What is the Best Cult? | Varyer

What is the Best Cult?

When I want to cheer myself up, I try to imagine what my thirteen-year-old self would think if she knew I live in a big city with a boy and haven’t touched a TI-83 in over a decade…I’m in paradise, right? And yet, things feel a little empty sometimes. What’s the point of it all? Do you feel adrift too? Let’s talk about cults. I’m ready to join, and I’m doing my research.

Religions are cults, although they’re usually on the more benign end of the Unitarian → Nxivm spectrum. It’s weird when new ones pop up—they seem so corny without the centuries of built-up mystique. A prophet named Joe Smith? Okay…

Religion

Religions are cults, although they’re usually on the more benign end of the Unitarian → Nxivm spectrum. It’s weird when new ones pop up—they seem so corny without the centuries of built-up mystique. A prophet named Joe Smith? Okay…

I’ve always envied members of organized religion, with the answers to life’s most intractable dilemmas right at their fingertips. Sure, the world has its mysteries, but they’re confident that somebody else is handling that. What a treat!

The parakeet’s name was Ryan (RIP 🕊), and I genuinely felt bad for his devastated owner, who taught us that parakeets are charming companions. Ryan’s owner had taken him everywhere as a sort of icebreaker party trick and therefore wasn’t just mourning the loss of his parakeet; he was mourning the loss of his own personality.

Name has not been changed. f u Patti 🙂(but I do hope you see Greg again one day)

I once attended a grief support group that included a diverse set of mourners. One girl had accidentally driven into a tree and killed every passenger in the car, including her parents, while another member was grieving his elderly parakeet. The rest of us fell somewhere in between. But every one of us was united in loathing Patti, a spiritual boomer who repeatedly insisted that everything happened for a reason: “I miss my Greg, but everything happens for a reason.” When the orphan girl wept after a difficult visit to her parents’ graves, or tearfully shared her fear that her one living sister blamed her for the accident, Patti cut her off. “Honey, remember—it’s all part of God’s plan.”

I didn’t understand why Patti was in a support group at all. From her perspective, there wasn’t much sad about her situation. As a seventy-year-old, she had just a few years left to live before she would theoretically be reunited in heaven with her dumb husband Greg, so what was her problem?

Whatever drug she was on, though, I wanted it. Even if it was Christ. But to me, believing in God felt tantamount to believing in Santa. I couldn’t convince myself, and neither could Patti’s pamphlets.

I ran into Patti about a year after I quit attending meetings (I’d decided I was cured, which would turn out to be a wildly premature self-diagnosis 🥰). It was in an airport Starbucks line, and she breathlessly told me she’d just tripped while exiting the moving walkway and landed flat on her back. Because she’d been wearing a bulky hiking backpack, she’d struggled to get up and had caused a traffic jam. I imagined her rocking back and forth like a panicked turtle while people behind her hopped up onto the side bumpers to avoid her.

She was clearly embarrassed, so I assured her it was all part of God’s plan.

“I don’t know why He’d plan something like that!” she said indignantly, but she was already cheering up as she dug into her standard order: a puppuccino. While the moving walkway incident may have tested her faith, it was almost enough to make me a believer.

The parakeet’s name was Ryan (RIP 🕊), and I genuinely felt bad for his devastated owner, who taught us that parakeets are charming companions. Ryan’s owner had taken him everywhere as a sort of icebreaker party trick and therefore wasn’t just mourning the loss of his parakeet; he was mourning the loss of his own personality.

Name has not been changed. f u Patti 🙂(but I do hope you see Greg again one day)

I would use this as my own cult name if I ever start one.

Cult-cults

If you don’t want to go to church, there’s always a real cult, with uniforms, spare wives, and, at least on Boy Meets World, hugs. And it’s a good time for cults. We’re living in the cursed age that Carl Sagan predicted in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World:

I have a foreboding of…when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…”

I would use this as my own cult name if I ever start one.

If life feels a little dull, it might be because you’re lacking ‘celebration.’ Celebration is a game design term for feedback that emphasizes an important action, like the joyful little vibration in the hand-held controller when you get to the next level. Celebration is what makes playing your game feel rewarding; it’s driving you onward in what is an objectively meaningless exercise (no offense! So is life, even if you have an MBA!).

Hmm, we should all learn a trade, I guess? Organizing Dropbox files is the closest most of the creative class has come to manual labor, but we’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, cults are an attractive option, offering a wealth of feedback and linear progress that typically isn’t available to those of us without MBAs. There’s also a wonderful sense of community in a cult. It recently came to my attention that rats can cooperate in incredible ways that wouldn’t occur to me even if I had my own brain inside a lil’ rat bod. Teamwork is beautiful! That’s the promise of cults.

If life feels a little dull, it might be because you’re lacking ‘celebration.’ Celebration is a game design term for feedback that emphasizes an important action, like the joyful little vibration in the hand-held controller when you get to the next level. Celebration is what makes playing your game feel rewarding; it’s driving you onward in what is an objectively meaningless exercise (no offense! So is life, even if you have an MBA!).

This is how I feel whenever I get a drop of power, like managing one intern for a summer.

How do cults actually work? Rick Ross (lol), an authority on cult dynamics, says “the leader becomes addicted to the adulation and funds of his followers just as they become dependent upon him to fill their needs.” But when followers keep showering the leader with disproportionate praise, the leader, on some level knowing his (or her! 💅) own message is total bullshit, loses respect for his followers. This creates some real mean girl dynamics (my own interpretation).

Sadly, babysitting is probably as close as I’ll ever come to controlling people. Lacking authority and respect, I kept children in line with the only nonviolent disciplinary tool available to me: my imagination. My most inspired lies could buy me a few weeks of fearful obedience. While babysitting a neighbor boy, I explained what a rotary phone was after we saw one on a TV show. He was amazed by my knowledge. “If it’s so old, how do you know what it is?” I told him I’d grown up with a rotary phone because I wasn’t fifteen—I was fifty. I was a ghost. I’d died as a teenager in my current house, next door to his, and now I haunted it. My ‘parents’ were just the current homeowners. He went to bed on time that night (with the lights on).

This is how I feel whenever I get a drop of power, like managing one intern for a summer.

I do have partial immunity to some cults due to my fear of prophet beards; I would never join anything run by a man with one.

I’m not opposed to running my own cult, but I’m glad I didn’t end up in someone else’s. I can be a bit of a follower, with an incredible instinct for coming to trends a couple years late (ask me about my Always pan). I was a ripe target in college especially, when I was whatever the suburban equivalent of street smart is. I was underdeveloped intellectually, but capable of using extra credit to pass math class and appear functional while remaining at a loss in every other area of life. I spent hours transcribing Elliott Smith lyrics and reading about love languages (I was incredulous, and still am, that we’re supposed to pick just one). This lifestyle set me up to be dangerously in awe of almost any attractive boy. I remember being deeply impressed by one in particular, considering him capable and smart, because he knew how to use a needle and syringe (on himself…because he was an avid heroin user).

It was while I was bumbling around gaming the grade point system that I met one of my first acquaintances to have grown up in a cult, a peaceful Colorado commune that had gradually turned into a controlling sect promoting childhood sexuality (shudder). He and his parents had left, but they hadn’t gotten around to changing his name, which was along the lines of Watchful Steadfast. Watch said his exotic name was a nice reminder of how the cult used to be; its original founders had been inspired by the ancient cult of Dionysus. Dionysus and old-timey sects often sound romantic and healing (lots of nature, femme wine parties), but if you read the fine print, there are a lot of troubling details like drinking ‘sacred urine’ to treat anything ranging from cancer to depression. Luckily today we can treat disease and make brain chemistry adjustments with modern pharmaceuticals. Anti-depressants don’t erase existential dilemmas, but they do make it possible to disregard said dilemmas in favor of momentary pleasures; food, for instance. I wouldn’t be able to hack it in the Weigh Down Workshop.

I do have partial immunity to some cults due to my fear of prophet beards; I would never join anything run by a man with one.

I’m not opposed to running my own cult I’m not opposed to running my own cult

Families

We’re all born into cults of varying quality and intensity: our families. A family is joined without consent, against one’s will, and is impossible to ever truly leave behind. Bringing children into a family is the ultimate expression of its founders’ vanity (unless you were a ‘surprise’ 😉). All are weird to outside eyes (sometimes really weird). I first realized how different people could be at a friend’s house the morning after a sleepover, watching the entire family guzzle steaming hot orange juice; it was one of the most unnerving rituals I’ve ever witnessed.

My own family has a rigid yet eclectic dogma. Among other things, my parents are against:

  • Dogs under 30 pounds

  • PDA

  • Christmas lights that come in net form

I actually do like my family, just wanna squeeze that disclaimer in here.

Within this belief system, any habits picked up by family members outside the house are suspect—that I have occasionally used almond milk is a BIG DEAL. My mother refers to it as Silk, the brand name, implying that I’m being absurdly fancy.

Anyway—despite all this, if I were to join any cult, it would probably be a family. (A nuclear-ish family, not The Family.) Maybe I’m just trying to make the best of a situation I’ve been born into (you know me, always thinking positive), but in its ideal state, a family is everything a cult purports to be: supportive, rewarding, fun, reliable. And there are ways to latch onto another family if you’re dissatisfied with your own (it’s called gold-digging and it’s a noble sport).

I actually do like my family, just wanna squeeze that disclaimer in here.

So which family to infiltrate? The families I know best are TV families. I’m especially partial to the ones in Jason Katims shows. While the Taylors of Friday Night Lights are tempting, I have to go with the Bravermans of Parenthood. Like so many other things in my life, real estate is a major factor. The Taylor family trio (Gracie Belle does not count) lives in a claustrophobic ranch house in a state that’s outlawed abortion. Plus Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler are a little too attractive. Everyone would know I was adopted. Meanwhile, on Parenthood, a wholesome coastal elite-cottagecore fest of a network drama, the Bravermans have significant real estate holdings in the form of bougie Bay Area bungalows, a houseboat, and a vintage recording studio. They’re obsessed with themselves and their ‘clan’ (any non-Scottish family to use this term has especially cultish tendencies, but it’s better than referring to one’s family as a ‘gang’), and I hate Crosby’s hats, Camille’s Botox, and Sydney’s personality, but family is family. Together, they become something greater than themselves, and I love them. Do yourself a favor and get to know the Bravermans before you join a multi-level marketing scheme. They’re the best cult out there.