“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Mother Teresa
Every cult or high-demand group has a Big What. The Big What is the reason or cause for the group’s being, i.e., saving the planet from alien invasion, ‘clearing’ the planet of negative beings, serving a god or deity, attaining spiritual enlightenment, etc. You know the drill. Your cult had a Big What too, maybe similar to one of these examples, or maybe different.
In every cult, the Big What becomes every member’s reason for being and eventually becomes so important that it overshadows family, friends, education, taking good care of oneself and free will. In other words, the Big What becomes a powerful way to control the members’ behaviour.
For example, if you wanted to take a weekend off from work that you do for the cult to go to a family reunion, you might be guilt-tripped into not going because your service to the Big What would be interrupted if you went.
Or, if you wanted to begin to raise a family with your spouse, you might be told that children would get in the way of serving the Big What, so…maybe you should consider not following that dream.
In a Cult the What Matters More than the How
In a cult, the Big What gradually takes over our lives and begins to change our behaviour. We may notice, or even participate in, verbal and psychological abuse in the cult, but this is justified by the Big What. We may sacrifice time, money and our health, but again, this is justified because the Big What matters more than our ‘petty’ concerns about material matters.
“Why should your retirement fund matter when we are trying to save the planet?” the cult asks, again and again until we have given everything and ask for nothing in return.
In a cult we are always required to shut down and ignore our own needs, wants, dreams, hopes and even basic human rights in service of the Big What.
So over and over again, we observe that in cults, abuse runs rampant because the Big What justifies any and every behaviour. Our loved ones would ask (if they could reach us), “It’s horrible in there. Why don’t you just leave?” But we can’t, because we have been taught to believe in the Big What with every fibre in our being and to turn our backs on it would be to betray everything that matters to us. We would be saying that the Big What doesn’t matter and to a cult member, that is inconceivable.
The Toxic Garden
Each and every cult says that their purpose is to do something great, magical, beautiful and unique. That’s how we get sucked in, after all. The goals are lofty and amazing and we agree with the values these goals reflect, so we join.
Metaphorically, each cult says that they want to build a beautiful garden. They want it to be both peaceful and gorgeous to look at, filled with lush, stunning flowers and trees. It will have something for everyone; quiet places for contemplation, babbling brooks and other water sources, vegetable gardens full of the healthiest and most healing foods. The garden will be the safest place on the planet and everyone is welcome. Being in the garden will fill each person with such peace and love that anyone who enters will be healed from whatever ails them.
That’s the Big What.
Then the cult begins to build the garden. It trucks in toxic waste and dumps it on the soil. It uses child labour to build the fences and till the soil. It doesn’t provide any of the workers with the proper tools they need to do the job. The cult constantly changes the plan of the garden’s design so that any work that has been done has to be pulled out and started over.
Very soon, the cult blames all the workers when the garden is not growing and the plan is not working out. “If you would just work harder, the soil would be healed, the tools would work and all would be well. The fact that this garden is not growing is your fault.”
That’s HOW a cult builds a garden.
How the How Saved Me
Thankfully, in the latter days of my cult experience, I began to notice that HOW we were serving our Big What was in direct contradiction to the values we said our Big What espoused. We said we were bringing love and light to the planet (what) but we did it with anger, abuse, cruelty, callousness, self-loathing and a total lack of any kind of compassion or love (how). In other words, in the name of serving God (our Big What) we were verbally abusive to one another, we shunned each other at different times, we were encouraged to be cut off from our friends and family, and despite talking about saving humanity we were not involved in the communities we lived in, etc. etc.
I began to question this paradox. “Why do we say that we serve God, the source of love, but then treat each other with a total absence of love?” The answer always came that it was my fault if I couldn’t see why this paradox made sense.
I wrestled and wrestled with that until finally I couldn’t live with this unreconciled question inside me any longer.
What We Do Matters Far Less Than How We Do It
Now I try to operate my life from a place of How. I want the things I do to be directly in line with how I do them. For me, if the What and the How aren’t lined up, there’s no point in proceeding.
If I say that I value love and compassion and an open-hearted way of living, then at every moment, even when I’m failing at those things, or when I feel my life is not what I want it to be, I can try to make the choice to be loving and compassionate with myself. Even when I suck. Even when I fail.
How I take every step of this journey now matters more to me than the lofty end goals I might have.
This was a long, hard lesson to learn, but I am so deeply grateful that I finally grasped what the universe was trying to tell me.
May we all be free,