One of the greatest human needs is to belong, to feel connected to others, to be part of a group that understands and welcomes us.
Every group, whether a family, a community, a sports team or a workplace, has a culture, which includes the rules we must follow to enter or remain in the group.
Some group cultures are open and welcoming, while others are closed to a select few. Some tolerate or celebrate differences while others require strict adherence to a set of beliefs and behaviors. Some groups we are born into and others we choose. Some are bestowed and others are sought. All are significant parts of our lives.
Cultures become cults when they become too closed, too strict and see those outside the group as enemies. Cults often center around charismatic leaders. They are structured to drive out differences, demanding that individual thoughts, values and judgements be replaced by the leaders’ positions and decisions.
It is easy to be judgmental of cults if you have never felt entrapped by one. The sense of belonging, especially if everyone in your world belongs, overtakes everything else, and in extreme cases, can tragically become more important than life itself.
I experienced the slippery slope some years ago when I was part of a religious community that consistently told me not to trust my own thoughts, feelings and sense of right, as these were all “playgrounds of the devil.” I was told to trust only the leaders who could interpret the will of God for me. Ironically, what saved me was being a lesbian which was strictly forbidden to belong. I had a choice, be me or belong. I chose me.
When I walked away from this cult-like community, I lost my friends, my social connections and even my faith. Over time, I found new friends and new communities. I also discovered that by learning to trust my own thoughts, feelings and deepest stirrings, my faith was reignited. Turns out, my connection to God, others and all that is good is not outside of me but within me.
I was lucky that I had supportive people outside of the community. My (now) wife, Deb, who also was a woman of faith, implored me, “Trust your gut” and “God gave you a brain; use it!” Without her support, and that of my family, I could easily have become one of “those people” who abandon their values to follow leaders who violate them. It is a small step to abandon your values after you have already abandoned so many parts of yourself.
If we truly believe in individual rights and freedom from oppression, we need to foster group cultures that welcome differences, fresh ideas and creative expressions. We need to create bigger circles of community that invite dialogue across our differences, looking for common values to bind us together rather than be drawn to groups that demand strict adherence to group beliefs and drive us apart.
One thing that gives me hope in these contentious times is that so many people, even those with whom I disagree most, seem genuinely motivated by their love of our country. Though we may disagree on what that means, we can find common ground in our love for this nation. Let us pray we don’t destroy it in our zeal to conform to our group’s demands.