Reflection 64: Social Justice and Personal Growth

Eric Hoffman, a philosophy professor at St. Joseph’s University, is the author of this week’s Reflection. He is also the conductor of The Essential Experience Workshop, referenced in the Reflection.

Brought to Philadelphia in 1989, by Eric and his wife, JoAnne Fischer – and offered 3 times a year – more than 2,000 people have participated in the Workshop. Over the years, Eric and JoAnne have nurtured a vibrant graduate community that wonderfully exemplifies Radical Decency’s values.

For more information about the Workshop, go to

Social Justice and Personal Growth

My friend, Jeff Garson, has been seeking, for the past decade or so, to encourage all of us to integrate our pursuit of personal growth with our pursuit of social justice. He describes this effort under the name “Radical Decency.” I want to take a moment here to notice how these two pursuits are so often kept separate and to urge, along with him, both intellectual and practical integration.

For many people, neither personal growth nor social justice is a central value. Some people are engaged in survival or have some other frame on the world such that neither personal growth nor social justice captures their ideals. For many others, however, at least one of these values is crucial to their self-image. They see themselves as engaged, for example, on a spiritual quest, growing toward enlightenment, or simply committed to self-improvement. Or else, they see themselves as in service to the poor and oppressed, engaged in social change. For some people, the commitment to one or the other of these values is sustained by a kind of rejection of the other. That, to me, is an interesting phenomenon.

For example, I hear people committed to spiritual or emotional or personal growth express abhorrence of politics, suggesting that its divisiveness is inevitably contrary to the spiritual commitment to recognize a universal humanity. Politics seems to insist that others be seen as opponents or adversaries, if not enemies. Advocacy for social justice seems to the personal growth folks to contradict the recognition of each individual as precious and valuable. It seems judgmental in insisting that some are right and others wrong about how our social institutions should function, and the fundamental value of personal growth is to be non-judgmental and accepting of everyone. In these ways, rejection of political involvement helps to support the commitment to personal growth. We manifest our commitment to personal growth in part by avoiding political judgments.

Conversely, those who are politically committed will often express a frustration with those whose main commitment is personal growth. They may see them as self-indulgent or as failing to engage in the vital battle for human welfare and fairness in the world we live in, thereby leaving injustice in place. The politically committed may feel a need to reject the abstractness and disengagement of a commitment to personal growth in order to reaffirm the importance of political commitment to social justice. We manifest our political commitment in part by avoiding too much personal indulgence.

These kinds of attitudes are expressed relatively often, I think, though there is sometimes a weak acknowledgment of the need for some integration. The person whose primary value orientation is toward personal growth may, in some extreme cases, be moved to see some particular social outrage as requiring comment or even action. This will be seen as a kind of exception and assimilated to the personal growth frame as much as possible. Similarly, some politically committed folks will see the need to explore feelings and relationships on occasion, as long as it doesn’t get too private and distract from the important work of social change. This kind of minor inclusion of the other frame seems to me to be an advance, because, in my view, both frames are important.

What is much more difficult is to pursue a really robust integration of the two frames, to develop ways of seeing them not as in conflict so much as in a creative tension that can generate powerful synergies. This may involve owning the resistance we may have to really embracing the other side of the tension.

So, for instance, what is behind the accusation of the person who is politically committed that the personal growth advocate is “self-indulgent”?  Here, there is a resistance to taking care of oneself. The political activist may see almost any self-care as self-indulgent. This may involve disowning the part of oneself that needs care as weak and unworthy. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the meaning of the social justice advocate’s care for the weak in society. Is there judgment mixed in with compassion for the poor? How, they might be challenged, can you advocate for the weak without also acknowledging and advocating for the weak parts of yourself? These are hard questions that pose a challenge to those committed to social justice to look more honestly at their personal feelings and motivations.

On the other side, the personal growth advocate’s characterization of the social justice advocate as “judgmental” is equally open to question. The resistance to political stances may have more to do with avoidance of conflict than with any spiritual principle.  Anxiety about confrontation with others may generate a kind of rationalization that sounds like a commitment to universal humanity, when it is mainly a way to remain comfortably disengaged. Moreover, this kind of withdrawal arguably diminishes any real compassion for the people who most need it, a kind of betrayal of the very spiritual values one claims to hold. The challenge to the advocate of personal growth is to look more honestly at the world and its dynamics of injustice and to explore more fully how compassion might be expressed in a struggle for justice.

These challenges, directed to those who seek a vibrant integration of personal growth and social justice, are rather general. The practical question is what this might look like in the lived world.  There are many groups and individuals engaged in this set of challenges. In the Essential Experience Workshop Community, which is stronger on the personal growth side than the social justice side, we have stretched in the past to include a social justice dimension in the community.

We encourage service in a variety of ways, for instance. In the past, we have sponsored (mostly under the leadership of Jeff and, his wife, Dale) service trips locally and abroad, and we have conducted discussions and designed projects aimed at diversity issues. Nonetheless, these initiatives would need renewal at this point to pursue more balance of personal growth and social justice in the EE community. The absence of such initiatives may be a reason why some, whose inclination is more toward the social justice dimension, may feel less aligned with the EE community.

I, for one, would like to see a revitalized social justice dimension in our Community. It may be sensitive for many and create turbulence that would be difficult for some, but it would also enrich and give meaning to the pursuit of wholeness to which EE is devoted. This revitalized initiative might not be for everyone, or it might not be for everyone at a particular moment. But for some, it might be just the right vehicle for personal growth. And for all of us, even if we were not actively involved at the moment, its existence would be a reminder that the integration of social justice with personal growth enhances both.

Reflection 55: Being Decent To A Hitler

In this Reflection, I focus on the more practical side of Radical Decency, working with an example that is regularly raised by readers: How to react to a public person who you are deeply at odds with, in a world in which demonization of political adversaries –Ted Cruz (for liberals), Barak Obama (for conservatives),Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein – is endemic.

In the analysis that follows I discuss how a person, seeking to be radically decent, might constructively engage with a political leader who, in that person’s sincere but subjective opinion, is dangerous and unscrupulous. In other words, how do you engage with a “Hitler” in a more decent way?


A key to dealing with this issue is to remember – always – that Radical Decency makes decency to self every bit as important as decency to others and the world. Putting this perspective into practice is not as easy as it may seem, however. Why? Because the mainstream culture cultivates an either/or outlook: Either we are selfish, self-absorbed competitors, intent on getting ahead; or, we are selfless nurturers who, in the words of the country and western anthem are “always giving, never asking back.”

Since Radical Decency is clearly not a selfish approach to living, there is a tendency to stereotype it as a selfless philosophy that over-focuses on how we treat others. But, as its emphasis on decency to self makes clear, this assumption fundamentally distorts its purposes.

Making decency to self a co-equal priority leads to interesting and helpful shifts in our outlook and choices. It reminds us to be respectful, understanding, and empathic not only in our dealings with others, but also in how we handle the often-discordant voices inside our head. And, importantly, it brings into focus two key, threshold questions that are all too easy to overlook in our dealings with others: How much intimacy do we want to have with this person? What kind of boundaries do we want to set?

Why are these questions so important? Because, lacking clarity on these issues, one person in a relationship may well expect more than the other person is willing to give. This, in turn, is a recipe for misunderstanding, hurt, disappointment, and, as tensions rise, reactive fight or flight behaviors that make respect, understanding, and empathy impossible.

When it comes to our politics, here is how this process works: Failing to attend to these threshold intimacy and boundary issues, our implicit assumption – understandable but untenable, given our engrained political culture – is that we should be able to rely on our leaders to be wise, fair, and just. Then, when politicians on the other side disappoint this expectation, our fight or flight mindsets are powerfully triggered and, with that, we instinctually move into anger and demonization.


With these orienting thoughts in mind, how should we deal with a Hitler? The starting place is to be clear, from the outset, that we have no interest in a relationship that is frank, open and, thus, intimate. Instead, our initial focus should be on strategic choices; choices that keep us emotionally and physically safe. See Reflection 44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships. Then, with this understanding in place, we should strive to balance self- care with two other key goals, inherent in Radical Decency: (1) Our responsibility to resist injustice; and (2) to be respectful, understanding and empathic to others – all others.

Pursuing these multiple objectives is not easy. Many of us, fearing retaliation, choose instead to abandon the two key goals, just identified, retreating as unobtrusively as possible, into our private/nonpolitical pre-occupations. Others accept their responsibility to resist injustice but make no effort to be respectful, understanding and empathic.

The first of these two reactions is a retreat from the principles of Radical Decency, pure and simple.

The second is more complicated and presents a more interesting dilemma. A “fight fire, with fire” reaction to injustice is fueled by two emotions. The first is anger: Do you really expect me to be decent to “him,” after all that has done? The other is a fear that, striving to remain decent, we will wind up condoning and enabling this person’s conduct, with the result being that we will be rolled in the knife fight that is the reality of politics.

While the risk of “going soft” is real, allowing it to control our choices is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. We cannot and should not tolerate murderous dictators. But the root problem is not the Hitlers, Saddams, and Gaddafis that regularly turn up in our world. It is, instead, our mainstream values – compete and win, dominate and control – that, pursued to their logical extreme, spawn one ruthless dictator after another.

When this reality is factored into our thinking, the hard truth is this: Giving ourselves license to demonize the politicians we oppose, and to use any means necessary to fight them, we are unwittingly adopting and perpetuating the very values that allowed them to come to power in the first place.

The more productive approach is to model the change we seek. We should persist in efforts to understand the other – even a Hitler – on his terms, knowing that his worldview has an internal logic that makes sense to him. We should also seek to understand – and even empathize – with the fears and vulnerabilities that have driven him to such perverse attitudes and behaviors.

So when you see “that person” on television, lean forcefully against the temptation to sputter in anger, call him names, and change the channel. Instead push yourself to understand who this person is and why he is saying the things he is saying. Then craft a response that is not a reactive “f__ you” to this “idiot” but is, instead, thoughtful and strategic. Finally, and very importantly, show up and speak up: Offer your more decent ideas and outlook.


One particularly thorny problem that repeatedly comes up, in this context, is how to respond when you are drawn into a substantive debate with a person from “the other side.” The more productive approach, as I see it, is to parse out the real arguments – which deserve to be addressed – from the ones that are obviously partisan and sophistic; a process made surprisingly easy by our politicians’ utter lack of subtlety or restraint in presenting their bogus arguments. Then, instead of engaging in the fruitless exercise of responding to their politicized argument, seek to expose their inauthenticity.

In the 1980s, I experienced the power of this approach when Elie Weisel, presenting his arguments in an issue of the day, was greeted with a highly personal attack on his character. His response: “Shame on you, there are important things to say on your side of the argument and your response dishonors them.”


Another point I want to emphasize is that a radically decent approach to a political adversary does not exclude extreme measures. The first principle of decency to self is to maintain physical safety. So if the choice is to kill or be killed, by a person intent on doing you in, killing is appropriate. Hitler needed to die. But such extreme choices are unusual and we need to remain vigilant lest a principle that is applicable in extreme situations is expanded to condone killing or other forms of domination and control in less extreme contexts.


Cultivating this balanced approach when faced with the extreme provocation of a Hitler is, of course, extremely difficult. But we need to remember that, with each exception we make to the principles of Radical Decency, we are walking down the road toward “pick and chose decency;” the self serving version of decency that is the mainstream culture’s convenient cover for its avaricious, exploitative ways.

The good news is that inspiring historical precedents demonstrate the power of this balanced approach. One need only look at the lives and choices of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Jesus to understand that you can be forceful, audacious, heroic, effective and – at the same time – respectful, understanding, and empathic in a social/political context.

We also need to remember that the alternative, “fight fire with fire” approach is a self-defeating proposition. We are unlikely to defeat a dictator at his own brutally murderous game. And if we do – as occasionally happens when corruption saps his vitality or fortuitous events conspire against him – the people who succeed him are usually primed to use these same authoritarian methods. Why? Because these tactics were, in case after case, the very tools that allowed these “reform minded” leaders to rise to the top of the political system.


Any challenge to entrenched power is a long shot and the discouraging truth is that most of us, if we engage in this struggle at all, genuflect (figuratively or literally) before the inspiring leaders of the past and, then, revert to the self-defeating “fight fire, with fire” tactics, described above. Hopefully, the clarity of vision and concrete strategies that Radical Decency offer will allow us to avoid this trap and enable us to become more effective contributors to the struggle against oppressive leaders.

Reflection 47: Operationalizing One-ness of the Universe

In My Stroke of Insight, the neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, described the reality she inhabited after suffering a massive stroke that shut down the left side of her brain. Given over entirely to her right hemisphere, she was aware only of a field of energy of which her body, now fluid and permeable, was an integral part. If someone came into her room feeling tense, she was aware of his presence. If he was calm, however, she could not differentiate him from the rest of the energy that inhabited her and her room.

For me, Bolte Taylor’s testimony is persuasive. I believe in the interconnectedness of all things, what some refer to as the one-ness of the universe.

But . . . and this is a big but. We inhabit this integrated world as humans, and the reality of our biology fundamentally limits the ways in which we can participate in this interconnected universe.

In his brilliant lecture/podcast, Reality and the Sacred, Jordan Peterson illustrates this point with the following example. When we stand in front of the mirror, what do we see? A face, a nose, a mouth.

And what are we are incapable of seeing? The molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks that are the building blocks of our faces. Equally beyond our perception are the cosmic forces that govern all matter and energy including, of course, the thing I see in the mirror and refer to as “me.” In other words, we humans are designed to experience only a thin slice of the universe’s larger reality.

It is true that a statistically insignificant number of humans have, in the course of our history, reported exceptional moments of transcendent consciousness. But parsing out the reliability of these reports – and I confess to being a skeptic – is beside the point. Even conceding the possibility of transcendent events, far in excess of 99.9% of all of the moments of consciousness, experienced by members of our species, are limited in the ways that Peterson describes. Like it or not that is the reality that defines our lives and with which we need to come to grips in seeking an answer to this question: How best can we act on – operationalize – our one-ness with the universe?

Unfortunately, this question receives far too little attention. Most people are unreflectively rooted in the mainstream culture’s view of reality. They view each individual as an independent entity, charting his or her own unique course, choosing on a strictly voluntary basis where and with whom to attach. For these people, the question of how to operationalize the universe’s one-ness has no relevance.

Then there is a much smaller group of people who embrace the idea of the interconnectedness of all things. But these people, with limited exceptions, are channeled by the mainstream culture into activities that marginalize and dissipate their impact: Prayer, ecstatic religious experiences, consciousness expanding retreats and vision quests, mind-altering drugs, and so on.

My feelings about these people are mixed. On the one hand, I admire their willingness to consider and embrace an expanded vision of reality. On the other, I am disturbed by their pre-occupation with activities that largely ignore the urgent need to translate these understandings into effective change strategies.

To say that the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings in Japan affects what happens in New York – however true it may be as a theoretical matter – is decidedly not a viable strategy for changing a culture that wildly overemphasizes, to our great detriment, the values I summarize as “compete and win, dominate and control.”

The most visible exception to this pattern is the environmental movement’s emphasis on our symbiotic relationship with other species and the physical environment. This is one place where an important part of our interconnectedness is translated into active social engagement. But even here, the approach is partial and incomplete. Lacking a fully integrated model for the universe’s one-ness, the approaches of most environment organizations – as important as they are – fail to follow through on the implications of our interconnectedness in non-programmatic areas: The structure and operation of their organizations; the treatment of employees, vendors, and adversaries; their investment policies; and so on.


So is there a way to more effectively way to follow through on the implications inherent in the universe’s one-ness? In his signature book, Beyond Permanence, Craig Eisendrath offers a way forward. Fully accounting for the interconnectedness of all things, his prescription for living allows us to more meaningfully contribute to a better world and, in so doing, to create richer, more meaningful lives.

Eisendrath’s orienting frame of reference thoroughly departs from the individualistic outlook that dominates our culture and so effectively reinforces its win/lose, every man for himself ways of operating. What he would put in its place is,

“a new way of thinking about the relation of personhood and society, not in opposition, or even a situation in which people view society as a stage upon which to make an effort or impact, [but instead as] an organic, nurturant relationship in which human beings emerge from the physical and social worlds and reciprocally exercise their responsibility to make these environments even more nurturant and beneficial.”

To his great credit, Eisendrath also offers a prescription for operationalizing this view of the world. His first ingredient is “activism.” According to Eisendrath, “understanding one’s condition and the condition of one’s associates and the surrounding world” can only emerge when we actively immerse ourselves in the issues and events of our lives.

But activism isn’t enough. To make wise and strategic choices, our activism needs to be informed by a vision; what Eisendrath refers to as “an effective personal philosophy.”

Finally, he argues for a symbiosis that unites vision and activism: “We [need to] integrate our continuing experience with a developing personal philosophy, creating a basis for principled action in the immediate situations of our lives.”


My personal journey underscores, for me, the wisdom of Eisendrath’s prescription. I can do the mainstream thing with the best of them: Complaining and pontificating about what’s wrong with the world, all within the safe confines of my status quo life.

But my most meaningful growth has occurred when I have been actively involved with the big issues that have marked the time and place in which I’ve lived: Marching for civil rights; doing the nitty-gritty organizing of Common Cause/Philadelphia and the National Constitution Center; traveling to El Salvador to live and work with re-settled rebel fighters; struggling to run a radically decent business; working with my coaching and therapy clients, day by day, to figure out more effective ways of living.

The importance of “activism” has also been driven home for me in my more intimate relationships. For me, professional and community involvements have always been instinctual. But my sense of life’s possibilities really took off when I more fully committed my time and energy to the perplexing task of being a good spouse, father and friend.

With all this, I also recognize the indispensable role that the second half of Eisendrath’s prescription – an evolving personal philosophy – has played in my life.

The mainstream values that dominate our world and permeate our lives are devilishly clever and deeply misleading. They distract us with faux dramas, drawing us into big fights over marginal issues: Which mainstream candidate will win the next election? Will Congress pass a marginal shift in our budget priorities?

The mainstream culture also divides energy, separating the “good guys” into separate silos – education reformers, environmentalists, social workers, meditators, body workers, visual artists, poets – with interactions between people in these silos being, at best, haphazard and episodic.

For these reasons, Eisendrath’s “vision” work is essential. Seeking to live differently and better, we have to knead these disparate, reform-minded perspectives into a coherent and comprehensive philosophy that can provide focus and guidance for our concrete choices. Lacking that informing vision, we are likely to remain confused, frustrated, and discouraged – and, therefore, primed to accept the inevitability of our current ways of operating.

Radical Decency is my evolving answer to Eisendrath’s prescription for living. Accounting for the interrelatedness of all things – the one-ness of the universe – it seeks to unite vision and activism, supporting us (as Eisendrath would say) “in exercising our responsibility to make the physical and social environments from which we emerge – and of which we are so thoroughly a part – more nurturant and beneficial.”

Reflection 46: Derailing Decency to Self

A reaction I sometimes hear to Radical Decency is that its prescription – decency to your self, others, and the world, at all times and in every context – is noble, but utopian and impractical.

The criticism is misguided. Why? Because it fails to take account of the philosophy’s full-throttled commitment to “decency to self.” When we seek to balance and integrate decency to self, with decency to others and the world, we are challenged to make choices in life that – far from being naïve – are a tough-minded, realistic and, crucially, sustainable.

In this Reflection I discuss decency to self – how it has been distorted by our engrained mainstream ways of thinking and how Radical Decency can vitalize the ways in which we tend to and love our self.


The importance of decency to self is grounded in our biology. We humans are wired to be in deep and intimate connection with one another. Our physical and emotional development and continued well-being depend upon it. But that is not the full story. Faced with perceived danger, our fight/flight brain shifts our attention, dramatically and decisively, to our own needs. Any approach to living that fails to take account of both of these biological realities – our fundamentally affiliative nature and our vital need for physical and emotional safety – is unrealistic and unsustainable.

This balanced approach is not, however, embraced in the mainstream culture. Instead, we are conditioned to view our selves and others through an illogical, all-or-nothing prism: Either we are selfish – or we are altruistic and caring. There is far too little currency for the view that we can – and should – be decent to others and the world and, at the same time, decent to our self.

This odd, biologically unnatural mindset grows directly out of the authoritarian ways of operating that dominate our world. In this model, there are two roles:

  • The dominant person – the boss, the traditional husband – who demands what he wants and projects his needs onto others; and
  • The subordinate person who tends to the dominant person’s needs.

So, for example, as the boss gets ready for the meeting, he barks at his assistant “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.

This is, needless to say, a deeply flawed system. The dominant person’s attunement skills and ability to love and nurture atrophy. And the subordinate person’s ability to understand, assert and satisfy his needs correspondingly shrinks.

One of the special geniuses of the mainstream culture is its ability to generate cover stories that justify its preoccupation with a compete-and-win, dominate-and-control mindset. So, we celebrate the life-style of the people at the top of this authoritarian pyramid, conveniently overlooking the high emotional price paid by these purported “winners” in life. Indeed, the hallmarks of this way of life – the unbounded pursuit of money, power, and material goods and toys – have become the culture’s standard measures of decency to self.

On the flip side, the mainstream culture promotes an equally distorted version of decency to others. Implicitly glorifying the role of the subordinate person in this authoritarian structure, it relentlessly romanticizes the “ever nurturing, always there to serve others” mother/nurse/secretary who should, in fact, be more appropriately viewed as a victim of this highly exploitative system.


These twin distortions, deeply interwoven in their effects, are instrumental in short-circuiting the ability of all of us – whether we resist them or not – to be decent to our self.

Here’s how the process works.

Given the insistent pressures of the world in which we live, most people are simply seeking to get by as best they can. They do this by pursuing the culture’s prescribed path, including its limited and distorted view of what it means to be decent to your self. The all too typical by-product of this way of life is some combination of the spirit-sapping conditions that are endemic in our grasping, dog eat dog world: Self-judgment and doubt, anxiety, depression, anger and violence, addictive behaviors, failed relationships, etc.

Interestingly, while many people recognize the price they pay when they pursue this prescribed way of living, this insight seldom leads to a significant shift in outlook and approach. Why? Because the institutions that drive our culture and write our paychecks demand steady, nose to the grindstone production and penalize choices that noticeably diverge. Despite the cost, a decision to get off the treadmill in any meaningful way seems, for most, far too risky.

Reinforcing this choice is the fact that the only visible, alternative path – a service oriented life – is decidedly on the short end of the culture’s taken-for-granted either/or mindset, described earlier:

If you make the needs of others your focus, you’ll get less – and should expect to get less – both financially and, at an interpersonal level, where you’ll be expected to be a Florence Nightingale type who, in the words of the country and western song is, “always giving, never asking back.”

The idea that decency to self could be a co-equal concern for people who choose these service-oriented professions has little currency in the mainstream culture.

These considerations leave the typical mainstream person, leading a typical mainstream life, checkmated. The price he is required to pay in terms of decency to self, if he choses an alternative path, makes the decision to maintain his place in culture’s competitive win/lose game seem inevitable and unavoidable.

And, equally – when it comes to decency to self – people who choose an alternative path of service are similarly mouse trapped. Seduced and/or coerced into conformance with this self-sacrificing model, they wind up subordinating crucial needs to the needs of others.

In the end, everyone loses.


Radical Decency offers a way out.

It focuses on seven values – respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice – and invites us to apply them on an across-the-board basis. Doing so, it replaces the distorted values of the mainstream culture with a clear and coherent alternative that, crucially, fully accounts for decency to self.

We humans are intensely creatures of habit. As we do something more and more, the likelihood that we will instinctually do the same thing, in the same way the next time, and the next, increases correspondingly. And one of the great virtues of Radical Decency is that it knowingly enlists this signature characteristic of our brains in the service of a better life. The philosophy’s central proposition is this: If our intent is to be decent at all times, in every context, and without exception, these values will over time become our new habits of living.

The really good news is that decency to self – like decency in every other area of living – will be energized by this sort of unwavering attention. We will continue to do what we have to do to maintain our economic viability – since this is an important aspect of decency to self. But, at the same time, our emerging self-decency habit of mind will guide us, more and more, toward choices that honor our broader physical, emotional, and spiritual needs – with the respect, understanding, and empathy upon which the philosophy insists.

Because we live in a world in which the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values are so predominant, the art of being decent to our selves – like the art of being decent to others and the world – is a difficult, wisdom-stretching proposition, to say the least. Given this reality, we need to always remember:

  1. That embracing decency as a vital pathway toward decency to self requires a radical commitment to its 7 values; and, equally,
  2. That as difficult as this is, such a commitment will bring with it commensurate rewards; that, as explained in Reflection 13, Radical Decency is, truly, its own reward.

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 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 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 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.

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 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 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 5: Radical Decency Guideposts for Healers

Radical Decency challenges us to continuously consider three realms – our selves, others, and the world – in everything we do.  We need to identify processes that are problematic in each of these areas, understand their impact, and craft effective strategies for dealing with them.

Here is the reasoning behind this approach.

The overriding problem we face in crafting better, more generative lives is that we live in a culture that, through a myriad of norms, cues, incentives and sanctions, habituates us to a fundamentally inhumane set of values – compete and win, dominate and control. As I explain in Reflection 27, these values have created a culture that fails to support us in being decent to ourselves – or to others – or to the world; in other words, a failed culture.

The sensible response, then, is to place a new, more humane set of values at the center of our lives. But complicating this task is the fact that, as the best theorists’ point out, we are biologically wired to be creatures of habit. Thus, we begin this work with deeply engrained habits of living that are at odds with our goal. In the words of Vikki Reynolds, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”

Because we have to wean ourselves from our pre-existing “compete and win” habits, we need to practice our new habits of living – decency to self, others, and the world – at all times and in every context. If we temporize and make exceptions, the enormous pull of the predominant culture will defeat our purposes.

Overcoming the virulent cultural disease that permeates our lives requires strong medicine.


For psychotherapists and other healers, the implications of this approach to living are profound. Most healing focuses on the individual or on the individual in the context of his most immediate environments: His romantic partner, family, friends, and work. The culture’s enormous influence in our lives is either ignored or treated as a given, something to which we have to adjust.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Family therapy, for example, views the family as a system in which any member’s changed behaviors necessarily affects the overall system and each participant in it. This emphasis on the client’s ability to effect his environment is itself empowering and healing. Equally healing is the recognition that new behaviors, wisely conceived and executed, can provoke changes in the system that, in turn, support and magnify the healing and growth of both the client and the family system in which he operates.

The culture is, of course, a lot more complicated than a family. But since it too is a system, these same principles apply. And since the values that predominate in our culture have such a pervasive, debilitating effect on our lives, the application of systems based healing techniques, in this larger context, would seem to be an urgent concern if we are serious about being the best healers we can be.


The systematic de-emphasis of cultural factors in psychotherapy and other systems of healing is no accident. Systems tend to perpetuate themselves and the predominant culture’s self-perpetuation mechanisms are truly brilliant. Not surprisingly, then, while mainstream healers are supported in doing useful work, they are guided away from approaches that would meaningfully challenge the prevailing power structure or the belief systems that support it.

Thus, for example, we use the DSM to diagnose conditions “in the client” but are given no categories – none – to account for his or her culturally caused conditions. Then we are paid to fix the problems that the DSM defines; that is, to help clients fit more comfortably into the culture, as it currently exists.

And what is it that is ignored in the process? Any sustained attention to the problematic values that permeate our culture and play such a formative role in causing the clients’ emotional distress in the first place.

This dismal truth is confirmed by the mainstream literature. When I was in professional school, our clinical textbook advised us to avoid cultural factors because we were not “trained to deal with them.” Similarly, the “Wheel of Life” – a standard tool of life coaches – provides a comprehensive list of categories for assessing clients’ lives (work, family, leisure, etc) but fails to include their engagements in the public/cultural spheres (communal involvements, social movements, politics). And the current, standard definition of “holistic” healing – mind, body and spirit – similarly makes no reference to these larger, cultural factors; what I call the “practical” and the “radical” (see Reflection 24 Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical).


In making this point I am not suggesting that fitting in and getting by are bad things.  Since we will, inevitably, be crafting our lives within the existing culture, we need to creatively support clients’ efforts in this area. But if that is all we do as healers, our offerings are limited and compromised.

We also need to lay bare the unstated assumptions that flow from the mainstream culture, and so badly punish so many of us, including these messages:

  • That we are failures if we don’t make “enough” money;
  • That perfection is the goal and anything short of that – in ourselves or others – is an occasion for self-judgment and shame;
  • That confusion and vulnerability are weaknesses to be hidden;
  • That you can accomplish anything if you just try hard enough.

We also need to define with greater insight and precision the cultural disease that ails us.  This would include a clear-headed accounting, in our work with clients, of cultural realities such as these:

  • That, with rare exceptions, businesses are authoritarian places that (often despite their nice words) work against efforts to create more humane lives;
  • That we bring the culture’s problematic “win/lose” ways of interacting into our most intimate relationships.
  • That while football, movies, and popular books are entertaining and seductive, they promote the values of the predominant culture and, immersed in these entertainments, we are distracted from our efforts to create more nourishing habits of living.

Finally, in partnership with our clients, we need to develop specific techniques for molding the environments in which we live – and within which we are so deeply embedded and defined – in ways that are more just, equitable, and humane; a theme to which I frequently return. See, for example, Reflection 35 Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities; Reflection 43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work; and Reflection 66 Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships.


Seeking to confront these realities, Radical Decency is my healing technique of choice. It provides a vivid roadmap that, by orienting my day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, effectively counteracts my tendency toward discouragement, cynicism, inaction – and, therefore, complicity – when faced with the culture’s “compete and win” values.

Striving to be radically decent I might, in a given situation:

  • Offer an intimate word of support (or, refrain, if it seems intrusive);
  • Make an uncomfortable phone call;
  • Chose a visit to a friend over a run in the park (or vice versa);
  • Invest my energy in one professional project over another; or
  • Recognizing my inability to constructively influence outcomes, more comfortably do nothing.

Because the cultural disease that ails us is everywhere, virtually every choice is an opportunity to be more decent: To others – to the world – and, very importantly, to myself as well. Steadily focusing on these goals has, I have found, brought with it an increasing sense of compassion (and self-compassion), curiosity, and zest; states of mind that have nurtured a deepening sense of gratitude for the life I am leading.


To fully realize our potential as healers, we need to forthrightly deal with the realities of the culture in which we live; creating techniques, such as those described above, to be used in our work with clients. The goals of our noble professions demand nothing less.