“Bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
– paraphrase of the Hebrew shepherd-king, David
A body is made up of smaller bodies, which are in turn made up of smaller bodies, which are in turn made up of even smaller bodies, and so on down the line….
A body is part of a larger body, which is in turn part of a larger body, which is in turn part of an even larger body, and so on up the line….
There is relationship between a body and the constituent bodies of which it consists, as well as between it and the larger body of which it is a constituent (and between it and other constituent bodies, if there are any).
Numerous factors govern the quality of the relationships between ‘body parts’. Power – a concentration of agency and autonomy – is key in such relationships because the more power a body has, the more it can determine or negotiate the nature of the relationship. Optimally, a balance of power is created between members of the relationship: the whole which is composed of parts retains enough power to maintain is wholeness, while the parts retain enough power to maintain their wholeness. If the whole composed of parts becomes too powerful and grabs ‘power over’ its parts, the parts will have lost their optimal power of wholeness and become subjugated. On the contrary, if the parts become too powerful and grab ‘power under’, the whole will lose its optimal power of wholeness and disintegrate. Thus, a balance of power is one of the ideal conditions for healthy relationships.
A human person is an emergent whole comprised of the many parts of the body-mind. The quality of the person’s personhood/personality as an integral whole is determined by the equitable distribution of power between it and its various psychosomatic parts. The person governs the parts, yes, but the parts must be granted their own wholeness of ‘parthood’ with the requisite degree of autonomy, dignity, and self-determination that that implies.
Similarly, a relationship between human persons is an emergent wholeness comprised of the wholenesses/parthoods of each member. The quality of the relationship is determined by the equitable distribution of power between it and each of its constituent person-parts. This ‘it’ of the interpersonal relationship is the ‘we-space’ created by each member voluntarily and synergistically sharing power with the other member(s). In a parent-child relationship, the parent has more power to govern the we-space than the child, but this is to be adjusted according to the child’s maturation. Between two or more mature adults, the governance of the we-space is shared equitably between all members, and regardless of the fine-tuning, each member optimally retains their own personhood/personality with the requisite degree of autonomy, dignity, power, and self-determination.
The nature of the relationships within a single body is a) recapitulated in any relationship that body enters into with other bodies to form a larger body, and b) ‘pre-capitulated’ in the relationships between the smaller bodies that make it up. So, for example, the relationship I have with the parts of my self is going to mirror – repeat by analogy – the relationship I have with my children (whom I govern as father) and the relationship I have with(in) any groups in which I am governed by leadership. If the relationship I have with my body-mind-parts is one of domination/subjugation, then I a) will dominate/subjugate my children (who have less power) and b) will become a member of groups that use inordinate power to dominate/subjugate their members. In this example, the balance of power has tipped too far in favor of the governing entity (the whole) at the expense of the governed entities (the parts). One can imagine the opposite scenario: the relationship I have with my body-mind-parts is one in which they have too much power and run amok, and I’m tossed about by my unchecked drives and urges; I also allow my children to do whatever they want, regardless of the chaos that may ensue, and I only join groups that lack structure and direction.
Between the two extremes described above lies the optimal scenario: I govern the parts of my body-mind as a wise and just ruler who not only preserves but also promotes the autonomy, dignity, and selfhood of those parts. I govern my children as a wise and just father who not only preserves but also promotes their age-appropriate autonomy and selfhood. And I join only those groups governed by leaders (or decentralized, democratic consensus) who not only preserve my autonomy and selfhood but also promote it.
In their book Escaping Utopia, authors Janja Lalich & Karla McLaren present the stories of people who have extricated themselves from abusive groups – groups that, according to the description above, diminish the autonomy and selfhood of their members. Their analysis of what constitutes an abusive or unhealthy group is based on Lalich’s theory of bounded choice, that is, a semblance of reality that is manufactured and highly controlled by the leaders of a group in which the members believe they have free will but in fact do not except within prescribed limits. The problem with bounded choice is not that it is bounded, because all our worlds and worldviews have boundaries set by sheer ignorance if nothing more sinister. The problem is, rather, that in unhealthy groups (and relationships), inequitably powerful people set and maintain the boundaries of the world and worldview. The other members may have some choice, but it is bounded choice.
According to Lalich & McLaren, human groups/collectives are created and maintained through the following four parameters: 1) transcendent belief system, 2) charismatic authority, 3) systems of control, and 4) systems of influence. Just below, I am going to present, in their words, several checklists based on these four parameters that can be used to evaluate the health of any group you may be a part of. Keep in mind that while this analysis is geared toward group dynamics, it can apply to interpersonal relationships as well (not to mention your relationship with your self!). As the authors remind us, the behavior of cults and cult-like groups is not freakish or bizarre. It is human behavior, full stop.
Here are the checklists:
1a) Signs of unhealthy transcendent belief systems:
- The group’s sense of purpose is intense and urgent.
- The belief system is rigid, righteous, and exclusive; other beliefs are criticized or ridiculed.
- Members are expected to become perfect true believers; there is no room for doubt.
- The belief system is elitist; it is the only truth path and the ultimate solution.
- The belief system promotes specific and demanding tools, practices, and rules, and has a structure that converts members into perfect followers.
- Members endure extensive indoctrination sessions.
- The belief system is perfectionistic, with all-or-nothing requirements that must be followed to the letter.
- Member are rewarded for subordinating themselves utterly and/or shedding their previous identities (family, job, home, finances, name, etc.).
- The group is strongly hierarchical, with an inner circle of true believers who have special access, power, and privileges.
- Members are expected to contribute their money, their time, their resources, and their labor to the group in order to be seen as serious and loyal followers.
- The belief system is transmitted personally by the leader, who cannot be questioned. If the leader is deceased, this may be done through writings, videos, and/or audiotapes, as well as by top leaders’ testimonials.
- The group creates internal and external enemies who are portrayed as threatening the very survival of the group.
- Members who question, break the rules, or leave are shunned or demonized, and may lose all contact with group members, including their own family members.
1b) Signs of healthy transcendent belief systems:
- Members have the right to question, to doubt, and to think their own thoughts.
- The belief system makes room for other beliefs and other ideas.
- Members are treated as equals, and are not expected to be subordinate or perfectionistic.
- The belief system allows for personal autonomy, dignity, and freedom.
- Members retain their identities, finances, relationships, personal time, and private lives.
- The belief system includes rather than excludes people and ideas.
- Members can leave without being shunned or forced to abandon their friends and family.
- The belief system opens members to the world rather than isolating or segregating them from it.
2a) Signs of unhealthy charismatic authority:
- The leader or group has an inflated sense of importance and connection to greatness.
- Members must idealize and revere the leader and the ranking leadership.
- The leader claims special powers, knowledge, and lineage – or may claim to be divine.
- Members are often publicly shamed or berated for not living up to the ideals of the leader or group, or for not meeting the needs and/or demands of the leader or group perfectly.
- The leader’s needs, ideas, and desires are overriding; they delegitimize and erase the needs, ideas, and desires of group members.
- Some members are granted access to an inner circle with special privileges and special access, and often, these individuals (or, at least, the chosen ones) can break the group’s rules without punishment.
- The leader can do or say almost anything without repercussions; there are no checks or balances on his or her behavior.
- Members are expected to dedicate every part of their lives to the leader or the group, and not doing so has grave consequences.
- The leader has complete control over the group’s belief system, rules, and norms – none of which can be questioned.
- The leader belittles all other belief systems and any other leaders who may be functioning in the leader’s realm.
- Members must display complete obedience and devotion to the leader or the group.
- The leader takes credit for anything good that happens, and blames members for anything bad that happens.
- The leader treats questions and challenges as threats, and he or she may see enemies everywhere – inside and outside the cult.
- Members who challenge the authority of the leader or leadership group are punished, publicly humiliated, shunned, or kicked out, and may be portrayed as enemy traitors.
2b) Signs of healthy charismatic authority:
- The leader or group has behavioral checks and balances in place.
- Members are treated as valuable individuals; they are not disciples, servants, or pawns.
- The leader has a sense of humor and a humane leadership style.
- Members retain their identities, family relationships and responsibilities, and private lives.
- The leader or group values and promotes members’ ideas and beliefs.
- Members have the right to question, doubt, and challenge the charismatic authority.
- The leader or group deals responsibly with conflicts and challenges; there is no belittling, punishing, or shunning.
- Members have the freedom to come and go as they please.
- The leader or group considers and promotes other ideas, other beliefs, and other groups.
- The leader encourages critical thinking and intellectual pursuits.
- The group is open to the outside world and to nonbelievers.
3a) Signs of unhealthy systems of control:
- The rules and regulations come from above: members have no say in the system.
- The system of control is undemocratic and does not allow for independent thought or action.
- Members must be perfect in their obedience or face dire consequences.
- Rule breaking is treated as a direct attack on the group or its leader.
- Rule breaking has extreme consequences, such as public shaming, beatings, starvation, isolation, shunning, or excommunication.
- Publicly shaming or abuse of rule breakers is used as a scare tactic to keep other members in line.
- Members are encouraged to report rule breakers – including their own family members.
- Leaders or members in the inner circle can break rules without consequences.
- The system of control is connected to the working lives of cult members; hard work and even abject slavery are intrinsic parts of the rules and regulations.
- The leader can change the rules, regulations, and system at will or on a whim.
3b) Signs of healthy systems of control:
- The system is democratic; all members have a say in how the rules and regulations are developed and implemented.
- Members have the right to question, doubt, and challenge the system.
- Checks and balances are in place so that the system remains fluid, responsive, and fair.
- The system supports equality, and no person is above the rules.
- The system incorporates fairness, justice, and leniency; no one is humiliated, abused, or shunned.
- Members appreciate the sense of structure and discipline that the system provides.
- The system provides a healthy sense of belonging and camaraderie.
- The system helps member develop a unified group identity that does not erase their own identities.
- The group encourages critical thinking and welcomes ideas from outside the system.
4a) Signs of unhealthy systems of influence:
- There is constant pressure for people to change and conform.
- The push for change comes from above; the needs or ideas of group members are not important.
- There are frequent group dedication and commitment ceremonies and activities; oneness is a central goal.
- The system of influence is built into the powerful sense of community; this deep closeness is both supportive to members and also a way for the group to pry into and control members’ private lives.
- Loyalty to family or friends is discouraged; all loyalty must be focused on the group and the leader.
- Gossip, informal communication, and off-topic conversations may be forbidden.
- Members have no privacy; their actions, behaviors, emotions, and even thoughts are monitored.
- Members soon internalize the pressure to conform, and will obediently monitor and report their own behavior.
- Members must report on themselves and also each other – as a result, a culture of confession will arise.
- Confessions are public; and punishment and humiliation are public as well.
- The leader’s behavior is off limits; no one can report on the transgressions of the leader, for he or she is exalted and can do no wrong.
- Special people around the leader or the leadership group are also protected from any criticism; often there are no consequences for their behavior or actions.
- Members may be given or asked to choose new names or nicknames, and will be encouraged to let go of previous interests, relationships, loyalties, and goals.
- The group may develop its own special language that outsiders cannot understand.
- Any successes or hard work performed by individuals will be attributed to the group or leader, while any difficulty or failure will be blamed on individuals.
- People in the outside world are treated as non-people: unenlightened, deluded, or evil – and they have value only if they can be converted.
- The group of the leader may reinterpret events to verify the group’s beliefs, fears, or visions of the future; everything will be fitted into their all-inclusive and transcendent belief system.
4b) Signs of healthy systems of influence:
- The system helps people feel welcome and important to the group as they are.
- The system encourages healthy community, teamwork, and camaraderie, as well as open discussion and debate about group projects, goals, and decisions.
- Members are role models for each other, but internal competition is a choice rather than a requirement.
- Individual hard work and excellence are celebrated and attributed to the individual.
- The group encourages self-awareness and personal responsibility, but does not require public self-exposure.
- The system supports privacy, self-respect, independence, and kindness.
- Communication is direct and open, and secret-keeping is discouraged.
- Members are not required to spy on or report others.
- Members have the right to challenge the ways that group unity is achieved.
- Striving for excellence may be a group value, but the demands are not harsh, and people are not penalized for failure.
- Dedication may be a group value, but the group makes room for casual members.
- The system incorporates fairness, concern for individuals, and acceptance of outsiders.
- The group provides a healthy sense of belonging and realistic levels of commitment.
- The group does not require people to transform themselves or dedicate their lives to the cause.
- Leaders and special insiders are not above the rules, and they can be challenged if they disrupt or ignore group norms.
- The system helps members develop a unified group identity that does not erase their own identities.
As the authors explain, if an interpersonal or collective relationship you are in ticks off one or more item, it could be an unhealthy one. Whether it’s a ‘cult’ or not depends on whether it shows a significant number of unhealthy characteristics from all four parameters. So it is not so much about using the label ‘cult’ (unless it fits!) but figuring out whether your autonomy and selfhood are being honored and valued!
I encourage you to examine the collectives you are a part of. These could be churches, denominations, religions, philosophies, university departments, schools, schools of thought, clubs, societies, associations, families, partnerships, friendships, loverships, marriages, businesses, clubs, fraternities, sororities, nations, cultures, even species!
And finally, Lalich & McLaren offer the following Bill of Rights to solidify our sense of selfhood, which, when strong, might help repel us from unhealthy, unjust relationships:
- I have the right to ask for what I want.
- I have the right to say no to requests or demands that I cannot meet.
- I have the right to express all my feelings – positive and negative.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to make mistakes and do not have to be perfect.
- I have the right to follow my own values and beliefs.
- I have the right to say ‘no’ to anything if I feel that I am not ready, if it is unsafe, or if it conflicts with my values.
- I have the right to determine my own priorities.
- I have the right to not be responsible for the actions, feelings, or behaviors of others.
- I have the right to expect honesty from others.
- I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
- I have the right to be myself…to be unique.
- I have the right to express fear.
- I have the right to say ‘I don’t know’.
- I have the right to not give excuses or reasons for my behavior.
- I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings, knowledge, and/or life experiences.
- I have the right to my own personal space and time.
- I have the right to be playful.
- I have the right to be healthy and even healthier than those around me.
- I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
- I have the right to feel safe and to be in a non-abusive environment.
- I have the right to change and grow.
- I have the right to have my wants and needs respected by others.
- I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- I have the right to be happy.
Bodies, and the relationships between them, truly are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Achieving the rightful, just balance between members is an incredibly delicate and dynamic process, one that is so susceptible to error and so amenable to love and grace. In the four decades I’ve been alive, I’ve experienced both the fearful and wonderful sides of bodyhood and relationship. It has left me in a painful yet hopeful state of anxious-avoidance: I’m anxious I’ll miss out on intimacy because I know how wonderful it can be, and I avoid it because I know how fearful its contamination can be. That’s why, for the next however many years I live, I am devoting myself to learning the extremely fine art of exquisite relating: that’s where the real joy and juice of life is to be found!