On a business trip last winter, I got into a car to drive from Austin to Dallas, TX. I had all sorts of intentions for how I would spend my drive time – find an NPR affiliate, catch up with people on the phone, troll local stations for good music, and so on. But after I plugged my phone into the car’s USB port to charge the battery, a Ben Folds tune began to play and I realized that I could pipe my iTunes through the car’s system. An hour later I noticed a Ben Folds Five song that I had heard before, and discovered my iTunes was set on “Repeat Artist.” Did I change it? No, despite having every opportunity to take it off repeat, switch to another artist, or do something else entirely. I left it on and listened to every Ben Folds song in my music library multiple times for over four hours. For whatever reason it was exactly what I needed to do.
We have mixed reactions to obsessions and obsessive behavior. On the one hand, we are wary of them. We warn against them. We provide cautionary tales that show how people go overboard with obsessions, especially harmful ones. The word “obsession” often carries a negative connotation, as though it is something to be avoided.
However, look at celebrated and accomplished individuals, and you will find obsession time and time again. The athlete practicing for hours a day from a young age. The scientist making a groundbreaking discovery after years of focused research. The musician who develops a new sound following months of immersion in a particular genre. As Malcolm Gladwell reports in Outliers, some research indicates that mastery demands at least 10,000 hours of practice in the area we wish to master. Imagine how many hours Bobby Flay has spent in a kitchen, or how many hours Alicia Keys has spent at a piano. With layers upon layers of effort and experience, they have built pearls of knowledge and accomplishment. What might their lives have looked like if they had pulled back from their obsessions?
When you are in the grips of an obsession that doesn’t seem linked to something concrete, like a wonderful future career, it can be hard to find the value in it. Looking back, though, I see times when I somehow benefited from things I couldn’t tear myself away from. Years ago when I was transitioning from an acting career to working as a writer, I got hooked on a particular Sarah McLachlan album. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care, in fact I didn’t think about it at all. All I knew was there was nothing else I wanted to listen to, and for several months I was looping that album all day long as I sat at my (Gateway!) computer. Now when I think about the character of that album, I sense in it a profound insecurity, a stumbling toward something more solid – in short, a focus that mirrored my emotional state at the time. It must have given me some comfort, some strength to keep moving ahead.
Needs can be fulfilled by food obsessions too. Early in my pregnancies I was obsessed with red meat and Romano cheese (clearly needing a lot of protein) until six weeks along, and then I would flip suddenly to garlic mashed potatoes and pasta with butter (carbs must have been necessary building blocks). Similarly, something about watermelon must have helped me process chemotherapy as well as the drugs I took to combat the side effects of the chemo – I ate it obsessively when I was going through treatment for cancer. As for the not-so-healthy food obsessions I’ve gone in and out of all my life, those too provide something I need (dopamine, temporary energy, a feeling of being treated to something and loved). Upon examination, however, I usually find that the long-term cost of that obsession is too high. Then the question becomes: How can I get this need fulfilled in a less harmful way? Not an easy question to answer – but even getting to that question might be cause for celebration. For me, being able to ask that question almost always requires muddling my way through the unhealthy obsession first. Perhaps every step on the path, even the most challenging, adds a layer onto the pearl.
Sure, any obsession can be taken too far, or drawn out for too long, and some obsessions can cause harm. But I think many of them are keys that open doors to self-knowledge. Take a few steps back from yourself and look at what obsessions have gripped you in the past. What do they tell you about what you needed? What have they helped you build that you carry with you? Then think about whether you feel obsessed with something right now. Maybe there is something you can’t get enough of – particular music or food, an author, a TV show, a game or physical activity, a favorite movie, time with a particular friend, a hobby. Consider honoring this obsession. Ask yourself: What do I need that I am seeking here? What pearl may be forming layer by layer over time, in the often rough and bumpy oyster of your obsession?
Especially in times of challenge and depletion – a rough road in a significant relationship, a health crisis, grieving a loss – you may find pearls of wisdom in your obsessions. I love the film Sense and Sensibility, and I have found myself turning to it over and over both during chemo and in the past year since my brother died. I’ve been thinking about what it is about that film that I need. Maybe it’s simply the possibility that joy lies somewhere down the rut-filled dirt road, beyond the illness and the heartbreak. Whatever it is, I’m determined to honor my obsession with it. Of course, if you local friends find I’m sacrificing food or sleep in favor of movie watching, please do gently call me on it.