Reflection 63: Learning Mandarin

Dale, my wife, and I were hiking the desert in Sedona, Arizona some years ago. Finding a cozy crevice in the rocks, we watched the sun set. Dale was enraptured, seemingly breathing in this glorious moment with every cell in her body. Me? I liked it. I noticed the beautiful colors and felt the soft desert breeze. Pretty soon, however, I was glancing at my watch, wondering when we would be leaving and where we’d go for dinner.

In a bookend scene, Dale and I are driving in the car and a song comes on – one of many that I carry around in my soul. Now, it is my turn to be transported. It seems to take over my very being, deeply soothing my body and brain. Every musical phrase is inside me. The words come pouring out of my mouth, not as remembered phrases, but from a deep place chiseled within my brain where they (like hundreds of other lyrics) seem ever ready to emerge as soon as this or that tune begins.

And Dale? She attends to the song – often at my urging – and does enjoy it. But with utter predictability, her attention wanders and she starts talking (a sacrilege in my world!) after the initial verse and chorus.


I share these stories because they point to a key, easily overlooked, aspect of who we are and, thus, of the challenge we face as we seek to grow into the person we hope to become.

In seeking to live differently and better, there are many things we need to learn. Thus, for example, I often point out that our seriously out of whack culture encourages up to think and act in ways that are plainly destructive to our sense of well-being: Perfectionism, an obsession with winning, fear of vulnerability, a compulsively acquisitive mindset, and so on. In a committed Radical Decency practice we are always learning more open, relational, loving, and self-loving ways of living and, in the process, weaning ourselves from these painful habits of mind.

For most of us as well, the things we need to learn also involve fairly obvious ways of interacting that interfere with our ability to create and sustain relationships and, more generally, to live well: The man with a hair trigger temper; the woman who experiences debilitating anxiety in social situations.

But there is a far less obvious, and vital, aspect of our growth work that the examples from my marriage illustrate – and that is coming to understand those parts of being that we profoundly don’t know; that is, learning to speak Mandarin when, for your entire life, you have only spoken English.

In my case, knowing what I don’t know – my particular brand of Mandarin – is in the visual and tactile realm. While I do, in my way, appreciate color, form, and the visceral texture of nature, there is something that goes on in Dale’s mind, body, and heart that I am unable to access. And in the auditory realm of music, there is an analogous part that is intuitive to me but not to Dale.

While these examples create no immediate pain or dysfunction, they are not in the least trivial. Living well very much requires us to address depression, anxiety and other spirit draining states of mind. But that work does define its limits. To the contrary, our minds and bodies offer a myriad of potentialities – intellectual and emotional, tactile and kinesthetic, intuitive and spiritual – and being open to all of them expands and enriches our possibilities in life.

When we develop an abiding curiosity about those areas of living that are beyond our intuitive understanding, we also expand our ability to relate a broader range of people – and to relate more fully to our most intimate companions in life since, like Dale, they will inevitably inhabit areas of living that are Mandarin to us.


The place where “knowing what you don’t know” takes on an extra sense of immediacy and consequence is when familiarity with that territory is deeply implicated in a person’s ability to overcome a dysfunctional pattern. When it stands in the way of her ability to live well.

Take Nick, for example. He loves his wife and, to him, she is just as attractive as she was when they got together 20 years ago. And yet their sex life has gone off the rails. His desire is down and, at times, performance issues have come up. He arrived in my psychotherapy office when his wife discovered his pre-occupation with online pornography.

When our work began, it focused quite naturally on the dysfunction in his sex life. But what emerged over time was a profound disconnect from his needs. When she would ask where they should go to dinner his invariable, automatic response was, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.” Similarly at work, where he is a valued employee, it never occurred to him to tell the boss that he preferred to focus on a particular aspect of their work.

In these, and in many other areas of living, Nick’s failure to speak up was not about fear or shyness. Indeed, at a conscious level, he wasn’t even frustrated. It’s just that expressing a need or desire never occurred to him.

This was, it turned out, profoundly a place where “he didn’t know what didn’t know;” his particular brand of Mandarin. And, what we came to see over time was that it was a key to understanding his sexual malfunction.

In the bedroom, while Nick could attend to her, he was wholly unable to ask for – or to take – what he wanted since, quite literally, he had no idea what it was. The result: Their sex life lacked the mutuality – the reciprocal passion and spontaneity – so essential to its long-term health.

Failing to understand this, his wife never complained. After all, he was so sweet to her and so attentive to her needs. And since, at a conscious level, he was utterly unaware of what his needs were, his body simply quit on him. The pay off from dutiful sex was tepid and going for what he wanted utterly foreign territory.

The key here is to distinguish Nick from a person who is afraid to ask for what he wants or stops doing so because his partner is indifferent or dismissive. In these situations the pattern that needs to be changed – once it is named — typically makes intuitive sense to both parties. In this environment, the necessary change work, hard as it is, can happen since each party has an intuitive understanding of what they need to change and how to do it.

In Nick’s case however – and in other cases where profound not knowing is at play – the revealed pattern typically seems theoretical and unreal until, that is, he is somehow able to develop some sense of the look and feel of Mandarin.


So what can be done in these situations to facilitate healing and growth?

This question frustrates me since in most cases – mine included – Mandarin will, at best, remain a second language; unintuitive and halting. So while there are many things Nick and his wife can do to improve their situation they will never, in all likelihood, “solve” this core issue.

But that does not mean the effort should not be made. Success in changing a more accessible behavioral pattern – an anger issue or social anxiety – is important and life affirming.

But the larger truth is this: There is something uniquely profound, soul and, ultimately, healing and transformational about the understandings, however, imperfect, that can come our way when we are genuinely curious about, and determinedly open to, the things in life that are beyond our initiative grasp. We do well to embrace them, not just in our immediate healing work as with Nick, but in our day by day ways of living as well.

And so it was when Dale and I recently visited an exhibit of Cezanne landscapes at the Barnes.

I have also had a special affinity for his work. But that day, at that exhibit, something very special happened. Part of it was the brilliance of the written commentary – something that clearly spoke to my native, analytic language. And some of it also had to do with the pictures chosen for the exhibit. Finally – I strongly suspect – my mood that day, and in that moment, played a pivotal role.

In any event, as I went through the exhibit, I accessed something that felt entirely new: A deeply intuitive appreciation of the breath, virtuosity and profundity of Cezanne’s’ visual expressions.

This aspect of living never will be available to me in the way it is to Dale. But, by remaining open to possibilities – and to Dale’s role as my teacher in this area of living – I am able to experience moments such of these. They are, truly, one of life’s precious gifts.

Reflection 62: Why Values Voters Back Trump — Making America Great Again

R.W. Miller, the author of this Reflection, is a transactional lawyer from New York. He is a conservative/libertarian leaning Mets and Jets fan. In other words, he likes to suffer. His Reflection eloquently exemplifies one of my strongest informing beliefs. In the political realm, Radical Decency is not the special preserve of progressives. Creating mechanisms that allow the many decent people, from across the political spectrum, to find one another and work together is vitally important aspect of our work.

Picture this: a baseball diamond in Anywhere, USA. The grass is green, the base paths are dirty brown and the kids are a mix of smiles and frowns. A little league baseball game has just ended. What comes next? Any former little leaguer can tell you: a handshake line. The winners and losers shake hands and congratulate each other on a good game.

Change the scene: we’re at a different sort of baseball diamond now. We’re at a big league park. It’s night time after a hard day of work for the adults and school for the kids. The home team has lost and it’s time for the handshake line. The victorious visitors line up…and shake each others’ hands.

What on earth was THAT about?

It’s easy to blame the decline in our nation’s value system on competitiveness. After all, the big leaguers are in the competition business. Nearly every day from the beginning of February until (the fans hope) the beginning of November, those guys go out to try to win a ballgame. They are playing for their livelihoods, their families, their teammates. Some even play for the fans who cheer their names and buy their jerseys. But by that theory, the local kids shouldn’t be too worried about their game. They’ll have food on the table, win or lose. Funny thing is, though, those kids are playing as hard as any big leaguer, if not harder. But we, as a society, have decided that kids should be taught to demonstrate good sportsmanship: to congratulate winners and losers alike for their efforts and to put competition aside at the end of the game.

Yet somehow we let those values slip away as those kids become adults. We allow ourselves to forget that our opponents are also human beings, deserving of respect, even if their values conflict with our own. Values are a lot more complex than a box score. The number of runs scored in a ballgame is objective; the proper balance between, for example, the rights of the religious and LGBT communities is not. Not long ago, some conservatives termed themselves “values voters” because they were casting votes in accordance with the teachings of their religions, which were not friendly to what they would refer to as the lifestyles of the LGBT community. Liberals, more supportive of groups like the LGBT community, were often hostile towards the expressions of “values.”

Looking at politics today, the tables have turned. Liberals aggressively assert their values while conservatives demand liberties and freedoms. The liberals and their values seem to be winning the culture wars while conservatives try to preserve their rights to be themselves. On the defensive, they have turned to leaders who offer the protections they seek, however personally offensive such officials may be.

In March of 2015, the New York Mets decided to invite Billy Bean, a former major league baseball player who “came out’ as gay after ending his career, to meet with the team to discuss his experiences and a future in which a player like Bean would not have to hide his sexual orientation. The Mets being a New York team, media attention followed. One player was particularly willing to discuss the event, a (then) little known second baseman named Daniel Murphy.

Murphy was a religious man with strong values. The previous year, he angered some fans by missing opening day for the birth of his first child. In spite of his defensive shortcomings (we Mets fans will never recover), he was viewed as a guy who “played the game right,” which generally means he played hard every day and acted like a professional and a good sport. Murphy informed a reporter that while he disagreed with Bean’s “lifestyle,” he would be amenable to having an openly gay teammate, that he could foresee accepting and learning to love such a teammate, just as he loved his wife despite disagreements with her, and that he was glad the Mets had invited Bean. The New York newspapers spoke the next day: Daniel Murphy was a homophobe.

To many conservatives, Murphy’s views were reasonable. Some viewed homosexuality as a sin, but sin is commonplace. To those with the most committed religious opposition and those who simply felt uncomfortable sharing a locker room with someone attracted to men (modesty being another value), Murphy seemed quite progressive. Those with “live and let live” attitudes (like myself) saw Murphy as accepting reality and working to reconcile his values with the recently updated ones of society at large. Seeing Murphy denounced as a homophobe because his statements of acceptance were not phrased according to the dictates of “political correctness” was jarring. It suggested that in the new liberal order, tolerance was intolerable and acceptance was unacceptable. Nothing less than positive affirmation would suffice, even at the cost of deeply and sincerely held values.

A few months later, confirmation of that fear arrived in the form of a federal appellate court decision. Jack Philips, a Christian baker, had broken the law when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, in a state that, at the time, did not recognize gay marriage. Philips, proprietor of the now-notorious Masterpiece Cakeshop, was no common bigot. He was a deeply religious man who refused to make a variety of cakes on the basis of his values: he did not bake cakes he thought promoted alcohol consumption (such as for a bachelor party), turned away valuable business for Halloween each year and refused to produce messages of racism. He did not turn away gay customers, agreeing to sell them anything that did not require him to violate his defined principles. When the state ordered him to produce cakes for gay weddings or get out of the business entirely, he opted for the latter, costing himself 40% of his profits.

To a conservative seeking to live a radically decent life, whether under that term or simply in accordance with his own values, the Murphy and Philips cases are deeply troubling. Both men did their best to reconcile their beliefs with the new world and both were punished when their efforts were deemed insufficient according to standards that felt about five minutes old. They did not close themselves off from others, nor did they push their views on those with whom they disagreed. Their attempts at compromise yielded only censure.

As a more libertarian conservative in the liberal “bubble” of New York, I am familiar with the constant threat of social ostracism or outright legal sanction felt by those whose values are not currently favored. While personally supportive of gay rights, I have no passion for the cause. I do not keep up with the latest PC terminology. I might, like Murphy, refer to the “gay lifestyle,” meaning no offense. I am, however, extremely protective of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Our rights to express ourselves and follow our religions are uniquely strong in the US. But they must be carefully guarded, lest those who do not fully appreciate their value undermine them in favor of the latest cause. That must include, however, those whose speech offends us and those whose religions conflict with our own beliefs.

To his credit, Billy Bean understood that Murphy’s openness was an encouraging sign for future gay athletes. Bean further reminded those who read his commentary that inclusion means everyone, including Murphy, who had been nothing but respectful to him (and with whom he would maintain an ongoing dialogue). To me, Bean and Murphy were both examples of men living radically decent lives, along with Jack Philips. Though their views may have been different, they did not shrink from those with whom they differed. Nor did they back down from their sincerely held beliefs, attempting, however imperfectly, to balance respect for themselves with acceptance of others.

As for the men who sued Philips, I find their actions fundamentally indecent. They chose to seek punishment for their disagreement, rather than respecting Philips’s commitment to his values and stated openness to doing business with them on non-conflicting terms.

If we want to have the kind of society envisioned by those who teach little leaguers to shake their opponents’ hands, we must commit ourselves to treating each other decently, especially in moments of conflict. As the proverb, both biblical and, partially, the title for a famous play about conflicts of religious and secular values, tells us “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Our national house is troubled. It is up to every one of us to ensure we inherit a thriving, united nation, instead of the proverbial wind.

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.