It was 1999, I was 21, I was wearing some sort of embroidered hat, ripped jeans and muddy trainers as I stood in a crowd of several thousand people on a warm June night at Glastonbury. My brother and his friends had some other camp-fire based priorities so I was on my own for the headline act, Skunk Anansie. Being from a very religious family, I had been discouraged from listening to ‘satanic’ music, and my musical expression had mostly been singing along quietly to REM on my disc-man, or belting out the far more acceptable holy songs at Sunday Service.
I loved the Sunday singing, I always felt an amazing surge of love and connection with my fellow members, and delighted in the way we moved, clapped, sang and swayed in harmony. The love of God flowed through the crowd, from the holy table at the front – with the pure white table cloth adorned with its divine accoutrements of flowers, candles, and the gold framed holy photographs – through the inspired guitarist at the front and straight to each of our souls as we united in blissful song. God was there and we were His beloved children as we sang jubilantly about His triumph and glorious love.
The last one of those was only a few weeks ago, and now here I was, a church youth leader no less, at the epicentre of the nation’s ‘fallen’ music, listening to Skin as she shouted across the mass of people ‘It’s a complete honour to be the last band to play Glastonbury this century – and it didn’t fucking rain!!’ The roar of applause soared through the crowd and I joined in with a ‘woooooo!’ at the shared exuberance over the metereogical miracle.
I wasn’t drinking, I had no interest in drugs, and I was standing quite far back in the crowd. I didn’t expect I would stay for the whole set but I found I really liked her music. By the time she reached ‘Twisted,’ I was singing along, proud that I knew the words, and loving the way the entire crowd flowed and swayed together under the magenta lights flashing from the stage. I felt a rush of something incredibly powerful in my soul as the lead singer Skin pointed the microphone at us and a vast crowd of voices including mine joined together to sing in unison. ‘And I’ll do anything, yes I’ll do anything, to belong, to be strong, to say there’s nothing wrong!’ I watched this amazing performer on the immense screen next to the stage. A skinny bald black woman in a tank top and huge swishy black trousers, stamping around the stage and head banging as she poured her entire being through her voice into the microphone gripped in one hand as the other hand pounded the air. What a magnificent person, the embodiment of sheer talent, power and beauty. And with ninety thousand people held masterfully in the palm of her hand, an entire sea of arms waving and voices singing along with her. The crowd stretched for miles in every direction, dotted with swaying lights and flags, including a huge skull and crossbones flag at the front.
I had promised my mum Glastonbury would be safe and lovely. I knew I would have no way to describe just how truly magical it was.
For the last song, Skin cried, ‘Are you all going to go absolutely fucking crazy?’ Of course we were. It was electric. I didn’t know the song – something about a baby and a swastika – but I still swayed along with her and the crowd, and watched in complete awe as she climbed up on the speaker, belted out a few lines from her black tower, then leapt off, still singing, tore off her tank top and threw it into the crowd before her final act of excellence at the end of the song when she climbed on the kick drum and screamed ‘We were Skunk Anansie!’ before leaping into the air in a moment of silence and landing on the stage in perfect time to the final crash of drums and guitars. The lights swirled, the music resounded, the crowd screamed and she disappeared off stage.
That was the final moment of the final Glastonbury of the last century, and it was sublime. As I stumbled through the dispersing crowd among the dark campsites to try to find my tent, I was overcome by the intense beauty of that moment, the miraculous energy and perfection of the music, and the beautiful community of a crowd of strangers experiencing a shared bliss. I tried to pray, as was my habit when I had something on my mind.
‘Dear Heavenly father, was that you? Are you here? That was amazing! She’s amazing. So is everyone in this crowd, they are beautiful miraculous loving people. But I always thought that people here don’t know you, that they belong to satan, and that you couldn’t even be here? But you’re here right? Are you here? Well even if you’re not, I’m here. I really am. And I’m so grateful. Thank you father.’
That moment stayed with me. It marked a small turning point, not just in my appreciation of fantastic music, but an understanding that the bliss of my church community was not confined to the church. Whether it was God or not, that deep and powerful sense of connection, love and beauty could be found elsewhere. With complete strangers. And the fact that my church had convinced me I could only find ‘true’ love and belonging inside the church made me begin to question what else they had told me which might not be true.
21 years later, I’m still thinking about this need for belonging, and the lengths we go to in order to feel like we belong. I know it’s one of our basic emotional needs, stemming from tribal times, when a loss of the safety of the community would leave you in danger of being left out in the wild for the wolves. The need for community runs deep in our veins and explains that magical sense of euphoria at a music festival, or a football match, or at church. It feels amazing and necessary to be included and loved as part of a group, especially when it involves singing. And the more you resonate with the values, choices or music of that group, the more of a sense of belonging you feel. And it could be argued that it shouldn’t matter if you get that sense of belonging from a crowd at Glastonbury, or a prayer circle at church. But what I’ve learned is that if you really quite desperately need that sense of belonging, you might just compromise a little of yourself to maintain it.
Community is just one of our needs. After last week’s excitement about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I have been reminded of the nine Human Givens, by my lovely friend Bindi. It’s a more advanced model of the emotional needs that drive our behaviour. Bindi offers beautiful sessions to explore these but the quick summary is as follows: we need security, attention, autonomy, community, privacy, purpose, intimacy, status and achievement.
For me, I’ve never been great at feeling like I belong, so I have done things to try to get that need met, and now I see it was often at the cost of my other needs. I spent many years in a church that encouraged the active sacrifice of your own needs, so things like autonomy and intimacy were simply out of bounds, while privacy was non-existent. But every time I started to long for any of those other things – intimacy in particular – I was terrified of the inevitable loss of the other needs – purpose, status, achievement and that really important community – which I believed were unattainable outside of the church.
It was a few more years after that Glastonbury night when I started to realise how very cleverly an organisation can tap into your deep rooted needs as a human, and use them to get you to do what they want. Of course I was told there was no God (and therefore no love, connection, belonging) outside of the group, because if there was, I would be in danger of leaving. Which took a while, but was eventually true.
And having left a very controlling organisation, I have been questioning anything that tries to manipulate or control me by using any of my fears or needs.
But it’s hard because if you really think about it, we are controlled by so much. A ‘high demand religious group’ is an extreme version (observe how I still avoid the word cult as I have connections with people that I still prefer to keep) but it’s difficult to draw a line and say that anything isn’t slightly culty. Most of our choices and behaviours are influenced by the opinions, approval or acceptance of others. My choice of shoes is determined by what I know to be acceptable, fashionable and ethical. The colour, style and fabric – and who they’re made by – all influence my choice. I want my shoes to be in line with my values, be aesthetically acceptable, comfortable for me, and paired suitably with my outfit. There is so much to consider, and I risk losing some esteem or connection of I get it wrong. I prefer trainers any day, but for working in an office (back in those crazy days of actually going into work) I put up with uncomfortable tight smart shoes, and if there was an evening event I sacrificed comfort and safety in order to put on some horrible dangerous heels that I only enjoyed wearing for the first five minutes when I felt like the complements and approval generated enough of a sense of belonging that it was worth the sacrifice of painful feet and a really awful walk home in the hurtful pointy things.
The point is, I wouldn’t call shoe choice an example of cultic practice, but you can see the similarities. Anything that makes you sacrifice or surrender a bit of yourself in order to feel safe and loved should be questioned. If a relationship or group demands you dress or speak or behave a certain way (that we’re not comfortable with) we know that’s controlling and we speak out against it, but when we do it to ourselves due to the fear of not getting that approval and love, then you could argue that is on the same scale of manipulation as an extreme religion. My particular religious beliefs were very compellingly introduced to my brain when it was developing, and I grew up knowing no alternative to the fear-induced obedience that I assumed was normal. It was a really difficult and time-consuming process to unpick it all, untangle the mass of lies from the genuine love mixed up in it, and work out what is true for me. Still working on it, hence this blog. But I am grateful that such an extreme place of manipulation has forced me to fight hard against any perceived truth, and any behaviour that’s expected of me that goes even slightly against my newly developing values.
2020 has been a year of extra questioning of the systems and leaders that we have trusted. I didn’t realise I had so much left to question, and now I am even more sceptical of the media, the government, advertisers, public figures, providers of equipment, medicine, food, music and shoes.
There is manipulation and control going on at every level, and most of it uses our fears and needs to control us. We see how easy it is to use fear and sex to sell. There’s a great line in the movie Bombshell where the reporter says the paper’s ethos is to ‘Frighten. Titillate. Frighten. Tittillate’ and when you look at all the things piling through our social media feeds (the ones that require a certain behaviour from us) they seem to alternate between the two. And if they are frightening or titillating us, someone is making either money or followings out of us. They know our needs, and they know how to capture our attention by promising to meet them.
When I did my mission year in America as a young Moonie, our routine was to be either witnessing or fundraising. My brother phoned me once and asked with a harsh laugh, ‘So are you still making money and members for the Moonies?’ I defended my choice of gap year sacrifices, but his comment struck me hard. It was exactly what we were doing, what my parents had done for years, and what I was expected to do for the rest of my life. Make money or members. It took a while before I could see it as the horribly exploitative method of control that it was, but now I see how we still carry on the same behaviour (to a lesser extent) outside of the church. We share things we like on facebook, in the hope of generating more followers or likes for the groups, people or ideas that we support. I give my money or my membership to causes or groups that make me feel safe and valuable, where I get a sense of belonging, and feel a sense of duty to keep showing up. Choir is a great example. Charismatic leader, circle of like minded lovely people with a shared love of singing, and a wonderful cosy sense of belonging, complete with ritual, a bit of peer pressure, some unspoken codes of practice, an obligation to commit, and of course the much required financial contribution.
But choir is not a cult! Of course not. Because the sacrifice (2 hours and £7.50 per week) is absolutely reasonable. We know the choir leader isn’t living a lavish lifestyle out of our little contributions, we know she actually IS working harder than any of us, and the benefits of attending far exceed the small cost of membership. In an extreme cult scenario, the sacrifice (every hour of your life and all the money you earn) is a recognisably high price to pay, but the sense of connection, belonging, meaning and value in return is similarly extreme. Nowadays the church I know may have toned it down to requiring only 10% of your income and a few hours of your life per week (the matter of the constant presence in your brain will be the subject of a further, fiercer article). This makes it far less controlling, but it appears to similarly provide far less in the way of ecstatic rewards of blissful connection and love than it used to. A diagram illustrating the sacrifices required to get needs met may be required in order to answer the question where do you draw the line?
The answer is probably in a different place for each person. Because some people actually like to be controlled. They like a strong leader, they feel safe with the mystical stories and magical explanations that justify requiring a certain behaviour from them, and they are happy to surrender a lot of their needs to get a few main ones met. It’s easy to dismiss all the complexities and challenges of human life with a fairy-tale explanation of an error made by two naked humans in a garden, that a later human with access to magical powers can solve (as long as you give your life up to him). It’s so wonderfully easy if that is true.
And someone who knows how much I want that to be true is able to manipulate me into acting out of fear of being caught up in all the perceived evil in the world (which it has fabricated to keep me afraid) and frightens me into submission. It also knows very well my need to belong, and will control my behaviour into something that benefits them by providing a safe exclusive place of belonging and community in which to do so.
It’s so easy.
So having spent twenty years unravelling the promises that were used to control me, I am now exploring this delicate balance between meeting some needs at the cost of some others. It is helpful to have the Human Givens checklist as I find ways to meet my need for a sense of belonging, while not giving up on my need for autonomy or purpose.
As the divisions in the world seem to be getting harsher, and our need to align with a certain group gets stronger, we need to look at where we are getting our sense of belonging. Is it from something that we grew up with and have never questioned because it feels so safe and familiar? Is it something our friends are all aligned with and we don’t want to lose the connection with them? Is it something that meets our need for belonging at the cost of something else? We all want to find our safe place in a community, but we also have control over what we choose to sacrifice in order to attain it.
I watched the 1999 Glastonbury finale again recently – it’s flipping amazing, I suggest you do too – and only now do I hear the words that Skunk Anansie sang in that final song:
‘Who put the little baby swastikkka on the wall?
It wasn’t very high couldna been more than four years old.
You rope them in young,
So small, so innocent, so young
So delicately done, grown up in your poison.’