate place within it.

These ongoing choices — bold and, at the same time, realistic — are the surest pathway to a life that creatively interweaves safety and aliveness.

Reflection 40: Size Matters

  • In 1964, Joe Namath signed a $400,000 contract. It was huge news. Today, $100 million plus contracts, for second tier sports stars, are commonplace.
  • In 1960, America’s 5 largest companies had, on average, $498 million in profits. By 2010, that number had grown to $12.2 billion.
  • In 1982 – its first year – the average net worth of Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans was $285 million. By 2008: Almost $4 billion.

Wrapping our brains around the true dimensions of this explosion of private wealth is an extraordinarily difficult task.

Equally hard to understand is a similar explosion in the size and reach of the mainstream culture’s propaganda and reality molding machine; an apt term for the de-centralized but highly coherent set of values-based messages and cultural cues – compete and win, dominate and control – in which we are immersed.

Coming to gripes with these seismic shifts in the context within which we live is vitally important. Failing to do so, we will never grasp the enormity of the challenge we face as we seek to meaningfully contribute to a different and better world. We will too easily settle for change strategies that are far too tepid and limited in scope.

This is the issue I discuss below.


Understanding this vast shift in wealth is, at bottom, an order of magnitude problem. A billion isn’t just bigger than a million. It’s a lot bigger. And a trillion is way, way bigger than a billion.

Here’s one way to look at it. Suppose you had decided to count your money, dollar by dollar, with each dollar counted consuming one second. Also assume that your the goal was to finish the job just as we reached the year 2000. If you had $1 million, your count would have to start the morning of December 21, 1999. If you had $1 billion, you would start in April 1969. And if you had $1 trillion, your starting point would have been in 29,710 BCE – more than 20,000 years before we humans developed our first written numbering systems.

Going back to the numbers quoted earlier: In 1960 America’s 5 largest companies would have started to count their profits, on average, in March 1984. By 2008, however, their counts would have started in March 1614 (two years before Shakespeare’s death). And the counting time for the net worth of the Forbes 400 would have been pushed back from January 1991 (in 1982) to June 1875 (in 2008).

Notice, also, the “plight” of our best professional athletes who make a lot of money but who are, we need to remember, hired employees and not owners or investors. Thus, while they make enormous sums of money their slice of the pie is, in relative terms, chump change – and increasingly so. While Joe Namath would have started his count around noon on December 27, 1999, today’s $100 million athlete would only be pushed back to October 1996, a graphic reminder of where true economic power lies.


This order of magnitude analysis provides a hard dose of financial reality as we assess the effectiveness of conventional change efforts. Increasingly the nonprofit sector is being asked to fill the void created by the steady erosion of the government’s social safety net. And yet in contrast with the exponential growth in private wealth, the increase in charitable giving has been tepid –from $55 billion in 1980 to $217 billion in 2010

In comparative terms, while – in the early 1980s – the net worth of America’s 400 richest people outstripped the accumulated wealth of the entire nonprofit sector by a factor of 5 to 1, this differential had grown to 20 to 1 by 2010.

In short, an always-present fiscal mismatch has turned into a route. Our current reality is this: Massively outgunned in terms of lobbyists, lawyers, political contributions, and advertising budgets, the possibility of effecting meaningful reform through traditional political processes has become more and more implausible.


These same years have also experienced a comparable, explosive growth in the mainstream culture’s propaganda/reality molding machine. But because its emergence has been gradual, it is difficult to fully grasp its scope. And in contrast to the shifts in private wealth, our understandings in this area are further complicated by the fact that the change is so diffuse and difficult to quantify. For these reasons, its effects are even more pernicious.

This sort of cultural brainwashing is, needless to say, not new. Embedded cultural cues that make people “wrong” when they don’t do what their “betters” expect have always been with us. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw iconic example – Eliza Doolittle, the poor flower girl who could pass for a duchess but only after she learned the “right” way to talk, walk, and dress – was created over 100 years ago.

The last half-century, however, has been different. The culture’s reality molding machine has expanded to unprecedented levels, driven by two key factors:

  1. The enormous increase in wealth wielded by the individuals and institutions with the greatest stake in reinforcing and intensifying our mainstream ways of operating; and
  2. The vast array of technological advances that have so greatly expanded the intensity, persistence, and reach of their messages.

To begin to appreciate this seismic growth, it is useful to compare the 1950s – when I came of age – with today’s world.

Back then there were just a handful of TV stations – which stop broadcasting at midnight – a couple of local newspapers, and a handful of weekly and monthly magazines. So each day offered any number of taken-for-granted places of refuge from the messages of the mainstream culture:

  • Late at night when there was, literally, nothing to watch;
  • In the evening hours between your favorite TV shows;
  • On weekend mornings when all that TV offered was Sunrise Semester and cartoons;
  • On your daily drive to and from work;
  • During the natural lulls that occurred at work, because letters took days to arrive.

In this pre-computer/Xbox world, leisure activities were also, far more commonly, our own creations: Card and board games, playing catch with the kids, riding a bike, reading a book. It was also a time when having friends and family over to your house for drinks and dinner – a taken for granted activity in 19th century novels – was still a regular part of life’s routine.

All of that is now gone or strikingly diminished. We are plugged in all the time.

  • Our computers and smart phones are our constant companions;
  • Texting, face book and email saturate our lives with instantaneous communication;
  • The TV is a nonstop source of whatever entertainment suites our fancy – news, sports, shopping, movies, even pornography.

And it’s all available – or inconveniently present – on demand: In the car, at the beach, even in the bathroom.


While these new toys are delightfully distracting, they extract a heavy price. Why? Because the subtext of so much of what they offer embodies and reinforces the corrosive values that dominate our culture: Compete and win, dominate and control.

We are awash in nonstop messages that push us to want more, to buy more and, in general, to be perfect and invulnerable: Poised and articulate; youthful, thin, and attractive; hard working, successful, and rich; winners in whatever we do.

At times these messages are explicit, offered as product ads or commentary. But far more pervasive and influential are their implicit expressions: The story lines and characters in the shows we watch; and, equally, the ways in which our celebrities – actors, entertainers, TV hosts, reporters, commentators, and politicians – present themselves and conduct their lives.

For me, the depth to which these messages have taken root is exemplified by NPR’s routine editing of interviews to eliminate every “ah,” “umm,” and other verbal stumble. Even at NPR, apparently, we are not ok – not publicly presentable – until every pimple and unseemly bulge has been made to disappear.


These pervasive messages deeply impact our effort to create better lives and a better world. To begin with, we cannot avoid them. We are all in the dirty bathtub. And in the last 50 years, the bathtub has gotten a lot dirtier.

In addition, it has become more and more difficult to find kindred spirits with whom we can align in our effort to create better lives and a better world.

When it comes to the culture’s predominant values, we are literally drenched in cues that define us. Our jobs and schools – where we live – how we dress and accessorize – how we talk – what we eat and drink – they all point to where (and how well) we fit in, in the mainstream culture.

But what are the reliable indicators of a person who consistently seeks to be decent to themselves, others and the world? While these people do exist, the catalogue of social cues that allow you to identify them is strikingly thin. Such a person could be sitting across from you at lunch or be working in the office down the hall, and you might never have a clue.

And, unfortunately, we live in a world in which expressions of concern – a potentially important marker in our search for kindred spirits – have been co-opted by the mainstream culture. Empathic words and symbolic acts of charity have become a kind of affective camouflage, used to make our competitive, self-aggrandizing pre-occupations more acceptable to others – and to ourselves. In this environment, how do you tease out the genuine article, your real allies, from this endless stream of faux reformers?


With these examples I hope to demonstrate how important orders of magnitude are in understanding the enormous impact that the values, predominant in the mainstream culture, have in our lives.

But as much as size matters in understanding the dimensions of the challenge, it matters even more as we craft our responses. We need to conceive of change strategies that, as they take root, can become comparable in scope and impact to the problems they seek to address. In other Reflections I seek to make a creative contribute to that effort. See, for example, Reflection #15 (identifying business as a key strategic focus); and Reflection #45 (describing a more deeply collaborative approach to social change).

Radical 39: A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned

Work dominates our lives. It consumes the best hours of the majority of our days – for most of our adult lives. It is also the place where the wildly overstated values that dominate our culture find their most unrestrained expression. For these reasons, it needs to be a key area of focus as we seek to operationalize Radical Decency.

Two factors make change in the workplace more immediately feasible than, say, change via the political process.

The first is its hierarchical structure. While the pressures of the competitive marketplace are great – a point discussed below – business owners have the power, if they chose, to implement Radical Decency within their organizations.

The second factor is, ironically, its amorality. In business, values are not a priority. What matters is profitability. If the standard ways of operating dictate a competitive dog-eat-dog approach, they will employ these tactics. Equally, however, if Radical Decency becomes the new norm, they will adopt that approach instead. Businesses won’t resist a different and better set of prevailing values, they will simply adjust.

With these thoughts in mind, one key goal I have in mind is to demonstrate that a radically decent business in not only possible but is, in fact, an entirely sound and profitable model. I discuss these ideas in greater detail in Reflection #15, “Social Justice – Focusing on Business.”

In the summer of 2005, I set out to create such a business, joining together with a group of “healers” in a practice that came to include psychotherapy, life coaching, chiropractic, message therapy, and financial planning. The goal was to create a truly holistic healing practice based on the principles of Radical Decency. See Reflection # 24, Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical.

The experiment lasted three years and, while the business ultimately closed, we learned a lot of valuable lessons in the process. A few of the more important lessons are discussed below.

Lesson #1: Be clear, specific, and persistent in describing what Radical Decency is and how it impacts every aspect of your business.

Why? Because if you don’t do this, many of the outsiders with whom you deal – customers, vendors, referral sources, investors, lenders – will fail to get the message. They will assume you are just like everyone else; just another business with a catchy marketing slogan on your marketing material and business card: “Progress is our most important product;” “the customer always comes first.” And, they will expect and encourage the sharp practices that are the marketplace’s norms.

This process – if it takes hold – contains two dangers. The first is a squandering of precious time and energy as you seek to work with people who, because Radical Decency is your unbending first priority, you should never have been engaged with in the first place.

The second danger is a more subtle process of seduction. In seeking to create a radically decent business, the greatest risk is not a cynical abandonment of the philosophy’s core values. It is, instead, an almost imperceptible, decision-by-decision retreat to the cultural norm.

Given the pressure to be profitable, saying no to “gray area” deals, strategies, and tactics can be excruciatingly difficult. And putting a brake on this process requires continual attention to the many ways in which a wall-to-wall commitment to Radical Decency affects your operations.

In business, the encompassing values that give the philosophy its juice affect, quite literally, everything – from marketing and pricing to the ways in which employees, vendors, competitors, neighbors and the environment are treated. If you are not attentive to the philosophy’s seemingly endless implications, the pull of business as usual practices will be too automatic and too strong to resist.

In our business, Radical Decency’s principles were explicitly written into our governance procedures and ultimately found their way into 11 principles for operating a small business. In addition, one regular staff meeting a month was devoted solely to the intricacies of its application and we worked hard to explicitly honor its principles in our other meetings as well. In retrospect, I wish we had also reinforced the message through a more detailed manual of principles and procedures, an in-depth orientation for new employees, and regular staff seminars and retreats.

Lesson #2: Be careful, discerning and patient as your build your staff and support team (accountants, attorneys, etc.).

Radical Decency sounds easy – and who could be against it? But its actual implementation in a business environment is very tricky. Because businesses have to be profitable, conventional financial success needs to be priority 1A, standing side-by-side in importance with – but clearly subordinate to – the goal of creating a radically decent enterprise. In other words, in that hypothetical 10-20% zone where Radical Decency and profit driven choices seem to conflict, the business’ underlying values need to clearly and decisively prevail.

When is comes to building a staff and support team, finding people who know how to make money in conventional ways is relatively easy. Equally, people can be found who put their values first.

But finding both together – people who combine a determination to make Radical Decency a priority and, in addition, are committed to the hard work and focus that a successful financial enterprise require – is much more difficult.

What we discovered was that traps exist in both directions. On the one side, competent people would arrive, saying all the right things about Radical Decency. But as we got into the nitty-gritty of working together, they were unable to break out of their conventional, business as usual modes of thinking.

The most poignant example was a key professional who struggled to trust that the division of profits would fairly reflect his economic contribution. In the midst of our negotiations with him, he was diagnosed with a condition that threatened his ability to practice his profession.

Seeking to be true to our principles, we gave him the right to re-tool in a less physically demanding healing modality – when the time came – and, in addition, agreed to pay him a percentage of the profits from the practice he’d built to that point in time. However, within months of reaching this agreement, he left, unable to the escape the belief – encouraged, very predictably, by his attorney – that we, his business partners, we were intent on taking advantage of him.

On the flip side were co-workers who warmly embraced Radical Decency but seemed to confuse decency with a lack of accountability on the productivity side of the ledger. The hard truth is that, when an employee’s non-workplace needs are acknowledged and accommodated, he, in turn, has a special responsibility to strike a workable balance between those needs and the business’ need to be profitable.

In retrospective, we were too forgiving on both sides of the equation. At times, we overlooked the warning signs with productive employees who lacked the requisite decency commitment. At other times, we allowed accountability to slide with well-intentioned people who simply lacked the commitment to priority 1A – the business’ economic success.

My counsel to people seeking to create radically decent businesses is to pick your collaborators with care and, if possible, test them out before committing. Then, pay attention to the evidence on both sides of the equation – and trust your gut:

  • Is this person actively interested in Radical Decency?
  • Does he read the material that discusses the philosophy with a lively interest?
  • Does he raise issues – on his own initiative – about how to apply it? Or does he effectively put the philosophy aside when he turns to the day-to-day practicalities of running the business?

And on the business side, don’t be seduced by the person’s philosophical compatibility. Remember to be discerning about his competence and willingness to work hard.

Lesson #3: Strive for profitability but don’t let fear of financial failure drive you.

Business is tough and reaching boldly for a better way to do it makes it tougher. So, when years of hard work are at risk, the temptation is to let go of your larger goals for the sake of economic survival. But business as usual is the easy option. If you can’t make a go of it financially, better to wrap things up and try again. Settling for just another job – just another business – is life’s booby prize.

In this respect I am proud of what we did. After 3 years of hard work, we closed our doors. But my abiding belief is that we grew from the experience and took invaluable lessons from it that each of us, in our own way, are applying in our new professional endeavors. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Reflection 38: Three Dimensions of Love

As a psychotherapist in private practice, coaching couples is one of my abiding passions. Indeed, it was the transformative couples work that my wife, Dale, and I did in the 1990s that was the catalyst for each of us becoming a therapist.

Intimate romantic relationship is a recurring theme in the Reflection series. I have written about its enormous potential for healing and growth (#33), and how to fight more effectively (#53). I have also offered strategies for more effectively being with your romantic partner – at times of conflict (## 3 and 86) and, in calmer times, when things are going more smoothly (#10). I have also written extensively about the challenge of moving through the patriarchal patterns that are so engrained in our culture and so deeply affect our intimate relationships (## 57, 61, 69, and 72).

My goal in this Reflection is to pull the lens back and to describe the multiple levels at which committed romantic partnerships operate.

There has been so much really good thinking about romantic relationship in the last 20 years or so, and practicing therapists have been at the forefront. It is easy to see why. Couples therapists are on the firing line every day of their professional lives; dealing with real issues, in real time. They need to search for better ways – now.

And the feedback is immediate. We can see, all too vividly, what works and what doesn’t. In this context, the old cliché definitely applies: Necessity is the mother of invention.

But the context in which couples therapists work – helpful as it is – also has a distorting perspective. Because our sample is skewed toward couples in active crisis, we tend to become experts in relationship breakdowns. And since the urgent first priority is, so often, to re-establish a workable level of communication, our attention tends to be skewed toward those issues. The result: Much of what we therapists teach to couples focuses on active listening and other techniques to improve communication.

This, I believe, is unfortunate. Once the crisis is over, couples still long for guidance in building a more lively and joyful relationship. Getting from here to there – as Dale and I have discovered in the years since our own work with a couples therapist ended – requires far more than the communication skills that are the bread and butter of couples work.

In seeking to guide my clients as they explore this upside of coupledom, I have evolved the following multi-level view of relationship:

  1. Listening and Sharing (Communication);
  2. Loving and Being Loved;
  3. Claiming and Being Claimed.

In the discussion that follows, I discuss these factors in the context of intimate romantic partnership. Note, however, that their value extends beyond the couples context. While the levels of intimacy and boundaries you set will differ – depending on the person involved – these same principles will also enrich your relationships with other family members, friends, and members of your communities of choice.


To say that communication is only one aspect of the couples equation does not, of course, detract from its foundational importance. Indeed, living in a world that models and rewards shrill assertiveness, our engrained deficits in this area are endemic. Given this cultural context, special attention to listening skills is a vital corrective.

Good listening requires more than just hearing the words. It also requires a patient assimilation to the mood or “music” of the communication. In addition, hearing your partner is not enough. You also need to ensure, as best you can, that your partner “knows that you know.”

Still another a vital aspect of good listening is not to change the subject prematurely. As well intentioned as an “I’m sorry” can be, for example, it needs to come after your partner feels that his or her grievance has been fully heard. For a fuller discussion of this aspect of listening and sharing, see Reflection #82 Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject.

With all of our well-deserved emphasis on listening, we also need to remember that communication is two-way street; that we, in our turn, need to be open and vivid with our thoughts and feelings. A generous and patient listener who fails to disclose his or her difficult or unpleasant feelings may feel virtuous – and is often seen as the “good guy.” But if intimacy is the goal, that approach is flawed. Absent honest and contactful sharing on both sides, a true meeting of two people – the essence of intimacy – is impossible.

A final point on communication: Like every other level of relationship I discuss in this Reflection, there is a rhythm to the back and forth of offering and receiving that is, in the end, art and not science. Taking turns may work – but it may not. It all depends on the “dance” that the particular couple evolves over time. Indeed, in some of the most constructive, intimacy building conversations that Dale and I have had, one or the other of us has been a marathon “sender.” On this point, the most that can be said is this: Be alive to the issue, open to possibilities, and patient and trusting of the process.


The second level of intimate relationship – loving and being loved – is not as obvious as it may seem. One very common problem is the confusion, heavily promoted by the messages of the mainstream culture, between love the noun and love the verb.

We are all familiar with the first, that feeling of being powerfully drawn to another person. But all too often in our culture, the declaration – “I love you” – is offered as though it answers all questions.

It doesn’t.

In the movie Chasing Amy, the Ben Affleck character, gripped by that “in love” feeling impulsively turns to Amy and declares his feelings. Amy, with remarkable clear headedness, is furious calling him out on the thoughtlessness: “I am a lesbian. I have a life. And you are messing with it.”

Her point: A feeling (love, the noun) does not negate an insensitive act (love, the verb).

Seeking to love your partner, in this action-oriented sense, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Growing up, we are habituated to a particular style of loving and offering love in that way – the one you know best – is important. Since your partner’s “channels of love” are typically different from yours, you are in this way acting as his teacher, expanding his repertoire for loving. But to be fully effective, you also need to offer love on your partner’s channel as well.

The second aspect of “love, the verb” – one that receives far too little attention – is to warmly accept your partner’s acts of love. Indeed, many people instinctually see aspect of loving as an act of selfishness and self-absorption; something to be soft-pedaled, even avoided.

What you need to remember, at these times, is the wonderful feeling you have when you successfully love your partner. Recalling these moments, the importance of being a warm and active receiver of her acts of love – allowing her to experience that same feeling in return – will become obvious.

A significant challenge, here, grows out of a key difference between loving and being loved. The first is an active sport. You do something. You initiate an action. Being loved, on the other hand, is more passive. You need to be open and receptive to what your partner offers. Implicit, then, on the being loved side of the equation is the challenge of trusting and letting go – no small thing for many of us.

Finally, remember this: To accomplish this vital goal of a mutually loving relationship, an essential precondition is to consistently ask for what you want and need. Why? Because offering this vivid roadmap for how you want to be loved, sets your partner up for success as your lover. The key, however, is to avoid any sense that your “asks” are veiled (or not so veiled) “demands,” since the joy of loving only comes when it is offered as a gift.


The final level of intimate relationship, “claiming,” typically shows up as a visceral, passionate, take-no-prisoners declaration – expressed verbally, energetically, and through bold acts:

You are mine, fully mine, no matter what.

Our longing to be claimed is inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.

Needless to say, claiming is an aspect of relationship that lends itself to abuse through domination and control. But if I am are right in assuming that it is a deeply engrained, human longing, the appropriate response – faced with these risks – is not to avoid claiming but to manage it with maturity and wisdom.


Being more fully aware of these different dimensions of love expands our view of what is possible. It also allows us to better name our varying skills – his at claiming; hers at sharing; his at listening; hers at being loved. Doing so, we are better able to see our partner, not as an adversary – to be challenged when he fails to do what we do so instinctually and well – but as a teacher who brings his own special aptitudes and skills to the relationship. And with this growing awareness, we increasingly become partners in creating a relationship that nourishes and soothes both partners’ deepest needs and longings.

Reflection 37: Challenging Our Comfort Zones

I vividly remember my first encounter with Howard Lesnick, over 40 years ago.

Pacing ominously (to me) behind a podium, starring threateningly at a seating chart (“please God, don’t let him call on me!”), Professor Lesnick intoned “Hall, Horton, Heck.” Sitting, alphabetically, a couple of seats down – in my first class, on my first day of law school – I could feel the tension jumping off of Terry Hall’s body as he reluctantly struggled to his feet: Our first encounter with the Socratic method.

When I was re-introduced to Howard, years later, I found that he was no ordinary law professor. An original and iconoclastic thinker, he is one of those rare people whose insights are balanced, fair-minded and, at the same time, unsparing in their directness.


This Reflection series, I know, violates a number of rules that the mainstream experts insist are pre-requisites to success as blogger, not the least of which is that I don’t limit myself to one page and a single, easy to digest idea – per Reflection. For this reason, I have enormous respect for my readers, imagining that you are people who deeply care about issues of decency, equity and justice – just the kind of people I most like and respect.

For this reason, I know that, at times, I pull my punches; joining with you in decrying the culture’s obvious excesses but, then, glossing over the ways in which you and I – deeply affected by the problematic values that surround us – also fall short.

But decency is not a comparative sport. If we hope to live up to our ambitious goals, we also need to name and challenge our own shortcomings, blind spots, and fears.

One of Howard Lesnick’s special virtues is the forthright way in which he raises uncomfortable issues. In the examples set forth below, he directly challenges people like us to do better.

  1. To my final “hopeful thought” in another Reflection – that we have the power to change what history has created – Howard adds this: “In the meantime, each person has the responsibility to decide for himself or herself whether . . . to act on the recognition that there may be some significant room to make life choices that are not dictated by ‘historical choices.’ ”
  1. In Listening for God: Religion and Moral Discernment (1998), Howard cuts to the heart of the moral and intellectual challenge, implicit in this responsibility, “cautioning against” “taking the rightness of parental preference for granted” in a society where “the degree of parental preference is far too extensive to be morally justified.”
  1. Finally, there is Howard’s skepticism toward a “do your own thing” approach to social justice: “I do not belief in the avalanche theory of change; that individual choices by millions and millions of good-hearted people will alter the world.”

In what follows, I elaborate on each of these points.


As creatures of habit, we humans are deeply wedded to a wide variety of engrained, taken-for-granted outlooks and behaviors that allow us to move through our days more easily. These comfort zones are our unconscious ways of adapting to what is: To our family, community, culture, and innate disposition.

At one level, these adaptations are positive. They orient us in life, play a key role in defining our place in the world, and simplify our choices. But if meaningful change is the goal, they are inherently problematic, for two reasons.

First, because the culture’s pervasive indecency is the context within which we live, most of our comfort zones – crafted to fit in and get by in that world – are complicit with those values.

In addition, our comfort zones are instinctual adaptations that emerge over time, with little or no conscious intent on our part. As a result, the choices they dictate don’t feel like choices at all. They are, instead, the “right” or the “only” thing to do. Other choices, if they are considered at all, automatically register in our gut as wrong, inappropriate or, simply, uncomfortable and far too risky.

The result? We wind up making choices that thoroughly enmesh us in the culture’s mainstream ways of operating – with far too little control over the process.

This, I believe, is the issue Howard addresses in the comments cited above. He is challenging us to do the uncomfortable work of naming these unrecognized comfort zones and, doing so, to “make life choices that are not dictated by” the mainstream culture’s predominant values.

And Howard, being Howard, he does not temporize with his examples. Instead, he speaks directly to two of our most prevalent comfort zones; instinctual adaptations that – while seldom seen as such – are instrumental in short-circuiting the efforts of otherwise well-intentioned people, like us, to make the difficult choices that a committed Radical Decency practice require.


Howard’s first example is an over emphasis on childrearing. While recognizing it as a legitimate priority, he forthrightly points to the high price we pay when the focus on our children becomes excessive and unbounded, calling it “morally unjustified.”

The point he is making plays out the lives of the many well-intentioned people. Relentlessly focused on what is “best” for the kids, bolder choices – choices that meaningfully diverge from our conventional ways of living – become impossible.

  • We “have” to live in a more expensive neighborhood, with better schools – for the kids.
  • We “have” to keep working long hours at spirit deadening jobs to buy “this,” to join “that,” and to pay for the best college – again, for the kids.
  • And in whatever spare time exists, the children’s homework and overstuffed extra-curricular schedules are our unquestioned priorities.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with any of these choices. It’s just that, with this relentless focus on the kids, there is, quite simply, no time, money or psychic energy left over for study, personal growth, community and political activism, or other possibilities that might lead to a different kind of life and a more meaningful contribution to a better world.

The unacknowledged driver of this process is a deep ambivalence, on parents’ part, toward the mainstream culture. By their choices, they are implicitly saying this: While alternative ways of living seem sensible in theory and may be ok for me, they are just too risky for my beloved children.

For them, better to play it safe: Top grades at the “best” schools and gold plated extra-curricular records – leading, hopefully, to prestigious and highly paid careers. In effect, these parents are seeking to have it both ways: To raise the kids with better values but also to make them into successful competitors – just in case.

This approach is fatally flawed. A relentless focus on competing and winning works no better for kids than it does for adults – as the explosion of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide among children and teens attest. So sadly, with all of the parents’ well-intentioned sacrifice, the children wind up living the very lives the parents long to escape.


Howard’s second example focuses on our tendency to uncritically applaud change oriented activities that grow out of a person’s special interest or passion – organic gardening, meditation, animal rescue work, and so on. Once again, the problem is not with the choices themselves. Standing alone, they are entirely commendable. It arises, instead, from the fact that we too easily accept the culture’s invitation to view these activities as fully adequate responses to the culture’s endemic indecency.

Meaningful change requires attention to many issues, at many different levels of living. For this reason, these single-issue responses inevitably fall far short of the mark. A fundamental shift will never occur unless we join with others, making a sustained effort to understand their initiatives and to coordinate and integrate our activities with theirs.

In other words, if we are serious about seeking change, good old-fashioned organizing and collective action are indispensible parts of the equation. As Howard points out, the avalanche theory of change just doesn’t work.

Recognizing this reality, we need to understand that, in far too many cases, “do your own thing” initiatives – while not intended this way – actually represent a retreat into an unproductive comfort zone; a way of operating where, feeling like we are doing our part, we avoid the hard, unpleasant, and thankless work that is the meat and potatoes of effective organizing.


My intent in raising these issues is not to beat up on the good guys. I do, however, want to encourage a fearless inventory of the places where we fall short.

Becoming an effective agent for change is exquisitely difficult. But, because the change we seek is so important, we should never settle for simply doing better. Our noble goal deserves the very best we have to offer.

Reflection 36: Indecency – A Historical Overview

Through virtually all of our 6 million years of existence as a distinct line of primates and 300,000 years as Homo sapiens, the rhythm of our lives was dictated by the physical world. We foraged and hunted; in the winter we sought warmth and shelter and, in the summer, shade. Daily chores started at sun up and ended when the sun went down.

As Jared Diamond points out, however, a dramatic turning point occurred about 10,000 years ago with the domestication of crops and animals. What we call civilization – the history of the last 5,000 years or so – is a direct outgrowth of the exponential increase in the food supply and population that these innovations made possible.

Two powerful trends were unleashed by these events – that continue into the present:

  1. The ability of one group of people to dominate another through control of the food supply and, with it, the growth of nations, empires, religious movements, and other complex hierarchical and – more typically than not – authoritarian organizations; and
  2. An accelerating ability to harness nature to our purposes.

Given these extraordinary developments, major shifts in our traditional ways of being were inevitable. But because the catalyst for change was technological – and not moral or spiritual – there was nothing to guarantee that these cultural adjustments would be wise and humane.

In fact, they have been anything but. Instead of using these evolving technologies to meet our emotional and spiritual needs, we have moved in the opposite direction: We have subordinated our needs to the demands of the increasingly powerful authoritarian organizations that the technological advances have spawned. And those organizations have, in turn, spurred additional technological advances used to further entrench their authority.

A prime example is our response to innovations that improve productivity. While they could be used to reduce our workload – thus freeing time for family and leisure – they almost never are. Instead, the time they free up is used to work even harder in service of our culture’s singular obsession with more and more productivity and material wealth. We have, in short, been indoctrinated into a way of living that makes us cogs in an enormous, endlessly voracious “productivity machine.”

The system’s self-perpetuating momentum is then sealed by our induction into the culture’s equally voracious “consuming machine.” Conditioned to always want more, we are driven in our jobs to produce (and earn) more, which in turns feeds our addiction to wanting more, and so on, in an endless cycle what chews up our days and leaves less and less room for the expression of other aspects of our humanity.


While this trend has been gathering steam for thousands of years, I want to call special attention to the last two centuries. As recently as 200 years ago, our lives were still largely rooted in the rhythms of nature.

Then, our accumulating technologies reached critical mass. Massive reality-altering change swept the world:

  • Electricity eliminated night as a meaningful limit on our activities.
  • Central heat and air conditioning eliminated summer and winter.
  • With the advent of modern travel and instantaneous communication, time and distance – to a hitherto unimaginable degree – ceased to be limiting factors.

The result? The physical environment is no longer a defining factor in our lives. We can now work and consume day and night, 365 days a years. Remote locations and private moments – something we used to take for granted – are rapidly disappearing. The Internet instantaneously connects a missionary in Borneo with his or her family in Phoenix, and computers and smart phones keep us fully connected during the morning commute – as we sit on the beach – even when we go to the bathroom.

The scope and magnitude of these changes is, of course, very important. But so too is the speed with which they have occurred. In my lifetime, for example, the implications of the telephone, car, radio and television were barely digested, when jet travel was introduced, followed by the pill. These changes were then followed by a revolution in office technology (Xerox machines, word processors, email), and the arrival of instantaneous access – to virtually everything – via computers and smart phones.

Why is this acceleration in the speed of change so important? Because it hampers our ability to craft reasoned and humane responses. We scarcely digest and adjust to one seismic change when another and, then, another is upon us.

As the scope and pace of change has accelerated, so too has the corrosive impact of our obsessive, work and consume habits of living. In earlier Reflections, I discuss some of their consequences:

  • A massive decline in communal connections (#29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots) and intellectual vitality (#21 Theory Matters);
  • The pain that comes from perfectionism (#31 Perfectionism);
  • A denial of vulnerability (#14 Dying – and Our Epidemic of Immortality);
  • A marked shrinking of the intimate connections we share with one another (#22 Consumerism — and the Passivity it Breeds).

But these examples do not tell the full story. The cultural adaptations of the last 200 years have also fundamentally distorted our most basic neurobiological wiring.


Across millions of years, we humans have evolved as profoundly affiliative beings, the result being that our emotional and intellectual growth – and continued vitality – depends upon ongoing, intimate contact with one another.

According to Daniel Siegel, one of our leading neuroscientists, the brain is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains. In other words, thinking about a single brain – a single person – makes no sense. We only exist in connection with others.

But nature has also provided us with an auxiliary fight or flight brain. Designed to deal with danger, it’s fast – 10 times faster than our thinking brain – and powerful in its effects. Energy chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) are pumped into our system, blood rushes to our large muscles groups, and the activity of the thinking brain shrinks – in order to avoid indecision at a time of crisis. Faced with a potentially life-threatening emergency, we are ready to act quickly, forcefully, and instinctually.

When the natural world dictated the rhythm of our lives, a natural balance was maintained between our fight/flight and thinking/affiliative brains. Most of our hours and days were spent in a nonreactive emotional state as we went about the highly routinized chores of daily living. Then, occasionally, there would be flashes of danger – a predatory animal, enemy, or natural disaster – that would activate our fight or flight brain. When the crisis ended, we would return to our normal, more relaxed state of mind.

But in today’s world – after 200 years of momentous change – everything is different.

Groomed to be competitors and “winners,” we are “on,” more or less constantly – both because we can be and because an endless stream of cultural cues, incentives, and sanctions tell us that that is what successful people do.

To get ahead, we move through our days anticipating danger; striving for a competitive edge; viewing setbacks as unacceptable and traumatic; exhausting ourselves, physically and emotionally. In other words, we have taken fight or flight – an auxiliary system, designed to deal with isolated moments of danger and, to truly unprecedented levels, made it our base-line operating system.

Some of the fallout from this seismic shift in consciousness is easy to identify: Heightened levels of stress and anxiety, drug abuse and alcoholism, verbal and physical abuse. But the damage goes further.

Fight or flight is specifically designed to neutralize or “annihilate” the will of the other – either through aggressive force (fight) or withdrawal (flight). These choices are, however, the antithesis of intimacy, a pattern of interaction that requires a willingness to engage others with empathy and curiosity.

So, it is no accident that so many couples and families are locked in an endless cycle of criticism, counter criticism and withdrawal – or that self-criticism and judgment (indicating a fight/flight stance with our self) are so pervasive – or that combative/attacking behaviors have become ever more dominant in our politics. The disquieting reality is that the cultural choices of the last 10,000 – and, in particular, the last 200 – years have led to a marked deterioration in our intimacy instincts and skills.

Compounding the problem is the fact that fight or flight is highly infectious, with attacks provoking counter attacks even from ordinarily more conciliatory people. For this reason as well, overcoming this “new normal” state of conscious is a huge challenge.


Radical Decency – decency to self, others, and the world; practiced at all times, in every area of living, and without exception – is an approach to living that, at a personal level, can make a real difference as we seek to diverge from these increasingly engrained, fight/flight habits of living.

At a societal level, a perceptible shift in ways of operating that have their roots in 10,000 years worth of history is a long shot, to say the least. But the future is inherently uncertain. And the hopeful thought, implicit in this analysis, is this: Because our current situation is the result of historical choice – and not the inevitable product of our inherent human nature – it can also be undone by the choices we make going forward.

Reflection 35: Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities

Work is so important. For most of us, it takes up the best hours of the majority of our days. And most everything else gets organized around it.

When it comes to Radical Decency – being habitually decent to our selves, others, and the world – this is a big problem. Why? Because, at work, the culture’s predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – are typically rehearsed with unrestrained virulence. There it sits, at the center of our lives, a constant impediment to our ability to give ourselves over to more decent ways of living.

The result? Most us end up squeezing the most profound expressions of our humanity – relationship and community, leisure and private passions, social justice and service – into the relative corners of our lives.

  • Time with our spouse and children is consigned to nights and weekends.
  • Social events tend to be isolated and episodic.
  • And little or no time is left over to tend to injustice and the suffering of others – even those within our immediate social and religious communities.

While no one is exempt from this unforgiving equation, it is, without question, much tougher on people with salaried and hourly jobs. In this Reflection, I address the special challenges these people face and offer a number of strategies to deal with them.


The problem for salaried and hourly workers begins with the most basic notions of freedom. While we seldom think of it in this way, they are, effectively, indentured servants. They work from 9 to 5 – or longer if the boss demands it – get an hour for lunch, 2 vacation weeks, and “x” number of sick days. That’s it. No choice.

Moreover, in contrast to 200 hundreds years ago – at least for white people – most salaried workers have no extended family or stable geographic homesteads and communities to fall back on. In other words, there is no way out. Work or die.

Compounding the situation is the highly authoritarian nature of the organizations for which they work. Supervisors control what they work on, with whom they work, and the environments in which they work. And so long as they are making money for the company and are not causing problems for their bosses, supervisors’ powers are virtually unchecked.

There was a time when workers had some ability to fight back. But over the last few decades, the laws protecting workers’ rights have steadily eroded. Today, most unions and human resource departments – if they exist at all – are paper tigers, with little or no power to enforce effective solutions. Too often, the net effect of raising a grievance is this: No relief, plus the animus of your boss. The result? Most workers suffer in silence.

Since all that really matters in business is profitability, companies do actually support good bosses – so long as they are making money. The problem, however, is that this good boss will eventually move on, or change his or her ways when shrinking profits demand a more bottom line oriented approach. And because decency is never a high priority, the next boss is unlikely to be similarly enlightened.

Recognizing that fortuitous exceptions can actually exist, it makes sense to look for a job with a good boss – and to enjoy it while it lasts. But be very cautious in assuming that “this department” or “that company” is a permanent exception to the rule. Bad bosses are not bad luck. They are the expectable result of an authoritarian business culture, dominated by the ethos of compete and win, dominate and control.


What follows is a discussion of key initiatives that individual workers can take, based on principles of Radical Decency, to deal with these realities.

Note, importantly, that the interpersonal approaches I discuss are only one piece of the puzzle. A true transformation of the workplace will also require initiatives that allow workers to collectively assert their rights more effectively.

On the other hand, the strategies discussed below are not pallid substitutes, to be pursued only in the absence of a revitalized workers’ movement. To the contrary, lasting change can never occur – in the workplace or in any other area of living – unless we also challenge and change the authoritarian ways of operating that are so pervasive in our one-on-one relationships.


As Philip Lichtenberg explains, the characteristic dynamic in an authoritarian relationship is for the dominant party to project his anxiety, frustrations, etc. onto the subordinate. So, for example, the boss – getting ready for a meeting – barks at his assistant, “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.

The key to creating a different and better interpersonal environment at work is to consistently act in ways that subvert this dynamic.

This is no easy task. Authoritarian interactions are deeply intertwined with our fight or flight brain, and that part of our brain is highly infectious. The uncomfortable truth is that we are biologically wired to respond to a bullying boss with anger (fight) or sullen silence (flight); behaviors that only encourage a further round of bullying by the boss. In other words, just as it is exquisitely difficult for a spouse to remain calm and composed in the face of his or her partner’s attack, so too at work.

The starting place, if we hope to undo this pattern, is to consistently cultivate mutual and authentic contact – the antithesis of the workplace’s fight or flight mindset. Dealing with the substance of the boss’ “requests” calmly, and with curiosity and respect, we put ourselves in the best possible position to interrupt and subvert the biologically engrained rhythm of reaction/counter-reaction that fight or flight sets up.

Unfortunately, this is no magic pill. Even when we fully commit ourselves to this approach, we cannot expect a magical transformation. As Steven Stosny points out, a nonreactive response reduces the likelihood of further attack – but only from 98% to 70%.

Still, it’s the best available option. Consistently applied, it offers the best hope for turning you into “that” person in the office who, inexplicably, is spared the boss’ most unpleasant excesses.

It is also important to note that, as challenging as this step is, it is only step one in the process. Fully transforming your relationship with the boss into one based on trust, ease and shared respect requires mutuality. In other words, you need to work toward an environment where you can express your legitimate needs and desires as well.

Meaningful progress toward this second goal is a tricky and uncertain proposition. It is likely to depend on your ability to establish yourself as a competent and valued employee and, therefore, as someone whose needs matter. It is also greatly facilitated by success in implementing step one: By your boss’ growing perception of you as an empowered listener.

Even with all of this in place, however, the only reliable way to get reciprocal respect from your boss is to ask for it. At some point, you need to say: I need “x” to do my job more effectively – or, I am not getting the support I need from your executive assistant – or, I need to take Thursday afternoon off to attend to a personal matter.

In asking, you need to be clear and assertive. If you need to be home by 6, the message the boss can’t be: I need this – unless it really bothers you. If your request is equivocal, the boss, steeped in authoritarian entitlement, is primed to ignore it.

In addition, having established this ground rule, act on it. If you ask for something, get it and, then, continually make exceptions – to please the boss or out of fear irritating him – you can be sure that his commitment to it will recede as well.


A final note: The strategies I describe operate in a deeply authoritarian environment. Even if they are employed with impeccable discretion and judgment, nothing may change. But that does not mean the effort shouldn’t be made. Hopefully, as a wide variety of complementary change initiatives take hold, a deeper shift will occur.

And, without regard to their ultimate effectiveness, always remember this: More decent choices grow the best part of our humanity and are, therefore, their own reward.

Reflection 34: Triumphal Business and the Demise of Checks and Balances

In the early 1980s, I was an attorney deeply immersed in the EPIC bankruptcy.

Here’s what happened: A smart promoter bought undervalued model homes in housing developments, mortgaged them, and sold the mortgages in bulk to Savings and Loans, then the country’s prime originators of mortgages. The S&Ls loved his product. Instead of accumulating mortgages one by one, they could now close 50 or 100 in an afternoon.

The problem with this plan? Since the mortgages were immediately resold, the promoter had no financial stake in how the loans actually performed. And because his product was so popular, keeping up with demand became a huge challenge. So, before long, he was selling junk – loans secured by mortgages far in excess of the underlying properties’ values. But the S&Ls didn’t care. EPIC was, after all, a “hot” company, run by a “genius” and potential losses, if any, were years down the road. In addition, since “everyone was doing it,” the pressure was on not to be left behind – leaving other S&Ls to report this impressive growth on their financial statements.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Back in the 1980s, the S&L crisis – of which EPIC was a part – was a very big deal; a bail out that ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But we learned nothing. 25 years later, the exact same thing happened again. Promoters – making obscene amounts of money from front-end fees, and having no stake in the quality of the underlying product – became the prime drivers of the mortgage industry. Only this time, the promoters included the country’s largest investment banking firms and when the bubble burst, in 2008, it froze up the world’s financial system, shaking it to the core. This time, the losses were in the trillions.

And the trend continues. Very little by way of structural reform has come out of the 2008 housing crisis, and no effort has been made to hold the Goldman, Sachs’ of the world – or their senior executives – criminally accountable. Is any reasonably sober observer willing to bet it won’t happen again?


The essence of political power is the ability to aggregate large amounts of money and to command large numbers of people to do your bidding. At the time of the founding fathers, the primary, taken-for-granted source of this sort of power was governmental. Thus, they structured a system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances, to prevent excessive governmental power from flowing into the hands of one or a small group of people.

Given their focus on governmental power, the system has worked well. For over 200 years we have avoided a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of a President, Congress, or (less plausibly) the courts. But that system was crafted in a very different world.

Since then, and especially in the last 50 years, technological advances have created a revolution in communications and in our ability to analyze and manage vast amounts of complex material. That, in turn, has created hitherto unimaginable opportunities for businesses to shift enormous sums of money from one investment to another with extraordinary speed, and to create and keep track of ever more intricate and far-flung investment strategies.

As a result, the possibilities for accumulating wealth, by managing money, have exploded. Today’s most visible moguls – exemplified by Warren Buffett and Goldman Sachs – focus, not on production and profitability, but on investment strategy and rate of return. They move seamlessly into and out of industries based solely on return; aggressively investing in the mortgage business at the height of the bubble, moving on – to new markets and new opportunities – when it burst.

Given these new realities, businesses can now marshal the tools of power to an extent that would have been unthinkable to the founding fathers. So, while arbitrary and destructive governmental power is still a threat, it is no longer the sole source of danger.


Through the use of its now, almost unimaginably large aggregations of capital, the business sector has, in the last half century, greatly expanded its power over our lives. How has it done this? Not through coercion – the traditional way in which government exercises its power – but by buying off virtually every segment of society that could meaningfully limit its power.

The most visible example is, of course, government. While there is a clear philosophical divide between the two major parties, the deeper reality is that they are both fueled by business contributions.

So, on the really make or break issues – such as meaningful regulation of business – the real divide is between largely symbolic programs, the Democratic approach, and no regulation at all. And, lest pressure for change come from other sources, our culture is organized so that almost every college, media outlet, and religious organization of any size is heavily dependent on investments, loans, and/or contributions from businesses and people who business made wealthy.

As one of my law professors noted, “business is not vicious, it’s just avaricious.” But the fact that its goals are not explicitly immoral does not mean that its actions are benign. Business’ priority – pursued with singular focus – is on policies that allow it to pursue its amoral goal of ever expanding profits with impunity: Tax breaks and public subsidies; programs that lead to lucrative government contracts; a weakening of any sort of regulatory control.

The result? The last 40 years has witnessed a steady reduction in support for social safety net programs, the better to fund tax savings that disproportionately favor businesses and the wealthy. It has also witnessed an historic cutting back, or outright repeal, of many of the system’s most important checks and balances on business, including:

  • Antitrust laws;
  • Usury laws (outlawing excessive interest rates);
  • Glass-Steagall (regulating banks/limiting opportunities for self-dealing);
  • Class action lawsuits;
  • Bankruptcy protection for individual debtors.

And, efforts are ongoing to similarly emasculate personal injury lawsuits, environmental laws, and programs that protect the rights of employees.

These policy shifts have caused incalculable harm:

  • The savings of millions have been devastated as banks demand repayment of debt only made possible, to begin with, by the exploitative, regulation free environment they worked so tirelessly to create.
  • Insurance companies – regulated in theory only – gouge customers for premiums and deny valid claims.
  • Credit card companies arbitrarily raise interest rates, on exemplary customers, to levels that a generation ago would have been subject to criminal and civil sanction.

The list of abuses goes on and on.

Note that, utterly failing to deal with this new power reality means that, as a culture, we are now living in a world where there is a complete disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. We continue to trumpet our system of governance as one of mankind’s great triumphs. And yet, we have allowed the very essence of that system – checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of undue power – to be totally gutted.


To me, the most important take away from this chilling state of affairs is that, while current, mainstream strategies for making things better – elections, lobbying for more enlightened laws, efforts of nonprofits and service organizations – are necessary and helpful, they are, in the end, inadequate.

A more robust response?

First, we need to reframe the problem, something I attempt to do, in part, in this Reflection.

In addition, we need to name, again and again, things that currently go unnamed, such as the complicity of media, the religious establishment, academia and, of course, both Democrats and Republicans.

Finally, we need to develop new strategies for change.

Where to start? By working to replace compete and win, dominate and control – the amoral values, predominant in business and the culture at large –– with a counter set of values that can systematically reorient our outlook and offer fresh perspectives on where and how to push for change.

This last goal is a primary motive force in the development of Radical Decency. In other Reflections, I discuss certain ideas that have emerged from a systematic thinking through of this approach, ideas that could be part of new, more effective change strategy:

  • Building a counter-model of business based on Radical Decency (Reflection #15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business; Reflection #43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection #39 A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned);
  • Making this values shift an enduring priority at the center of our lives – that is, in our most intimate relationships – by tending to our patriarchal ways in all of their manifestations (Reflection #61 Women, Boundaries, and Sex; Reflection #72 Men’s Moment(s) of Truth; Reflection #69 Moving Beyond Patriarchy)
  • Creating and nurturing values based communities, the fertile soil out of which social movements can grow (Reflection #29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots);
  • Creating deeper, more enduring, and diverse collaborative alliances with like-minded people (Reflection #7 Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection #45 Re-visioning Social Change Work);

Our wisdom – and moral and emotional stamina – are sorely tested when we seek to make a more meaningful contribution to a more just, equitable, and decent world. But, the alternative – getting by in the world as it is – is, for most of us, an anxiety provoking, spirit draining way of living. Radical Decency is – as I am fond of saying – not just the right thing to do. It is also the surest pathway to a more vibrant and fulfilling life.

Reflection 33: Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important

We live in a world that heavily supports and promotes marriage. And, happily, this is one instance in which our culture’s values can support us in doing important, life-affirming work – if we are lucky enough to stumble onto this insight. In this Reflection, I discuss the nature of couples work, its power, and its importance.

The possibilities inherent in couples work grow out of three factors. The first is biological. We humans are wired to do our most important healing and growth, not through study or contemplation, but in the crucible of relationship.

The other factors are cultural. On one side is the culture’s fortuitous support for the institution of marriage. On the other is its marked absence of attention to our psychic needs in most other venues. Thus, for most of us, romantic relationship offers the best opportunity for doing the vital work of healing our childhood wounds.


From the moment of birth, we are all – all of us – confronted with an insoluble problem: How do we adapt to an environment that can’t possibly meet all of our needs. Why is this dilemma universal? Because we are raised by humans – flawed and limited creatures – who are, moreover, compromised in their focus and clarity of purpose by the incessant pressure to get by in our competitive, win/lose culture. And, if these impediments weren’t enough, remember that our needs are unbounded. Even perfect parents, in living a perfect culture, would fall short.

The result? We emerge from childhood with deeply embedded hurts, frustrations and longings. And, to deal with these wounds, we also leave childhood with equally engrained coping strategies: Demanding more – or wanting less – to deal with the pain of an inattentive mother; reactive anger – or placating behaviors – or silence – in response to a controlling father.

At one level, these adaptations are good since they allow us to survive childhood. But because they are crafted by infants and small children, they are almost always over stated and, therefore, damaging in important ways to our vitality and sense of well being.

Given these realities, healing our childhood wounds and replacing these early coping mechanisms with more modulated and effective strategies are essential aspects of our adult journey.


Finding a venue in which to do this work is one of life’s great challenges.

In theory it can take place in the context of a nurturing community. But the culture, with its relentless emphasis on individuality and self-aggrandizement, makes it difficult to create and sustain these environments.

Intent on getting ahead in the world, the time and energy left over for communal engagements is limited – carved our of already overloaded nights and weekends. In addition, we live in a culture in which the accepted (and acceptable) norm is to simple walk away from a communal involvement when it no longer comfortably fits into our schedule due to a new relationship, a change in our work schedule, or a move to a more distant suburb.

These same cultural pressures infect our romantic intimate relationships – hence their high rate of mortality. But because only two people are involved, and because they care so much, couples have a slugger’s chance to create an environment in which this necessary adult work of healing and growth can occur.

Unfortunately, a roadmap for doing this work is hard to come by. So most couples do what they know best, slipping into the competitive mindsets that permeate the rest of their lives:

  • Knowing that her way is the right way, she judges his inability to talk about feelings.
  • With equal certainty, he judges her constant telephone chatter and neediness.
  • In the resulting stand off, each partner tolerates the other’s differences, sometimes with bemused grace, far too often with anger and resentment.

Lost in this process is the opportunity to leave our childhood’s legacy of hurts and fears behind – by crafting new, more effective strategies for loving and being loved.

The good news, however, is that a very different dynamic can take hold.

Here’s how.

Step one is to chose a suitable partner.

Here, nature lends a hand, at least in the initial phase. A man goes to a bar and is attracted to a particular woman – not the best looking or wittiest – who “just has a way about her.” Why? Because, in his evolutionarily wired brain, he instinctually associates her with the people who raised him. This, in turn, feeds a further unconscious fantasy: With her, I can recreate the formative wounding scenarios from my childhood and then – crucially – craft a different ending.

So if the man in our example was raised by a physically distant mother, he is primed to appreciate an affectionate woman. But with this woman – viscerally linked with his unaffectionate mother – the effect is far more powerful. When she embraces him, it is as though his mother reached into his crib and, cradling him in her arms, offered the physical affection he so deeply longed for and never received. This is the “bam” we feel when we fall in love. In choosing a partner, we need to trust it.

But to fully realize the deep healing and growth that marriage can provide, more is needed. In particular, there are three inextricably interwoven factors – trust, shared values, and a priority commitment to the relationship – that are the fertile soil in which this work can flower. And then, of course, the final, indispensable element is the ability and willingness to do the work.

Trust does not mean that you tell your partner everything. Instead, the touchstone is a “no surprise” rule. Because the partners have each shared their most intimate feelings, repeatedly and in depth, no act – if disclosed – will shock the other or shake his or her emotional foundation. The obvious corollary: When in doubt, disclose.

For this approach to reach its full potential, the next two factors are also needed.   When trust is not supported by shared values, couples run the risk of a permanent sense of grievance, with the wife (for example) resenting his time at the office, and the husband feeling perpetually judged as a father and spouse. Because he puts career first and she puts family first – two perfectly acceptable but very different value choices – their ability to rely on the other, when the chips are down, is forever compromised.

When their values are congruent, however, partners can be thoroughly connected and, at the same time, feel free to express their individuality. He can work through the night to close a deal, and she can leave a party to tend to a sick relative, with each confident that their choice (even if not disclosed in advance) will have the other’s warm support.

Trust is also jump-started when each partner puts the relationship first: He accepts her need to fuss with her makeup when they’re 10 minutes late; she listens, with warmth, to the same joke for the umpteenth time. In these examples, each partner is placing as high a priority on their partner’s needs and desires as they do on their own. Doing so, they are able to lovingly manage their impatience when things don’t go their way.

Notice also how, in their turn, trust and shared values reinforce this “relationship first” rule. In their absence, each partners’ generosity of spirit can easily degenerate into a felt sense of being manipulated or bullied into putting the other’s needs first. With trust and shared values in place, however, the fear that a deferral of your needs you will compromise your integrity is dramatically reduced.

These three factors, together with the strong tug of romantic love, create a setting in which more positive and productive patterns of love can emerge. And as this process accelerates, the partners’ outmoded intimacy strategies – designed to protect them from their childhood wounds – progressively wither and shrink.

Note, however, that even when all of these factors exist, an ability and willingness to do the work is still essential. What does that look like? Key aspects are described in Reflection #3, Why Can’t You Do the Dishes?: Reflection #10, Romantic Love – Making What’s Good Better; Reflection #53, Effective Fighting – Practice Pointers for Couples; Reflection #82, Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject; and Reflection #84, Loving Intimacy – The 4 Voices.


I close with an example from my own marriage.

In a typical scene, 25 years ago, I arrive home from my law office and find my wife, Dale, making dinner and tending to our young daughters. Harried and preoccupied, I sit down and turn on the TV. Equally harried, Dale asks why I’m not pitching in. My response – crafted to defend myself from a mother who could lash out in anger, at any moment – is a toxic mix of exasperation and defensive:

“I just got home. I had a tough day too. Give me a break.”

If I knew then what I know now, my reaction would have been very different. Understanding Dale’s emotional needs, I would have apologized and jumped into the tasks at hand.

For Dale – who learned as a child not to ask to for what she wanted – this would have been a corrective healing moment. And, for me, there would have been a corresponding moment of growth since, acting in this way, I would have actually been the loving, non-defensive partner and person I longed to be.

Consciously and repetitively practiced, these interactions – his growthful choices healing her childhood wounds; hers healing his – are at the heart of effective couples work.

Reflection 32: Being the Person I Hope to Become – My Personal Guide to Living

There are two aspects to Radical Decency:

  • Be “decent”: Respectful, understanding and empathic, accepting and appreciative, fair and just, see Reflection 17, What Is Decency?; and
  • Do it “radically” – at all times and in every area of living – with your self; with family and friends; at work; in public and communal affairs; and with the physical environment and all other living things.

Where Radical Decency gets complicated, and interesting, is when we put it into practice. Doing so, we are confronted with a myriad of perplexing and, often, uncomfortable moments of choice as we seek to “radically” integrate and balance decency to self, others and the world.

The devil is, quite literally, in the details.

To meet this challenge, I have developed a series of operational guidelines that orient my outlook and choices – moment-by-moment, day-by-day – so that Radical Decency can become a more vibrant reality in my life:

  1. I am important to the people in my life. What I do matters.
  2. Understanding this, I am letting go of outcomes and attending to each moment’s endless possibilities for offering and accepting love.
  3. With intent, focus, and persistence, I am modeling and inviting mutual and authentic contact in every area of living.


When these guidelines began to crystallize, my starting point was the second half of the second guideline – offering and accepting love. However, I quickly discovered that I was falling way short in my purposes. Far too often, my generosity of spirit was diminished or quashed by anger, annoyance, or jealousy; a fear of “getting less” or “being left out.”

Letting go of outcomes – the first half of the second guideline – was equally difficult. In my gut, it really mattered if I “won”: Landed the new client, made the cleverest point, got through the traffic light before it turned red.

Over time, I realized that the common thread in all of these feelings was the sense that I didn’t matter to “this” person or “that” group of people. In other worlds, that I had something to prove; that winning mattered.

This insight brought new meaning to the story Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest and philosopher, tells about the mentally challenged woman in his cloistered community. Unable to talk, she spent her days smiling at her compatriots; becoming, in this way, a beloved member of the community.

For me, this story drove home a powerful truth. Because we are biologically wired to be in connection, the simple fact of my humanity makes me important to others. My words, looks, and energy matter – to family and friends, to co-workers and business colleagues, even to the waiter at lunch and people I pass on the street.

Indeed, the opposite – not mattering – is a cognitive distortion, insidiously promoted by a culture that equates importance with the ability to dominate others. Habitually focused on this narrow goal, we distort our energy in order to manipulate and control our environment and the people in it. In the process, our best instincts are waylaid by corrosive, competitive feelings, such as those described above.

Understanding this process hasn’t magically cured me. But persistently reminding myself that importance to others is my birthright, as a human, has helped to free my energy – more often, and in more and more situations – from these outcome-laden pre-occupations. Hence, operational guideline #1: I am important to the people in my life. What I do matters.


Freed to follow my better instincts, I am far better able to operationalize guideline #2: Letting go of outcomes, I am attending to each moment’s endless possibilities for offering and accepting love.

With regard to the second half of this guideline note that my focus is on possibility and choice, and not on simply loving everyone all the time. Why? Because loving acts increase our level of intimacy and, with it, our vulnerability. Thus, appropriate levels of safety and trust are a prerequisite.

In addition, our energy is finite. Choices have to be made.

These qualifications, however, operate in the context of a larger reality. Given our competitive, achievement-oriented culture, loving options are chronically underexplored. So, as I see it, a central challenge, as we seek to live differently and better, is to be alive to the virtually unlimited possibilities for loving and being loved that constantly come our way. For example, should I take the time:

  • To call or visit a troubled friend?
  • To acknowledge a child’s desire/demand for my undivided attention?
  • To attend to a sad and distracted co-worker?
  • To be warm and courteous with the harried waiter who brings my lunch?

Or – remembering always to love myself as well – should I interrupt my busy day to go to the gym, or say no to a request for my time and energy that is just one thing too many?

If I take the time to notice, each of my days is filled with these kinds of moments.

Cultivating this in-the-moment awareness, the outcome pre-occupations that can so easily derail me – winning, looking good, being noticed – tend to fall away, freeing me to cultivate the fullest possible awareness of the choices I can make and, then, to deploy my loving energy wisely.


My third guideline for living challenges me to model and invite contact, in every area of living, that is:

  • “Authentic” – vivid and intimate; and
  • “Mutual” – engaged in by all parties.

Done well, this provides me with an indispensable, orienting perspective that is the vital ground out of which Radical Decency’s most palpable upside – the loving interactions described in guideline #2 – can flower and grow.

The importance of mutual and authentic contact has everything to do with our biology. We humans are wired to be deeply and intimately connected with one another. So, when we truly know other people – when there is authentic contact – the inevitable byproducts are a growing sense of understanding and empathy, as well as a desire to “do right” by this now very human other. And when this process is mutual, the possibilities for a more cooperative, productive and loving relationship expand exponentially.

Here, once again, my approach is not indiscriminant: To make every contact mutual and authentic. My intent, instead, is to “invite” this sort of connection – by modeling its attributes and, when appropriate, by offering leadership, guidance and inspiration in situations in which my invitation engages the interest of others.

Note also that, in applying this guideline, I consciously avoid strategies that – moving beyond a warm invitation – proselytize others or otherwise implicitly demand conformance with my purposes. The reason? Because these more aggressive approaches recreate the very values – domination and control – that Radical Decency seeks to replace.

One indispensible aspect of this third guideline is its comprehensiveness. To be successful in my purposes, I need to model mutual and authentic contact – with intent, focus and persistence – in every area of living, from the most private and personal to the most public and political.

Why? Because when I allow myself to be selective in its application, I too easily slip into “pick and chose” decency; practicing this guideline when it is easy and convenient but, then, when it really matters – when money or an important career opportunity are at stake – “doing what I have to do.”

On the plus side, it is hard to overstate positive effects of this comprehensive, across-the-board approach. Simply put, when I make mutual and authentic contact a priority in every area of living, I feel challenged to grow and change in areas that – absent this persistent prompt in my brain and heart – would fall through the cracks.

So, for example, in politics – an area of living in which exceptions to decency are endemic – I am steadily reminded that I can do better:

  • Remembering always that people’s political positions make sense in the context of their background, values, and world view, I resist my knee-jerk annoyance with people on the “other side” and cultivate in its place respect, empathy, and genuine curiosity;
  • And, equally, I look for ways in which to offer my views, not as partisan argument, but instead as authentic expressions of my feelings, values and perspectives on life.


I close this discussion with a reminder that, as I explain in Reflection #13, Radical Decency is its own reward. So while these guidelines are challenging, their pay-offs are life-changing – transformative – a reality expressed in my 4th and final guideline:

Doing these things, I embrace my living and dying with compassion,curiosity,  zest, and a deepening sense of acceptance and celebration.

Reflection 31: Perfectionism

One troubling aspect of psychotherapy is its focus on symptoms, rather that causes. Depression and related conditions, for example, consume 9 different DSM categories and more than 30 subcategories. And while many clients are chemically prone to depression – so that symptom alleviation is, in fact, a key issue – the great majority are dealing with non-organic issues as well.

Symptom relief is, without question, an urgent goal. But the growing tendency is to stop there; to see psychotropic medications and cognitive/behavioral interventions, not as important tactics in a larger fight, but as ends in themselves.

Today, more than 90% of psychiatrists – the most educated and highly compensated clinicians – prescribe drugs and do nothing more. In addition, more and more “talk based” clinicians have adopted short-term approaches to therapy, driven by insurance companies’ demands for “measurable” success toward “concrete” goals.

The reason for this trend is, to me, self-evident. The mental health establishment, like every other industry of any size and persistence, is not interested in pursuing problems to their root causes. Why? Because so many of the real culprits, lurking behind our emotional issues, are the unexamined values that keep us locked into our roles as compliant workers and consumers. Implicitly recognizing this reality, the mainstream culture – with its genius for self-perpetuation – will financially starve and marginalize healing strategies that seriously challenge its central outlooks and beliefs.

Salvatore Menuchin’s career is an object lesson in this phenomenon. His systems approach to family therapy was widely recognized and became a generative force in the profession. But his later work – applying these same ideas to larger social structures – was mostly ignored. Why? Because it challenged our mainstream ways of operating.


In this Reflection, I deal with one of the root, non-organic causes of so much of our psychic dysfunction: Perfectionism. This mindset – an almost impossible to resist byproduct of our obsession with competition, dominance and control – is one of the more obvious causes, not just of depression, but also of our epidemic of anxiety, shame, and self-judgment.

Notwithstanding this reality, perfectionism is not a condition that is dealt with in the DSM. Indeed, the culture’s ability to deflect attention from the real drivers of our pain is exemplified by this remarkable fact: Far from being seen as a problem, perfectionism – dressed up in more acceptable language – is widely seen as a positive value, to be celebrated and encouraged.

This rhetoric is so pervasive that we scarcely notice, and rarely comment on, its perversity.

For me, the archetypal example is the culture’s constant reminder that “we can do anything we want, if we just try hard enough.” What is so chilling about this pervasive cultural rallying cry is this: It studiously omits the aphorism’s inescapable second clause: “And if you don’t accomplish your goals, there is something wrong with you.”

This statement is, of course demonstrably false. The odds of a poor African American child going to an Ivy League college, after 12 years at a ghetto based public school, are astronomically small. Similarly, if you work in a dying industry or seek a job in a saturated market, you may not find any work at all let alone the position of your dreams.

Notwithstanding the mainstream culture’s perfectionist rhetoric – exemplified by this phrase – the primary reason for these and most other “failures” is not a lack of effort. To the contrary,

  1. The game is fixed. Those with money and connections have a long head start; and
  2. It is arbitrary. Determined or not, we will fail if – for whatever reason, good or bad – you get on the wrong side of the boss; and,
  3. Like it or not, we are all limited by our human frailties.


What is interesting is that we know all this. And yet, at a personal level, utterly fail to follow through on its implications.

For most of us – when it comes to our situation – there are no excuses. Falling short, my automatic response is that “I” am the problem. Pointing to external causes feels wimpy and shameful. I need to “man up,” take responsibility, redouble my efforts to do better the next time. Never mind:

  • That there were massive lay offs (I, somehow, should be the exception); or
  • That I was sick – or distracted by my child’s crisis at school; or
  • That I am not, and never will be, a good pubic speaker.

None of these things matter. My presentation should have been crisp, tight, and compelling.

It is as though we walk around with a measuring stick in our heads, remorselessly assessing our value, judging any outcome that doesn’t approach 100% as a failure. And in this unforgiving landscape, “wins” – for most of us – become fleeting visits to an all but impossible to attain mountaintop; moments of surcease in a larger system in which losing is the norm.

Thus, for example, I vividly remember a friend’s powerful feelings of failure when, as one of four finalists for a position sought by over 300 applicants; she failed to get the job. And, too, the client’s intense feelings of shame because his boss – a man he didn’t like or respect – told him he wasn’t measuring up.

These sorts of deeply engrained, automatic responses breed a wide variety of psychically discouraging mindsets:

  • Ashamed of our failure, we isolate.
  • Reflexively judging and doubting ourselves, we become cautious, indecisive, and defensive.
  • Unable to shake the sense than we are “defective, “less than,” “a fraud,” we stop trying, content to go through the motions.

Thus, while the mainstream rhetoric is about achieving great things, our perfectionist mindsets actually move most of us in the opposite direction, with chilling effectiveness. This outcome is wonderfully effective – if the goal is to create a pandemic of spirit-sapping mindsets, a result that – not coincidentally – deeply discourages efforts to challenge and change our current, mainstream ways of operating.


Note, importantly, that our obsession with individual perfection deeply obscures the systemic factors that contribute to what ails us – reinforcing our status quo ways of operating in this way as well.

Thus, millions of people, financially leveled by the economic downturn that occurred after the 2008 housing and financial meltdown, took second jobs and economized to a point of real pain. And yet, remarkably, there was no perceptible movement to reform our patently corrupt financial system. Similarly, a handful of “bad actors” were prosecuted for torturing prisoners in Iraq while the policies they carried out, and the people who created them, were ignored.

The implicit message in each of these examples? Bad policies and malevolent systems don’t matter. “Good” people should just know what the right thing to do is – and have the will to do it.


Because perfectionism is a byproduct of the culture’s deeply engrained, win/lose values system, programs such as Radical Decency – that seek to systematically implement more humane ways of operating – are the most strategically viable response. These comprehensive, values-based strategies are the strong medicine we need to deal with this virulent cultural disease.

As we re-orient our energy toward the consuming task of being decent in all that we do, perfectionism will increasingly be seen as an unwanted distraction; an attention and energy draining habit of mind that diverts us from our more ennobling goal. With time, it will wither and recede.

Getting from “here” to “there” is, however, an enormous challenge. Being creatures of habit, there is no easy way to wean our selves from our perfectionist mindsets. But while the work is hard, the pay-offs are, potentially, life changing. While it is a long shot, to be sure, it is – as I see it – the most realistic path toward creating a more nourishing lives and meaningfully contributing to a more decent and humane world.

Reflection 30: In Defense of Our Troubling Values

Central to Radical Decency is the belief that:

  1. A specific set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – are pre-eminent in our culture and, thus, wildly over-emphasized in our day by day choices;
  2. That the result is incalculable damage our selves, others, and the world; and,
  3. If we hope to live differently and better, we need to wean ourselves from the corrosive habits of living, spawned by the relentless emphasis on these values, replacing them with more decent ways of being.

Repeating this formulation over and over, it is easy to create a pantheon of good and bad values: Respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – good; compete and win, dominate and control – bad.

Doing so, however, misses the point. The problem is not inherent in the values themselves. It lies, instead, in their over-emphasis and the relentless, culturally based pressure to conform to their strictures.

Radical Decency puts its priority on modeling and promoting virtues that are, in our culture, chronically neglected: Attending to the well being of the socially and economically disenfranchised; treating others with respect; being empathic and fair even when it draws energy from our competitive aspirations; focusing – with the seriousness it deserves – on our need for rest, reflection, novelty, and play.

But promoting these neglected values is not the full story. We are multi-faceted beings, with a wide range of dispositions – from the most loving and affiliative to highly aggressive and dominating. We also operate in diverse and, all too frequently, indifferent and unforgiving environments.

So even as we pursue our aspirational “decency” goals, we need to constructively employ and manage our diverse biological instincts, and realistically come to grips with these harsh cultural realities that surround us. For these reasons, the culture’s predominant “compete and win” values have an important – though far more limited – role to play in our lives.


Take competition, for example. We are socialized in schools where the emphasis on testing, grades, and achievement is pervasive; the goal being to create successful adult competitors; “winners” in life. Sadly – inevitably – this has led: (1) to an epidemic of self-judgment, anxiety, and depression as we strive, in vain, for unending success and perfection; and (2) to a myriad of self-medicating strategies (work, sex, alcohol) as we seek to maintain this psychically compromised approach to living.

Given these disheartening realities, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a competitive spirit, properly used, sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance and, at its best, creates an intimate bond with co-competitors. An innate part of our nature, it can add its own unique zest to the fabric of our lives.

In other words, competitiveness is not the problem. It is, instead, the grim, “winning is the only point” attitude that threatens to entirely eclipse its nourishing aspects.

How far gone are we? Pretty far – and, I am afraid, farther than we think.

As things stand now, the coaches and parents of 10 year olds, who scream at referees – and at kids who don’t play well – are a cultural commonplace. And our “normal” expectation is that businesses will distort the truth, skimp on quality, and overreach on pricing, all to improve profitability; that is, to win.

Contrast these attitudes with the Talmud’s injunction that a losing litigant should thank the judge for enlightening him as to the correct behavior. Reading that as a young attorney, I was brought up short. It seemed so sensible and appealing – and so utterly foreign to the world in which I operated.

Now, 30 years later, that sensibility seems even more farfetched. But imagine how different things would be if an attitude of curiosity, possibility, openness and ease were more present in our attitude as lawyers and litigants – and in other competitions as well?


We also need to look beyond the inhumane versions of domination and control that are rampant in our culture. Like competitiveness, these are aspects of our psychic make-up that, used judiciously, are useful and, at times, indispensable.

Every day, and in virtually every area of living, we are surrounded by people who operate by the culture’s mainstream values. As a result, we continually confront this dilemma: How can I be appropriately self-protective – decency to self – without sacrificing decency to others and the world?

In many instances, the best approach is to create a firm boundary – a form of control.

As I often remind clients that, sharing your anger with a total stranger – the guy who shoves his way to the front of the line, for example – is an act of intimacy. You are disclosing, to him, exactly how you feel.

With that, your vulnerability increases and an emotional connection is created with a person with whom you actually want no connection at all. Better to let his behavior pass without comment, managing your feelings either alone or with the support of someone you trust.

But sometimes this option is not viable. The bully persists. Or the bully is your boss or your child’s teacher. Or you are dealing with a person that seems intent on harming you. In these situations, other acts of control or domination may be called for.

Thus, far from being wrong, lying to a would-be rapist – control by deception – is an invaluable skill. And, after exhausting more respectful options, appropriately modulated counter aggression may be the best option when confronted with an implacable foe, intent on dominating and controlling you. Indeed, even a physical attack may be appropriate when the only other option is serious injury or death from an unprovoked attack.


A final thought: While understanding the “good” side of these mainstream values is an important exercise, so too is an openness and curiosity about why these values developed in the first place and, with that, the role play in our lives. While the primary goal is, without question, to limit their outsized influence, we should strive not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Our traditional gender roles offer a good example. A passive/placating woman and unemotional/unresponsive/work-first man – these patriarchal archetypes are poster children for our pattern of dominance and control and the incalculable pain it causes. But we need to understand why patriarchy evolved in the first place: Its role in our evolutionary history.

Women evolved, across our 300,000-year history as Homo sapiens, to be our early warning system; the folks who scan for danger. And since duplicating this process made no sense, men evolved as reactors – not to the environment – but to women’s emotions.

Given this evolutionary division of labor, men and women developed different emotional sensitivities. Woman – wired to react to danger – are especially susceptible to safety issues whereas men. Men on the other hand – wired to their women – strive to be good providers, protectors and lovers and, for that reason, are more susceptible to shame.

These emotional predispositions, deeply embedded in our psyches through millennia of evolution, continue to influence our behaviors. Understanding this, the behavior of a placating woman is much more understandable.

Her steady message to her mate – that he is a good provider, protector and lover – minimizes his shame and frees him to play his traditional role more effectively. In an analogous way, a stoic man – keeping his fears and anxieties to himself – is better able to attend to his spouse’s immediate, potentially safety-threatening concerns.

Since we no longer live as hunter/gatherers, these restricted gender roles no longer serve us. However, teasing out these sorts of behavioral nuggets in patriarchy’s otherwise highly destructive pattern of dominance and control, allow us to make smarter more modulated choices; choices that are egalitarian but, at the same time, attend (for example) to “her” sensitivity to safety issues and “his” susceptibility to shame.

Reflection 29: Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots

By 1993, after 23 years in Philadelphia, I had sunk deep roots. I was active on numerous nonprofit boards in the Jewish, legal, and civic worlds. My wife and I had lots of acquaintances, mostly through our professional and volunteer activities. We belonged to a synagogue and swim club; went to parties, theatre, and dance. If someone had asked me then, I probably would have said, “of course I have community.”

But I would have been wrong

My lesson in real community began, that year, when I participated in the Essential Experience Workshop. While the “EE” Workshop was a great experience, the real eye opener, for me, was the community I was invited to join when the weekend ended.

In retrospect, I am reminded of an interview with a woman who didn’t realize she was a lesbian until her 40s. Finally having sex with another woman, her reaction was: “So this is what they’ve been talking about!” Before the workshop I – like her – didn’t know what I was missing because, quite simply, I had never experienced it. Becoming a part of the EE community was a true awakening.

Pre-EE, my “community” consisted of a series of friendships, with each relationship requiring my continuing attention. In EE, however, I became a part of something bigger than me. Even when I was preoccupied elsewhere, I knew the community was there – a home and refuge to which I could always return.

EE is communal and non-authoritarian in structure and feel; a quality that is, I suspect, present in most other vibrant communities. As members, we are not slotted into an existing hierarchy. Instead, we are invited into a brotherhood of like-minded people, working together to create a shared environment. Knowing that it belongs to us – and depends on us for its continued vitality – we show up; participate in its activities, traditions, and rituals; and to assume leadership roles as needed.

My level of involvement with different EE members varies greatly. But my sense of connection goes beyond the vagaries of individual relationship. Meeting an EE grad for the first time, I presume a common outlook and shared respect, affection, and loyalty that are both general (for the community) and specific (for each member). And I reasonably expect these feelings to be reciprocated.


With EE as my classroom, I have developed a much richer sense of what community is and how powerfully it can shape our lives. I have also come to believe that meaningful and lasting change – in our lives and in the world – can only occur when we reinforce and magnify our individual efforts through communal involvements.

Creating community is, however, a huge challenge. Why? Because we live in a culture where individualism is rampant. “Do you own thing,” “make your dream happen,” “you can do anything, if you by just try hard enough”– these ideas have become iconic: Constantly repeated; seldom examined; deeply influential in our lives. Consumed with building individual careers, we have, in the last 60 years, massively withdrawn from our churches, fraternal organizations, and unions – a process that Robert Putnam painstakingly documents in Bowling Alone (2001).

This unraveling of our communal ways is a radical departure from habits of living that endured for countless millennia. As hunter/gatherers, community was the taken-for-granted context in which we lived for 290,000 out of the 300,000 years in which we have existed as Homo sapiens. And even just 150 years ago, most people still lived their lives in a single location, sharing a common culture, with an unchanging group of people.

This shift away from community is something that seems to have just happened, with little or no awareness on our part. The result? We tend to see it as an unavoidable byproduct of the technological advances of the last 60 years.

But this is not true. These changes are, in fact, the result of historical forces that, while powerful and enduring, are by not means foreordained. Understanding these forces is critically important, lest we slip into passive acceptance of this “inevitable” shift.

To understand this point, recall the “futurists” of the 1950s. These experts – a staple of secondary education in that era – foresaw life-altering technological breakthroughs in the ensuing decades and confidently predicted that, by the year 2000, three-day workweeks would be the norm.

So why is it that these experts, so prescient in their technological predictions, were so wildly off base in predicting their social consequences? Because they failed to consider the crucial role that values play in our history. In a culture in which competition, dominance and control are the predominant values, the use of these new technologies to compete better, faster, and harder should not have been a surprise.

In short, values are the driving force behind many, if not most, of the really big changes that occur in the ways in which we live, including the precipitous decline in communal connections. These changes don’t “just happen.”


What, then, are the values-based historical factors that have led to the recent, precipitous decline of community?

Jared Diamond and others point out that, about starting 15,000 years ago, we humans domesticated plants and animals. This momentous event made settled communities feasible and also allowed one group – controlling the food supply – to dominate others. And so began a species-altering shift toward a compete and win, dominate and control ideology.

Viewed in this context, there is nothing remarkable about the process that has unfolded over the last 60 years. For millennia, new technologies have been reflexively co-opted by the beneficiaries of this authoritarian trend, to expand and deepen their power. So, very predictably, the massive technological advances of the last half-century have been deployed in ways that further entrench these status quo forces.

So how does a weakening of our communal ways fit into this process? Because challenges to entrenched systems are far more likely to occur when people organize. And vibrant communal organizations are the fertile ground out of which these transformative social movements typically arise. Thus, promoting rootlessness through the cult of individualism and a headlong pursuit of personal power and, then, using our new technologies to intensify that pursuit, is an utterly expectable outcome.

Indeed, the only really novel aspect of the last 60 years – and this is no small thing – is rapidity of the change process. Life-altering technologies are now being developed with mind-boggling rapidity – jet travel, television, instant global communication, computer-based information management. Seismic shifts in the ways in which we live, including the rapidly accelerating demise of our communal organizations, are now measured in years and decades, and not centuries and millennia.


There are important lessons to be drawn from all of this. The first is positive. Since the values that predominate in our culture are the product of historical forces, they can be undone. Fundamental change is possible.

But we also need to recognize the depth of the challenge. Glib and easy answers do not exist for a problem that is 15,000 years in the making. We need to do what we can – now, in our time – and hope that others will build on what we leave behind.

So what needs to be done? Since change is much more likely to happen when we join our efforts with others, one key piece of the work is to create new, and newly re-vitalized, communal organizations. And, in order to do this, we need to systematically cultivate alternative value systems, such as Radical Decency, that impel us toward communal involvements – instead of having a vested interest in their demise.

Living in and through these more cooperative models of living, we will be better able to deepen our understanding of the challenges we face; hone more creative and effective change strategies; and to magnify our impact by creating the communal ground out of which larger social and political movements can emerge.

A final thought: Business is the primary driver of the values that predominate in our culture. The majority of our days, and the great bulk of our most productive hours, are devoted work and career. For that reason, the idea of focusing on the creation of values-based, communal models in business seems particularly compelling. Our workplaces need to become an extension of our deepest values, instead of being an unfortunate exception to them – at the center of our lives.

Reflecton 28: An Aspirational Approach to Living

The Case for Radical Decency, a recently published blog, brought the following provocative and thoughtful reaction – the subject of this week’s Reflection:

“If ‘picking and choosing’ where to practice Radical Decency is ‘doomed to failure’ does that mean only saints can succeed? How does one incrementally improve?”

“If Radical Decency is doomed to failure unless applied at all times to everything, must I be a Buddhist monk or the equivalent?”

This issue has gnawed at me for years. Am I doing enough? If I tend to myself, am I neglecting clients, family, and friends? How do I explain my continuing habit of shopping for the best deal, even when I wind up making the purchase from a patently indecent company? Surrounded by so much hardship and deprivation, how many $200 excursions to Eagles’ games or $3,000 vacation trips are enough, before I stray into habits of excessive entitlement and self-indulgence?

There have been times when, on a comparative basis, my wife and I would have been described as highly charitable. But decency is not a comparative sport. And even in our best years, our contributions were always in the single digits as a percentage of income, and an uncomfortably small percentage of our net worth. Moreover, when our income and net worth declined, due to my switch from the law to psychotherapy and coaching, our charitable budget was among our deepest cuts.

How this Mindset Traps and Defeats Us

Radical Decency seeks to diverge from the culture’s wildly out of balance emphasis on competitive, win/lose values, advocating a decisive shift in priority toward a more humane set of values. That is its central purpose.

With this in mind, notice the extent to which this self-judgmental approach replicates the very values the philosophy seeks to replace. Tally up the evidence and make a judgment: Have I succeeded in being radically decent – or not? Am I a saint – or a failure?

One unfortunate byproduct of this unforgiving, all-or-nothing mindset is a sense of ineffectiveness and helplessness. That, in turn, invites passivity and a retreat from Radical Decency’s seemingly impossible challenges. The result: Radical Decency is transformed into an unwitting ally of the mainstream culture; dissipating and marginalizing the very reform energies it seeks to unleash.

Resistance to this self-judgmental approach is, therefore, a key aspect of a successful Radical Decency practice. We need to understand how our efforts will, inevitably, be deeply complicated and compromised by:

  • Our biology; and, equally,
  • The culture within in which we exist and operate.

Only then will we be able let go of the demoralizing shame, guilt, and self-judgment that our shortcomings can, so easily, provoke.

Impact of the Culture

The culture’s debilitating impact on our efforts to be radically decent is deep and pervasive. The relentless focus in our schooling is on testing and grades, indoctrinating us from an early age into a competitive mindset. And throughout our lives, we are saturated with “heart warming” stories that remind us that good people can accomplish anything (that is, win) if they just try hard enough – and, by clear implication, that we are losers if we fail in our purposes.

In stark contrast, the values we associate with decency – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – are pushed to the relative margins of the mainstream narrative and, all too frequently are demeaned as soft and naïve.

Adding to this toxic mix is a mainstream mindset that encourages us to be warm, friendly and congenial – except, that is, when it really matters. Then, go for the jugular. The result: Buildin communities of support for a more decent way of living – already a challenging task – is further complicated by the difficulty in distinguishing between true allies and those who talk a good game.

Impact of Our Biology

In doing our decency work, we also need to remember that we are, by our very nature, highly susceptible to environmental influences and predisposed to reflexively repeat past behaviors. So in addition to everything else, we need to continually resist our innate tendency to recede, in large ways and small, to our habitual, mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

Cultivating An Aspirational Approach

These complicating factors leave us humbled before the challenge that Radical Decency presents. Indeed, my operating (though unprovable) theory is that no one is radically decent – and that seeing the philosophy as an attainable, concrete endpoint is an illusion; a false god.

The better approach?

To view Radical Decency as an aspirational ideal that provides an empowering framework for the complex, day-by-day choices that are its meat and potatoes. 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 its practice.

The Buddhist approach to meditation offers a useful model. In the basic practice, you are taught to focus on your breathing as a way of rooting yourself in the present moment. But you are also told that, inevitably and repeatedly, your thoughts will drift to memories from the past and thoughts about the future. When this occurs, you are instructed to notice what has happened and – without judgment – to re-focus on your breathing.

Similarly, with Radical Decency, we need to attend to each moment’s endless possibilities for being decent – to our self, others, and the world – and the ways in which we can balance and harmonize these disparate goals. But then, inevitably and repeatedly, our attention will falter, distracted by old habits that:

  • Pinch and limit our time with loved ones as we strive for “success”; or,
  • Divert us, in our drive to accumulate more and more, from more meaningful contributions to social justice causes – or to a financially strapped co-worker or friend; or
  • Push us to manipulate and control “this” conversation or “that” business transaction, with too little regard for the needs of others.

When these things happen, we need to notice our faltering attention and, then – without judgment – return to our Radical Decency practice: Learning from our lapses; doing effective repair work; stretching toward new, more creative and effective decency choices.

Committed, long-term meditators never succeed in eliminating their brain’s distractability. But this does not mean that 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.

A similar process is at work in Radical Decency. Just as a committed meditation practice chips away at an engrained, biologically determined mindset, so too, a dedicated Radical Decency practice chips away at engrained, social determined ways of being.

We will never succeed. We will always fall short. But my hope – and passionate belief – is that, in the process, we will craft better lives and more effectively contribute to a more decent and humane world.

Reflection 27: The Case for Radical Decency

I came of age in the Civil Rights era, a time when people of dignity and vision set an agenda of greater decency, fairness and justice – and perceptibly moved the needle of public policy in that direction. An abiding gift from those years is my passion to contribute to a better world; a passion that has persisted through 25 years as a community minded attorney and another 15 as a psychotherapist and coach.

Along the way I have been involved in many creative and inspiring initiatives. But my sense throughout has been that I was dealing with symptoms –“this” injustice or “that” place of unnecessary pain and suffering – and not with the underlying cause of what ails us. The question that, for me, remained stubbornly unanswered was this:

How can we craft strategies that meaningfully challenge the seemingly out of control cultural forces that – year by year, decade by decade – create an ever coarsening, unjust, and inequitable world.

What came to me about 15 years ago was that, at its core, the problem we face is values based. There is a specific set of values that drives decision-making in virtually every area of our lives and, so long as they predominate, we will never meaningfully diverge from our current course.

The sensible response? To embrace a very different set of values that I call “decency”: Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice. And to practice them “radically”: At all times and in every area of living.

In this Reflection I make the case for Radical Decency as an approach to living that speaks with special force to the central challenge we face – in this time and place – as we seek to create better lives and a better world.


We live in world that is driven by a very specific set of values: Compete and win, dominate and control. And these values – while not inherently bad – are wildly over-emphasized in our culture, infiltrating virtually every area for living, causing incalculable damage our selves and others.

Living this way, the evidence is irrefutable: We have created a failed culture.

Why do I say this with such certainty? Because, starting a culture from scratch, we would want it to support us in pursuing at least one of the following goals:

  • Being decent to our selves; or
  • Being decent to others; or
  • Being decent to the world.

Sadly – remarkably – our world fails to support us in any of these purposes.

Consider, for example, these questions:

With regard to how we treat our selves: Does the culture support us in doing the things that truly nourish and satisfy us? Or do we feel compelled to devote our most productive hours of the great majority of our days to making money, and to jobs that drain our energy and distract us from our deepest longings?

With regard to how we treat others: Does the culture make concern for others a priority? Or is the operating rule of thumb to focus on how other people’s actions affect us; or, even more narrowly, on what they can do for us? Does the culture model and reinforce curiosity about other people’s ideas and opinions? Or does it teach us to judge and dismiss people who are different? Does the culture encourage us to treat people in need with respect and generosity? Or does it condone and implicitly encourage half measures and outright indifference?

With regard to how we treat the world: Does the culture encourage us to marshal the environment’s resources with caution and care? Or does it place primary emphasis on their unrestrained exploitation for our material advantage? Does the mainstream culture provide any significant support for life choices that actively consider the fate of other living things?


Operating in an environment that is saturated with cues, incentive and sanctions that push us toward indecent behaviors, the compelling question before us is this: What can we do to reverse this dismal equation? How can we craft ways of living that are more decent to our self, to others, and to the world?

This is the question Radical Decency seeks to address.

Doing so, we first need to deal with the realities of our biology. We humans are profoundly creatures of habit; wired to do in the future what we did in the past. And far more than we care to acknowledge, the culture’s predominant values are woven into the very fabric of our taken-for-granted, habitual ways of living. In large ways and small, they pull us toward the “safe,” “smart,” and “obvious” choices that, in the end, root us in indecent ways of operating that, being borne into this culture, are our unfortunate birthright.

Given this reality, the process of diverging from our mainstream ways cannot operate solely or predominantly at a cognitive/logical level: Identify the problem, craft a solution, implement. Instead, what is called for is a re-habituation process. We need to systematically cultivate new habits of living that can, with practice and persistence, replace our status quo ways of operating.

Working from these premises, Radical Decency invites us to be decent to our self, to others, and to the world and – crucially – to do it on an across-the-board basis: At all times, in every context, and without exception.

At its core, Radical Decency grows out of this simple premise: If we whole-heartedly commit to this different way of living, allowing it to guide our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, we have a fighter’s chance of leading a better life and more effectively contributing to a better world.

The reverse is also true. If we adopt a pick and chose approach to decency – with family and friends but not at work; in our self-care but only in half-hearted ways in our politics – we will fail. Given the pervasiveness of the mainstream culture’s predominant values, if we continue to practice them – out there, in the real world – they will inevitably invade and compromise the small, private islands of decency we seek to create.


By focusing on our day-by-day choices, Radical Decency expands our vision, pointing to ways in which we can more effectively deploy our energies. So, for example, it highlights the extent to which work and business dominate our lives, and is an uncomfortable reminder of our complicity with the culture’s indecent values when we succumb to the workplace’s bottom-line oriented, “do what you have to do” ways of operating.

On the positive side of the equation, Radical Decency highlights the importance of change in this crucial area of living. Imagine how different the world would be if business’ were routinely committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on – and, if business’ profits and accumulated capital funded a decency agenda rather than the self-aggrandizing policies that currently dominate its public agenda?

Radical Decency’s operative principles also lead to an analogous shift in focus in the political arena. Living in a compete and win, dominate and control culture – in which money and power are the coin of the realm – the political system is fixed. While elections and legislative battles are unquestionably important, the likelihood of ever electing a critical mass of good-hearted politicians, interested in putting a priority on decency, is surpassingly small.

Radical Decency, however, with its focus on the underlying values that drive our public policy choices, seeks to change the rules of the game – a daunting but, ultimately, more promising avenue of attack. Thus, by way of example, the logic of the approach invites:

  • Major initiatives to redirect our public discourse away from its current adversarial, win/lose mindset toward one marked by respect, understanding, and reasoned compromise; and
  • A far deeper commitment to collaborative efforts that bring people together, from across the political spectrum, who share an underlying commitment to decency.


A very good piece of additional news about Radical Decency is that a committed practice can have a dramatic, positive impact on our personal lives as well.

Here’s how it works.

Seeking to harmonize and balance decency to self, others, and the world, we are confronted with a seemingly endless series of difficult choices. When, for example, does self-care take precedence over the needs of others – and vice versa? And when we truly face up to our responsibility to people who are socially or economically disenfranchised, what is an appropriate allocation of time and money to their needs?

With these challenges, however, come a whole series of life changing benefits. When grappling with these “wisdom stretching” dilemmas becomes our habitual way of operating, there is a perceptible shift in outlook and approach. We instinctually reach for a richer understanding of the diverse needs, motives and feelings that we, and others, experience – and need to be dealt with in our ongoing effort to be more and more decent. And with that, we become more open, curious, thoughtful, and reflective.

As we settle into these new habitual mindsets, increased emotional awareness and analytic acuity are inevitable byproducts. We also develop an increased ability to act, even in uncomfortable situations; the patience and self-control to forbear when that is the better choice; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The endpoint? When all that we do is approached with these new habits of openness, curiosity and a growing sense of discernment, we wind up with 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 extension of the less the 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 our own company and 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 of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.

These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a vibrant and nourishing life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization.

In my view, Radical Decency works. If the goal is to create a better world, it is the strong medicine we need to deal with the virulent, values-based cultural disease that ails us. But, happily, the argument for adopting a committed Radical Decency practice does not rest solely on my analysis being correct. In the end, a radically decent life is its own reward.

Reflection 26: Our Primary Emotional Tapes – A Case Study

It had snowed in Philadelphia the night before. When I arrived at my office, shortly after noon the next day, the driveway and parking areas were unplowed; no access.

With my first client due to arrive in less than an hour, I called the landlord but got no answer. I then called the people that clear our driveway at home. They arrived about 45 minutes later and got enough plowing done to make the office accessible.

Minutes later, the landlord arrived, prepared to clear the snow. He yelled at me (something he apologized for the next day) and remained angry throughout an exchange of emails over the next 24 hours or so.

So here is a brief, unpleasant, but not unusual interlude between two people who otherwise have an entirely friendly and cooperative relationship. Why do I raise it? Because it offers an excellent example of how, throughout our lives, key emotional systems, internalized in childhood, deeply affect our psyches.

In this Reflection, I offer a case study of this phenomenon, with me as the example. Doing so, my premise is that I am an utterly typical human, “just another bozo on the bus” as my teacher, Nedra Fetterman, would reassuringly remind me.

While the story I tell is unique to me, it is emblematic of who we are as humans. We all carry around our own set of primary emotional tapes. Understanding their influence allows us to better manage their unwanted consequences, freeing us to be more decent to others and to ourselves.


Two key pieces of neurobiology provide the context for this discussion. The first is Hebb’s Theorem: “If it fires together, it wires together.”

When, for example, an infant – baby Jeff, for example – is startled by a barking dog, a chain of synapses fires. Then, because they fired once, they are more likely to fire again in response to a similar stimulus. Confronted with that stimulus a third time, the likelihood of a repeat firing is even greater, and so on. In other words, my brain – like every other brain – is wired to do in the future what it did in the past.

Hebb’s Theorem influences virtually every aspect of living. But there are certain patterns of behavior that overload the baby’s system, thereby activating his or her fight or flight brain. These patterns – the ones I refer to as primary emotional tapes – exercise a special power over us because of the peculiarities of that part of the brain.

As a key physiological mechanism for dealing with danger, fight or flight clicks in quickly and powerfully.

Moreover, it wouldn’t do for an evolving species – intent on survival – to forget the danger presented by a crouching lion months or years later. As a result, this part of the brain never forgets. When an event triggers an old fight or flight pattern – even decades later – the emotions and bodily reactions we felt back then come flooding back, full force. It is as though time stands still.

Notice, importantly, that we are dealing with danger as an infant or small child perceives it. So, while primary emotional tapes are often generated by an obvious danger – physical or sexual abuse – they may also be the product of much more subtle patterns: Dad’s cutting looks, mom’s self absorption at moments of crisis, even the smell of grandma’s apartment. The key is that the child’s system is overloaded, triggering his or her fight/flight response.


So how does this relate to the conversation I had with my landlord? Well, my mother was devoted and loving – and very angry. Warm and funny she could turn dark in a heartbeat, screaming and berating whoever was in her line of fire – me included.

Each of her children dealt with her temper differently.

Me? I fought back.

From infancy, I was a screamer. Until I was 10 or 11, if she yelled at me, I yelled back, with our pitched verbal battles often continuing to the point of emotional exhaustion. In the end, I would retreat to my room, sobbing and forlorn. Eventually, I would slink back downstairs, rejoining the family but still feeling wrong and humiliated; a jumble of unresolved emotions.

A big part of my healing and growth as an adult has been (1) to understand this pattern, so deeply burned into my psyche, and (2) to create a more adult script for dealing with anger and conflict. I have made progress to the point where people will now remark – always a bit of a shock to me – on my calm and soothing nature.

But make no mistake, my struggle with this old pattern continues. So when my landlord yelled at me – 6 decades later! – the old tape reactivated, just like that. My body tensed, I instantly felt tightness in my throat, chest, and shoulders. My brain was on hyper-alert, ready to defend and counterattack.

At 5, or 10 or 40 I might have done exactly that. But over the years, I have slowly learned to behave differently. So in this situation, emotionally catapulted back into my old tapes, I was still able to interrupt the pattern. Instead of yelling back, I retreated to my office.

This growing ability to interrupt my programmed responses is a real plus. It has minimized the practical consequences of my temper. It has also been integral to the deeper emotional healing I have experienced; a growing understanding, at a gut emotional level, that angry attacks are not my mother reincarnate.

But the incident with my landlord was a reminder that, while the old tapes are muted – and, now, largely invisible to the outside world – they continue to powerfully affect my emotions, my physical state and, albeit in more subtle ways, my behaviors.

First, the behaviors: While I didn’t yell back at my landlord, I was literally impelled to communicate to him in writing, explaining in detail the reasonableness of my actions. My wife, who is also my business partner, reviewed these emails and confirmed their polite tone.

But my compulsion to write them belied my intentions. I was battling back, showing the landlord I was right and he was wrong. Using my adult writing skills to mask my true identity. I was really a traumatized child, reliving my primary emotional tape – yet again.

Not surprisingly, my physical and emotional state also reflected the reassertion of these old tapes. The tension in my body persisted. A week later, I could still feel its residue.

Emotionally, try as I might, the incident – the “injustice” of the landlord’s position – my detailed defenses – continued to infiltrate and dominate my thoughts. Even knowing how minor the incident was, I still felt powerfully at risk and desperate to “prove” I was right. The old, all too familiar feeling of being that wronged little boy, an outcast – so integral to the old tapes – was back.


One lesson I draw from this incident has to do with the relationship we have with our primary emotional tapes. Our control-oriented culture focuses on overt behaviors, implicitly telling us that our work is done once we have learned to manage the visible consequences of our primary tapes. But, as important as more functional behaviors are, that should not be our ultimate goal.

Instead, we should be aiming for habits of healing and growth that allow us to live with greater ease, vibrancy and self-mastery. Rather than simply controlling our old tapes, our goal should be to move through and beyond them.

This run-in with my childhood tapes provides an excellent example of the pay-offs that can occur when we persist in pursuing this larger goal. After years of self-reflection – and long after I was “cured” of my temper – you would think that the healing and growth that could occur from my continued attention to these old patterns would be small. But you would be wrong.

In the days following the incident, I employed my usual healing strategies: Support, self-talk, self-soothing, distraction. Then, with my wife’s support, I tried a less tested approach: An unqualified apology. To my surprise, it resulted in an immediate and perceptible easing of my pain.

In retrospect, it makes sense. My traditional healing strategies do little to challenge the highly conflictual – and painful – system my primary emotional tapes activate. And “winning” actually perpetuates that pattern, the only difference being that I become the (temporary) victor. But when I apologized, I was far better able to walk away from the old pattern. I was no longer fighting, no longer defending.

Needless to say, this healing moment did not cure me. But the hopeful lesson I take from the incident with the landlord is this: If, when the old tapes reassert themselves, I persist in doing my healing and growth work, these kinds of moments – when I am able to embrace new behaviors and more comfortable ways of “being with” my old tapes – will accumulate and gain momentum.

Reflection 25: The Vise of Money

Money is rivetingly important. What topic is more shrouded in secrecy, or more fraught with emotion? Some years ago Madonna had a filmmaker record her life. She told him everything was fair game. He could film her having sex. He could film her going to her bathroom. But when she met with her financial advisors, no cameras.

In our tell-all world, ask yourself this question: How many people tell-all about their finances?

One experiment I used to run with groups was to ask them to reflect silently on two sets of questions.

  • The first: Who do you have sex with? How often? How do you do it?
  • The second: How much money do you make? How much do you spend? What is your net worth?

After silently contemplating their answers for a couple of minutes, I would then ask which set of questions caused greater anxiety as they thought about sharing their responses. Typically, 80-90% of participants chose the money questions.

The obvious lesson? Our most pervasive and powerful taboos are around money.

Introducing this exercise to one of my men’s groups, events took an unexpected turn when one of the participants, unprompted, simply answered the money questions. Influenced by his example, the others followed suit. The conversation that followed was fascinating. Financially undressed, every man confessed to an area of marked shame or fear: One about over spending; another about his income; still another about unwise investment decisions.


None of this is happenstance. The values that predominate in our culture are compete and win, dominate and control – and money is their single most compelling measure. Why? To begin with, it is so quantifiable. An $80,000 income is, unquestionably, more than a $60,000 income.

Money is moreover wonderfully fungible, providing a universally applicable measuring stick that judges all of us without regard to our interests, passions or disposition. Artists, academics, and religious leaders – just like business people – are typically honored in proportion to their ability to sell the “product” (books, paintings, etc.) and to command large audiences and fees. And stay-at-homes moms – who offer leadership in raising our children and organizing our family and social lives, but don’t make money – struggle with issues of self worth far more than, say, accountants and lawyers.

In the movie Inside Job, academic department heads at Columbia and Harvard were asked if they perceived any conflict of interest in the extraordinary fees they and their colleagues received from the industries they studied. Their almost identical response was a disingenuous “no.” The lesson? Even in this supposedly more principled world, making money trumps other competing values – even academic integrity.


This obsession with money is chillingly effective in locking us into lives that condone and promote the culture’s mainstream values. The prospect of economic instability pushes the vast majority of us into a lifetime of indenture to mainstream jobs for which we feel little or no passion.

Indeed, in my psychotherapy practice, I am shocked at the number of clients who don’t even dream of something better. Even contemplating a choice that might place the mortgage and health insurance at risk – and, possibly, consign them to society’s bin of financial losers – is, it seems, too scary or discouraging. Since there is no way out, why even try? Just play the game and do best you can to make peace with it.

The sad part in all of this is that almost no one wins the money game. Since it is a comparative sport, someone is always doing better. And today’s “winner” will, in the great majority cases, be tomorrow’s loser.

Moreover, even when the comparative aspect of the money game is ignored, there are few winners. The person that said “we live up to our means” was right. In Bonfire of the Vanities (written over 20 years ago) Tom Wolfe explained how a bond broker making $900,000 a year was just getting by, what with the expense of private schools, a Park Avenue condo, and a summer home in the Hamptons.

Closer to home, I will always remember a young law partner in the 1990s – with a wife, kids, and house in the suburbs – who explained to me that he could give nothing to the United Way because he was “broke.” His annual income: $125,000.


An important first step in coming to grips with money’s vise-like hold on our lives is to challenge the culture’s conspiracy of silence. We need to move beyond the idea that it is unseemly or impolite to talk openly about what we, and others, make and accumulate, and how these assets are used.

This social taboo has a serious purpose, and it is not good manners. To the contrary, it is designed to shield all of us – but particularly the wealthy – from virtually any personal responsibility around money. Who in our midst is committing meaningful resources to the needs of the disadvantaged? And who is doing nothing? Beyond occasional bits of information – usually volunteered for a self-interested purpose and seldom critically examined – we simply don’t know.

This silence spares all of us from any extrinsic pressure to examine our behavior when it comes to money. And while it is easy to take comfort in this escape from responsibility, the price we pay, individually and as a society, is far too great.

At a macro level, here is the shell game that this conspiracy of silence has made possible: First, we have progressively privatized the programs that support the disadvantaged; starving governmental programs and, then, relying on donor-supported nonprofits to fill the void. Celebrating the virtues of volunteerism and individual initiative, we leave the financing of vast parts of the safety net to the whims of individuals who, cloaked in anonymity, feel virtually no social pressure to step up to the plate.

The results are utterly predictable. Wealthy people – with statistically insignificant exceptions – invest either nothing or a grotesquely tiny proportion of their resources in programs for the needy.

In truth, rich people have been given license – even encouragement – to abdicate any sense of social responsibility even as, in their quest for ever greater wealth, they tighten their grip on the levers of power. Unchecked, this is a prescription for an unraveling of society. Lacking a larger sense of responsibility, what is to stop them from relocating their assets overseas, to better maximize profits? And, indeed, this is happening every day, at an accelerating pace.

Our secrecy around money also inflicts an unacceptably high price in our personal lives. If we hope to live differently and better, we need the support of intimate communities than can help to move us through and beyond our paralyzing fears.       But doing so is an impossibility so long as money and the pressures and fears that surround it – the very issues that lead to so many of our sleepless nights – are enveloped in a cone of silence. Thus, at a personal level as well, a frank and open discussion of about money is a vital.


Another key step toward improving our unhealthy relationship around money is to ease its hold on our sense of well-being. We think that we will be safe if only we have “enough” money. And yet, the opposite is actually much closer to the truth: No amount of money, reasonably within our grasp, will ever make everything ok. Given the risks and uncertainties that are at the very center of our competitive economic system, almost no one is immune from financial peril.

Embracing this hard reality can, in fact, be empowering and life changing. Doing so, we are in a much better position, psychologically, to wean ourselves from the reflexive tendency to view financial security as life’s unquestioned priority.

And what should replace it? An approach to living that, while tending to financial realities, makes our hopes and dreams the central focus.

Beyond that, we need to persistently experiment at the edge of our fears around money: Foregoing a work opportunity to attend our daughter’s swim meet; increasing our charitable commitments beyond a place of comfortable tokenism; considering a new, lower paying job that more closely reflects our life’s passion.

The work is hard but, with focus and persistence, it has the potential to make us far more effective agents for change – in our lives and in the world.

Reflection 24: Holistic Healing – A Five Pronged Approach

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.”

The Practical

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.

The Radical

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.

Reflection 23: Radical Decency in Business – The Nitty-Gritty

Two key perspectives inform my thinking about Radical Decency:

  1. Because work is the most powerful driver of the values that predominate in our culture, it is also the best point of leverage for change. If we can create new, habitual ways of operating at work, we will dramatically increase the likelihood of change in all areas of living; and
  1. The greatest challenges – and greatest rewards – of Radical Decency emerge in the nitty-gritty details of its application.

This Reflection seeks to demonstrate the power of these perspectives using examples drawn from the legal business, where I spent 25 years of my career.


Several years ago, a friend and large law firm partner described the following scenario. He and his partners were reviewing their budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In doing so, the managing partner revealed proposed across-the-board cuts to healthcare benefits. As a partner making more than $300,000 a year, these cuts were manageable for my friend. However, he was concerned about its effect on the support staff, people such as his secretary who made $32,000 a year.

The managing partner was quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of my friend’s concern but then made the following points: A key component of the firm’s continuing prosperity was its ability to attract experienced attorneys and practice groups and that, in turn, was dependent upon maintaining its “per partner profits;” a key industry statistic for measuring profitability. Absent a cut in benefits, the firm’s ranking in this vital area would drop from 7th to 11th in its geographic region.

The managing partner also acknowledged that the firm could, perhaps, hold the line on benefit cuts in the next year or two. But, then, the “inevitable” cuts would be more draconic and, hence, more disruptive in the lives of the support staff.

The cuts were made.

This, to me, is the truest face of our indecent culture. Innumerable meetings, quietly taking place in comfortable offices, where “reasonable” people “reluctantly” make “inevitable” choices because they “have to.” Their unbridled greed and ambition – “we ALWAYS need to make more money” – is almost never acknowledged. And the effect of their choices on the less privileged – even those sitting right outside their offices – is barely a blip on their radar screens.


One of the geniuses of the predominant culture is its sheer pervasiveness. It is reinforced by a seemingly endless array of structural impediments and values-based assumptions that, cumulatively, make meaningful change seem like an impossible, pie-in-the sky dream. In the situation just described, for example, the very structure of the law firm made resistance close to impossible.

Most partners, my friend included, are wildly busy tending to matters that have nothing to do with firm management. Growing and maintaining their practices, in a highly competitive environment, is more than a full time job.

So the managing partner, backed by the firm’s financial people, went into the budgeting process knowing so much more than a rank and file partner (such as my friend). He also had all the firm’s organizational momentum behind him and, if he was any good at his job, had lined up support from the firm’s most powerful partners before the meeting ever took place.

In addition, any other outcome would have flown in the face of a whole series of unspoken assumptions: Generating as much profit as possible for the firm’s partner/owners is the unquestioned priority; differences in income between partners and nonprofessionals has no meaningful ethical overtones; the only way to remain competitive with a crucial constituency – lateral hires – is to be highly profitable; and so on.


The hopeful thought I want to offer is this: A very different, radically decent approach to business is possible – even the legal profession! And importantly, it can be done in ways that maintain and, perhaps, even enhance a firm’s economic viability.

But if a firm takes an ad hoc approach to change – an extra employee benefit here, a pro bono project there – meaningful and lasting change will never take place. The problem? This approach leaves the firm’s usual ways of doing business intact and unchallenged. Then, when an inevitable down year hits, its experiment in being a little more decent will be quickly sacrificed to the god of 6 and 7 figure partner incomes.

What is needed instead is a systematic rethinking of the firm’s perspective on what it means to be successful and how to go about achieving it. Profitability is essential. The firm is, after all, an economic entity. But it needs to be priority 1A, just below and clearly subordinate to decency.

Adopting this approach would demand a re-thinking of many of the industry’s business-as-usual practices: partner, associate and staff compensation; billing; associate evaluations; and so on. It would also call into question some of taken for granted ways in which law is practiced.

But these shifts would not be a utopian exercise in self-immolation. To the contrary, since Radical Decency requires accountability for all of our choices, an insistence on a quality legal product, timely delivered, would be a given. Indeed, since there would no longer be an implicit exception for certain senior partners and rainmakers, the overall quality of the legal work might even be enhanced. Moreover, to maintain decency to self – as well as to others and the world – implementation would need to occur in ways, and at a pace, that maintained economic viability.

One key to success would be the firm’s systematic, forthright and public embrace of this more decent way of operating in word – and in deed. Our cynicism about business is profound. No one expects a business to be decent. So, the firm’s commitment would initially be seen as just another marketing ploy. However, implemented in this full-bore way, that initial reaction would shift over time.

Potential clients would begin to realize that the firm’s billing policies were transparent and fair. They would also find that, at this firm, there was no risk of over lawyering or of an overhyping of conflicts to drive up fees. In short, a competitive edge would emerge that – because it is so unusual – would more than offset the loss of clients who think they need an attack dog attorney.

Its effect on the quality of attorneys and support staff would also be dramatic. Fully committed to fair compensation and work/life balance, the firm would, in this way as well, carve out a meaningful competitive niche. Many extraordinary attorneys – some with considerable books of business – would be drawn to such a firm. And the firm would be positioned to build an extraordinarily capable and loyal support staff.

Note that many firms that say all the right things. “We put clients first.” “We are a friendly, family oriented place to work.” “We offer quality legal services at a fair price.”

So a key element in establishing credibility – and uniqueness – would be to express these values, not just in words, but also through concrete and visible systems. In billing, for example, the firm could diverge from hourly billing; a system that so transparently invites (indecent) manipulation at clients’ expense. It could instead estimate cost in advance; collect a premium if the job is done for a lesser amount; and charge a rate that is meaningfully reduced but still above cost, if the estimate is exceeded. This approach would decisively differentiate the firm from its competitors’ “nice words” about putting clients’ interests first.

Similarly, metrics used to evaluate associates could fully credit time spent on pro bono projects – or at an ailing parent’s bedside. No more “we encourage community involvement but still expect 2,000 billable hours;” a formulation that demands unreasonable sacrifices at home – or padded time sheets. Smart accountants could also develop metrics that factor in values beyond profitability; that no longer treat “personnel” and “plant and equipment” as undifferentiated expense items.

In these ways as well, the firm could forcefully make the case that it is truly different. And, equally important, it would embed these new values in its taken for granted structures – helping, in this way, to guard against the ever-present danger of sliding back to the industry’s business as usual ways of operating.


Is any of this easy? Of course not. But think of the possible pay-offs. How would your life look if you were able to maintain (and even enhance) your business’s economic viability and, at the same time, make it a place where your most decent and humane instincts – instead of being marginalized and suppressed – were a central focus? And since business is the primary driver of the indecent values that predominate in our culture, think of the impact if – noticing the success of businesses such as yours – this approach increasingly became business’ new norm?

Reflection 22: Consumerism — and the Passivity it Breeds

The predominant culture relentlessly promotes two things. One is economic success. Endless cues, incentives and sanctions push us prepare for a career as we grow up and push us to devote enormous amounts of energy to it, when we come of age.

The other is consumerism. Our children are so inundated with toys that skipping a rock, kicking a can down the street, and tree climbing are becoming lost arts. And throughout our lives, there are endless opportunities to shop – promoted by nonstop ads and our uncritical celebration of the latest ingenious gadgets, and the newest and fanciest clothes, cars, and houses.

In this Reflection, I describe the ways in which this consumer mindset infiltrates our lives and hamstrings our efforts to live differently and better.


Several years ago I participated in a service trip to Mexico. Early one morning, our hosts took us, in open-air trucks, to work on an organic farm. We returned to our guesthouse to a lunch of macaroni salad and bologna and cheese sandwiches. As I ate my lunch and talked with my companions, I noticed how good I felt. My body had a wonderful ache from the work. My spirit felt energized from the shared experience and solidarity I felt with my companions. Even my bologna sandwich seemed tasty.

Our group consisted of people like me, privileged North Americans thoroughly habituated to a consumer-oriented way of living. So as eager and expert consumers, we planned a dinner, that night, at one of the fanciest restaurants in Cuernavaca.

Drinks were served on a gorgeous lawn where peacocks quietly grazed. When there was a sudden downpour, waiters with oversized umbrellas appeared, in an instant, to escort us to our tables. The place settings were elegant in every detail, the food perfectly presented and delicious.

The stark juxtaposition of lunch and dinner stunned me. Sitting at dinner I realized that the seductive beauty of what others had created had lulled me into a state of passivity. That morning and at lunch, I was an active participant in creating my experience. At dinner, I reverted to the habitual consumer posture that I know so well. In that role, I was the passive recipient of someone else’s creation. I was inert, infantilized.

This posture of passivity flows inevitably out of our engrained consumer habits. Our implicit expectation is that most everything we need has been prepared by others and can be purchased. Our only job is to choose this product or that one.

And what makes this mindset so problematic is that it extends far beyond clothes, cars, and electronics, permeating virtually every area of our lives.


Take intimate romantic relationship, for example. Properly conceived, it is a journey. People are drawn to a partner by our back of the brain “love” chemicals. Then, as the relationship evolves, its success is measured by the partners’ ability to heal and grow together; to share themselves and express their needs in contactful ways; to see the other and stretch to meet that person’s needs.

The norm that exists in our consumer-oriented culture is, however, very different. Making no distinction between people and things, it encourages us to evaluate both solely in terms of what they can do for us. So choosing a partner becomes an exercise in comparative shopping, not very different from the search for the right car or laundry detergent. If a partner meets (and continues to meet) our criteria, we keep her. If he falls short, he is replaced. And, sadly, this outlook often persists even after children are added to the equation.

Habitually adopting this approach, we pay an incalculable price.

Our neurobiology makes intimate connection an indispensible part of our self-regulatory structures, both physically and emotionally. For that reason, we need to persevere in our relationships, not only with our intimate partners but also with family, friends, and others with whom we share our lives. There is no other path if we hope to develop the intimacy that sustains us.

But with our consumer oriented focus on “what can you do for me,” we squander opportunities for intimacy. Instead of doing the hard work of relationship, we move on. In the end, our relationships are, far too often, limited and transient. The close, mutually cooperative, and enduring connections with others – so essential to our emotional well being – perpetually elude us.

People who take this approach to relationship often think they are taking charge of their lives. But this belief is illusory. Like me, sitting at a banquet prepared by others, their stance is passive. As consumers, their options are actually limited and constricted: Either take what is being offer – or leave it. There is no opportunity to struggle, learn and grow in the crucible of relationship; to be an active participant in the creation of the relationship.


This same process – at work in our intimate relationships – has massively infected our larger communities as well. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documents a massive decline in our communal involvements in the last half of the 20th century. And our consumer mindset is a prime cause.

When it comes to our communal organizations, most of us are like shoppers pushing a cart down the Acme aisle. The question we instinctually ask is this: What can this organization do for me?

What is lost in the process is a sense of involvement and ownership; an instinct to contribute to the organization’s growth and effectiveness. Instead, we join to get something and feel little, if any, obligation to volunteer for the many necessary but thankless jobs that keep the organization alive and vibrant. And, of course, we are all too ready to leave when difficulties arise (as they inevitably must), and the fun part of our participation is compromised in any meaningful way.


This same process shows up in the workplace. While management’s lack of loyalty to workers is no surprise, the extent to which workers, themselves, passively accept this attitude of casual indifference is truly astonishing.

Unions have been in decline for 50 years or more and our pervasive consumerism is one of the less appreciated causes. We now live in a world in which the prevailing attitude is that workers – like virtually everything else in our culture – are commodities, to be bought and sold. Implicitly accepting this perspective, most workers take for granted management’s unfettered right to treat them in any way they see fit. The idea of resisting management’s dictates – or, even more farfetched, organizing in opposition – seems beyond most workers’ imagination.


This consumer-oriented mindset also defines our politics. Instead of being active participants in co-creating our public policies, we look for a magic candidate – still another type of product – to cure our ills.

Barack Obama’s 2008 election is a perfect example of this process. As Peter Gabel pointed out in a 2010 article in Tikkun magazine:

“A major weakness with that 2008 moment is that it was constituted by 6 months of watching Obama on television, by an overreliance by each of us in our separate space on watching that remarkable smile and listening to that sometimes-transcendent oratory. It was not constituted out of our own social movements, emerging from our own idealistic actions over time through which we stitched ourselves together in real social relations. It was mainly a cheer led by one person through TV. Without his ‘mediation,’ we didn’t exist.”


If we hope to effectively deal with consumerism’s pervasive influence, we need to understand the breadth of its influence, as well as its debilitating effect on our ability to be active agents in our lives.

Beyond that, we need to understand that we are in a war of attrition. The only way to wean our selves from this engrained, self-defeating consumer mindset is to systematically practice new habits of living that more effectively serve our purposes. And that, of course, is what Radical Decency seeks to provide.

Reflection 21: Theory Matters

We live in a world where theory has a bad name. In business, the mainstream rhetoric emphasizes decisive action: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” A one- page summary is the preferred method of communication while a lengthier analysis, offering context or complex causation, is commonly greeted with impatience and, frequently, suspicion about the author’s clarity and decisiveness.

Theory also has a bad name in many personal growth and spiritual circles. People who claim to be in touch with a unifying spiritual force, when asked to explain what they mean, frequently say, “I just know.” And when the conversation in support and therapy groups turn to theory, it is likely to be cut off with the critical directive to “talk about your feelings.”

This theory-less approach to living comes at a high price. According to Irvin Yalom, one our most important contemporary psychoanalytic theorist, a thought in therapy, unattached to an emotional experience, has little lasting impact. But, as Yalom makes clear, the converse is also true. An emotional experience that isn’t anchored in a coherent theoretical frame is equally short lived. Both are required if we hope to maximize our healing and growth.

In addition, our widespread disdain for theory is still another way in which the values of the predominant culture are reinforced and perpetuated. That is the point Vikki Reynolds makes when she speaks of her more conventional office mate’s request that she remove her peace sign, gay rights poster and other “political” material from their shared office. When her response – I will, if you do the same – was greeted with incomprehension, she pointed to his wedding ring, the photo of his wife and kids in front of their suburban home, and his framed diplomas.

To the same effect is Meryl Streep/Miranda Priestley’s withering speech to her young assistant in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada:

“Oh, I see, you think this has nothing to do with you; that you selected that lumpy blue sweater because you’re too serious to care about fashion. But what you don’t know is that the sweater isn’t blue, it’s cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns in 2002, that Yves Ste. Laurent then showed cerulean military jackets, and that it quickly showed up in 8 different designer collections. Thereafter, it filtered through the department stores into some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of a clearance bin. It’s comical. You think you’re exempt from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you.”

As Vikki and Miranda point out, an apolitical, non-ideological position – about fashion, social justice or, indeed, any issue of significance – is an illusion. Like it or not, our choices have consequences in the world. What we think of as neutral or apolitical is really a stance of passivity; a failure to formulate an informing theory of our own.

The results are unfortunate. Failing to cultivate our own perspective, we, like Vikki’s office mate and Miranda’s assistant, easily confuse the culture’s “default settings” – that is, its prevailing attitudes – with issue neutrality. At that point, these mainstream perspectives – and the theoretical underpinnings out of which they arise – become invisible; part of the air we breathe. And being invisible, they are able to operate in, through and around us with impunity.

So how do we cultivate a new, more engaged relationship with theory? Here are a few thoughts.

First, we need to accept the fact that all theory distorts. The world provides virtually endless data to our senses and theory attempts to make this data more understandable, by identifying patterns. Doing so, some facts and factual patterns are emphasized while others are minimized or ignored. Distortion, hopefully helpful distortion, is the essence of theory.

With this in mind, we should not be asking whether a theory is “true.” No theory can be. But that does not mean that careful attention to facts isn’t important. To the contrary, we live in a world where a debased version of relativism – “every thought is as good as any other” – is rampant. In this context especially, we need theories that strive to be congruent with the facts, as they are currently known. Equally, we need theories that can evolve and change as the discovery process adds new facts and, at times, unravels what once appeared to be inarguable truths.

This threshold factual question is key because theories – particularly those that persist over time – can so easily become dogma. At that point, facts are made to fit theory rather than vice versa. As this process accelerates, the theory’s continuing value becomes increasingly suspect even as its potential to harm increases.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Some are blatant – a refusal to recognize evolution. But others are less obvious and, for that reason, more pernicious.

Take mental health, for example. Current evidence leaves little doubt that healing occurs through the emotional brain (psychodynamic theory), thinking brain (cognitive/behavioral theory), brain chemistry (psycho-pharmacology), and the body (acupuncture, yoga, etc.). Equally important are our intimate relationships, support communities, and engagements with the larger culture (a particular concern of Radical Decency).

Unfortunately, our theories endemically privilege one set of facts over others. Mainstream cognitive/behavioral theories are dismissive of empirically unverifiable psychodynamic approaches. And, body work and creative engagements with the larger culture are, in the great majority of cases, effectively ignored by both.

What mental health exemplifies is endemic in our culture. Manipulation of facts to fit theory — ignoring or rejecting other possibilities in the process — infects our economic, political, religious, and philosophical theories as well. If we hope to use theory effectively, we need to be vigilant in recognizing this process and attentive to finding theories that resist it.

This does not mean, however, that old theories should be discarded because far more facts are available today. To the contrary, people who lived 2,500 years ago were every bit as smart as we are. The insights of Jesus, the Buddha, and the Greek philosophers need to be cherished. Moreover, enduring ideas in their teaching – because they are affiliated with institutions and historical traditions – can, if used well, have enormous positive impact. But if we chose that path, we cannot temporize with the very real dangers of dogma and, with it, co-optation by status quo interests.

Once this crucial threshold issue of credibility has been dealt with, the questions we need to ask about theory are practical.

  • What does it seek to explain and how compelling are its explanations?
  • What are its limits, intended or unintended?
  • Do its explanations fit with what I know of the world and how it operates?
  • Does it expand or further invigorate those understandings?
  • Does it clarify my choices and improve my decision-making?

Equally, the question we need to avoid this: Does the theory represent the “truth. Why? First, because as the post-modernists persuasively argue, the very notion of an objective truth, “out there” waiting to be discovered is illusory. And, even if it did exist, the idea that our neurologically limited brains could possibly perceive all relevant data and, then, mold it into an accurate description of that reality is wildly implausible. Finally, at a more practical level, our preoccupation with this ultimate question is a massive and historically tragic distraction from the more pertinent – and important – “how we live” questions, listed above.

Most of us have a “home base,” a theory or theories that are our base-line point of departure. For me, it’s Radical Decency. For others it is may be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or a more personal spiritual or ethical code. And this, I think, makes sense.

But the world is far too complex, and the challenges in living well too great, to stop there. We need to cultivate an active engagement with theory, without regard to source. Doing so will enrich and transform out lives, as these examples from my life attest:

  • Jared Diamond and others have expanded my historical perspective to include 300,000 years of homo sapiens history, 7 million years of distinct primate history, and 3 billion years of life.
  • Daniel Siegel, Henri Nouwen and others have helped me understand our biologically wired affiliative nature and its implications for living well.
  • Paulo Frieire and Philip Lichtenberg have explained the psychological mechanisms that play such an important role in perpetuating injustice and exploitation, in the world and in our intimate relationships.

All theories distort — including the ones we use to define who we are. Remembering that, we need to seek out, embrace, and incorporate into our larger world-view the creative insights of others, regardless of source. If our goal is to create better lives and a better world, it is an indispensible part of the process.

Reflection 20: Social Justice – The Third Rail of Radical Decency

When it comes to our self and our intimate relationships, many of us approach Radical Decency with curiosity, even eagerness.

But when it comes to social justice, things are different. Confronting the grim, unforgiving face of poverty and discrimination is too demanding. We instinctually fear that a full engagement with these issues might make uncomfortable demands on our time and money

Unfortunately, finessing our commitment to Radical Decency, in this area, is all too easy. Because injustice is so thoroughly condoned in the mainstream culture, there are no perceptible sanctions attached to indifference. Indeed, even half-hearted efforts, far from being critically examined, are celebrated in completely disproportionate ways. We seldom point out the obvious: Small financial contributions relative to net worth and occasional service days – while helpful – are no cause for congratulation.

Radical Decency can transform us but only if it is embraced boldly. If our commitment is tepid – if we shy away from its most perplexing and uncomfortable challenges – its rewards will be equally tepid.

Why? Because we are so thoroughly immersed in an indecent culture. For this reason, if we practice decency on a “pick and choose” basis, the attitudes and values of the mainstream culture will inevitably invade and pollute the small islands of decency we seek to create in our private lives.

Failing to fully embrace the philosophy’s challenge in the area of social justice will, like any other significant omission, irrevocably compromise our ability to inhabit the psychic and emotional states that transform Radical Decency into a vital, life-changing philosophy – and are among its greatest rewards:

  • Living in the present;
  • Appreciation, acceptance and empathy for self and others;
  • Clarity about priorities and choices;
  • An ennobling purpose in life.

See Reflection 13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.


Recent progress notwithstanding, discriminatory patterns continue to vitally affect women, racial and sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and others. However, we also need to recognize our dismal history with regard to economic injustice.

Decade by decade, the gap between the rich and poor steadily widens, even as programs to level the competitive playing field or to relieve poverty’s consequences continue to shrink. “Decency to the world” requires our full engagement, not just in response to sexism and racism but also with the thornier, less acknowledged, and deeply consequential issues of economic injustice.

Our engagement with social justice issues needs to begin with the recognition that – despite heroic efforts by many remarkable people – our current efforts are not working. Better political candidates, new governmental programs, more generous support for the nonprofit sector – none of these mainstream approaches has been able to counteract the avaricious, profit-first, economic forces that dictate our public choices. Understanding this, leads inescapably to the following conclusion: We need to create new, more effective ways of engaging with issues of social justice.

To do so, however, we first need to better understand why patterns of injustice are so pervasive and persistent. And that is the focus of this Reflection.

In other Reflections, I build on these understandings: Offering a roadmap, grounded in Radical Decency’s principles, for more effectively addressing issues of social justice. See, in that regard,

  • Reflection 7 Gathering in the Good Guys;
  • Reflection 15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business;
  • Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work;
  • Reflection 49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions;
  • Reflections 75 and 76 Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 & 2; and
  • Reflections 73 Making Broadcast News More Radically Decent.


Seeking to understand why injustice is so persistent in our world, one perplexing – and, to my mind, crucial – question keeps coming up: Why do the victims put up with it? Systematically cut off from the mainstream economy, starved for services, and locked up in astonishing numbers, why don’t the residents of North Philadelphia burn Center City down?

Another key question is why the more privileged, with whom the poor and disenfranchised live in such close proximity, allow this to happen? Why do so many good people ignore what’s going on just a few miles from their homes; just outside the window of the commuter train that takes them to and from work each day?

Three key processes help to answer these questions.

The first grows directly out of the culture’s predominant “compete and win, dominate and control” values. Given the compelling, day by day pressure of these values, serious and sustained attention to larger, social issues feels, to most of us, like an unacceptably risky diversion of time, energy, and resources from our compelling need “get by” and “get ahead” in our intensely competitive world.

The second process speaks directly to the “why do they put up with it” issue. In Community and Confluence, Philip Lichtenberg describes a pivotal psychological transaction that operates in sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and every other authoritarian system: The dominant person’s projection of his pain onto the victim and, crucially, the victim’s internalization of that person’s pain.

So as a young lawyer, I was the unwitting beneficiary of patriarchal and economic privilege. Preparing for court and unable to find a file, I would yell at my secretary: “Where the [bleep] is the discovery folder?” Thrown into a place of anxiety by my aggressive words, she would then scurry around, seeking to solve my problem.

What Lichtenberg points out is that, as the privileged person in an authoritarian system, I had transferred my anxiety to my secretary – and, she had taken it on.

This same pattern repeats itself in myriad of ways with disenfranchised people. The result is that, like my secretary, they fail to react to bullying, exploitative behaviors with appropriate pushback. Instead, internalizing the aggressor, they experience pain – anxiety, confusion, and self-judgment.

This transaction is emotional and not cognitive. And one of life’s more uncomfortable lessons is that, recognizing an established emotional pattern, does not mean we can flip a switch and stop it. Once in place, psychological systems are exceedingly difficult to unravel. So, not surprisingly, this process of internalizing the aggressor hamstrings the ability of disenfranchised people to overcome social and economic exploitation.

In Encountering Bigotry and Getting Even, Lichtenberg and his co-authors provide a detailed program for weaning ourselves from this debilitating authoritarian pattern. I would urge anyone interested in Radical Decency to read these books as well as Lichtenberg’s seminal work, Community and Confluence.

The final process I want to discuss further explains why so many good people are so passive in the face of grotesque – and routine – manifestations of injustice.

To frame the issue, consider these two hypotheticals.

In the first, a woman stops her car before a man who is bleeding profusely at an accident scene. Her first instinct is to respond to his urgent request for a ride to the emergency room. But, then, remembering the cost of the new leather seats in her Lexus, she declines.

In the second hypothetical, a man is going through his bills and comes across a request, from a highly reputable nonprofit, for $200, to “save the life” of a child in Bangladesh. Having just flipped through his mortgage, electric, and cable bills, he quietly throws the request in the trash.

The premise of the researchers who created these hypotheticals is that there is no substantive difference between the two scenarios. In each, a choice is made to ignore the dire needs of a fellow human being and, instead, to devote resources to the protagonist’s much less compelling material needs and desires.

And yet, not surprisingly, the researchers report much greater outrage at the woman’s behavior.

So what is going on? The answer is that, as we evolved as a species, we developed a powerful empathic system. But the context within which it developed was a hunter/gatherer society, our reality for 290,000 out of the 300,000 years that constitute our history as Homo sapiens. And in that environment, there was, literally, no larger world with which to concerns our selves.

So, even today, we respond powerfully, at a gut emotional level, to the bleeding man in front us just as our evolutionary wiring dictates. By contrast, we are not wired to react as empathically to suffering occurring halfway around the world – or in an unseen neighborhood, a few miles from our comfortable suburban home.


All three of these processes are deeply engrained in our psyches. And because they are emotionally based, they will typically trump reasoned arguments in favor of a more robust engagement with issues of social justice.

But our emotions are not our destiny. Better understanding and attending to them, we can consciously cultivate a different path, weaning ourselves over time from these old habits of mind. And that goal is vital if we hope to reap the benefits, individually and collectively, of a Radical Decency practice.

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.

Reflection 18: Men and Women/ Similarities and Differences

Radical Decency is a relational philosophy, challenging us to be in mutual and authentic contact with our self, others, and the world. For this reason, it impels us to be tireless detectives. Why? Because a deepening understanding of our feelings and motivations, and those of others, is essential if we hope to make better choices in the service of this goal.

Unfortunately, there is little support for this investigative frame of mind in the mainstream culture. Motivated by a competitive, win/lose mindset, we instinctually find a handful of stories that work for us and stick to them. I am a tough guy; or a nurturing wife and mother; or a hard working but unappreciated employee. You are funny and fun loving; or emotional and artistic; or hard driving and critical.

With these stories in place, we become progressively less open, curious and speculative about the enormous complexity of factors that inform our feelings and motivations — and yours. Instead, we cherry pick the evidence, noticing behaviors that support our stories, using them to deepen and harden these views. And what do we do with evidence that contradicts? In the typical case, since it doesn’t fit into our pre-existing frames of reference, it simply disappears from view.


Our gender stereotypes are an especially pernicious example of this phenomenon. Even though it is frequently left unsaid in our current, more politically correct environment, women continue to struggle with the assumption that they are overly emotional, and with as other stereotypes as well; e.g., assertive women are bitches; the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

Also prevalent are the stereotypes that men have to live with:

  • They are insensitive, shallow, self-absorbed louts who need to be placated and handled by women – rather than met and understood.
  • “Testosterone poisoning” makes them overly aggressive.
  • They are sexual “dogs,” ready to “screw anything that moves.”

These stereotypes deeply hamper our ability to understand and empathize with the opposite sex. And since we tend to internalize the stereotypes assigned to our gender, they hamstring our self-understanding as well.


So how should we understand our similarities and differences as men and women? Here are a few orienting, context-framing thoughts.

  1. Our common humanity

Yes, we are different but not in the sweeping, judgmental ways that are our received cultural “wisdom.” Since both sexes experience the full range of human emotions — anger, vulnerability, sexual desire, empathy, and so on – it is implausible to assume that our different styles of emoting are hardwired and immutable.

More fundamentally, our differences are of little consequence when we remember the larger existential context we share. We are all, men and women alike, here through no choice of our own. We, and every one we love, are going to die. And with no agreed upon roadmap to tell us how to behave while we are here, everything we do – while we are here – is made up. Finally, and crucially, we know all this.

Like soldiers on the front line in a meaningless war, the need to deal with these unforgiving contextual realities shapes a commonality of experience that eclipses our differences.

  1. Gender-based differences; origins and implications

But there are gender-based differences and understanding why they exist enhances our ability to be more attuned, loving and empathic to the opposite sex – and to our selves as well. As I have explored these differences in my own life, and as a therapist, an overarching conceptual frame has emerged that explains many of these differences far more persuasively than the easy gender-based stereotypes that dominate in the mainstream culture.

We have existed as a distinct line of primates for 7 million years and as Homo sapiens for about 300,000 years. And for all but the last 10,000 years or so, we existed in small groups of hunter/gatherers. Not surprisingly, then, so much of what we have become through the process of natural selection evolved in the hunter/gatherer context.

Steven Stosny points out that, in order to use our energy efficiently, women evolved as the group’s early warning system, as the folks who scan for danger. Thus, even today, it is the woman who typically bolts up and bed and says, “I think I heard something.” And, since duplicating the women’s process made no sense, men evolved as reactors, not to the environment, but to women’s emotions.

Given this evolutionary division of labor, men and women developed different emotional sensitivities. Continually scanning for danger, women became especially susceptible to safety issues. Men, by contrast, molded in this evolutionary dance to respond to women’s needs, became more susceptible to the shame that results when they fall short as providers, protectors, and lovers.

This distinction explains a lot.

A couple comes into my office and she is upset. They hosted Thanksgiving dinner and, while he did the discrete chores she “assigned” to him, he seemed to shrug off her far more focused and intense concerns about how the house looked and whether the guests were being graciously attended to.

Why is this couple struggling? Because no one told them that the woman – wired to be more sensitive to safety issues – had an experience that is very different from his. For him, a few folks were getting together for dinner. For her, the warm and nurturing “safe” sanctuary that she is emotionally wired to create was being opened to her entire clan. So he, without any understanding of the gut-level depth of her feelings, thought his behavior was just fine while she felt unseen and unappreciated.

Needless to say, analogous situations happen in reverse. Wired to be a provider, protector, and lover, powerful feelings of shame come up for him when (for example) his competence at work is challenged. Now she is the one who doesn’t understand. Why is work so important to you? Why are you so withdrawn and preoccupied? He, in turn, feels misunderstood and alone – for reasons he only vaguely understands.

Notice also how this evolutionary artifact explains women’s alleged over emotionality. Challenges to a man’s core sensitivity – shame – tend to be discrete and boundaried. He loses his job. His wife is sexually disappointed. His competence is questioned. However, the events triggering a woman’s core sensitivity – perceived danger – are more diffuse and pervasive. So, perhaps, women aren’t more emotional. It’s just that we live in a world in which their triggering events are far more prevalent.

This evolutionary difference also explains why men avoid conversations about feelings. For women, an ongoing intimate dialogue is an anxiety reducer, allowing them to monitor the situation moment by moment; to confirm that all is well or, alternatively, that danger exists. For men, however, no such emotional pay-off exists. When his wife says, “we need to talk,” his evolutionary wiring signals risk only: The possibility of disappointment, judgment – and shame.


It also explains why men – when they get together – talk sports, exchange insults, and leave pizza boxes and crushed beer cans on the couch. Looking for surcease from the risk of shame, they are creating shame-free zones where nothing he does will be judged – unless of course he acts like a girl (hence, the far greater prevalence of homophobia in men?).

There are, of course, many factors besides this danger/shame dichotomy that shed light on our gender-based differences. Focusing on cultural influences, for example, Real and Gilligan explain how boys are pulled away from intimacy but are allowed their power, while girls maintain intimacy but are pushed to relinquish their assertiveness. Understanding these pressures, we no longer need to see either sex as inherently limited in the areas they are culturally pushed to relinquish.

Thus, for example, we can let go of the view that boys and men are hard-wired to be angry and aggressive. It’s just that for them anger and aggression are more socially acceptable than vulnerability and tears. In short, these are learned behaviors.

Similarly, men’s preoccupation with sex is more accurately viewed as an understandable pre-occupation with one of the few places where they can receive the hugging, stroking, and nurturing they learned to retreat from at such an early age.


With a deeper understanding of our gender differences, here is the hopeful news:

  1. Because we are dealing with learned behaviors, our culturally engrained habits and mindsets can be unlearned. Men and women alike can grow into more fully human ways of living; and
  1. An increased understanding of the true nature of our gender-based differences can naturally lead to a greater sense of understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation for members of the opposite sex – and for our own gendered journey as well.

Radical Decency promises – and demands – nothing less.

Reflection 17: Decency Defined

“Decency” is a useful summarizing term, evoking certain attitudes and behaviors, and disqualifying others. But Radical Decency’s goal is broad and ambitious: To provide a more humane, orienting frame of reference for handling the endless variety of situations and circumstances that constitute our lives. To move effectively toward this goal, a detailed roadmap for understanding what we mean by “decency” is essential.

Toward that end, I have evolved this working definition:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

Testing this definition’s utility, over time, I always refer back to this intensely practical question, at the heart of Radical Decency: How well does it support us in making the day by day choices that can best guide us toward more nourishing, purposeful, and generative lives and a meaningfully contribution to a better world?


Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness, and justice – each is a broad concept, open to a wide variety of interpretations. And each is more commonly viewed as a distinct value, at best only loosely related to the others. However, operationalizing Radical Decency, we need to view these 7 values as a unified whole, with each working with – and magnifying – the others’ impact.

The discussion that follows describes each of these 7 values and then offers key examples of how they interconnect and mutually reinforce one another.


Respect is Radical Decency’s entry way value; the orienting context in which the other values can be more productively cultivated. When it is absent, our empathy and desire to do justice quickly dissipate in the face of behaviors we find uncomfortable or offensive. As a nonprofit executive once told me, far too many donors are only interested in “pretty little white girls in wheelchairs” – and are decidedly uninterested in “overweight, verbally abrasive African Americans.”

The mainstream culture typically associates respect with politeness: Expressing yourself with civility; making space for others. Properly conceived, however, it encompasses much more, challenging us to consistently presume good will and, with it, a seriousness of purpose; to sustain that presumption in the face of provocation; and to find value in the contribution of others.

The competitive, win/lose values that pervade our culture make manipulative and underhanded behavior all too common. So, it goes without saying, we need to apply these principles with an appropriate level of caution. But our self-protective instincts need to operate in a larger context in which we actively seek to interrupt our automatic inclination to (for example) label anyone who disagrees with our political outlook as a heartless conservative or knee jerk liberal; or to view a critical friend as selfish or mean.

A belief in the other’s bad motives needs to be our last option. We need to strive, instead, to make sense of people with whom we disagree; to see them as people who, seeking to get by in a difficult world, are doing the best they can.

Understanding and Empathy

Primed by our habit of “respect” to be curious, rather than judgmental and dismissive, there is a natural flowering of understanding and empathy: Our ability to be aware of, and receptive to, differing outlooks, beliefs and communication styles. We are better able to see the world as others see it (understanding, or cognitive discernment), and to experience in our bones what it feels like to be that other person (empathy, or emotional and visceral discernment).

Many people instinctually resist these “soft and fuzzy” values, seeing them as an invitation to bullying and domination. Far from advancing the goal of better lives and a better world, their consistent application will (they tell themselves) simply invite victimization. Driven by this fear, they are drawn to a “fight fire with fire” approach – seeking to overpower their adversaries, silencing their voices.

This approach will never succeed – if our goal is a more a humane life. Adopting it, even a “win” becomes a loss since it perpetuates the very value system we seek to overcome: Compete and win, dominate and control.

The stark truth is this: We’ll never be able to bully or manipulate our spouse – or the world – into being more relational and decent.

Acceptance and Appreciation

We live in a culture where the norm is to see our group as “good” and the other side as “bad.” But this dismissive/judgmental mindset flies in the face of a deeper truth: The full range of human thoughts, feelings, and actions are within all of us – from the most loving and generative to the most hateful and destructive. So while there is, indeed, a significant subset of “permanently stuck” people who are locked into ways of living that inflict pain on others, the great majority of us have, within us, the ability to nurture our better instincts and, thus, to lead more decent lives.

This understanding leads directly to my inclusion of acceptance and appreciation as key decency values. Cultivating these qualities we become active agents in the effort to nurture and support the emergence of this potential in others and, crucially, in our selves as well.

“Acceptance” is grounded in the Buddhist belief that, because we are human, all things human are within us and will come our way – from the most uplifting to the most painful and demoralizing. Thus, it makes no sense to treat an adversary – be it another person or unappreciated part of our own psyche – as an aberration or an affront. Better to view them as inevitable parts of living and, thus, with a sense of acceptance and equanimity.

“Appreciation” grows out of the realization, central to Imago couples therapy, that everyone (and every thought and feeling we carry within us) makes complete sense if we just know enough about this person’s innate disposition, history, adaptations to that history, and hopes and dreams for the future. Given this reality, appreciation for the pain, confusion, and struggle that we, and others, experience as we seek to get by in life – though highly aspirational – is a realistic and worthy goal.

Note, importantly, that we are talking about acceptance and appreciation of each “person” and not of that person’s beliefs and actions. Thus, even as we cultivate an increasing sense of acceptance oand appreciation of a person with whom we fundamentally disagree, we can continue to be fierce and determined advocates for the values in which we believe.

When we bring these mindsets to every interaction – accepting each person for who they are; appreciating the fact that a very human struggle has led them to this place in life – we turn away from the “right/wrong, good/bad” mindset that permeates our culture, nurturing instead the kind of mutual and authentic interactions that are the hallmark of decency.

Fairness and Justice

Being fair, we are alive to the consequences of our choices for our selves and others, and seek to balance them in an equitable way. Being just, we cultivate and maintain a sense of accountability for our own actions and the actions of others.

Notice importantly that, from a Radical Decency perspective, the goal is not to judge our selves and others. Instead, we are reaching for an ongoing, fearless inventory of what we and others are doing that will, in turn, push us to consistently challenge the inequities and injustices that litter our life and world.

A full-throttle commitment to fairness and justice is the crucial, rubber-hit-the-road test of our commitment to Radical Decency. It is at this point – and at this point only – that we become active agents for fundamental change. And our commitment to these values needs to be across-the-board, extending:

  • To our political and communal engagements;
  • To our personal relationships – fully recognizing that bullying or silencing a spouse or child perpetuates the same patterns of inequity and injustice that permeate the world; and
  • To our selves – being equally effective in countering these behaviors when they’re directed toward us.

The Interconnectedness of Decency’s 7 Values

To see how these qualities reinforce one another, consider “respect.” In the absence of “understanding,” “empathy,” “fairness” and “justice,” respect is pallid and incomplete, exemplified at its worse by the cold, even cruel person who is unfailingly polite.

Similarly, fairness and justice – uninformed by respect, understanding, and empathy – invite angry, adversarial, and dismissive behavior. And, when you think about it, history is littered with examples of this behavior: The person, devoted to the principles of his religion or utopian political sect, that is severely, even murderously dismissive of nonbelievers.

Another example of the 7 values deep interconnectivity is the relationship between empathy, on the one hand, and understanding and justice, on the other.

Because we live in an indecent world, we need to manage our feelings of empathy judiciously. Understanding this enables us to be more discerning, measured and appropriately protective when, viewing the object of our instinctual “empathic” concern through the lens of “justice,” we take his duplicitous or manipulative behaviors into account. And, on the flip side, embracing an active sense of “justice,” we are better able to act on feelings of “empathy” even when it involves sacrifice, risk, or discomfort.

Finally, notice how acceptance and appreciation reinforce and solidify the other 5 values.

We, humans, are wired to be tribal in our outlook, seeing the best in people like us even as we judge others by their worst examples. For this reason, our vocation of decency is deeply challenged when we are dealing with people whose ideas or ways of living feel alien to us.

How in the world can I maintain an attitude of respect, understanding, empathy, fairness and justice when “that” idiot shows up on the TV screen? When my overwhelming instinct is to yell at him or switch the channel? How can I maintain a decency practice – with these kinds of people – when the entire effort feels like a grim, uncomfortable and, ultimately, untenable exercise in pretending to be someone I am not.

This is precisely the point at which “acceptance” and “appreciation” come to the fore. Cultivating these values in every interaction and in every context of living – so that, with time, they become increasingly habitual – we are empowered:

  1. To vigorously resist the “unfair” and “unjust” byproducts of that person’s outlook and choices; and, at the same time,
  2. To “accept” the fact that he is just another human being struggling to find his way in the world and “appreciate” his essential humanity; a humanity that is, in the end, no different than ours; and, thus,
  3. To interrupt and displace our knee-jerk reactivity to this person, allowing us to engage with him with “respect,” “understanding,” “empathy,” “fairness,” and “justice.”


I have been developing, honing, and revising my definition of decency over the course of many years. But like everything else in Radical Decency, it is – and remains – a work in progress. So I invite you to evaluate it with these questions in mind:

  • How effective is it in moving you – day by day, choice by choice – toward a better life and a meaningful contribution to a better world; and
  • Are there ways in which it can be improved upon?

Reflection 16: Mainstream Thinking – The Tyranny of Opinion and Judgment

One key area we tend to gloss over as we seek to craft more nourishing and generative ways of operating in the world is how we think.  This may seem like a theoretical issue, but it isn’t.  Our habitual, cultural conditioned ways of thinking vitally affect our outlook and choices in life.

What are these habitual ways of thinking?  Put simply, we live in a world where opinions and judgments are all important.  Lacking them or, even worse, expressing tentativeness or confusion, we are likely to be judged as indecisive and wishy-washy. 

Opinions and judgments are, of course, important.  But what is troubling is the central role they play in our conversations and ways of thinking.  Far too often, they are substitutes for, rather than conclusions drawn from, a careful marshaling of evidence and sustained reflection.

Where does this opinion-based thinking show up?  Everywhere. In politics, for example, most of us are wedded to a belief in our “extraordinary” experiment in “democracy” and “free-market capitalism.”  But what is obvious, when you stop and think about it, is that these are simply statements of faith.  Over the years, there have been dramatic shifts in our system of governance and ways of managing the economy.  But our belief in the unique virtues of our system – however it happens to look at the moment – remains.

The result?  Even as evidence of the system’s inefficiencies, indecencies, and inequities accumulates, we maintain our belief in it.  Whether conservative or liberal, we persist in believing that our problems can be solved by working the system rather than changing it; by electing new and better leaders.

Maybe this confidence is well placed and maybe it isn’t.  But what is clear – my essential point – is that we are treating an opinion as fact.  And what atrophies in the process are our critical faculties:  Our ability to absorb new information; to integrate it into our pre-existing notions of how things are; and to allow new, more discerning understandings to emerge.

In our personal lives, a similar dynamic is at work.  When people fail to meet our expectations, we don’t instinctually become curious – sifting the evidence, attempting to understand how they are different and why they act the way they do.  Instead, we judge and dismiss. They are insensitive – or selfish – or lazy – or (the ultimate judgment) an asshole.  And this pattern applies even when the other person is our spouse or child.


Why are these habits of thinking so pervasive?  Because they so effectively promote and reinforce the culture’s predominant values: Compete and win, dominate and control. 

Thinking in this way, the goal – in perfect alignment with these values – is not to engage with and persuade others but to overpower their will.  How does this work?  A firm opinion becomes our chosen instrument of aggression.  Then, reflexively judging people who don’t share that opinion, we push for dominance and control; saying, implicitly or explicitly, either agree with me or be pushed aside.

Notice too that the opposite approach – openness to differing points of view and a careful weighing of evidence – cultivates curiosity, reflection, dialogue, respect, and appreciation; all deeply relational qualities.  And being relational, it is utterly inconsistent the mainstream culture’s (non-relational) “certainty/ judgment/dominate and control” mindset.  

So, intent on getting ahead in the world as it is, we instinctually de-emphasize this approach, understanding that – whatever its substantive merits – the far more pressing concern is to avoid being labeled as weak, wishy-washy and indecisiveness.


The good news in all of this is that the habits of thought we are seeking to undo are not the result of “stupidity;” of an innate inability to engage in reasoned thought and analysis.  Indeed, jumping to this all too easy conclusion is itself just another manifestation of the judgmental and dismissive mindset we are seeking to overcome.

But the fact that we are not dealing with an unalterable biological defect does not mean the pattern is easily changed.  To the contrary, we are dealing with mindsets that are deeply embedded in our habitual, mainstream ways of operating.

So how do we begin to undo them?  A good starting place is to identify the common conceptual pitfalls that allow these habitual ways of thinking to infiltrate and colonize our psyches.

Here are some key examples.

Assuming the best about “us”

One particularly corrosive example is our tendency to assume the best about members of our group.  Thus, I vividly recall an episode of the Daily Show, a few years ago, in which Jon Stewart presented side-by-side videos of Barack Obama and George W. Bush saying the exact same things on a series of foreign policy issues.  The show’s “reporter” reacted with mock exasperation, saying that Obama is “different.”  Why? “Because he doesn’t mean it.”

Stewart’s point is, of course, a serious one.  Our tendency to assume the best about people like us is chronic – and seldom acknowledged. So, as discussed above, most of us refuse to connect the negative dots about America’s system of government, seeing repeated examples of cruelty and injustice as unfortunate exceptions in an overall landscape of fairness, decency, and justice.

Assuming the worst about “them”

The converse is also true.  We instinctually judge others by their worst examples, a tendency made more virulent by the media’s eagerness to amplify the shrillest voices; those that promote the most strident and debased versions of the communities they represent.  

This point was driven home for me in the 1990s when I became deeply immersed, as an attorney, in the evangelical world.  Prior to that experience I judged that community by its worst examples – the Jimmy Swaggarts and Tammy Faye Bakers.  Being exposed to many thoughtful and dedicated evangelicals leaders, however, laid bare my reflexively dismissive attitude and guided me toward a more nuanced and respectful view. 

That experience was a stark reminder of how easily I slip into a judgmental frame of mind.  Unless I am vigilant, my habitual, gut response – when presented with people, groups and ideas that are different – is to judge them as “less than,” suspect in their motives, and “wrong.”  “Not knowing” and curiosity are not my instinctual vocabulary.  Compounding the problem is the striking absence of any meaningful social norms, cues, and sanctions to steer me away from this judgmental and dismissive mainstream mindset.

Looking for a single cause

Another equally pervasive pitfall is to look for a singular, value-laden cause. Working with couples is a continual reminder of how widespread this pattern is.  A typical couple will come to counseling with her saying (for example) that “the” problem is that he doesn’t share his feelings and he, in turn, identifying her critical ways as “the” problem.

The reality?  There is no single cause and, typically, no fault.  Instead, there are a series of a mutually reinforcing acts, all taken in good faith, that lead to unfortunate results.  He feels anxious and protects himself by going silent.  Sensing that, she responds with her own protective behavior – a complaint – which triggers a renewed, more escalated response from him; and so on.  Just two good people doing the best they can.

What is true in our intimate relationships is also true in every other area of living.  That malevolent boss or co-worker is almost never the singular cause of our woes at work.  And Wall Street – or Big Government – or Trump – or Clinton (chose your villain) is not “the cause” of our political woes. However, our tendency, over and over again, is to oversimplify and demonize; to feed the certainty/ judgment machine.

Excessive faith in our own instincts and beliefs

The final conceptual pitfall I want to highlight is what Francis Bacon calls the “idiosyncrasies of individual belief and passion” and identifies as one of the key “distorting prisms of human nature.” 

We live in a world that celebrates individualism and, as a corollary, promotes a debased version of relativism:  That everything that everyone thinks is fine.  The result is that when we “feel” something or have a “spiritual experience” we all too easily assign a sweeping meaning to it. 

My problem is not with experience but the with uncritical nature of this meaning making process.  Wouldn’t we be better served if we were more cautious about labeling things as messages from God or the universe?  Wouldn’t we also be better served if we felt culturally empowered to critically question our friends and acquaintances when they offer these sorts of explanations?


Needless to say, there are many other ways in which the mainstream culture’s habitual ways of thinking insinuate themselves into our lives.  Hopefully, a deeper understanding of these processes – and the intent behind them – will allow us to cultivate more curious, accepting, and reflective habits of mind.

These are, it seems to me, essential building blocks if we hope to create more nourishing lives and a more decent world.

Reflection 15: Social Justice — Focusing on Business

“Compete and win, dominate and control” – the values that predominate in our culture – are the driving force behind an endlessly complicated system that organizes our day-by-day choices and, thus, our lives. And, as I often point out, systems elaborate and perpetuate themselves. So it is no surprise that a vast array of perspectives and habitual ways of operating have embedded these values in virtually every aspect of our lives.

Teasing these processes out, in all their variety and subtlety, is an essential part of meaningful change work. Far more than we understand, our best efforts to create better lives and a better world are defeated by these assumed and unexamined perspectives on living.

This Reflection deals with one example: Our taken for granted ways of viewing social justice and social change work.


In our generally accepted, mainstream definition of social justice, our efforts are directed toward bringing greater equity and justice into the lives of economically and socially disenfranchised people. While this definition seems sensible, it is, in reality, a mechanism for guiding otherwise well-intentioned people away from any serious investment in social change work.

Here’s how the process works.

Defining social justice in this way, we are invited into two areas of activity. One option – the global approach – is to tackle one of the big issues: Poverty, war, environmental degradation.

But, given the size of these issues, it is not an effective call to action. Who do we call? What meeting do we go to go? – to make even the smallest perceptible dent in world hunger. Lacking any but the most quixotic of answers, we stifle our better instincts and get back to the more pressing business of getting by in the world as it is.

The other option that this definition invites – the worm’s eye view – is to do service work: Volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity or a local shelter. Here too, however, we quickly see the insignificance of our contribution. Given the macro forces that drive our society, we could work at the shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of our lives, and things will continue to deteriorate. Once again, we are offered option that invites discouragement and inaction.

And there is a deeper problem with this approach.

While good things certainly happen when we pursue social justice in these culturally sanctioned ways, the unfortunate truth is that, channeled into these areas of activity, we wind up focusing on the consequences of our inhumane culture – instead of on the culture itself. It’s as though, with a pack of wolfs running loose, we focus all of our efforts on patching up the wounds of the injured, making no effort to hunt and kill the pack.

And this, of course, is our reality. We are being attacked, every day, by an enormous, culturally sanctioned pack of ravenous wolves – with most of us being both wolves (or wolf enablers) and their victims.

The overall effect? Our reform energies are marginalized, allowing on our status quo ways of operating to continue without effective challenge.


So what is the way out? We need to shift our strategic focus from the victims of the system to its perpetrators.

And who are these perpetrators? Virtually all of us since, when we are unflinchingly honest in our assessment of others – and of ourselves – we see extent to which the culture’s predominant mindsets push every one of us toward a life whose operative priorities are money, possessions, and power.

Given this reality, what is the better approach to social justice?

Imploring largely indifferent, success-oriented politicians and businesspeople to allocate more dollars for the poor is frustrating, to be sure. But the work is important, affecting the lives of millions, and needs to continue.

However, this should no longer be our highest priority. Instead, our initiatives need to be organized around, and grow out of a larger, overarching strategic frame that systematically challenges the culture’s routine, taken-for-granted habits of mind and ways of operating.

One by-product of this shift in strategic focus is that it avoids the global vs. worm’s eye dichotomy that plagues current social justice efforts. Instead, we will be able see, with far greater clarity, the extent to which endemic indecency – and its inevitable handmaiden, injustice – is, quite literally, everywhere. It dominates our politics, to be sure. But it is also deeply embedded in our day-to-day dealings as workers and consumers – and in our personal relationships as well.

Armed with this new perspective, every day, and virtually every encounter, will become an opportunity to make choices that model and promote a more humane set of values and, with it, greater equity and justice. In all that we do, we will be empowered make meaningful choices in support of a more decent life and world.


Systemic social justice efforts usually focus on politics. Against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we hope that an electorate indoctrinated into a competitive, every man for himself, dog eat dog approach to living will elect good-hearted politicians who will legislate on behalf of the disenfranchised.

When we focus on bad values as the root cause of injustice, however, the obvious becomes painfully clear: Politicians are not motivated by humane values and are not even leaders in any meaningful sense. They are instead polltakers and panderers who, in their zeal to get elected, unerringly reflect the culture’s predominant values.

So where should our organizing efforts be directed? Toward business, the epicenter and driving force behind the culture’s indecent values. Why? Because the wealth generated by business is the main driver of system. Not just politicians but also the media, mainstream churches, universities, and nonprofits – all are dependent on streams of financing and income that find their way back to business’ profits and accumulated capital.

Given this reality, imagine how different things would be if mainstream companies were seriously committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on. Indeed, the simple truth is this: If the prevailing mindset in business shifts and, with it, its allocation of resources, the world in which we live will shift with it.


There are a number of factors that make a strategic initiative in the workplace feasible – exquisitely difficult but realistic nonetheless. To begin with, there are no elections. An empowered CEO can simply implement Radical Decency.

Moreover, the idea that a company can be fully committed to Radical Decency – and profitable – is entirely plausible. Such a company would be well positioned to attract a highly competent and fiercely loyal group of employees and customers. Imagine, for example, the market niche for the first credit card company that treats its customers fairly – doing away with 30 page single spaced contracts, usurious interest rates, and exorbitant penalties and late charges.

The business world also lends itself to serious organizing efforts in the service of Radical Decency. Meetings to discuss its implementation can occur at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and people will show up on time and treat their take-away assignments seriously. Why? Because it’s part of their jobs.

And while this last point may seem trivial point, it isn’t. Imagine – by way of contrast – how hard it would be to schedule a single meeting of neighbors, let alone a series of meetings, to take action against a local environmental hazard?


Needless to say, getting such a movement off the ground – even in individual companies – will present an enormous challenge. One problem is that many companies have cynically crafted marketing campaigns around decent sounding themes (“quality is our most important product;” “Nationwide is on your side”). For this reason, any initiative in this area is likely to be greeted with skepticism, both within the company and in the marketplace.

For this reason, the project can only succeed if decency is applied radically – at all times, in every context, and without exception. And that requires guts, patience and persistence. Absent such a commitment, mainstream competitive pressures and habits of mind will overwhelm the initiative, unraveling it piece by piece, exception by pragmatic exception:

  • Quality compromised for the sake of profitability;
  • Lawyers dictating how disputes are handled;
  • The reduction or elimination of humane worker benefits and environmental programs when (as is inevitable) a few less profitable quarters are strung together.


The initiative for this shift in approach could come from many sources – shareholder activists, unions, business schools, socially conscious investors. My immediate hope, however, is that a group of wise and determined business people – seeing these possibilities – will undertake the serious work of organizing for Radical Decency, in both their individual businesses and in the larger business community.

The chance of such an initiative actually transforming our mainstream ways of doing business is, of course, surpassingly small. So, as we take on this seemingly quixotic project, we need to keep two things in mind.

  1. The future is inherently uncertain. So who knows? This new model may actually catch on; and
  2. In every area of living in which it is embraced with focus and persistence, Radical Decency is its own reward. There is, quite simply, no a better way to spend our time and energy — or to run our businesses.

Reflection 14: Dying – and Our Epidemic of Immortality

The goal of Radical Decency is to be decent to our self, others, and the world, at all times, in every context, and without exception. But across-the-board decency – as opposed to pick-and-chose decency – is impossible if our habitual beliefs and behaviors are not in tune with our biological realities.

When such a disconnection occurs, the physical realities that define us – and limit of our possibilities – inevitably emerge. And the conflict between our biology and these “unnatural” thoughts and actions brings, with it, a high risk of pain for our self and others.

One the obvious example of this phenomenon is the suppression of female sexuality at so many points in our history. Think of the incalculable damage that it has caused in the lives of countless generations of women?

In this Reflection, I discuss another pervasive and deeply consequential distortion of our innate biology: The way in which we view dying and incorporate that reality into our lives.


There are two events that define us more than any others: Birth and death.

The first just happens, with no awareness or anticipation on our part.

Dying, however, is different. An awareness of our mortality is inescapably with us throughout our lives, and how we deal with it is vital to our quality of life. As Irvin Yalom, one of our foremost psychotherapeutic theorists, flatly states: Whether acknowledged or not, mortality is a key issue in every clinical relationship – every one.

Unfortunately, the values that drive our culture, and mold our choices, deeply marginalize this reality. If asked, we agree that death is inevitable. But the ways in which we compose our lives speak to a very different, if unspoken, operative reality.

We live in a world where the fantasy of dominance and control is pre-eminent. We can do anything if we try hard enough – and are “less than,” losers, if we don’t.

Thoroughly interwoven into this larger message is the implicit belief that, through shrewd choices and sheer force of will, we can make ourselves invulnerable to the effects of time. The right combination of food, vitamins, supplements, exercise, and stretching will allow us to always feel great and never get sick.

And we supplement this fantasy of actual invincibility with an increasingly mainstream regiment of artifice. We dye our hair; surgically alter our faces, breasts, and thighs; inject botox; and consume viagara – all strategies designed to maintain the illusion of perpetual youth, not only for others but for ourselves as well.

Moreover, the mainstream medical profession is fully complicit in promoting this illusion of immortality.

  • We will find a cure for cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s – indeed for every malady that can kill us; and
  • Patients in their 80s and 90s – in the last stages of their biologically programmed deterioration – are put on experimental drugs.

Death isn’t the natural endpoint of life. It is an enemy to be defeated.


Regular exercise, sensible diets and good medical care are, of course, positive things.  But this motivating mindset is not. The unstated goal is never to get old, never to die.  Our idealized 40 year-old feels 25. Our 60 year-old role model looks and acts 40.

In this way, the reality of dying never arrives. It is always out there in the future – 10 years further down the road from wherever we are now.  Somewhere in this process, of course, we die. But by virtue of this cognitive sleight of hand, it is always premature – an unfortunate stroke of bad fortune.


We pay a high price for this chronic state of denial. A natural rhythm of living is built into our nature. Fully embraced, each stage of life has its own special challenges and rewards. But all that is swept aside when we reflexively seek to freeze our outlook and choices, struggling to maintain the ambition and sexual allure of a 35 year old into our 60s and beyond.

Chronic denial of aging also leaves us unprepared when life’s natural end point becomes imminent. We typically react to a terminal diagnosis with disbelief which, when you think about it, is truly funny. Did we really think it wasn’t going to happen to us?

What is less funny is the fact that we then face this final challenge with little or no psychic preparation. The result? Too many of us die badly, railing against our fate and filled with complaints because our bodies no longer work as they’re “supposed to.”


The more sensible approach is to embrace death and dying in ways that empower us to live more fully and vibrantly. My particular take on how to do this is framed by two stories.

Not long ago I listened to an interview with Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish memoirist, who, living with a terminal diagnosis, was struggling with the fact that all of her wisdom would die with her. Hearing her anguish, I remembered a second story, of a woman whose Berkeley Hills house burned down in the 1980s, destroying all of her possessions.

Shortly after this event, people started contacting her. Years earlier she had copied her favorite recipes and sent them to a friend. That friend called to say that she was re-copying the recipes and sending them back to her. Her children also called to say they were making copies of the family photos she had faithfully sent to them over the years.  As these calls continued, the woman realized this: The only thing that was safely hers was what she had given away.

So here, it seems to me, is the answer to O’Faolain’s dilemma. One way to look at the rhythm of our years is to think of it as consisting of two interwoven but distinct paths.

The first – an acquisitive one – starts at a high level, exemplified by the infant who is constantly exploring, touching, experimenting, testing, and learning. This remains our dominant preoccupation into young adulthood as we hone our social and romantic skills, build careers and establish homes, families, and places in the community.

The second path – of giving it away – is always there as well. Indeed, Radical Decency teaches that, in healthy intimate relationships, loving and being loved are completely intertwined. Thus, effective giving is a skill we need to master as we emerge as seasoned adults. But while giving away is an important subtext in the earlier years of life, there comes a point when it needs to become our central focus.

Even into our 60s and 70s, the culture invites us to continue our acquisitive ways: To go on striving in our careers; to gorge ourselves on trips, games and new toys; to remain competitive with younger people, both professionally and socially.

The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s doomed to failure. Even Hugh Hefner eventually becomes a pathetic and laughable caricature: A doddering old man in pajamas.  The less obvious – and more serious – problem is that it crowds out the more nourishing promise of our later years. Properly conceived, these years are an incredibly sweet race against time: To give away as much as we can while we can; my answer to O’Faolain’s dilemma.

In making this our priority, we replace the doomed goal of “staying in the race” with a more realistic purpose. Here is a goal for our final years that offers an ennobling, life-affirming challenge; one that requires wisdom, sensitivity, imagination, patience, and persistence.

A serious commitment to “giving it away” also invites us to die well. While it is seldom acknowledged, everyone who loves us will be exquisitely aware — as we grow old — of  our death’s inevitable approach and deeply attentive when it finally arrives. Thus, if we are serious about our vocation of loving and nourishing our loved ones, our death is an absolutely vital and formative moment; our final, really big challenge – and opportunity.

What greater gift can we give to those we love than to handle this last and greatest of life’s mysteries with equanimity, acceptance and, even, curiosity and anticipation? Dying well, we give them an invaluable role model that, hopefully, will help to nourish and sustain them as they face their own decline and death.

As I write this Reflection I am 68, ridiculously healthy, feeling great. Knowing that dying can be really tough, I worry that I am being glib and Pollyanna-ish. When my own decline and death arrives, I may not live up to these brave words. But I also know that giving away what I have – now – is not just a nourishing way to spend my next years.  It is also the best way I know to prepare for my last, really big moment – when it arrives.

When I die, I hope to kick some serious butt!

Reflection 13: Radical Decency Is Its Own Reward

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.


Reflection 12: Radical Decency in Politics — Pitfalls and Possibilities

Radical Decency’s goal is to systematically replace the values that predominate in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

But embedded in the culture are a myriad of beliefs, ways of operating – and supporting institutional structures – that maintain and deepen the grip of its mainstream values on our lives. If we hope to meaningfully advance Radical Decency’s ambitious goal, a thorough understanding of these processes is an essential first step.

With this as its starting place, Radical Decency offers fresh perspectives on what really drives our lives – “what is” – and what we need to do to craft more effective change strategies.

In this Reflection, I deal with these issues in politics and public affairs.

I have been involved in public affairs for almost 50 years: The civil rights and anti-war movements as a young man; Common Cause/Philadelphia in the 1970s; the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; the National Constitution Center; domestic and overseas service trips; Radical Decency; and, when it seemed important, partisan politics.  A lesson I have drawn from these experiences is that the key processes that make meaningful change so difficult are seldom recognized and discussed – and, for that reason, all the more effective.


One of the geniuses of the mainstream culture is that it rarely quashes people who want to reform it. Instead, they are distracted and marginalized, leaving the engines that drive the mainstream culture free to pursue their purposes with little meaningful interference.

A key element in this process is the way in which our reform energies are channeled and, in so doing, domesticated and marginalized.  Everywhere we turn, we are encouraged to work in discrete subject areas – poverty, housing, the environment, nutrition and health.

And the problem with this approach? The best intentioned and most highly motivated among us wind up working on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Then, they are provided with just enough financial support to keep them going but not nearly enough, even to accomplish their (highly commendable but) partial agendas. These processes, and possible responses to them, are discussed in greater detail in other Reflections: # 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other; # 7: Gathering in the Good Guys; and # 45: Re-visioning Social Change Work.

Another phenomenon, instrumental in this process, is way in which the mainstream culture creates the illusion of meaningful choice around particular elections and issues.  Inordinate amounts of energy are then sucked into the fight over this “pivotal” election and that “make or break” issue. The result? The systemic issues that could more effectively promote meaningful change are never attended to.

The obvious example is elections. They are, without question, important. Millions of lives are affected by our choices.  But, in the end, they offer no realistic prospect for fundamental change. The consuming sense of urgency generated by Kennedy vs. Nixon, Kerry vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Romney masks a deeper truth. On the vast majority of big issues, nothing ever changes – not, at least for the better.

So, across the last 50 years, without regard to who is in office: Our enormous defense budget remains; the grotesque underfunding of services for the poor has steadily increased; businesses continue to use their economic leverage to enrich ownership and senior management and squeeze workers and consumers; degradation of the environment continues; and unnecessary wars are fought.

Equally distracting are the so-called big policy fights. John Kenneth Galbraith noted years ago that what usually captures our attention are hotly contested, rather than important, decisions. Thus, we recently spent 2 years, riveted by a tax and budget battle, which resulted in a 4% income tax increase, applicable only to that part of an individual’s income that exceeds $450,000.

In reality, most really important changes just happen, without little or no debate at all.  In the late 1970s, for example, a bankruptcy reform bill was quietly passed allowing judges to modify labor contracts. Over the ensuing decades, this has become a key mechanism used to disempower the labor movement.

Equally invisible in their implementation, and in seismic in their impact, have been

  • The dismantling of country’s pension system (401ks replacing true pensions);
  • The transformation of the criminal justice system into a decentralized system for locking up and disenfranchising shockingly large numbers of African Americans and other minorities; and
  • The deregulation and centralization of the financial services sector, paving the way for massive money grabs by our largest financial institutions.


The juice that keeps the current indecent system going is the priority it places on money, power, and success; that is, on its compete and win, dominate and control values.  In the service of these goals, indecent behaviors are condoned, encouraged and celebrated while, on the other side, “being nice” is subtly (or not so subtly) dismissed as soft and naïve – the province of losers. With this mindset permeating every aspect of our lives, it is hardly surprising that “nice” public policies – that is, policies that are humane and empathic – are pushed to the margins of our public awareness and debate.

Compounding the problem is this dispiriting reality: While the temptation to be indecent for the sake of success is immense in our private lives, it is even greater when it involves strangers; that is, in the area of politics and public policy.


What we need to do to change this mindset – and the indecent public policies it brings in its wake – is to promote an alternative set of values that is just as forceful in the other direction; that make decency a priority in every area of living and, crucially, at all times and without exception.

Why? Because our current approach to change – employing the advocacy tools of the mainstream culture to fight “this” policy battle, or “that” one – will never work. Failing to challenge the values-based premises that drive the mainstream culture’s policy choices, here is what typically happens.

Well-intentioned nonprofits, with little or no reflection, modify “less important” aspects of their mission and ways of operating to meet the expectations of a key foundation or other mainstream funding source. And, as these exceptions accumulate over time, the clarity of their mission erodes, and their tactics increasingly mimic the tactics of the mainstream culture. In the end, playing the culture’s conventional game, but with far fewer financial resources than the corporations and lobbyists that oppose them, guess who wins?

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that more conventional reform efforts should be limited or curtailed. The ameliorative work of nonprofit entities, healing professionals, and more enlightened office holders is highly important. Their work softens the virulent consequences of the existing system, helping millions. The problem, however, is that this work is too often confused with the transformational political work that our culture so desperately needs. We need to be clear about the difference – and deeply supportive of both.

The approach I advocate is a difficult and uncertain pathway toward fundamental political change. But the alternative – to go along with the indecent values that drive our culture and, in this way, being marginal players (at best) when it comes our most basic public policy choices – is worse.


Needless to say, this approach is both intellectually and emotionally challenging.

Thus, for example, we need to embrace the fact that public policy is thoroughly implicated in our private choices – in how we allocate our time, energy and money. Doing so, we need to decisively diverge from culture’s singular focus on financial security and consumerism; replacing it with financial choices that reasonably account for decency to self and, at the same time, actively considers decency to others and the world.

The approach to public policy I advocate also needs to challenge the taken for granted ways in which we view collaboration.

We live in a culture that promotes and celebrates individualism and also places a very high value on privacy; translated to mean that you have no right to know what I am doing, and vice versa. Effective public policy initiatives, however, require collective action and that, in turn, requires deep and sustained collaboration. With this in mind, notice how effectively these mainstream values discourage collective efforts, encouraging a “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” approach and, more darkly, allowing deeply irresponsible private choices to be protected from public sanction by our fierce over emphasis on privacy rights.

A far better approach would integrate a more modulated and qualified emphasis on individuality and privacy into a larger perspective that more fully accounts for the effort of others – melding our efforts with theirs. In this new approach, we would no longer take refuge behind a cloak of anonymity and, instead, hold others – and ourselves – accountable for our choices.

Still another key challenge involves the attack/counterattack style that is so predominant in our politics – and the importance of weaning ourselves from these habits.

The simple — and uncomfortable – truth is this: Ridiculing Sarah Palin (on the left) or Barack Obama (on the right) – as opposed to challenging their policies and tactics on the merits – only reinforces the caricaturizing and dismissive behaviors that allow others, in other contexts, to discriminate against minorities or to dismiss the suffering of the poor.  On this crucial issue, I strongly recommend Encountering Bigotry, by Philip Lichtenberg, et al, a book that brilliantly and with empowering specificity describes how to engage in this vital work. See, also, Reflections 75 and 76: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1and 2.


These steps – greater collaboration, increased personal accountability, attention to the quality of our political dialogue – are not, realistically, going to transform our public policy in the foreseeable future. However, initiatives such as these are the vital the ground out of which a meaningful shift toward more decent and humane public policies can emerge. And if we neglect them, movement toward this goal will, I fear (and believe), continue to be surpassingly small.

Reflection 11: Recognizing, Naming and Valuing Difference

I went to high school in the early 1960s, a different era – before the Stonewall riots and the women’s movement. So it never occurred to me that Miss Dodge and Miss Wheaton, teachers who walked from their apartment to school each day, were lesbians. And, with all the smart/with it kids that were my classmates at Scarsdale High School, I never heard anyone else mention that possibility either!

Years later, I watched a movie in which a lesbian’s life long partner died suddenly. The nephew arrives a few days later and “generously” tells her to stay in the house (titled in her deceased partner’s name) for another 30 days because she and his aunt were such “good friends.” Since her marriage was unnamed and unacknowledged, she was rendered invisible and mute, unable to express her anguish at the loss not only of her life partner but of her home as well.

A final anecdote: An author at the center of the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, when interviewed 50 years later, talked about how she and her friends loved the dime store novels of that era in which a young woman would visit the “dark” side only to be “saved,” in the end, by a man’s love. For them, the endings were irrelevant.  What excited them was that they were being acknowledged. They were being named.  They existed.

This sort of marginalization is one of the culture’s most powerful tools of oppression. In some cases, the oppressed group literally has no name.  Think, for example, of the children who for decades (or, perhaps, centuries) were being abused within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Prior to its disclosure, these victims didn’t exist. And if they dared to speak up, they were dismissed as troublemakers, delusional or worse.

In other cases, such as being a lesbian in the 1950s – or a transgendered or intersexed person today – the culture does offer a name. But the group is so thoroughly stigmatized and marginalized that it is seldom talked about. And when it is, the discussion is suffused with embarrassment and typically conducted in hushed tones. The group exists in theory but its members are never acknowledged as real people, living with and amongst us.

Invisibility and marginalization take repression to a new level. When you are is part of a recognized group, you can coalesce with others and take countermeasures. But when “who you are” is unacknowledged or deeply suppressed, the level of isolation and negation goes much deeper.

Even the seemingly simple act of naming yourself – to yourself – can be tough. Many gays and lesbians who came of age in my generation (the 50s and early 60s) always knew that “normal sex” didn’t work for them. But because homosexuality was so marginalized and stigmatized many of them were in the closet not only with others but with themselves as well. And their challenge didn’t end there. Even when self-recognition broke through, there was often the daunting problem of finding others, like them, for communion and support.

Being unnamed and unacknowledged typically carries with it a diffuse, ill understood form of pain – frustration, loneliness, depression, confusion, a feeling that things just aren’t right. And because you don’t understand the cause of your pain you assume, more often than not, that there is something wrong with you.


This phenomenon is deeply political. Groups at risk of invisibility are groups that interfere with, or slow the momentum of, the culture’s predominant values. And while socially disenfranchised groups are its most obvious victims of this process, the reach of the phenomenon extends far beyond these groups.

The culture pushes us to be a certain kind of person: Logical, focused, goal oriented, organized, efficient, a good linear thinker. But who we are encompasses so much more.  We are also emotional, visual, sensing, tactile, and so on. And these qualities richly contribute to our vitality and aliveness.

The good news is that people have a wide variety of dispositions and aptitudes. There is no shortage of people who can help us understand our potential in each of these less logical and linear areas. Unfortunately, however, the mainstream culture’s support for these people is tepid at best. And sadly – for them and for us – the more they diverge from the culture’s left- brain ideal, the less they are seen and acknowledged.

Take my friend William, for example. Trained at the best schools, he has all the necessary left brained skills. But that is not who he is. William’s core passions and gifts are tactile and sensing. The center of his being exists in an essentially nonverbal world of movement and sensation. He loves to milk goats. He has tracked animals, been on archeological digs, and led bicycle trips. Recently, he spent a summer working on a small family farm in the Pyrenees.

As a more logical and linear person, I don’t understand the joy William feels in milking goats at 5 a.m. – in the dead of winter! But I do know that I am deeply nourished by his different sensibility; a sensibility that leads him to these choices.

Life has not been easy for William. Being smart, organized and charming, he spent years doing what he was supposed to do, working as a teacher and business executive.  But he had no passion for these jobs. Much of the time, he was discouraged and confused. And a key cause of William’s pain was the culturally imposed invisibility, described above.

In an entirely analogous way, the mainstream culture tells people with an artistic or spiritual sensibility that that’s ok, but only if they demonstrate competence in its approved set of aptitudes and skills – by making money off of it. Absent that, their sensibility is likely to be seen as a problem to be overcome, rather than as a different and valued way of living.

This same phenomenon applies, in a more subtle way, to many individuals who, on the surface, seem to be doing just fine in the mainstream culture. These people fit in – sort of. But in fact the emotional fit is uncomfortable. Responding to the culture’s pressures, they let their less mainstream aptitudes and passions atrophy through neglect and disuse. The result is a diminished life not only for themselves but for those around them as well, since they are deprived of their unique contributions.


When it comes to recognizing, naming and valuing difference, the challenge is multi-dimensional. We need to cultivate a heightened sense of curiosity and possibility about people who are different from us and we need to do it in every area of living, from the most private and personal to the most political.

In closing, I want to highlight one area in which the rewards of attending to this challenge are very high: The workplace. Work is the epicenter of our culture’s competitive, win/lose values. We spend the best hours of the great majority of our days at work. And, at most jobs, the pressure to take on a mainstream persona is unrelenting.

But there is a very encouraging “on the other hand” to this discouraging reality. If we are able to bring curiosity about, and appreciation for, difference into the workplace we are bringing this more enlightened way of being in the very belly of the mainstream beast. In other words, change in the workplace could, potentially, become the catalyst and main driver of change in the culture at large. So, imagine a workplace:

  • Where an employee with a more spiritual disposition (for example) does not feel compelled, out of fear, to stifle his or her differences;
  • Where an employer who does not instinctually judge and marginalize this worker but, instead, seeks to engage with, and magnify, his or her unique strengths; and
  • Where, unable to follow through on that optimal outcome, the employer is still willing to modify the worker’s role, hours, and (if necessary) compensation to maintain his or her viability as an employee.

There is no practical impediment making this a reality. Indeed, one by-product of these different sorts of choices could well be soaring morale and increased productivity.

While there are companies that experiment with this sort of approach, what we need is a paradigm shift – from “interesting experiments by a few companies” to “accepted way of doing business.” To do so, however, will require businesses to wean themselves from our “success at all costs” mindset, systematically replacing it with a more humane set of values, such as those reflected in Radical Decency.

Why? Because, if companies remain psychically wedded to the old ways of operating, competitive pressures will inevitably cause them to regress to the mainstream culture’s norms: Reserving the new policies’ benefits for their most economically productive workers; shrinking or abandoning these initiatives when, as is inevitable, the company goes through a period of reduced profitability.

In addition, offered a partial “when it is convenient” shift in policy rather than a whole-hearted embrace of more humane ways of operating, workers will quickly smell a rat.  Case hardened by their long experience with insensitive, quick to judge workplaces, most workers will – in this compromised scenario – (very sensibly) refuse the invitation to be more open about their differences.


As this example illustrates, effective strategies for fostering a greater appreciation of difference are difficult to craft and even more challenging in their execution. But the rewards are commensurate with the challenge. People like William will find their place in the world more easily and with less pain, and we will all be enriched by the new vistas their more robust and empowered involvement opens up for us.

Reflection 10: Romantic Love: Making What’s Good Better

Reflection #3, Why Can’t You Do the Dishes, discusses how couples can make different and better choices when they are fighting; how, instead of talking about what triggered the fight – whether the keys should be hung on the hook; whether your partner is back seat driving – they can re-focus on:

  • Why each partner is triggered; and
  • How to minimize the episode’s duration and effect.

Notice, however, that the skills discussed in that Reflection only come into play when things have already broken down. Equally important – and less discussed – are the positive things that can be done to strengthen the relationship when things are going smoothly.

Effective work in the good times is vitally important. It means fewer ruptures in the relationship and, therefore, less need for repair work. It also improves your ability to offer and accept love, day by day; creating in the process a more nourishing relationship.  And, the skills you cultivate with your spouse are vitally important in your ongoing efforts to improve other important relationships in your life as well.

Here are some key guidelines for doing this work. Note, importantly, that they assume a relationship where trust is intact; that is, where each partner has an abiding belief that the other is deeply invested not only in her own well being, but in his as well. For this reason, while the guidelines are relevant to your interactions at work, in politics, and in other public venues, their applicabilty in these contexts come with important qualifications. See Reflection #66, Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships; and Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.

1. Become the world’s expert on who your partner is.

When I say this, it may seem like an obvious point. But, in reality, most of us take it for granted. “Of course I know who he is, I’ve lived with him for the last 10 years.”

But each of us is an incredibly complicated being. We can literally spend a lifetime understanding who we are, never mind who another person is. So the easy assumption that I know this person since, after all, I have seen her in the morning without her make-up, or have witnessed his meltdowns is not – and will never be – true. Indeed, when this becomes a settled habit of mind, it invites a corrosive complacency in the ways in which we interact with, and treat, our partner.

Understanding this, what better way to honor and love your partner than to make knowing her, more and more deeply, one of your life’s primary vocations? John Gottman, a man who has spent a lifetime studying what successful couples do, calls this building a love map of your partner.

The key to doing this work is to make questions of curiosity a regular habit:

  • What stresses you?
  • What is it that you like about that friend? What do you like to do with him? Why?
  • How would you like our relationship to be different?
  • What do you like about our house?
  • What’s one adventure you’d really like to have?
  • How do you feel about being a dad?
  • What are some of the highlights of your career?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What would you change in the bedroom?
  • What are your hopes and dreams?

The list is, of course, endless. And weaving open-ended questions, such as these, into the fabric of your interactions is a classic win/win: Your partner will feel seen, appreciated and loved; and you will be cultivating a habit of curiosity and appreciation that nourishes and enriches you, not only in your intimate relationship, but in every other area of living as well.

2. Lean into bids.

This simple but powerful tool comes from John Gottman as well. When you think about it, we are all continually bidding for our partner’s attention, interest and affection, in large ways and small: Telling a joke, sharing a stressful event, putting a hand on her shoulder. Indeed, even our criticisms are bids for attention. Why else would we bother to mention it?

What Gottman has observed is that successful couples habitually “turn toward” each other’s bids. After 6 years, couples that ultimately divorced engaged in this behavior 33% of the time while still married couples did it 86% of the time.

So when your partner bids for your attention: Put your mobile phone down and offer full eye contact; really listen and build on what he has said; if you have nothing to add, at least acknowledge the comment. And, of course, work really hard not to “turn away” from her bids; e.g., by not responding at all, or responding with a distracted “huh?” or a cutting and dismissive retort.

3. Ask for what you want.

When you ask for what you want, you provide your partner with a vivid roadmap for loving you. Failing to do so, you deprive him of that guidance.

And since effectively loving your partner is one of life’s greatest joys, providing this roadmap – regularly telling partner what you want and need – is one of your core responsibilities as a lover. There is, quite simply, no better way to support him in his ongoing effort to find really effective, soul satisfying ways in which to love you.

For people on the flight  side of the fight/flight reactivity equation, this can be a difficult stretch. They often have what I call a “Mother Teresa complex,” thinking that putting their needs second is a virtue and, thus, that asking for what they want is selfish.

Neither is true.

Note, in this regard, that asking and demanding are very different things. If the goal is to be the best possible lover, demands almost never work. In the typical case, they provoke annoyance and, at best, grudging compliance.

With trust in place, however, you already know that your partner, eager to love you, wants to respond positively to your requests – subject only to his core needs. So demands are not only unhelpful, they are also unnecessary. Clear and positively stated requests, by contrast, offer the promise of a pleasurable result for both partners.

For people who are more typically on the fight side of the fight/flight equation, this “always ask, never demand” guideline is also very challenging – but in a different way. When fighters are reactive, they demand agreement. And even when they try to rein in this tendency, the music of their “ask” is often so forceful that, to their partner, it still feels like a demand. So fighters need to work diligently to make the words and music of their communications match. For them, explicitly reassuring their partner that “no” is a perfectly acceptable response is, often, a helpful step.

4. Model what you hope to receive.

This guideline may seem complicated, but it isn’t. What we want most of all from our intimate partner is to be seen, accepted, and loved. So “modeling what we hope to receive” means that and nothing more. Strive, always, to see and love your partner when she is at her best and, equally, when she is at her worst.

One area in which the challenge of this guideline regularly comes up is when we are seeking to implement the third guideline, just discussed. With exquisite care you phrase your need as an “ask” and not a “demand.” But your partner, despite your efforts, hears a demand and responds with reactivity and defensiveness.

Needless to say, if the roles were reversed (and they will be!) you would want your reactive response to be accepted with understanding and equanimity – that is, with the acceptance and love you long for – even in the face of your provocative behavior.

So, in that moment, you need to model what you hope to receive. In other words, avoid the easy trap of telling your partner that she shouldn’t be reactive; that she didn’t do what she was supposed to do under the guidelines. Instead, trusting her commitment and intention, strive to maintain your loving presence without editorial comment.

5. Be grateful for what you are offered in return.

This guideline requires you to remember how much you are loved and how motivated this person is to love you. So if her response falls short of your fantasy – and it will on a regular basis – you need to see this as an indication, not of indifference, but of difference.

When what your partner offers is viewed through this prism, cultivating gratefulness for what you receive in return will, in fact, open you up to the possibility of a response that is even better than your fantasy. Why? Because, coming out of his unique and different sensibility, your partner will, on a regular basis, be offering a kind of comfort and love that – before you became intimate with this person – was literally beyond your capacity to imagine.

Here’s how that process works.

Growing up we instinctually let certain behaviors and sensibilities atrophy in order to fit in and survive in our families of origin. Harville Hendrix teaches us that romantic love is nature’s way of bringing us together with someone who is more gifted in these neglected areas; someone who, by their very nature, offers a roadmap for our healing and growth. So, for example, left brained thinkers will, with regularity, find more intuitive sensing partners and vice versa.

With this in mind, being alive to the possibility that you do not understand the gifts being offered by your partner seems especially important. Gratefulness for what you receive is precisely the habit of mind that will allow you to dwell in this possibility and, over time, to more fully understand his or her special gifts.

But even in the absence of this dynamic, you still need to remember that your partner is a package deal; that the limitations you perceive in him are also an expression of who he is. Loving him means not just appreciating the many things he can do, but also accepting with equanimity the ways in which, in your eyes, he fall short.

As Gottman points out, the path to success is to cultivate gratitude – to get really interested in catching your partner doing something right – and, on the flip side, to avoid the corrosive and all too common habit of feeding a critical habit of mind toward this person who is, after all, your great love; the person you have chosen to spend your life with.

Reflection 9: Across the Board Decency

Radical Decency is a comprehensive approach to living. It is:

  • Broad – supporting decency to our selves, others and the world;
  • Deep – extending to every area of living and every interaction; and
  • Integrated – no area being optional or more important; each informing and enriching the others.

In this Reflection, I discuss one key aspect of this comprehensive approach: The injunction to be decent to self, others, and the world – without exception; a concept I refer to as “across the board decency.”

As I discuss below, following through on the logic of this injunction promises to transform the ways in which we treat others “out there, in the real world” and, very importantly, how we treat our selves as well.

1. Decency to Self

Seeking to be decent in the endless interactions that constitute our days is a challenging, wisdom stretching process. But because the philosophy puts decency to self on an equal footing with decency to others, it adds a level of complication beyond the “do unto others” injunction of the golden rule. It challenges us to be decent, as well, to the cacophony of voices inside our heads even as we apply its principles in our dealings with others.

So, for example, you are talking to a friend, and suddenly a pang of jealousy arises because of her recent success, followed almost immediately by another “voice,” shaming you for your small mindedness. Across the board decency challenges you to be warmly interested in your friend. But it also challenges you to be attentive to the discordant voices inside your own head; moving away from self-judgment; managing them in ways that are firm, but gentle and forgiving.


The world of work provides another vivid illustration of the profound impact of the philosophy’s co-equal emphasis on decency to self can have on the ways in which we treat our self.  At work and in our careers, we are invited – by an endless series of cues, sanctions and incentives – to neglect decency to self in our unrestrained pursuit of money and power:

  • Working long hours in a vain attempt to be perfect;
  • Letting worries about “how we are doing” invade our “off hours”;
  • Virulently judging our self when we fall short;
  • Neglecting our health, leisure, and private passions;
  • Chronically pinching back on the time we spend with those intimate people so central to our sense of well-being.

Across the board decency, however, pushes us in a very different direction. Promoting co-equal attention to decency to self, it pushes us to re-examine these “normal” and “expectable” ways of approaching work and career; challenging us to be more and more decent to our self, even as we seek to be more decent to co-workers, customers, competitors, and the larger communities that we affect with our professional choices.

2. Decency to the world

An emphasis on across the board decency also promises to transform the ways in which we treat others, “out there, in the real world.”

In the mainstream culture’s approach, decency is seldom explicitly abandoned. Instead, we are guided toward what I call “pick and choose decency;” that is, being decent when it is convenient but, then, when it really counts – when money or a promotion is at stake – doing whatever has to be done.

Because the predominant culture’s indecent values are so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being, this pick and choose approach to decency is doomed to failure.  Surrounded by cues, incentives and sanctions that push us in a very different direction, we will never to able to preserve the smaller islands of decency we seek to create at home or in our communities of choice. Instead, receding to the cultural norm, our efforts to live differently and better – in all but the rarest of cases – will wind up being tepid, partial, and peripheral.

For this reason, a fulsome commitment to decency to others – at work, in politics, and in all other public arenas in which we operate – is vital. However, when we seek to make good on this commitment, we are presented with a surprisingly difficult challenge.

Here’s why.

Habituated to the mainstream culture’s pick and chose approach to decency, we instinctually compartmentalize our lives; putting our personal relationships in one category, work in a second, and our political activities in a third. Doing so, however, our tendency is to  over-focus on family and friends; neglecting, in the process, the very different rules of engagement that need to be cultivated when we seek to be decent in these other, less intimate environments.

Thus, many books are written about how to lovingly share one’s inmost feelings with your loved ones. But there is much less discussion of how to create a relationship with co-workers and strangers that is far less intimate but, at the same time, extends decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness and justice –  to all parties (including, of course, ourselves).

For these reasons, our decency skills, in these situations, are underdeveloped and limited.

And the deeper message, implicitly sent in the process, is this: Decency doesn’t really matter that much (or at all) when it comes to co-workers, strangers, and other non-intimates.

So, for example, a person in whom you have little or no interest seeks you out. What is the “normal” response? To ignore his calls or make excuses; avoiding him until he gets the hint – with no thought given to what a more decent response might look like.

Not long ago, I had to deal with this situation and, pre-occupied as I am with Radical Decency, I pushed myself to offer a more direct and respectful response: Telling this would-be friend over lunch that, while I liked her, she would likely be disappointed if she was expecting more regular contact. With my work and other commitments, I wouldn’t be able to invest the level of energy, in our relationship, that she was seeking.

In retrospect, the only thing I find remarkable about my response is how out of the ordinary it seemed. And that, I think, was a direct result of how little time we spend reflecting on strategies for being more decent in these sorts of situations.

Committing ourselves to a decency practice that is “across the board,” we are supported in finding more decent ways of dealing with others – and our selves – even in situations in which intimacy is limited or nonexistent.


Our culture’s lack of interest in across the board decency also has enormous consequences for our public discourse. In this area, Meet the Press, Face the Nation and similar Sunday morning news programs provide a stark example.

A politician makes a partisan speech, masquerading as the answer to the question just asked. It is non-responsive, disingenuous, and peppered with inaccuracies.  Then, with little or no effort to point this out, the moderator elicits a different, but similarly nonresponsive and disingenuous response from a spokesperson for the other side. And round and round it goes.

  • Should the moderator intervene more forcefully by, for example, noting that the question hasn’t been answered before he moves on?
  • Should sarcasm and ridicule be disallowed?
  • Should nonpartisan experts routinely be available and invoked, from time to time, to challenge the partisans’ more outrageous factual distortions?

While each of these suggestions is reasonable – and feasible – these and similar ideas seldom, if ever, come up in our mainstream public dialogue. The reason? Because, given the culture’s preoccupation with competition and power, there is little interest in moving toward new norms of decency.

Instead, numbed by years of exposure to this sham, we are conditioned to tolerate, not just nonsense, but grotesque indecency in our debate over issues that vitally affect the lives of millions. And this habitual indecency, deeply embedded in our political debate, in turn sets the stage for our tolerance of indecent, inhumane, and (with disturbing regularity) murderous public policies.


Hopefully, these examples persuasively illustrate why across the board decency is a vital aspect of our work – if we hope to create more decent lives and meaningfully contribute to a more decent world.

The rest is up to us.

Reflection 8: Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters

When I went back to social work school in 2000, it had been 32 years since my college graduation. One of the first articles I read discussed social construction as an analytic tool. I found its approach fresh and exciting. Then I learned that the article was a classic, written in 1971, 3 years after I graduated.

What hit me, at that moment, was that my intellectual growth precipitously declined the moment I left college. My interest in learning didn’t die. I continued to read books (mostly history, biography, and politics), the New York Times, Newsweek, and the New York Review of Books. I went to plays and movies. I listened to NPR. But while I was an above average adult learner, my efforts were, by any fair measure, inadequate — and utterly typical.

Why, for most of us, does serious study die when college ends?

The answer lies in the values that drive our educational system and the world of work. In theory, our colleges and secondary schools encourage students to ask the next question, to be aggressively curious, and to see learning as an endless, ever deepening, powerfully rewarding journey. But the deeper reality is that our schools faithfully reproduce the predominant culture’s competitive, win/lose values, making the competition for grades their operative priority.

Students, adapting to this imperative, become experts, not in learning, but in memorization and regurgitation. They graduate with neither the skills nor motivation to be effective learners. Instead, they are trained to be competitors: Experts at getting the best possible grades; prepped for the next competitive challenge – work and career.

In the world of work, the incentives once again pull us away from serious scholarship. In virtually every profession, specialization is the surest path to career advancement. In my years as an attorney, my serious study – seminars, research, attention to new developments – was focused on my specialty: Bankruptcy law. In like manner, computer programmers and doctors are typically students, not of their professions, but of their specialty within that profession.

In Consilience (1998), Edward O. Wilson points to this same phenomenon in academics.  To build their careers, our budding scholars become economists, or political scientists, or biologists – and play by the rules of their chosen discipline. Then, to get ahead, they find a specific niche within their chosen field, a specialization within a specialization. So even our professional thinkers are pulled away from the “big questions” that should, one would think, be the central focus for a conscious, self-aware species:

  • Who are we, biologically and psychologically?
  • How is our world structured and how does that affect our lives?
  • Given these realities, what are our best choices for living well?

For most of us, the idea of serious and sustained focus on these issues is a nonstarter.  Instead, preoccupied with other priorities, we embrace easy, superficial answers to life’s big questions; answers whose primary virtue is their ability to advance our political, professional and/or emotional agendas. Moreover, since we have so little exposure to the habits of scholarship, we fail to notice its absence. The result? We think what we believe is true.

But as Wilson notes:

“Most people believe they know how they themselves think, how others think too, and even how institutions evolve. But they are wrong. Their understanding is based on folk psychology, the grasp of human nature by common sense – defined (by Einstein) as everything learned to the age of eighteen – shot through with misconceptions. [Even] advanced social theorist, including those who spin out sophisticated mathematical models, are happy with folk psychology.”

The downside of this phenomenon is easy to name: Habitual, unreflective thinking that leads to excesses from endemic and murderous tribal exceptionalism (Rome, the Crusades, British and American imperialism, etc., etc.); self-immolating beliefs such as radical jihadism and the rapture; and so on.

The upside benefits of a serious commitment to life long learning are far less obvious.  Does such a commitment really make a difference?

My answer is an emphatic yes.

If we hope to craft the best possible answers to life’s big questions, we need to become skilled and dedicated students: Grounding ourselves in the best available research; allowing that data to guide us in formulating answers ; always remaining open to new or revised answers as our empirical knowledge and conceptual understandings evolve.

Note, importantly, that my enthusiasm for this enterprise is not some generalized “this is good for you” platitude.  To the contrary, the new understandings that result can literally change how we see the world and, with it, how we think, act, and feel.

So, for example, Daniel Siegel and others have taught me about the neurobiological mechanisms that make our brains habit forming machines – reacting to new stimuli in the same way it reacted to similar stimuli in the past; increasing the likelihood of that response with each repetition. I also learned that our fight or flight mechanism for dealing with imminent danger reacts 10 times faster than our thinking brain, pumps cortisol and adrenaline into our system, pushes blood into our large muscle groups, and shrinks the activity of our thinking brain.

From Steven Stosny I learned as well that the jolt of energy and (false) sense of clarity that fight or flight’s physiological changes evoke is deeply addictive at an interpersonal level: That, when attacked, we are biologically wired to respond in kind, with either a counter attack (fight) or withdraw (flight).

These understandings have changed my life.

Because my mother was a rager, I grew up with a hair trigger temper. The result? For most of my life, I judged myself for my outbursts; coped with the shame that grew out of my inability to control my emotions; and suffered in silence, certain in the knowledge that there was something profoundly wrong with me.

But no more.

Understanding the biological and psychological realities described above, I now make complete sense to myself. Confronted with anger from an early age, I learned to counter attack. And because the pattern kept repeating itself, that response became a deeply engrained habit, reinforced through the years by the jolt of energy its activation provided. I wasn’t wrong. I was human.

The result has been an easing of my shame and the defensive crouch it provoked; states of mind that, for years, limited my efforts to tame my emotional demons. Armed with a better understanding of the rage cycle, I was able to craft strategies to prevent its activation or, failing that, to interrupt it.  Knowing that our brains are habit forming machines, I also embraced a more realistic vision of the change process – seeing it as a war of attrition, requiring a steady and open ended commitment to my new ways of thinking, acting, and feeling.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, offers another, good example of the transformative power of serious study. That book persuasively argues that the historic dominance of Middle East and European cultures resulted from geographic and climactic factors; the early development and spread of plant and animal domestication in those areas. Diamond and others also describe the seismic impact of this event on human history, setting the stage for exponential population growth and – through the ability to control the food supply – the emergence of the hierarchical, authoritarian cultures that have dominated the last 4,000 years of human history.

With these understandings, any residual attachment I might have had to the mainstream cultural notion of Western superiority is gone, as is the mainstream view of history as a journey toward modernization and progress.

Our history is not preordained and is not shaped primarily, or even substantially, by the intrigues of the kings and generals that fill our history books. Who we are and how we live is, most fundamentally, the result of the interplay of biology, environment and natural selection. And history’s appropriate time frame is not the 5,000 years of “civilization” covered in our history books. It is instead 300,000 years of Homo sapien history, our 7 million years as a distinct primate subgroup, 3 billion years of life on earth, and 13 billion years of cosmic evolution.

I could cite many other examples in which scholarship has profoundly changed my thoughts and outlook: Paulo Frieire and Philip Lichtenberg’s dissection of the psychology of authoritarian relationships; Carol Gilligan and Terence Real’s insights into the different ways in which men and women are acculturated; and so on.  Hopefully, however, the examples described above make my point: Serious, careful and sustained study and reflection can change our lives. And, more fully assimilated into our mainstream ways of living, it can change the world as well.

Reflection 7: A Comprehensive and Inclusive Approach to Change

In this Reflection, I discuss key ways in which Radical Decency supports a more integrated and, thus, more effective approach to change.


Radical Decency is a values-based call to action. It invites us to organize our lives around a set of values that are practical, understandable, and all encompassing:

Be decent in all that you do – to yourself, to others, and to the world.  And to do it at all times, in every context, and without exception.

We practice Radical Decency trusting that it will guide us to concrete, day by day choices that, as they accumulate, are the surest path to the philosophy’s ambitious goals: To create better lives and to meaningfully contribute to a better world.

In this way, Radical Decency is a significant departure from the visions of change that predominate in the culture. These formulations consist, largely, of high-sounding goals with far too little thought given to their implementation. We are told to “do justice” but are not told how. And, for most of us, any instinct to act dies with the realization that the contributions we are invited to make – a donation here, a volunteer day there – will have no perceptible impact.


Notice, also, that the philosophy’s values-based approach – by its very nature –drives us toward a fundamentally more inclusive and, thus, a more effective approach to change. Why? Because the predominant values it seeks to supplant – compete and win, dominate and control – are infused in every area of living.

For this reason, Radical Decency needs to unfold in virtually every sphere of life. And the obvious corollary? Everyone with a sincere interest in Radical Decency – whatever their area of activity – needs to be embraced as partner in the cause.

Business people are an excellent example of how this process works. In most social change venues, these people are viewed (at best) as part time and compromised participants. While most of their time is devoted to fundamentally amoral, profit-seeking activities, they can at least raise money and write checks.

But Radical Decency castes them in a very different light. Since business and the workplace are the epicenter of the mainstreams culture’s indecent values, it is one of the most fruitful and exciting venues in which to apply its precepts.

What better place to work for fundamental change than in the belly of the beast? Imagine how different our world would be if the prevailing view in boardrooms and executive offices was to treat co-workers, customers, and the environment with habitual decency.  How different things would be if profitability was priority 1A – vitally important but clearly subordinate to the goals of Radical Decency.


Radical Decency’s lodestar prescription for living – to be decent at all times and without exception – drives us toward more integrated change initiatives in other ways as well. Seeking to live up to this ambitious goal, we are impelled to take stock of our decency efforts in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.

Several years ago, I created a “Roadmap” that attempts to enumerate specific acts of decency, contemplated by the philosophy, across the full range of activities that constitute our lives. Here are some examples, drawn from that document:

Tend to your emotional needs: Nurture, companionship, novelty, play, etc. (decency to self).

Be honest, don’t manipulate to get result; don’t mislead nonverbally (decency to others).

With strong emotions/different communication styles, stay open; when breakdown occurs, do repair work (decency to others).

Balance resources used, accumulated, offered to others, and conserved (decency to the world).

Be open, inquisitive about varieties of oppression – yours and others – and how it is resisted (decency to the world).

Working with specific aspects of Radical Decency, such as these, most of us will quickly notice that our practice is fairly strong in some areas and in obvious need of improvement in others. And, with this clarity, we are set up for greater success as we seek to improve and expand our Radical Decency practice.

We will, in addition, be primed to reach out to people with greater skill in areas where we are deficient (social justice types teaching and supporting personal growth types; personal growth types teaching and supporting decency based businesses, and so on).  And, as this process grows and deepens, there will be a natural coming together of change agents from diverse areas of activity; magnifying and improving everyone’s change efforts.


Still another way in which Radical Decency deepens and expands our change efforts lies in the habits of mind it cultivates.

Forced to confront the many complexities that arise when we seek to be decent to ourselves, even as we maintain decency to others and the world, Radical Decency is a challenging approach to living. Howard Lesnick, a law professor and gifted thinker and writer, cuts to the core of the philosophy’s intellectual and emotional challenge, in Listening for God when he “cautions against” “taking the rightness of parental preference for granted” in a society where “the degree of parental preference is far too extensive to be morally justified.”

All too frequently, there are no obvious or easy choices. We are regularly stretched to harmonize and integrate – or, failing that, to balance – what often seem inherently conflicting priorities: My career vs. my obligation to family and friends vs. larger issues of social and economic injustice. But we need to persist in these efforts despite the many situations in which, given the culture’s predominant values, our choices will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply ignored.

These difficulties are, paradoxically, one on of the key benefits of the philosophy.  Seeking to be the best we can be in these “wisdom stretching” moments, we are pushed – at times of reflection – to cultivate our creativity, thoughtfulness, and intuitive awareness; and – at times of choice – to stretch our analytic skills and to exercise both courage and prudence, as situations warrant.

Most of all, Radical Decency cultivates a deepening sense of curiosity about every aspect of living – from the subtleties of own thoughts and feelings, to the intricacies of an intimate conversation, to the historical forces that repeatedly result in violent social upheaval. How else can we become the creative force for decency we aspire to be?

And as curiosity and, with it, our insight and empathy become consuming pre-occupations, the culturally engrained habits that separate us from others – judgment, possessiveness, greed, need to control – begin to wither, crowded out by these new habits of thought, feeling and action.

As this process takes root, our approach to other change agents will, once again, be fundamentally altered. Instead of seeing their efforts as different and unrelated, or in competition for scarce resources, we will be primed to be deeply curious about their goals, insights, approaches to change, and specific tactics. And, in this way as well, we will be impelled toward a path of deepening collaboration with other, reform-minded people.

Reflection 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other

Radical Decency grew out of my journey with the Eccoes Foundation, an organization my wife and I started in 2000. With our long involvement with personal growth and social justice causes, we were puzzled about how little overlap there was between the two. To unravel that mystery, we decided to start a public foundation that offered grants to organizations operating at the intersection of these worlds.

In our 3 years as operators of a grant-making organization, we found any number of inspiring groups that acknowledged the connection between social justice and personal growth. But true programmatic integration was hard to find. Instead there were social justice groups that, recognizing that personal healing enhanced their effectiveness, would sponsor staff retreats. On the flip side, we found personal growth groups that had social justice committees or sponsored occasional community-oriented events. But in every instance, the organizations we funded clearly existed in one world or the other.

This experience led me to a lot of head scratching, writing and, ultimately, Radical Decency. It is offered as an approach to living that, fully thought through, has the potential to integrate people and organizations with a passion for social justice and personal growth into a more unified and effective force for change. 


What can explain this separation between the worlds of social justice and personal growth? As I see it, it is a series of culturally promoted messages, relentlessly reinforced, that push us to “do our own thing,” to focus on “our” career, to be a “success.” And what is success?  The accumulation of more and more personal power, recognition, and wealth.

These attitudes, in turn, foster a pervasive sense of “personal ownership,” not just of things but also of ideas, programs and philosophies. Indeed, how many of us are immune to a sense of diminishment when our good idea is adopted – but we receive no credit?

The net effect? The many people who share a passion for creating a better life and meaningfully contributing to a better world are separated from one another; fragmenting their energy; reducing their effectiveness. 


What is less obvious is the extent to which these values are embedded: (1) in the very structure of the organizations these “good guys” join and create to promote their goals; and (2) in the ways in which they think about their lives and careers. To illustrate the point, consider the very different opportunities and rewards available to me as a commercial bankruptcy attorney, on the one hand, and as a public interest lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist on the other.

As a mainstream attorney, tending to “my career,” I developed a name for myself in a narrowly defined and financially rewarding area of the law; cultivated a stable of good paying clients who were loyal – to me; and measured my success in terms of the money I made. Playing by the predominant culture’s rules of personal aggrandizement, I was offered an easily identifiable career path and way of living, and was rewarded for that choice with the mainstream culture’s indicia of success – money and respect.

By contrast, the career paths available to me as a public interest lawyer looked very different. I could specialize in housing law – or civil rights – or environmental law.  But there was no readily available career path that allowed me to work, more generally, on the deeply flawed ways in which we live. 

Similarly, while social work school trumpeted an approach to healing that considered both the personal and political, incoming students were required to choose either a clinical or policy track. In other words, it could train you for a career that focused on social justice, or personal healing and growth – but not on both. Once again, there was no career path for someone who was interested in an integrated “big picture” approach to change.

So right from the start – in both of these reform-minded professions – the structural realities of the culture pushed me to shrink my focus; to work on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Why? In retrospect, the answer seems self-evident.  The predominant culture, with its genius for self-perpetuation, tolerates small incremental improvements, but has no tolerance for – and hence offers no structures to support the work of – people who seek more fundamental change. 


This narrowing process is also deeply interwoven in the organizations the good guys create to implement their visions. As a society, we have created vast markets to finance risky new ventures and to reward organizers and early investors when they are successful. These structures are, however, only available when the prime virtue of the product is its ability to make a lot of money. In other words, access to these empowering financial structures is limited to people who embrace the predominant culture’s vision of success. 

For people seeking to create a better world, the realities are very different. Social change oriented nonprofits have no meaningful access to capital markets, their organizers and investors (donors) can never cash out, and there are legal limits on the salaries they can pay. And, in an analogous way, change agents who work in the healing professions – psychotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc. – are limited by modest fees and the sale of services and products that are of little or no interest to capital markets.

But financial marginalization is only a part of the story. Since they are offered enough money to survive and are able to focus on their passion for change, many of the world’s good guys are drawn to the nonprofit or healing careers. But in accepting this invitation, they are forced – in fundamental, mission compromising ways – to play by ground rules that have been crafted by the predominant culture. 

Thus, to retain the goodwill of mainstream funders – foundations, individual donors, government agencies – they focus on limited and defined substantive areas and, more often than not, on service oriented services and products. Doing so, their more radical instincts are marginalized. While they can work to make aspects of the existing system less mean spirited, even the limited support they receive from mainstream funding sources will evaporate if they focus on more fundamental change.

Moreover, the great majority of these good people are not immune to the pull of the predominant culture’s values. They worry about cost of sending their kids to college and how to support themselves when they are old. And, surrounded by the mainstream culture’s cues, sanctions, and incentives, they are susceptible to all the material things the culture so relentlessly promotes – a comfortable home in the suburbs, fancy gadgets, nice vacations, etc., etc.

So while they choose their careers for noble reasons, the tendency to protect the financial viability of the entity they depend upon for their livelihood – by adopting mainstream business outlooks and practices – is almost impossible to resist. Pushed in that direction by their lawyers, accountants, and PR advisers, they increasingly treat other good guy organizations as competitors; view their services as a proprietary brand to be preserved and protected; and see their clients and funding sources as closely held corporate assets.  Here, once again, powerful cultural forces discourage collaboration, mutual support, and a more radical agenda.

Thus, embarking on a mission of change, the typical good guy winds up in the vise of a system that offers work on important and inspiring but, in the end, narrowly focused programs; that discourages active cooperation with other change agents; and will, if fundamental change is sought, financially quash the organizations they rely upon to support themselves and their families. 

Small wonder, then, that organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth are hard to find. Our world is specifically structured to prevent good guy energy from cohering into a unified and, therefore, more effective force for change.


Overcoming these cultural forces is a daunting task. And, tackling them is one of Radical Decency’s central missions.

Radical Decency’s approach to living seeks to systematically replace the cultural norms that produce these results with attitudes and behaviors based on respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, acceptance, fairness and justice. The hope is that, building out from this values-based perspective, new outlooks and structures will emerge that will allow the energy of reform minded people – the good guys – to cohere into a more collaborative and effective movement for change. For a fuller discussion of how this might occur, see Reflection 6, Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work; Reflection 89, A Call to Action, Part 1 – Community; Reflection 90, A Call to Action, Part 2 – An Expanded Collaborative Vision; and Reflection 91, A Call to Action, Part 3 – Expanded Collaboration in Action.