Live true

I got a call about 8.30 yesterday morning from JV. He’s a man who likes his sleep, so I was surprised. He was in the car and on the way to his Landmark thing, which is why he was calling.

He told me about this a few weeks ago. He was a reluctant attendee, browbeaten by his wife and his brother and law to go along. He anticipated an intense weekend of little consequence.

We were having a beer at the time, and by inclination, I was tempted to agree with him. Even now, I’m an old school character who would prefer to deal with his problems personally. I know it’s an archaic attitude and pretty silly, and so I’m always ready to accept other points of view. They’re just not mine.

When it came to Landmark, I imagined an intense, cultish bunch of enthusiasts indulging in groupthink and an innocuous brand of brainwashing – and I say that as someone who attended sessions many years ago when it was called the Forum.

It’s funny what you remember. It’s 30 years ago for me, and by and large, the impression is general, with a few memorable moments lodged in my mind.

Like JV, I was a reluctant attendee. I was there because my relatively new girlfriend was gung-ho to try it. I was in love and tagged along to an information session, where I allowed myself to be persuaded to hand over my shekels and attend.

Of course by the time the course finally came around she and I had split. It made for an interesting weekend as studiously we avoided each other. Still, at one point, she was one of the people waving their hand and asked to share her story. I was sufficiently roused by what she said that suddenly I felt the need to share too – though what I would share I didn’t know. Thankfully I wasn’t called upon.

That’s one of my memories of the weekend, the frequently strange and often disturbing life experiences people had to share. I was amazed to think that so many had experienced such tribulation in their life. It left me with an abiding consideration that there are mysteries in all of us, and everyone has a story.

I felt like a minnow in comparison. I felt as if my story was of a relatively well-adjusted young man, but I was probably wrong. Certainly, though, I’d not had my family killed in a murder-suicide, I’d not had my kids die in a car accident, I’d not even been harassed and mistreated as a child.

There was one story particularly that lodged in my memory, but for all the wrong reasons. Amid the stories of tragedy and woe, there was one young guy who stood up when called upon. He was olive-skinned with dark curly hair and sensuous lips – I can still picture him. He related to us how as a teenager in Tel Aviv, where he came from, he would sneak into the zoo and – there’s no other way to put it – commit acts of bestiality with the animals there.

There had been many confronting stories told on that day, but this one was somehow different, and you could feel it in the room. I know I looked upon him with fascinated wonder. It’s not something you could imagine; and certainly not something you could imagine someone owning up to.

There were a lot of converts that weekend, and a lot that seemed to benefit from it. I wasn’t really one of them. By disposition, I’m a non-joiner. For whatever reason, I’d rather walk the other way, or at least be out of step, and it has ever been so. I don’t get carried away, and my first response to pretty well everything is rational. There’s a bunch of checkpoints things need to get through before I’ll even think about getting excited. My Achilles heel is perhaps when I tip over into infatuation, if not love when nothing is rational any more.

And so back then I watched on like a scientist, rather than really getting involved. Sometimes it dragged for me, but at other times it was fascinating. I understood the point of it and didn’t disagree, but the fervour with which it was greeted with was entirely foreign to me. I did learn some things, but mostly by watching other people.

One of the observations I made that was stuck with me since was the hierarchy of personalities. We were separated into groups at one point for exercises. There were ten of us, and what I came to understand is that if you take ten random people, there will be one person who will try to assume leadership, another – the born lackey – who will support him, seven who are happy to go with the flow and take instruction, because it’s easier. And there will be one who questions, one who rebels, one who suggests other ways but makes no demands of others (“who made you boss Ted?”). That was me, of course, in my now customary role, unconcerned if anyone bothered to follow me or not, but determined to go my own way. I learned that this person becomes very quickly unpopular with the self-proclaimed leader and his lackey, who see him as a trouble maker; and that often – because he makes no demands – the undecided seven begin to drift to him.

That was my experience 30 years ago, but I knew as soon as I heard JV’s voice that his experience was different. There was a lift in his voice, a little extra animation. He’s a lovely guy JV, but he’s a retiring type, even a little passive. Back in the day when he used to hang with Whisky and me, he’d be often caught in the middle as we went at each other hammer and tongs. He’s managed a respectable career – he’s a smart dude – but the one thing he would benefit from is a bit more energy, a bit more intent. Though he’s in a senior role, he is one who has gone with the flow.

Just hearing a little extra life in his voice was enough to tell me that something was different. Against expectations, he had found himself roused by the message of the day, so much so that he had rung his father the night before and for the first time thanked him for everything he had done for him. It was something he had wanted to do for years but never committed to. The call was a great success, liberating for JV and heart-warming for his father.

Landmark is something that JV can benefit from because potentially it brings him outside of himself, after all these years. I don’t want to use such a term, but okay, it’s his chance to self-actualise.

He asked if it was something I would be interested in doing. I can’t afford it, but anyway, the answer was no. I told him though that I had embarked on my own mini-project since the beginning of the year. My memory of the Forum is that attempts to bring out the dark stories and memories that dictate our outlook and behaviour. It’s about bringing those things to the surface and authentically owning them. Ultimately, it’s about shedding the convenient narrative that makes life easier – though less authentic – to live.

That’s basically what I hope to achieve, I told him and explained how I had set out to share my story as the year went on. I am, however, gratified to think that what I have set myself to do seems validated by experience. The aim is to live true.

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