Being able to choose our lives is only half the secret of human fulfillment. Each person who ever walked this earth is unique, carrying within a precise, singular combination of gifts, passion, and precise vocation. It’s quite astounding that, in spite of the world having hosted trillions of people, no two have had the same potential or mission. Yo-Yo Ma was preceded by more than one passionate lover of the cello, and Raphael was not the first to exist for his brushes and canvas, yet no one will ever fill the world with the same sounds or images as these artists.
Pope John Paul II spent his childhood and early youth under the successive tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin. Witnessing the extinction of the intangible and unearthly uniqueness of so many human beings made him the fierce defender of the dignity of the human person. It is the attack on this dignity, this gift-based individuation of human persons that constitutes the worst offense of cults. For a human life to be fulfilling, in addition to the ability to self-determine, we must walk the demanding and often lonely path from cultivation of the unique gift until it is a burning passion. On this journey, we must be guided by the signature “calling.” Cults erase this entire process by which we become truly authentic persons, replacing dreams with sham agendas and codes of behavior that render members little more than carbon copies of one another.
Rigid-structure cults such as Scientology’s Sea Org or fundamentalist Mormon polygamy not only substitute the establishment of utopia for the true dream of members, they often go so far as to select marriage partners and physically prohibit basic exercise of free will. More fluid cultic organizations curtail the scope and sense of members’ choices. This is done through fanatical visions of human life. There are so many barriers placed between members and the world in which they live; they are continually prevented by fear and paranoia from pursuing their personal goals. No external fences exist, but members live in a group-inspired internal jail nonetheless.
In a small Midwestern town a young man born in a cultic religious organization was gifted with a phenomenal singing voice. Guided by the over-arching conviction that the industry is fraught with temptations, the parents not only prevented their son from singing with anyone but family, they also objected to his attending college to develop his talent. The last time I saw this young man, he was stocking shelves in a little grocery store. He is safe; the light has gone out of his eyes.
I vividly remember walking on the Regis University campus in Denver for the first time. After ten years in a cloister and three slowly rejecting the belief that, as a woman, my calling was to live on a farm, sew my family’s clothes, and leave the studying and careers to the men, I started school. I am certain that the odd thirty year old clutching her chemistry book while feverishly taking notes looked positively deranged among the sea of half-sleeping eighteen-year-old freshmen, but only if you have suddenly realized the whole world is open to you can you understand the ecstasy of learning nomenclature or trying to answer the test question, “Is hell exothermic or endothermic?”