When Two Thoughts Collide

It was the day I, Ella, finally made up my mind to run as far and fast as I could. Todd was the only person I would tell. He holds my secrets and I hold his.

It’s been that way ever since we met in Mr. Evan’s class ten years ago. I would never have made it this far if he hadn’t been there to tell me that “everything always looks better in the morning.” Even when things didn’t, he could make me believe that someday they would.

I gathered up a bunch of stuff that I thought I’d need to get me through the next couple of weeks. Backpack loaded, I slipped out the slider door.

It would turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes that I would ever make. But it would also lead me to some of life’s greatest awakenings.

I headed to a spot where the family had vacationed when we were actually a family. North of Ventura, it had a small town feel, yet was still a place where work could be found and people didn’t ask a lot of questions.

There was a bulletin board in the coffee shop that the locals checked out each day. One post caught my eye. It was an invitation to a “meet and greet.” Just what I needed – friends.

I was met by smiling faces, soothing music, and a home-style meal. Couldn’t wait till the next meet-up.

Cecie was the outgoing one. Such a free spirit, so self-assured, and so much fun to be with. Jeanie was more soft spoken, loved one-on-one conversations, and was as bright as she was beautiful. Geoff led with his intellect and entertained with his wit.

Then there was Peter. He was the proverbial high school star quarterback, prom king, and class valedictorian all rolled into one. He owned any room he walked into along with everything in it. Like everyone else, I was awestruck by his confidence and demeanor.

The fifth meeting was so different from all the others. I had moved in with my newfound friends and was contributing to the household. Meetings had become more formal. Conversations centered on more intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual subjects. More and more it seemed that my roommates were delving into my background, family connections, and friends on the outside.

There was some drug use going on, but mostly only pot. And there were some love interests and interactions, but nothing that you wouldn’t see in your typical college dorm.

At first things didn’t bother me. But as time passed, I started to feel uncomfortable. Not really knowing why, I wrote the discomfort off as just “feelings.”

Little daily pleasantries, like catching up on the news, checking out social media, or texting a friend, especially Todd, started to be sort of frowned upon. Hard to explain, but the pressure to just be with our own little group began to build.

Sleep started to elude me and confusing thoughts plagued me.

“What’s happening to me?” I whispered.

Voice to self: “Ella, am I still here?”

*********************

This is Ella’s story. But it is also the story of thousands of others who have been caught in the grip of a destructive cult.

– The young woman was at a vulnerable point in her life, ripe for recruiting.

– Her immediate physical needs were being attended to, supplying her with comfort and security.

– Friendships were cultivated, satisfying one of the most basic human needs for companionship and love.

After being lavished with attention and affection, through a process that cult experts characterize as “love bombing,” Ella was sufficiently conditioned to let her guard down.

This is the point at which some future benefit is “presented.” A cult recruit like Ella is programmed to believe that the dominant trusted friend (cult leader), along with the other trusted members of the group (fellow cult members), know the secret path to enlightenment, power, personal happiness, and other such things related to the nature of the cult in question.

There’s a catch, though. The cult recruit must now agree to conform with cult beliefs, requirements, and protocols in order to gain access to the “wisdom” and “benefits” that the inner members enjoy.

One of the most powerful forms of conditioning that an individual can be subjected to is the inducement of “cognitive dissonance.”

This term was first used by social psychologist Leon Festinger to describe a tension in the human mind that arises because of the presence of two or more beliefs, which are unable to coexist, thereby creating a conflict.

Human beings naturally seek harmony. If there is a disruption of mental consistency, this will place an individual or individuals into a vulnerable state. Destructive cults seek first to induce this state and then to exploit it.

Wildly false messages and directives are communicated repeatedly, which generates mental tension, i.e., cognitive dissonance, and softens up the cult recruit for further mental conditioning. Eventually, the cult recruit is likely to accept big lies as truths.

In fact, if some contrary concrete evidence is actually presented to a conditioned cult member, he or she will many times stubbornly reject the facts and even double-down on a false belief.

This phenomenon is something Festinger calls “belief perseverance.”

It is a sign that a soul has taken another ill-fated step toward total mind control.

Fame and Misfortune

It’s a strange world in which we find ourselves.

The start of the New Year confirmed to many of us that some individuals we thought we knew so well weren’t the same folks we thought they were.

Many of them appeared to have transformed into a new persona literally overnight, leaving people, who had supported, admired, and trusted them, in a state of disbelief, distress, and overwhelming sadness.

The depth of duplicity to which they had sunk shocked us to the core. But it did something else too. It set us on a path to find out how human beings can cause so much hurt, do so much damage, and care so little about what they had done.

I would like to offer one explanation, which is based upon my academic background and application of sociological, cultural, and media psychology principles.

There is an insatiable human need to be loved. We are social creatures who look to one another to supply this crucial component of our very survival.

As evidence that we are loved by others, we constantly seek affirmation, i.e., outward signs that sum up the degree and substance of the affection and esteem in which we are held.

In our present-day society, just as in societies of old, fame defines the amount of acclaim an individual has acquired at a moment in time.

In my book “Hollywood Nation,” I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing the late Joel Siegel. The legendary film critic told me a fame-related story about President John F. Kennedy, how he broke with tradition by not wearing a fedora hat at his inauguration.

Hats at that time were a part of the standard look for men. Siegel mentioned that even at “ball games they wore a hat.”

But when, at such an important event, people saw the fedora missing from JFK’s head, suddenly the fashion attire went out of style.

Siegel’s Kennedy anecdote helps to provide insight as to why seemingly insignificant things surrounding famous people actually matter a great deal.

For a long time now, I have suggested that in our society those we place on the celebrity pedestal greatly influence us. In many instances, we actually hold affection for them and innately desire the affection to be mutual. Consequently, we often seek to emulate them.

In my book “Tales from the Left Coast,” I note that each of us longs to be accepted. And we also seek some evidence that we, as individuals, belong to something larger than our singular selves.

In wanting to belong, we frequently alter our behavior to fit in with the behavior of others, i.e., we conform to societal and cultural norms. Whether or not the conformance is a good or bad thing may hinge upon the circumstances, context, and applicable ethics.

A natural fear that we all carry, albeit one of which we may not be conscious, is fear of death. Our survival instinct compels us to try and alleviate this fear as best we can.

People of faith are able to dispense with the fear of death with the theological reassurance of an afterlife, which is far greater than the earthly one we currently experience or any that a human mind could ever imagine.

For those lacking in the above-described belief system, or a similar spiritual ideology, fear of death may be lessened by thoughts of achieving a type of immortality that fame might seemingly offer.

Our inner awareness of our mortality at the conscious or subconscious level may lead us to seek protection from the fear that we will someday cease to exist.

Psychologist Orville Gilbert Brim, who collected data on the subject of fame with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, opined that fame is “like belief in the afterlife in medieval communities, where people couldn’t wait to die and go on to better life.”

According to Brim, the desire to achieve fame ultimately springs from the human need to be part of a group, to obtain acceptance and approval.

The antithesis of one who is adored is one who is an outcast.

When we receive love and adulation from our fellow human beings, it is the highest of highs. Likewise, when we are rebuffed, rejected, and/or exiled it is the lowest of lows. In fact, the latter experience is tantamount to death.

According to Sigmund Freud, the pursuit of fame can be explained by the subconscious impulses that relate to our need to be recognized.

These impulses are more predominant in those who have stronger ambitions, which may explain why some people have a heightened need to pursue fame more fiercely.

The notions of – the pursuit of fame, the need to hold onto it once it has been secured, and the desire to make it grow ever larger – are woven together with the impulse to conform.

In my assessment, this would explain why so many people, the likes of which I described above in my opening, caved so easily to other influential individuals and groups, whom they most longed to please, and whose continuous acceptance they still desperately desire.

It is a hollow choice that these people made.

And they may soon come to know that fame is fleeting, but misfortune oftentimes lingers.