I was having lunch with an old friend the other day who was in in town visiting. She told me, rather hesitantly, that she’d done this three day workshop of something called Landmark, some fruitcake spin off of est. You can guess why she hesitated: she told me she kept picturing what I’d say or, more specifically, how I’d judge her.
I understand why she’d think that as I can certainly be judgmental, or at least seem judgmental (jews from New York have a tendency to speak emphatically about things that we find irrelevant, or at least I do). And while I don’t know squat about Landmark, I already kinda hate it. But here’s the essential component: I hate it for me! And, no, I don’t have to do it or learn about it to know I hate it. That’s an absurd logic. If we had to try everything in order to know whether we liked something or not, we’d all certainly die much younger and more dramatically.
Anyway, why the fuck do I care if she did Landmark? She told me she got a lot out of it, that after three intense days, she found herself less quick to anger with her kid, more relaxed, more open about communicating difficult things — to wit, telling me she’d gone to Landmark (that is the tip of the iceberg of the things she’s become more comfortable talking about, trust me).
So, after she told me all that — and after spending several hours in her decidedly relaxed company — I found I did care that she went to Landmark. Or, better, I still didn’t give a shit whether she’d gone to Landmark or not. What I cared about is that she did something to make her day to day life a better experience. What she did is irrelevant to me. Whatever works, works.
Yes, indeed: Whatever works for you. That may seem trite but, the more I think about it, the more profound it becomes. First of all, I love this idea of working — not capitalist (or communist!) working but working in terms of operating. As I get older, I see life as mechanical, all these moving parts, many of which are invisible (ideas, memories, moods, notions, inklings, and the such). We take in all kinds of things — words, ideas, sights, sounds, stinging nettles, Ambien, food, gin. We then process it through various interwoven systems — digestion, thought, and others we don’t have agreed to names for. All together, I’d call them metabolism. And then we play it back as other thoughts, words, sights, sounds, pictures, moods, shit, sweat, caresses.
We do slight systems maintenance all the time. We eat, drink water, have a cocktail, pop a pill, make a call. That is, we usually address what we take in and, sometimes, try to control what we play back. Rarely, we address the processing systems. And this is what my friend seemed to be telling me: she’d gone for a processing adjustment and it seemed to work, to make her system more healthy and vital.
This systems approach to life — which is radically different than a mechanistic or labor-productive view of life — enjoys a logic refreshingly free of truth, morality, and their attending affect, sanctimony. This is, of course, nothing new. This approach to life has an ancient name: rhetoric.
Rhetoric is not indifferent to the truth; it’s just not beholden to the truth. Truth can come in mighty handy when you’re arguing, especially with yourself. I know I’ve been in the madness of anxiety and found comfort in the truth that that brown spot on my leg is not a malignant lesion. As we all know, this doesn’t always work. More often than not, other and stranger kinds of arguments take the day. It must be a lesion because I also have a sore throat!
How, alas, does one excavate oneself from such careening thoughts in which truth is temporary, suspect, and often useless? Well, a stiff drink works. I’ve heard there are strains of something people call medical marijuana that can shift one’s thought patterns. Meditation works for many; distraction, too — flip on The Wire reruns. Which is all to say, whatever works for you.
Does this open us up to rampant disregard for morality? Thankfully, yes it does. But does it yield unbridled sodomy and murder, selfishness and theft? Well, hopefully yes on the sodomy and selfishness. But the fact is morality has been the spur to rampant violence throughout history, from the executions of those nudges, Socrates and Jesus, to the Crusades and Inquisition, to the bombings of large buildings and cartoonist offices to the destruction of entire nations in the name of democracy.
“Whatever works for you” shifts the focus from always and up on high to right here and now. Rather than assessing circumstance, other people, as well as oneself by some abstract code —Thou shalt not bugger your neighbor’s wife! — it forces you to focus on the here and now, on the people around you, on your own physical and emotional state. Does hanging out with this woman make me feel strong and vital and healthy? Does it work for me? Or should I just head on home and strum my guitar, however poorly?
This is all to say, “whatever works for you” is amoral as well as distinctly ethical. As it inaugurates a certain systems thinking, it’s a proposition that considers the big, albeit local, picture. It makes us ask ourselves: What does, indeed, work for me? How can I adjust this system? How will doing this or that affect my in-take, processing, and playback? It has us look about and see how we fit into the flow of things, to how things operate together.