Friday, March 19, 2021

38. Fitting In Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

As a child growing up in Southern California in the 70s and 80s I felt afraid, very afraid.  One of my first memories was being told by an older child that the Manson Family was going to break into my home, tie me to the ceiling beam, stab me to death, and write “pig” all over the walls with my blood.  This is a fairly disturbing thought for an adult to digest but for a child no more than five it gave me severe terror and is likely the reason I still can’t sleep with a window open.

I did what most children do when they're traumatized, I tried to block it out.  But every now and then a television show would preview an interview they had airing with one of the convicts, or their families, or their lawyers.  Whenever local news needed to boost the ratings, teasing a new grotesque detail of the murders was guaranteed to terrorize and titillate.  

At some point in 9th grade I was reading Michelle Philips’s autobiography “California Dreaming” as she described an incident where the Manson family tried to break into her home to kill her too.  Somehow they didn’t succeed and she described them “waddling” away from her home.  That image scared the bejesus out of me but this time I wanted to face my fears.  As overwhelmingly terrified as I felt, I was also curious.  How did Charles Manson get people to kill for him?  Why would they do this on their own volition?  What was the gain for them, what was the reward?

Somehow I got a copy of Vincent T. Bugliosi’s book, “Helter Skelter” to try to gain a better understanding of what really happened, and why.  Did they really tie people to the ceiling beams and stab them to death, or was that just something someone told me to scare me (spoiler alert: - yup, that happened).  

In general, most of the people in the “Family” were runaways who had been disavowed by their families, physically / sexually abused, homeless, and looking for a place where they would belong and feel safe.  They wanted to identify with a group of people who bonded together for a common purpose - which in this case was to overthrow the Establishment.  It made them feel like their lives mattered and like they were contributing to a cause greater than themselves.  Running around Los Angeles killing people was how they were taught they could fit in and participate as vital members of this community.

Flash forward to summer, 2020.  COVID is in full swing, the nation’s percentage rates are rising, death rates are increasing , and the science behind mask wearing and risk reduction is getting clearer and clearer.  In the middle of all this, Donald Trump holds large indoor rallies, gathering thousands of people without masks, jeopardizing their lives.  Why in the world would people line up to put themselves and their loved ones at risk like this?

I watched the interviews given before, during, and after many of these rallies.  And overwhelmingly I heard people articulate the same thing as the Manson family:  They want to belong. They want to feel like they're doing something for the greater good of their [white supremicist] communities.  They want to feel like they are valuable.  They're willing to sacrifice for a greater good.  They want to feel their lives matter.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in these 50 years, it’s that a lot of people are desperate to feel like they fit in with a group.  To a lesser extreme, “peer pressure” is often used to motivate teenagers and adults to do some self-destructive and stupid things.  Hazing rituals in colleges only work because they’re preying on someone’s need to fit into an elite group.  Cults operate in very much the same way (ie, Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate).   People will go to desperate lengths to feel like their lives have membership and meaning.  

As the purveyor of independent purple turkeys this just never made sense to me.  Why would someone significantly sacrifice who they are and compromise their health in order to gain the approval and attention of others?  Isn’t there any other way for people to feel like they are making relevant contributions to their family and community?  

I believe that the ability to have independent integrity and values, even when others disapprove, is key to growing older with empowerment and meaning.  The people I know who thrive as they age know themselves, know what they stand for, and are willing to occasionally face rejection in order to keep it real.  They don’t drastically alter their inside beliefs or outward appearance in order to be accepted by a group or acclaimed by fans.  They are centered in love for who they are, compassion for humanity, responsibility for their actions.  [Some examples will be presented in an upcoming  Lesson]. 

What if we lived in a culture that offered people an inherent sense of value and worth, instead of making their identity contingent on doing something harmful to others? What if there were structures that helped people to feel that their lives had purpose and meaning throughout the lifespan while simultaneously helping others?  What if people connected with their authentic loving self first, and then interacted with others as a way of expressing that inner love?  This is the ideal I'm looking to explore and participate in throughout my fifties and upward.    Stay tuned.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

No comments:

Post a Comment