• The key attraction to cults is the desire for a fresh start in the face of life's difficulties
"Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success."
Those were the details in a job advert published in a British newspaper sometime between 1912 and 1913. The men were needed for an expedition to the South Pole led by explorer Ernest Shackleton. Even with today's technology, such an exploration is filled with risks due to the bitter cold, ice and unpredictable climate of Antarctica. Despite knowing they might not return home, lots of people applied for the jobs.
The story demonstrates how people can leave everything they have worked for to embark on a fresh beginning. The men who applied to join the exploration of the South Pole had families, homes and occupations but opted to embark on a journey that could kill them. As indicated in the advert, the pay was not a key attraction. Just as those men took a leap of faith, starting afresh requires a strong belief that the future will be better than the old life being left behind.
JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN
The concept of giving up the familiar for new beginnings largely explains why so many people joined the Shakahola starvation cult. Men and women, some rich and others poor, left their marriages, careers and schools to join an isolated religious community.
Some of them left permanent and pensionable jobs to live in mud-walled structures lacking water and electricity. In their quest to make sense of everything that happened at Shakahola, detectives are investigating whether some of the victims were forced to go there.
Leaving the safety of one's home to start a life elsewhere is a huge risk in the best of circumstances. Did the victims not find it unusual they had to stop working? What were they going to eat? Did the missing university and secondary school students not find it suspicious that a preacher was asking them to drop out of school? Did small-scale traders not find it bizarre to be told to close their shops? Perhaps the possibility of life without deadlines, bosses, exams and landlords was too appealing.
The tendency of people wanting to start over has been labelled the 'Fresh Start Effect.' Psychologists say the markers of a fresh start include moving to a new house, getting a new job, ending a relationship or significant dates such as New Year's Day. The feeling of starting afresh motivates people to change their lives in ways they previously would have thought impossible.
According to Psychology Today, the three reasons why the Fresh Start Effect works are that it provides a confidence boost, a new identity and a clean slate. "When starting a new chapter of their life, many individuals envision a clean slate or blank canvas, untouched and unspoiled by previous mistakes. In an attempt not to ruin this unique chance at a new and improved life, they are particularly keen to avoid failure," Dr Eva Krockow, a consultant in decision making, wrote.
Jason Hreha, a behavioural scientist, explains that fresh starts are rooted in the idea that people view new beginnings as an opportunity to distance themselves from past failures and shortcomings. "This can lead to a psychological reset, with individuals experiencing a renewed sense of optimism, self-efficacy and motivation," Hreha says. If used positively, a fresh start can lead to improved personal well-being, healthier habits, better financial management and overall personal development.
"A fresh start is a clearing of the mind, body and soul, making way for new things," says Dr John L Howard, author and business mentor. In his view, starting afresh does not always have to mean completely changing your way of life. Finding new ways to do routine tasks or walking away from something that is no longer working is a great way to reset your life.
"Often, the change in career or your business will lead you to reinvent yourself and reclaim the version of yourself you always imagined," Howard says.
People, therefore, seek a fresh start when they feel their lives do not match the vision they have of the future. A certain amount of dissatisfaction must exist for an individual to want change. Many of the survivors and former members of the Shakahola starvation cult said they were attracted by what appeared as an easy life.
Ben Amani, a survivor, said he went to Shakahola after hearing he could get land for Sh15,000. "I could not survive in Malindi town with Sh15,000 but with the same money, I could start a new life in the countryside," he told reporters after he was rescued from starvation.
At some point, everyone will encounter circumstances that will require a new beginning. This could be triggered by an unexpected job loss, separation or divorce, death of a spouse or close relative, financial bankruptcy, a major illness or anything else that shakes a person's core beliefs. It is, thus, necessary to find out how to embark on a fresh start without falling victim to fraudsters.
"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible," Catholic icon St Francis of Assisi said 800 years ago. Nothing is achieved without planning. Set the goals you want to achieve in your quest to start again. Calculate the time-frames within which action must be taken to achieve those goals.
Is your goal to increase your income? Is your goal to live healthier, or is it to strengthen your family relationships? Goals determine the actions to be taken. Goals without deadlines are nothing more than wishful thinking. Goals based on luck, such as winning a jackpot, are not realistic.
Interestingly, lots of lifestyle experts argue that physically removing yourself from current circumstances can help with starting afresh. Being in a new environment with new people will challenge you to think differently. Remaining in the same place is a constant reminder of past failures. Try new things and be open to new experiences.
It is now becoming clear that the key attraction to cults is the desire for a fresh start in the face of life's difficulties. In a hostile world filled with broken relationships, cults offer a sense of community. The desire for a fresh start is a genuine human need, which can generate positive improvements, but watch out for people who want to exploit your vulnerabilities.