Reflection 65: Staying In Kindergarten

I am 69 years old and have been an active observer and participant in the political process for 50 years. I think I know a lot – and maybe I do. But I recently read psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt’s analysis and my reaction to it raises a key issue, the subject of this Reflection.

Seeking to do better – to be a constructive force for change – we need to be humble before our chosen task. Why? Because every one of us is deeply immersed in the mainstream culture and, thus, in its problematic values. That is the water we swim in; the base line set of values we are weaned on as we move through our grade and test obsessed schools, and seek a vocational home in a world that honors, above all else, those who “win.”

An inevitable corollary to this deep and thorough embedding of the mainstream culture’s values is their tenacious pull in, and over, our lives. In a myriad of ways – some obvious, some surpassingly subtle – we have internalized the mainstream culture’s ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. And because we are creatures of habit, neurologically wired to do in the future what we’ve done in the past, weaning ourselves from these ways of being is enormously difficult. We push unwanted habits out the front door only to find that they have slipped back in through a side window.

That is why, when it comes to Radical Decency, one of my consistent mantras is this: We can never leave kindergarten. We need to constantly review the philosophy’s basics and always be open to seeing still another way in which the culture’s mainstream habits have reasserted themselves in our lives.


Haidt’s book reminded me of this crucial lesson in the following way.

Drawing on a massive body of empirical data, the author suggests that we humans are programmed, by evolution, to make moral judgment along six dimensions: (1) Care/harm; (2) liberty/oppression; (3) fairness/cheating; (4) loyalty/betrayal; (5) authority/subversion; (6) sanctity/degradation. He then goes on to theorize that, while liberally inclined people (like me) emphasize the first 2 areas conservatives are influenced by all 6, with a reduced emphasis on items 1 and 2.

Haidt’s analysis brought me up short. Continually exposed to the shrill, opportunistic and debased versions of conservatism (and liberalism) that dominate our politics, I too easily lose sight of the important moral considerations that motivate conservatives. My distressingly strong tendency is to dismiss the positions – even of thoughtful conservatives – as disingenuous makeweights, designed to manipulate the public’s ignorance and prejudices, so that unaccountable elites can accumulate ever-increasing amounts of power and wealth.

Haidt’s book didn’t shake my belief in a political agenda that stresses decency. To the contrary, living in a culture in which all 6 of Haidt’s moral dimensions are consistently marginalized to an ethic that rewards “winners” – those who, by whatever means, dominate and control others – Radical Decency is the strong medicine we need to effect fundamental change.

But it did remind me of how easily – like a good, card-carrying member of the mainstream culture – I judge and dismiss the beliefs of people who differ from me.

So, for example, Haidt reminds me that “sanctification” – rules and rituals such as those that enjoin Jews to eat kosher or limit their activities on Shabbat – reflects a deeply human instinct that is, at its best, a wonderfully creative way to make our chosen morality a living, day by day reality. With this understanding, I can better appreciate the reaction of fundamentalist Christians to policies that seem to disregard sanctified aspects of their lives, including celibacy before marriage, monogamy, and the holiness of procreation.

Haidt’s insights are a powerful “back to kindergarten” reminder of how easy it is to lose my decency focus; to honor its principles only with “people like me.” to say, in effect, to people I disagree with: Radical Decency is a vitally important life and world changing perspective – and as soon as you offer it to me, I will be sure to return the favor.


Needless to say, “back to kindergarten” reminders regularly come up in our more intimate relationships as well, often around our gender-trained roles.

Take Robert and Marge, for example. They totally get that they are partners – both working, raising the kids, creating a family and life. Given this understanding, Robert realizes that judging his wife’s performance is not a part of his job description. To the contrary, while their styles differ, they are both fully competent managers of the enterprise. In short, Robert (like Marge) understands the pitfalls of our cultural engrained patriarchal patterns and knows how to take effective countermeasures.

But despite their good efforts, situations such as this one occur with depressing regularity – even with Robert and Marge.

For months, the need to find a more economic phone plan had been one of those chores – on his list, in theory – which never quite getting done. Seizing the moment, she called the phone company, talked to the kids, and dealt with the problem. His response when she told him? A series of questions and suggestions: Did you think of this? Did you do that? Maybe you should have done it this way.

If we didn’t live in a patriarchal culture this interaction might be unexceptional. But notwithstanding all of the changes that have occurred over the last 40 years, gender-based authoritarian patterns reassert themselves with remarkable persistence. Raised as men, Robert (and I) slip unawares into authoritarian tones and perspectives. And when our spouses complain, we far too often plead innocence in an aggrieved tone that only perpetuates the pattern: “I was only making a suggestion.” “Why are you so sensitive?”

In other words, we men need always to remember how engrained these patterns are and how easily they can reassert themselves. On this issue, for most of us men, staying in kindergarten is vitally important.

And the women we love – equally products of our patriarchal culture – need to be humble kindergarteners as well.

If patriarchy were simply an artifact of the past, Marge wouldn’t feel oppressed by Robert’s comments. Instead, she would brush them aside as my friend did when, newly living with her romantic partner, she was given to do list as he left for work. Her response? To tear the list in two and return it to him with these words: “If you ever give me another list, I’ll be out of here so fast it will make you head spin.”

But things are seldom that simple for women. Groomed by our culture to tend to the needs of others, their gut emotional reaction to a partner’s sharp comments is, all too often, one of inadequacy. “I have fallen short.” “I have failed to meet his needs.” Consistently leaning against these engrained patriarchal reactions is important, ongoing kindergarten work for so many women.

And, for most all of us, there is the vital kindergarten work that needs to be done as we deal with the endless ways in which the culture pushes us to ride roughshod over our wants, needs and emotions:

  • To hide and suppress every blemish and vulnerability – to be a winner;
  • To shirk on sleep, leisure, and time with the kids – to get ahead;
  • To slip into devastating self-judgment – when we fall short.


The lesson in all of this? We need – always – to remain humble before the extraordinarily difficult work of weaning ourselves from our culturally engrained habits; habits that, unawares, repeatedly pull us away from our practice of decency in our politics, our intimate relationships, our relationship with ourselves – indeed, in virtually every other area of living.

As we move through each of our days, one of Radical Decency’s great challenges is to notice the many situations in which the culture’s norms reassert themselves and, then, to lean hard against them even as we cultivate new habits of living that allow them to recede and wither.

With intention, imagination, persistence, and lots of support – who knows – we may even graduate from kindergarten. But don’t count on it!

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 59: Happiness

Here is a settled thought that a lot of thinking and life experience has led me to: Making happiness your life goal is a self-defeating proposition. Indeed, if that is your central preoccupation, two unfortunate things are likely to result. First, you will gravitate toward activities that offer short-term endorphin hits – toys, games, sex, alcohol and drugs, and so on – neglecting, in the process, the more lasting rewards offered by long term, mutually nourishing relationships. 

In addition, you are likely to wind up frustrated since, no matter how wealthy and privileged you are, you will inevitably encounter a slow waitress, a nasty co-worker, injury, illness and death.  I am always amazed – but no longer surprised – at the levels of impatience and frustration exhibited by entitled people. Thinking that their wealth entitles them to a first class ticket in life, they so often feel instantly aggrieved when the least little things goes wrong – hardly a model of happiness.

So is there a more productive path to a happy life? The answer is, I think, yes. The key is to understand our basic biological and psychological processes and, then, to craft an approach to living that while, respecting their reality, nurtures our better nature. In this model, happiness is not the goal. Instead, it is a by-product of the choices we make.


The starting place for me is a series of interrelated orienting frames offered by three of our more generative psychological theorists: Daniel Siegel, Jordan Peterson, and Martin Seligman.

According to Siegel, if life is a river, with one bank representing safety and the other aliveness, the challenge is to creatively integrate and balance the two. An adequate level of safety and predictability is vital to avoid feeling chaotic and out of control. But, equally important, are novelty and aliveness lest we crater on the river’s other shore, creating a life that is drab and flat.

Peterson offers a more pointed, physiological version of the same concept:

Your nervous system being an evolutionary structure is evolved for a universe that is composed of the interaction between chaos and order. Everywhere you go is chaos and order. And the optimally meaningful life is to be found on the border between the two. Your nervous system tells you exactly when you are there, because you’re secure enough to be confident but not so secure that you’re bored. You’re interested enough to be awake but not so interested that you’re terrified. When you’re in that state, when you find things interesting and meaningful, time slips by and you’re no longer self-conscious.

Finally, there is Martin Seligman’s story about the famous biologist, now in his 70s, who arrives at his lab first early one morning and starts to examine samples in his microscope.  Suddenly, the slides became blurry and difficult to see. His immediate, heart-stopping thought: Is my eyesight failing? Is my ability to do the thing I love the most in life at an end? Then he looks up and realizes that the sun has gone down.

This optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state, that each of these thinkers describes, seems like an excellent end point to strive for in our search for happiness. And Peterson goes on to offer a tangible, day-by-day practice to help us to get from here to there.

Beginning at a place where you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, how do you get to a more knowing place? If you follow your internal intuitions and are honest about them, a star – the thing that makes your life meaningful – will appear to guide you. You’ll take some tentative steps in that direction, get a little ways, and think “no that’s wrong.”  Then your life’s meaning will appear over there, and you’ll take a few steps in that direction and see that that is wrong too. But you keep chasing it, moving forward, doing things. And because you’re honest with yourself, you learn from your mistakes and get wiser and wiser. Then, 20 years down the road, you won’t be making so many mistakes.

To the same point is this from Virginia Satir:

My growth exists in new territory, step by step. One step ahead, see what’s there, to the right or left, whatever seems to have the most space.  Does it fit for me? I cannot map it out ahead of time.  That’s how it is in the unknown. Take a step, then see where I can go, keeping in mind where I might like to end up. I may end up somewhere else; maybe at a place better than what I thought of. But that is the way, step by step.


Notice that, to this point, I have described a remarkably value-free approach to happiness.  In theory, this path could lead to drugs, or compulsive sexual conquests, or the endless pursuit of wealth and privilege. But my gut has always told me that this isn’t – couldn’t – be true.  And in a more recent lecture/podcast, “The Necessity of Virtue,” Peterson explains why.

He begins his analysis with one of Buddhism’s fundamental premises: That being – life – is suffering. He then references Cain, who railed against God for favoring Abel and, then, killed his brother. 

What is Peterson’s understanding of the story? Cain screwed up. He failed to accept the fact that, living in an indifferent universe, the suffering that came his way was inevitable.  Instead, he committed the cardinal “Buddhist” mistake of inflicting additional pain on himself and others in his vain attempt to deny and reverse this reality.

This parable, according to Peterson, is foundational. When we emerged into self-consciousness as a species – the very thing that makes us unique – the first thing we became aware of was our own vulnerability and, with it, the inevitability of suffering.  And our instinctual move, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, was to recoil from it; to cover-up, hide, and deny it. 

The problem with this approach? When we deny our vulnerability and attempt to control our destiny, we no longer view another’s good fortune and our bad luck as happenstance, to be accepted with equanimity. Instead, we envy the other’s fate and curse our own. I can – and should – have what he has. Just as it was for Cain, this mindset leads inexorably toward insensitivity and cruelty. We are primed to either take what the other person has or, in our bitter frustration, to destroy this (illusory) object of fate’s beneficence.

A journey toward happiness requires honesty about who we are and what our fate is.   Failing to fully account for our vulnerability and suffering, we will be trapped in “Cain-like” habits of living: Drawn to manipulation and diminishment of others, isolating ourselves in the process, inviting retaliation. We will also brutalize ourselves by vainly seeking to suppress the fear, confusion, and sadness that so inconveniently remind us of our vulnerability.

However, when we accept our vulnerability and let go of our doomed efforts to dominate our world and control outcomes, all kinds of more hopeful possibilities emerge. And this is where Radical Decency enters to picture.

Being radically decent – respectful, understanding and empathic; accepting and appreciative; fair and just – is a perplexing and wisdom stretching challenge, even in the best of circumstances. But living, as we do, in a culture that so powerfully indoctrinates us into a fundamental lie – the myth of our invulnerability – the task is vastly more difficult. For this reason, A committed Radical Decency’s practice virtually demands an ever-deepening understanding of the life’s complexities and realities including, crucially, the vulnerability and suffering that so fundamentally define our existence. 

Why? Because failing to understand these realities – so we can deal with them more effectively in our day-by-day choices – we will be inexorably pulled toward the dominating and controlling behaviors that our culture endlessly models and promotes. And in their wake will come isolation, self-judgment, and sense of failure; hardly a prescription for the happiness we long for!

On the other hand, a full throttled commitment to Radical Decency impels us toward mindsets that are less judgmental and more curious and open. Pre-occupied with the tricky and consuming task of operationalizing this approach to living, the culture’s conventional outlooks wither from neglect. And, on the flip side, attending to the demands of a committed Radical Decency practice will cultivate a deepening sense of empathy for our self and others; a state of mind will, in turn, lead to an increasing acceptance of the vulnerability and suffering that is our lot in life.

And where does this lead? To an ever-deepening sense of:  Living in the present (lessening shame about the past, fear about the future, and need to control); clarity and coherence about our priorities (lessening confusion and anxiety about our choices; creating greater ease in living); and an ennobling sense of purpose (lessening hopelessness and despair; creating an increased sense of pleasure in living).  See Reflection #13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.

The journey of the heart, that Peterson and Satir describe, can lead in endless directions.  But so long as the journey is infused with a commitment to Radical Decency’s values, that is fine. We can trust the process, secure in the knowledge that we are moving toward a place that combines ease and vibrancy in living with that optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state of mind that is the hallmark of happiness.  


In closing I want to emphasize that this Reflection deals with an aspect of Radical Decency that is personal and individual: How to create a more vibrant and nourishing life.

Focusing on this aspect of the philosophy, however, we always need to remember that Radical Decency encompasses far more than our internal, psychological world. 

Equally indispensable is its effort to fully account for, and to neutralize, the indecencies that pervade our world. Why? Because, failing to do so, the values that dominate the mainstream culture will inevitably invade, diminish, and overwhelm our small, private islands of equanimity.  

We need cultivate respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation; the “attitudinal” aspects of Radical Decency and the hallmarks of our personal journey.  At the same time, however, we need to be equally committed to its change oriented  “action” attributes – fairness and justice – in the choices we make, out there, in the real world.  Decency to self, others, and the world need to be our lodestar – at all times, in every context, and without exception.

Reflection 54: Being Radical — Three Key Points

As a proponent of Radical Decency, I am suggesting two things: (1) Make decency a priority in your life; and (2) apply it radically.

In another Reflection, I break “decency” down into a detailed set of attitudes and behaviors, the intent being to offer a concrete roadmap to support us in making day-by-day choices that are more decent. See Reflection #17, Decency Defined. In this Reflection, I deal with the “radical” side of the equation.

Viewed in isolation, Radical Decency’s component pieces are unexceptional. Be Respectful? Understanding? Empathic? Appreciative? Accepting? Fair? Just? Ask any person – even someone who is thoroughly invested in the mainstream culture’s competitive, win/lose mindsets – and he’s likely to say, “sure, no problem, all of these things are good.”

His response, however, is far more typically code for this: I will happily be understanding and empathic but only when it doesn’t interfere with my headlong pursuit of money and power. I will honor the idea of fairness and justice, but only when it requires no meaningful sacrifice on my part.

With these unspoken caveats, he is in fact expressing a deeply engrained mainstream approach to living that I call pick and chose decency: Be respectful, fair, just and so on when you can. But when it really counts “do what needs to be done.”

This approach is, of course, not decent at all.

Radical Decency is interesting and different, not because it promotes these values, but because it kneads them into a coherent, integrated whole and, then, applies them – not partially and when convenient – but at all times, in every context, and without exception. In other words, the philosophy’s transformative potential lies in its radical application.

In the discussion that follows, I elaborate on three elements that, as I see it, are indispensable to this radical approach.

  1. Make a positive, forward-looking vision your central focus. Don’t define yourself in reaction to others.

This principle is central to Radical Decency and a cornerstone of its radicalism. Taking this position puts me at odds – I know – with the dictum of Saul Alinsky, the legendary radical organizer who argues that successful organizing requires a designated enemy around which to coalesce, a model that has been integral to so many of recent history’s more visible radical movements: Labor’s struggles against management; the civil right’s movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s vs. the deep South’s belligerent racism; Reagan and the tea partiers vs. the Federal government, and so on.

For me, the disqualifying aspect of Alinsky’s “us vs. them” approach is that it fails to come to grips with the authoritarian, win/lose mindsets that permeate our culture and are at the root of its endemic indecency.

Here’s the problem.

The unspoken assumption in this approach is that, because “we” are good and right – and “they” are bad and wrong – what needs to be done, once we win, will be the easy part. Our self-evident goodness and rightness will point the way. With this mindset firmly in place, most radical movements spend remarkably little time on what is, in the end, the really crucial question: What are the concrete, day by day steps we would need to take to make things better, given the opportunity?

Unfortunately, the issues any truly radical movement takes on are, almost inevitably, complex and intractable. So, in the all too typical case, the leaders of successful radical movements – steeped in their self-righteous mindset, and glib take on “what do we do, once we win” – are utterly lacking in the skills needed to implement their visionary goals.

To the contrary, after years of struggle, what they have been thoroughly schooled in, know best – and have succeeded in – are the authoritarian, win/lose ways that were the hallmark of the status quo forces they worked so hard to overthrow. Thus, it is no surprise that, once in power, they wind up replicating the indecent ways of the people they supplanted; a lesson graphically illustrated by the fate of so many of history’s best known radical movements – the French and Russian Revolutions, Mao-ism, and so on.

Radical Decency seeks to avoid this trap. It starts, it is true, with an in depth analysis of the mainstream culture’s dysfunctional ways of operating. But the goal is not to identify, demonize, and defeat an enemy.

Instead, it seeks to understand the ways in which the mainstream culture neutralizes radical reform efforts so that it can put processes in place that avoid these pitfalls. Then, with these safe-guards in place, it focuses on the positive, forward looking agenda that defines Radical Decency: To understand what decency looks like, and to craft strategies that will allow us to implement it more effectively in all areas of living.

Radical Decency works to make “cure” – the tricky business of charting a different, more productive course – the touchstone of the philosophy; seeking to avoid the trap of offering one more robust rant against “what is” with far too little discussion of what can be done. True to that perspective, the balance of this Reflection deals with ways in which we can more effectively chart a solutions oriented “radical” course.

  1. Be strategic.

In our laissez faire, “do your own thing” culture the importance of a strategic outlook receives remarkably little attention. Here, once again, the culture’s taken for granted attitudes work beautifully – if you are looking for an approach that keeps us rooted in the status quo.

Prevailing attitudes about charitable giving offer an excellent example. People are urged to give. But strikingly absent is any societal pressure to make that giving strategic. Instead, we are effusively congratulated for any contribution, of any size, never mind that it might represent an infinitesimal fraction of our net worth and income. And a gift to a college with a multi-billion endowment is, in the mainstream view, just as commendable as a gift to an organization that is working with the neediest among us.

To be truly radical, we need to continually examine and re-examine our priorities. This process is incredibly complicated and often uncomfortable. How do you allocate your time, talent, and financial resources – day-by-day – between your family, your immediate communities, the larger world, and your own needs? Like so many other aspects of the philosophy, there are no easy answers. But as we willingly engage in this wisdom-stretching enterprise, we will more fully make good on the goal of creating a decency practice we can legitimately call radical.

One final thought on being strategic: We need to pay special attention to ways in which we can collaborate and integrate our efforts with others. Because the slope we need to climb as we seek to create a more decent life and world is so steep, we can’t take the easy, more comfortable route of pursuing our special passions only; offering little or no support to other vitally important initiatives.

  1. Be fully committed; “all in.”

Joseph Stalin was a mass murderer, responsible for the death of 60 million people. Jesus, an exemplary person, has been an inspiration to countless millions. But they were both radicals – and in one respect their message was identical.

When a wealthy man asked Jesus what he needed do to get eternal life, His response was: Give your possessions to the poor and follow me. Similarly, after the collapse of the 1905 revolution, when so many of his compatriots got married and found jobs, Stalin railed in frustration: “You cannot be a householder and a revolutionary.”

Being “all in” is a tough discipline as the Bible recognizes when it reports that the rich man went away sad. But Jesus and Stalin were right. If you conclude that fundamental change is needed you cannot commit yourself to the process halfway. You have to be willing to risk all: As Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem with his radical, anti-establishment message; and as Lenin and Stalin did in their years of beleaguered organizing and, at the decisive moment, when they stormed the Winter Palace.

Doing so in the context of Radical Decency presents special challenges. Unlike so many other radical movements, it is not exclusive or rejectionist. Instead, it counsels us to find ways of living in the world as it is – an essential aspect of decency to self – while, at the same time, actively making choices that foster greater decency in our immediate environments and in the world. Given this approach, the philosophy usually unfolds quietly, in the privacy of our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices.

This means that many of the choices that truly put us “all in” will be invisible to everyone except us. It also makes it easy to fake it, since there is nothing to stop us from doing the easier stuff even as we quietly neglect the necessary but more uncomfortable decency choices.

The bottom line in all of this? Being fully committed – being “all in” – requires a lot of discipline and self -accountability. As with so many other aspects of the philosophy, its demands are enormously challenging – worth pursuing only because the potential rewards are commensurate with the demands.

Reflection 50: Love, Faith and Values

I find writing about love confusing. The word is used so in many different contexts, to describe so many different states of mind. Bringing clarity to this multiplicity of meanings and uses has always seemed a daunting challenge.

Further complicating the task is the word’s power. Because it is so deeply evocative, its use, depending on context, can provoke strong and, at times, very uncomfortable feelings as, for example, when it is used to it describes sexual attraction to someone inappropriately young – or an individual, group, or nation’s rapturous embrace of a crazed but highly charismatic leader.

In this Reflection, I take the plunge, seeking to bring clarity to a question that has quietly nagged at me for many years: How should we understand the concept of love and, more particularly, how should we put it into practice as we strive to live more radically decent lives?


The confusion of meanings that surround the word is brilliantly illustrated in We, a remarkable book by the Jungian theorist, Robert Johnson. In it, the author identifies romantic love, not as an enduring reality, but as an intellectual construct that burst onto the scene in the early Middle Ages. He then describes how, because of its enormous cultural impact, it has come to encompass aspects of living that are really quite distinct from the romantic love’s essence.

Johnson’s narrative vehicle, the story of Tristan and Isoulte, begins with Tristan and the Queen – Isoulte the Fair – falling in love and moving to the forest to be together. The Queen, as she inevitably must, returns to her duties and, so, their romantic interlude ends. Thereafter, Tristan marries and has children with Isoulte of the White Gloves. But Tristan, unable to let go of his overwhelming “love” for the Queen, leaves Isoulte of the White Gloves and, in the end, dies tragically.

The point of the story for Johnson? Tristan screwed up.

He hopelessly confused romantic love with what Johnson refers to a chivalric love. In his understanding, Tristan idealistic or chivalric love – a deeply felt and enduring human emotion – lay at the heart of his feelings for the Queen. But Tristan failed to understand this, or limits of that love, conflating it with the sexual/life partnership love that found expression in his relationship with Isoulte of the White Gloves.

To this day, we repeat Tristan’s error, unreflectively seeking a romantic partner who fills our every “love” need. The result? These relationships are burdened with unreasonable expectations and demands that – inevitably unmet – unleash, far too often, a sense of bitter disappointment that can corrode and destroy these relationships.


In seeking to operationalize Radical Decency in our lives, what feelings and choices, among the many that receive the “love” label, are central? The starting place for me is the distinction between love the “noun” and love the “verb.”

When used as a noun, love describes one of any number of feelings, depending on the context within which the word is applied: Love of God, love of country, romantic love, self-love, agape love, and so on. Like all feelings, these states are not choices. They are, instead, physiological and psychological facts on the ground.

For this reason, love the noun is not a values-driven state of mind. To the contrary, we can – and frequently do – fall in love with a person who we know to be cruel or selfish. And, in our love and loyalty, we too easily excuse even the most heinous of acts perpetuated by our church, ethnic group or country; persisting, without ethical pause.

Love, the verb, is very different. It is quintessentially a choice. Loving my wife, or Jesus, or the men I go to war with – love, the verb – I chose to do the innumerable acts that communicate that state of mind to the object of my love. It is here, in this action-oriented realm of love, that Radical Decency can play a powerful role; supporting us in making wise life- and spirit-affirming choices.


If love begins as an emotion (the noun), faith is the bridge that carries it into the realm of action (the verb).

Esther Perel, the psychotherapist and author, describes trust as a leap of faith. “We believe in it, all the while knowing it may not be true.” And, equally, with love: We whole-heartedly commit ourselves to “this” person or “that” cause, all the while knowing that this forever feeling may not endure.

This leap of faith, this act of claiming, is vital to love’s central role in our lives. As I describe in the Reflection 38, Three Dimensions of Love, our longing to claim (and to be claimed) is:

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

But here is the problem.

We live in a world in which other, more humane values takes a back seat to our pervasive pre-occupation with getting ahead, with competing and winning. As a result, the moral compass we need to guide us in this claiming process – this leap of faith – is confused and undernourished. Lacking a steadily practiced, more decent values perspective to guide our choices, we too easily extend love, the verb, to most any person, idea, or movement that activates “that feeling” – love, the noun.

Radical Decency can crucially change this equation, offering a values-based roadmap for operationalizing love, the verb. Using it as our guide, we tend to another person – day-by-day, moment-by-moment – with respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and accountability (justice). And, crucially, we invite, with our expectations, similar treatment in return.

As these choices accumulate, we, and the people with whom we are in connection, are supported in feeling safe, seen, and warmly held; lowering defenses and increasing the likelihood of authentic and intimate contact, the interpersonal transaction at the heart of Radical Decency – and of love, the verb.

In terms of constructively harnessing our powerful impulse to love, the payoff in this process is this: As we steadily tend to our Radical Decency practice, we become more discerning about what is – and what is not – a loving relationship; that is, a relationship based on mutual and authentic contact. And as this sensibility grows, we become far more capable of resisting the instinct to go with “that feeling” when the object of our hormonal affection is unable to treat us in this way – or puts existing love relationships at risk.

So I walk into a room and am captivated by a new person – her look, her smile, her energy. But I am sustained by a sense of romantic love that goes far beyond “that feeling.” Committed love, the verb, as my wife and I have cultivated over the years, the cotton candy of a new romantic connection pales in comparison to the eight-course banquet we have created. I am able make choices with this new person that are measured and appropriately boundaried.

This same values-based process is vitally needed when love plays out in the context of our ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In these areas, unfortunately, the cultural norm is unrelenting pressure to make love and fealty absolute. When the chips are down, we are expected to rally to the flag – no matter what; a pattern confirmed by countless cruelties, inflicted both on nonconformists within the group and nonbelievers without.

If we hope to create a more decent world, we need to challenge this pattern. What is needed instead, as we move from love the noun to love the verb is a framework that allows us – as we do in healthy romantic relationships – to model and insist upon on interactions based on decency’s 7 values. As in a committed romantic relationship, loyalty to our country or group would be a given. But our loyalty would not be unconditional and would not be forever, no matter what.

When good values are inextricably woven into the fabric of the relationship, romantic partners grow and heal in ways that are unimaginable at the outset. This same process can occur for us, and our brethren, in the context of our ethnic, religious and national communities as well.

A new level of relational awareness and wisdom is my dream for the future; a new understanding of love, the verb that, with intent and time, would take hold in our communal engagements. We would be loving and fiercely loyal members of our religious, ethnic and national communities, of course, but we would also insist on values based interactions between people within our group and, equally, with those beyond its borders.

My fierce and abiding belief? If this relational vision ever emerges as the culture’s new, taken-for-granted norm a more humane and decent world – instead of being a far off dream – would become an unfolding and ever deepening reality.

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.

Reflecton 28: An Aspirational Approach to Living

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

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

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

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

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

How this Mindset Traps and Defeats Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact of the Culture

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

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

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

Impact of Our Biology

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

Cultivating An Aspirational Approach

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

The better approach?

To view Radical Decency as an aspirational ideal that provides an empowering framework for the complex, day-by-day choices that are its meat and potatoes. Working from perspective, “being” radically decent is no longer the Holy Grail. Instead, success is measured by our willingness to make Radical Decency our highest priority and by the focus, persistence, imagination, and sheer guts with which we pursue its practice.

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

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

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

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

Committed, long-term meditators never succeed in eliminating their brain’s distractability. But this does not mean that they have failed. To the contrary, persisting in their practice over the years – trying and falling short, trying again and “failing” again – they fundamentally shift their outlook and way of living.

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

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

Reflection 27: The Case for Radical Decency

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Consider, for example, these questions:

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

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

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


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

This is the question Radical Decency seeks to address.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Here’s how it works.

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

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

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

The endpoint? When all that we do is approached with these new habits of openness, curiosity and a growing sense of discernment, we wind up with an increased sense of:

Living in the present, which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future – and, with it, greater focus and clarity; states of mind that are a natural extension of the less the complicated emotional landscape we inhabit;

Appreciation, empathy, and acceptance for our self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control – and, with it, more warmth appreciation, and joy in our own company and in the company of others;

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

An ennobling sense of purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust – and, with it, a growing sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.

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

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

Reflection 19: Wisdom Stretching and Across the Board Decency

Radical Decency is a practical, action-oriented philosophy, thoroughly rooted in our day-by-day choices. As a result, there are important “how to” lessons that only emerge from its sustained practice. In this Reflection, I discuss two of these lessons; aspects of Radical Decency that need to be understood if we hope to make it a living reality in our lives and in the world.

  1. The Vital Importance of Across-the-Board Decency

Most approaches to living put a priority on one area of living over others. The mainstream culture, for example, puts financial (and physical) security first, making work the priority. We feel compelled to stay late at the office or go in on weekends because we “have to.” But we have a much more difficult time taking Thursday afternoons off for our kid’s soccer game or to visit mom’s nursing home.

Many “do gooders” are similarly one-sided in their point of emphasis but go to the opposite extreme, privileging others over themselves. The golden rule speaks about “doing unto others” but, even in its most expansive interpretation, soft-pedals how you treat your self.

With Radical Decency, by contrast, our efforts to live differently and better require us to attend to all areas of living. Why? Because our biology demands it.

We are intensely creatures of habit. We are saddled with brains that are designed to work on automatic pilot; that quickly revert to the familiar absent sustained and conscious efforts to do something different.

For this reason, partial approaches to change – what I call “pick and choose” decency – will never work. We tell ourselves we can be decent in one area – to our self and our family (for example) – and, at the same time, “do what we have to do, out there, in the real world.” In the end, however, we continue to:

  • Compulsively compare our self with other – seeking to be the “best” or, at least, “better than”;
  • Slip into manipulative behaviors – lest someone gets the better of us;
  • Squeeze our fun times and private passions into nights and weekends – out of fear that easing up, in any substantial way, will risk our ability to survive and get ahead.

In other words, the indecent values and states of mind that pervade our culture and inform our behaviors at work and in the larger world wind up infiltrating and polluting the small islands of sanity we seek to create.

Recognizing this reality, a successful Radical Decency practice requires an across the board commitment to decency. Our engrained, indecent habits of living can only be changed if we systematically cultivate a new, better set of values at all times, in every context, and without exception.

This is the strong medicine we need to counteract our virulent cultural disease.

  1. Wisdom Stretching As a Way of Life

Radical Decency insists on decency to self even as it challenges us to be decent to others and the world. Even in a perfect world, integrating and balancing these often-conflicting goals would be a tough and uncompromising discipline. But the compete/win cultural context in which we live makes the challenge even more difficult. So, for example, we struggle to be decent to our self and others, even as we deal with the daily onslaught of competitive, me-first behaviors from bosses, co-workers, and customers.

Given these realities, we will inevitably fall short of our “decency” goal, being insensitive to the needs of co-workers (less decency to others) – or neglecting environmentally prudent choices (less decency to the world) – or passively tolerating an abusive boss (less decency to self).

How can to we escape the spirit melting discouragement that these circumstances can so easily provoke? A key answer that has emerged for me, as I have sought to “walk the walk” in my own life, begins with a steady reminder that the philosophy is aspirational; an ideal that we will never fully realize. See Reflection 28, An Aspirational Approach to Living.

Fully embracing this perspective, I am increasingly able to bring a very different mindset to the seemingly insoluble dilemmas that the philosophy regularly presents. Instead of feeling discouraged and defeated, the times when I fall short become “wisdom stretching” moments, opportunities to cultivate and sharpen my “wisdom-ing” skills; to do better the next time.


How does wisdom stretching look in practice? Here is an example, using a familiar hypothetical: What to do I do when a beggar asks me for money?

In this situation, most of us start with an instinctual conclusion – either yes or no – that we then bolster with a handy rationale or two. With Radical Decency, however, my approach is very different. Focusing on process and not the result, it invites me to “sit” in this wisdom-stretching moment and to reflect on its implications for decency to self, others, and the world.

Since only a person in extreme need would beg, giving him money has merit. Focusing solely on decency to this person, I might even offer to buy him a meal.

But what about decency to individuals other than the beggar – and to the world – and to my self?

Encouraging public begging condones a violation of other people’s space (decency to others). And a donation to an appropriate agency, instead, would certainly be more strategic (decency to the world). On the other hand, a charitable donation, at a later time, would negate my publicly modeled act of caring (promoting decency to the world) and the good feeling I derive from a spontaneous act of generosity (decency to self).

Thinking in radically decent terms, other considerations abound. Being approached for money, without my permission, disrespects me (decency to self). On the other hand, equity and justice – 2 of decency’s 7 values – are integral to its implementation. And while the culture’s system of rewards and sanctions has materially enhanced my economic status, it has, in all likelihood, severely penalized his. So perhaps this reality should trump his rudeness.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Given the complexity of the world, and the compromised cultural context in which we operate, our ultimate decisions are seldom fully satisfactory. And that is the case here.

However, a radically decent approach, habitually practiced, changes us. Consistently sitting in wisdom-stretching dilemmas, such as this one, the philosophy highlights the implications of each possible course of action and deepens our understanding of their consequences.

As this “wisdom-stretching” perspective increasingly becomes our habitual perspective, the outcome in any particular moment, while always consequential, increasingly becomes part of a larger mosaic. We see our self, and each of our choices, as part of a larger, ongoing trial and error process. And, the quality of our decency practice is less a function of the quality of the choice we make, in this moment, on this issue, and much more about our ability to act, over time, in ways that more fully and creatively integrate and balance all of decency’s aspirational goals within the context of the imperfect world in which we live.


When we put these 2 “lessons learned” together – applying our wisdom-stretching mindset on the across-the-board basis – note the powerful role Radical Decency can play in overcoming our tendency to quietly retreat from our decency practice in areas of living in which it application feels too scary or uncomfortable; just too big a stretch from our habitual ways.

  • For some, the challenge is decency to the world: Struggling to pay the bills and desperately wanting the “best” for our kids, they retreat from any involvement in the larger community.
  • For others, its decency to others: An inability to take significant time from a demanding job to be a steady, consistent presence in the lives of their children, siblings, or aging parents.
  • And for others, decency to self: Overcoming their fears to stand up to an emotionally abusive spouse or co-worker.

These rubber hits the road issues are huge de-railers of Radical Decency. Unable to follow through on the philosophy’s demands in a key area, we too easily slide quietly back into our mainstream ways; avoiding, in this way, the felt sense of failure that our compromised choices would otherwise provoke.

The key here is not to hide from our shortcomings but to embrace them. Of course we will fall short. As Vikki Reynolds says, we are all in the dirty bathtub.

But with this attitude of self-forgiveness, we also need to be willing to change and grow; to acknowledge the wisdom-stretching implications that our choices, especially in these deal-breaker areas, present; to act in ways that, taking us out of our habitual comfort zones, extend our decency practice more and more fully.

Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for deciding when to act boldly and when to respect our limitations. But if we hope to create better lives and contribute to a better world, these leaps of faith will be required, again and again.

On the more hopeful side, we need to remember – always – that when we embrace this difficult work, we are tending to our own healing and growth. The perspectives, outlooks, and feelings that grow out of our willingness to fully engage with these wisdom-stretching dilemmas are, in the end, their own reward. See Reflection 13, Radical Decency Is Its Own Reward.

Reflection 17: Decency Defined

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

Toward that end, I have evolved this working definition:

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Understanding and Empathy

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

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

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

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

Acceptance and Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairness and Justice

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

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

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

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

The Interconnectedness of Decency’s 7 Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reflection 13: Radical Decency Is Its Own Reward

Alan died a few weeks ago. He was a remarkable person, devoted to his family and friends; active throughout his legal career in efforts to improve the lives of disenfranchised people. He will be missed. At his funeral, his brother remembered his trip to Mississippi in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights struggle. Asked why he went, Alan said it was the right thing to do.

I have no problem with that response. But Alan’s life exemplified another, much less discussed answer to this question: The choice to actively engage in decency, in every area of living, is the surest path to a more vibrant and joyful life.

I raise this point because of a strange and, I would argue, not accidental anomaly in our mainstream take on lives, like Alan’s, of commitment and generativity. Living in a culture that is all about shrill self-promotion we are, at the same time, trained to feel tacky and puffed up if we share our acts of kindness and generosity in a forthright and public way.

This model of modesty and anonymity, when it comes to good deeds, is not a good thing.  To the contrary, it unwittingly supports the purposes of the mainstream culture, leaving society’s megaphone entirely in the hands of the forces that promote its acquisitive, “me first” values. Even as the Alan’s of this world shrink from advertising their ways of living, we are continually bombarded with TV shows that celebrate our compete and win ways – from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and The Apprentice, to Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Seeking to avoid that trap, I offer a Reflection that unabashedly presents Radical Decency as the surest path to a vibrant and nourishing life; arguing that, in the end – without regard to outcomes – its own reward.


The reason why this is true is grounded in our neurobiology. We are wired to be in relationship. As Dan Siegel says, the brain is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains. In other words, it makes no sense to think about a brain in isolation.

The implications of this insight are profound. A baby’s brain is molded by interactions with his primary care givers. Mother joins the baby in his joy, modeling and teaching how that emotion looks in a mature brain. Then, as the baby moves into sadness or frustration, the mother moves with him, modeling these emotions and, just as important, a mature transition between these two states.

And this process continues throughout life. More than any other factor, our growth and evolution, for better or worse, depend upon the social context within which we exist. If our family, friends, communities, and culture model decency we will, whatever our innate disposition, tend in that direction. But if they model competition, dominance, and control, our states of mind and habits of living will move in that direction.

The bottom line in all of this? We are profoundly affiliative beings, wired to be in intimate connection with one another.

In choosing how we live, we also need to account for the fact that we are creatures of habit. According to Hebb’s Theorem, “if it fires together, it wires together.” So when a barking dog startles a baby, a chain of neurons fire. And because they fired once, they are more likely to fire again in response to similar stimulus. Confronted with that stimulus a third time, the likelihood they will fire again is even greater; and so on.  In other words, absent conscious intervention, our brains will do in the future what they did in the past.


Why do these neurobiological realities point to Radical Decency as the surest path to a better life? First, because – in stark contrast to the values that predominate in our culture – Radical Decency is congruent with our biologically wired, affiliative nature.

Bowing to the mainstream culture’s imperative to compete and win, we (very sensibly) become skilled in suppressing a wide range of emotions that put these goals at risk: Fear, confusion, weakness, even altruism and empathy directed toward competitors.

Doing so, we cut ourselves off from ongoing intimate connection; the very quality so essential to our healing and growth. The result: An epidemic of depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviors – drug and alcohol, workaholism, sex, video games – all designed to anesthetize our isolation and pain.

Radical Decency, by contrast, offers a very different path. Instead of riding roughshod over our innate affiliative nature, it systematically expresses and extends it into all areas of living; offering, in this way, a powerful antidote to the mainstream culture’s debilitating pattern of emotional suppression and interpersonal isolation.

Radical Decency also accounts for the fact that we are creatures of habit. Pick and chose decency – doing what we have to do “out there, in the real world,” and then making a 180 degree pivot to decency in our private lives – is untenable. Why? Because we spend the best hours of the great majority of our days at work and in other venues in which the values of the mainstream culture are practiced with a vengeance.

So, in the absence of a comprehensive and committed decency practice, the habits of thinking and living we cultivate in those arenas will overwhelm the small, private islands of decency we seek to carve out in our off hours. Selfishness, manipulation, defensiveness, rage, withdrawal – some or all of these will almost inevitably infect, our intimate relationships.

And, importantly, we will also punish ourselves. Driving ourselves too hard – as the culture demands – we wind up being self-judgmental and unforgiving when, as is inevitable, we exhibit any of a wide range of human emotions: Confusion, physical and emotional fatigue, fear, and so on.

In short, living in an endemically indecent world, a pick and chose decency will never work.

Radical Decency, by contrast, promises transform our habitual brain from a negative into a positive. The reason? Because applied “radically” – in every context and without exception – decency will, with time and persistence, become our new habit of living and, with that, a trusted ally in our efforts to fundamentally diverge for mainstream culture’s debilitating ways of operating.


Radical Decency is a powerful and intensely practical compass, pointing the way to a better life. The focus isn’t some far-off ultimate goal – how to be “happy” or “fulfilled.”  Instead, we work day-by-day, moment-by-moment, on the task of being decent. Doing so, we trust that the habits of mind we are cultivating will powerfully support us in creating a more vibrant and nourishing life.

Here’s how it works.

When across the board decency is our priority, curiosity becomes our habitual state of mind. Why? Because we quickly learn that, in order to make good choices, we need to more deeply understand our motives, feelings and states of mind – and those of others.

One fortunate side effect of chronic curiosity is a decline in our tendency to judge our self and others. Focusing on why we do things requires openness, thoughtfulness, and reflection. And because these states of mind are inconsistent with judgment, this debilitating, culturally induced habit shrinks from inattention.

Note also that a committed Radical Decency practice regularly requires difficult choices.  Moment by moment, how do we harmonize and balance decency to our self with decency to others? And what choices should we make when it comes to the thorny issue of allocating an appropriate level of resources to social causes.

In the mainstream culture, standard operating procedure is to duck these issues:

  • Ignoring them in the rush to deal with the day-by-day pressures of living; or
  • “Solving” them by either ignoring our needs or the needs of others; or
  • Latching on to a convenient sophistry to explain them away (“the invisible hand of capitalism will cure our ills”; “giving money to a beggar is enabling”).

Good things happen, however, when we really allow ourselves to be in these “wisdom stretching” moments; fully inhabiting the seemingly irreconcilable dilemmas they create. Doing so, we hone our emotional awareness and analytic skills.  We also cultivate:

  • The courage to act in uncomfortable situations;
  • The patience and self- control to forbear when that is the better choice: and
  • The wisdom to know the difference.

Fully inhabiting this process, we become more and more skilled at loving our self and others.

Where does all of this lead? When all that we do is approached with curiosity and growing sense of discernment, we will have an increased sense of:

Living in the present which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future – and, with it, greater focus and clarity; states of mind that are a natural expression of the less complicated emotional landscape we inhabit;

Appreciation, empathy, and acceptance for our self and others which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control – and, with it, more warmth, appreciation and joy in the company of others;

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

An ennobling sense of purpose which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust – and, with it, a growing sense vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.

These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a good life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization. So while Radical Decency is the right thing to do – as Alan might have said – the really exciting news is that it is also its own reward.


Reflection 9: Across the Board Decency

Radical Decency is a comprehensive approach to living. It is:

  • Broad – supporting decency to our selves, others and the world;
  • Deep – extending to every area of living and every interaction; and
  • Integrated – no area being optional or more important; each informing and enriching the others.

In this Reflection, I discuss one key aspect of this comprehensive approach: The injunction to be decent to self, others, and the world – without exception; a concept I refer to as “across the board decency.”

As I discuss below, following through on the logic of this injunction promises to transform the ways in which we treat others “out there, in the real world” and, very importantly, how we treat our selves as well.

1. Decency to Self

Seeking to be decent in the endless interactions that constitute our days is a challenging, wisdom stretching process. But because the philosophy puts decency to self on an equal footing with decency to others, it adds a level of complication beyond the “do unto others” injunction of the golden rule. It challenges us to be decent, as well, to the cacophony of voices inside our heads even as we apply its principles in our dealings with others.

So, for example, you are talking to a friend, and suddenly a pang of jealousy arises because of her recent success, followed almost immediately by another “voice,” shaming you for your small mindedness. Across the board decency challenges you to be warmly interested in your friend. But it also challenges you to be attentive to the discordant voices inside your own head; moving away from self-judgment; managing them in ways that are firm, but gentle and forgiving.


The world of work provides another vivid illustration of the profound impact of the philosophy’s co-equal emphasis on decency to self can have on the ways in which we treat our self.  At work and in our careers, we are invited – by an endless series of cues, sanctions and incentives – to neglect decency to self in our unrestrained pursuit of money and power:

  • Working long hours in a vain attempt to be perfect;
  • Letting worries about “how we are doing” invade our “off hours”;
  • Virulently judging our self when we fall short;
  • Neglecting our health, leisure, and private passions;
  • Chronically pinching back on the time we spend with those intimate people so central to our sense of well-being.

Across the board decency, however, pushes us in a very different direction. Promoting co-equal attention to decency to self, it pushes us to re-examine these “normal” and “expectable” ways of approaching work and career; challenging us to be more and more decent to our self, even as we seek to be more decent to co-workers, customers, competitors, and the larger communities that we affect with our professional choices.

2. Decency to the world

An emphasis on across the board decency also promises to transform the ways in which we treat others, “out there, in the real world.”

In the mainstream culture’s approach, decency is seldom explicitly abandoned. Instead, we are guided toward what I call “pick and choose decency;” that is, being decent when it is convenient but, then, when it really counts – when money or a promotion is at stake – doing whatever has to be done.

Because the predominant culture’s indecent values are so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being, this pick and choose approach to decency is doomed to failure.  Surrounded by cues, incentives and sanctions that push us in a very different direction, we will never to able to preserve the smaller islands of decency we seek to create at home or in our communities of choice. Instead, receding to the cultural norm, our efforts to live differently and better – in all but the rarest of cases – will wind up being tepid, partial, and peripheral.

For this reason, a fulsome commitment to decency to others – at work, in politics, and in all other public arenas in which we operate – is vital. However, when we seek to make good on this commitment, we are presented with a surprisingly difficult challenge.

Here’s why.

Habituated to the mainstream culture’s pick and chose approach to decency, we instinctually compartmentalize our lives; putting our personal relationships in one category, work in a second, and our political activities in a third. Doing so, however, our tendency is to  over-focus on family and friends; neglecting, in the process, the very different rules of engagement that need to be cultivated when we seek to be decent in these other, less intimate environments.

Thus, many books are written about how to lovingly share one’s inmost feelings with your loved ones. But there is much less discussion of how to create a relationship with co-workers and strangers that is far less intimate but, at the same time, extends decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness and justice –  to all parties (including, of course, ourselves).

For these reasons, our decency skills, in these situations, are underdeveloped and limited.

And the deeper message, implicitly sent in the process, is this: Decency doesn’t really matter that much (or at all) when it comes to co-workers, strangers, and other non-intimates.

So, for example, a person in whom you have little or no interest seeks you out. What is the “normal” response? To ignore his calls or make excuses; avoiding him until he gets the hint – with no thought given to what a more decent response might look like.

Not long ago, I had to deal with this situation and, pre-occupied as I am with Radical Decency, I pushed myself to offer a more direct and respectful response: Telling this would-be friend over lunch that, while I liked her, she would likely be disappointed if she was expecting more regular contact. With my work and other commitments, I wouldn’t be able to invest the level of energy, in our relationship, that she was seeking.

In retrospect, the only thing I find remarkable about my response is how out of the ordinary it seemed. And that, I think, was a direct result of how little time we spend reflecting on strategies for being more decent in these sorts of situations.

Committing ourselves to a decency practice that is “across the board,” we are supported in finding more decent ways of dealing with others – and our selves – even in situations in which intimacy is limited or nonexistent.


Our culture’s lack of interest in across the board decency also has enormous consequences for our public discourse. In this area, Meet the Press, Face the Nation and similar Sunday morning news programs provide a stark example.

A politician makes a partisan speech, masquerading as the answer to the question just asked. It is non-responsive, disingenuous, and peppered with inaccuracies.  Then, with little or no effort to point this out, the moderator elicits a different, but similarly nonresponsive and disingenuous response from a spokesperson for the other side. And round and round it goes.

  • Should the moderator intervene more forcefully by, for example, noting that the question hasn’t been answered before he moves on?
  • Should sarcasm and ridicule be disallowed?
  • Should nonpartisan experts routinely be available and invoked, from time to time, to challenge the partisans’ more outrageous factual distortions?

While each of these suggestions is reasonable – and feasible – these and similar ideas seldom, if ever, come up in our mainstream public dialogue. The reason? Because, given the culture’s preoccupation with competition and power, there is little interest in moving toward new norms of decency.

Instead, numbed by years of exposure to this sham, we are conditioned to tolerate, not just nonsense, but grotesque indecency in our debate over issues that vitally affect the lives of millions. And this habitual indecency, deeply embedded in our political debate, in turn sets the stage for our tolerance of indecent, inhumane, and (with disturbing regularity) murderous public policies.


Hopefully, these examples persuasively illustrate why across the board decency is a vital aspect of our work – if we hope to create more decent lives and meaningfully contribute to a more decent world.

The rest is up to us.