My recent blog, The Case for Radical Decency, brought the following provocative 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?”
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 complicated and compromised both by our biology and the environment in which we operate. Only then will we be able let go of the demoralizing shame, guilt, and self-judgment that our shortcomings can so easily provoke.
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. As a result, building 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.
The Challenge 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.
Jeff Garson is a Philadelphia-based attorney, psychotherapist, and activist. A principal at the Decency Group, offering collaborative, values-based consulting to individuals and businesses, he writes extensively about Radical Decency, an inclusive approach to change. You can contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.