Friday, June 18, 2010

A Worthy Obsession

Hello Dear Readers!

    Today I'm going to talk a little bit about obsession-what it is, how it works with Geeks (and non-geeks too), what some of the results of obsession are, and finally how we determine if an obsession is a worthy consumer of our thoughts, emotions, and time. This is a harder subject for me to write on because I am going to be using some personal and rather mortifying examples from my own life to illustrate some of my points.

    So enjoy!

Obsession: What is it and How does it work?

    First let's talk about what obsession is: defines it as follows:

1: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly
: compelling motivation, for example: an obsession with profits

    This is a pretty accurate definition, except it's a little clinical, and I think in our current culture the adjectives disturbing and unreasonable have pretty much dropped out of our minds. We are a society that likes to obsess at various junctures of our lives, and geeks are not the only ones to obsess, obsession has become a fairly common lifestyle choice. Just look at the level of fandom and devotion for various sports teams, television shows, political commentators/leaders, authors, and dare I say it, blogs, and it's fairly obvious obsession today is more of a trendy indulgence than a sign of psychological abnormality.

    What I do like about this definition is its mention of preoccupation and compulsion-because I think that is where obsession really starts to be demonstrated. If I am preoccupied with something for a period longer than a week, and I find myself compelled to talk about it, buy items related to it, and even convert others to the appreciation of it, it's reasonable to say I am obsessed with "it" whatever it may be. And obsession can form through three simple things-as my handy formula below illustrates:

    Investments of Time +Internal Thoughts+ Experiencing Emotions=Obsession

    I don't care how stoic you are in your disposition, if you invest large portions of your time, your internal thoughts, and continually experience emotions you enjoy in association with something, it is likely that that thing will become the object of your obsession: be it a television show, a band, an artist, a book series, action figure/comics book collection, film trilogy etc.

Obsession and the Geek

    Many non-Geeks have expressed confusion at the level of obsession that they seek Geeks reaching-it can be both highly humorous and alarming to them (If you are confused as to what I mean about a Geek see my working definitions in my first blog section). The simple answer I give them is that nobody can obsess like a Geek can because it is how they prefer to have fun. But this needs further explanation that includes a description of the nature of Geeks. Geeks by and large have a very rich internal life-in our minds and in our hearts. There is a lot going on under the surface of a geek that has to do with the joy she/he gets out of intellectual exploration and games and the emotional satisfaction that comes with things linked to this internal life. That's why we like books-it takes place all in our heads, and music-because we can experience it and internalize it. And a dazzling competency in this internal world often leads to the inverse of our being socially awkward and ill-at ease in the real world. Nobody likes to feel uncomfortable or like they don't belong. In the societies created within a Geek's imagination, she or he may be the hero, the irreplaceable team member, or beloved companion (if you want further proof of this look at all the fan fiction on the internet where the author has written him or herself into an existing story as a character). Therefore, is it any wonder they would choose to withdraw to a reality of their own making, from one filled with opportunities for them to fall short and for human interactions to hurt them? I'm not saying that it's healthy, but it is logical, so far as avoiding pain is logical. And for this reason Geeks are more vulnerable to giving way to obsession in a way that is not entirely mentally or spiritually healthy for them.

    When a Geek obsesses (though anyone Geek and Non-Geek alike are capable of this) they dwell on every single aspect of the object of their obsession-they immerse themselves in it and everything related to it, because it is enjoyable to them. And because of this internal focus and devotion, the obsessed person achieves a certain level of intimacy with the object of their obsession in their hearts and minds.

    And if they are geeks, they may add the mystical component to their obsession, where on some level they now want all things in the world to somehow relate to the object of their obsession. So that the object now goes beyond moving them deeply once or twice to preoccupying them for a length of time, days, weeks, months, and years depending on the level of the obsession. They will read again, or watch again, or listen again, or discuss again and again that object with which they are obsessed. They have explored that object in all its glorious possibilities, symbolism, implications etc. and while doing so have interconnected it to their own lives, their own strands of thought, and themselves.

    Ownership of the object of their obsession has taken place (which is why Geeks feel they have the right to critique any further media related to the object of their obsession-some examples: it a movie version of a book or comic, to a new episode of a television show they have already watched for some time, or a new album by a band they have followed). But it can go even beyond ownership. The deeply obsessed person may identify the object of their obsession (that song, that image, or that sequence of dialogue) internalizing it to a level that goes beyond ownership to reflection: they see themselves in it. That movie line on the t-shirt I am wearing doesn't just remind you of the movie, it reflects and expresses me. And this intimacy level with the obsessive object can give the person in question a distorted view of the intimacy level they have with the creators of that object as well-aka- Obsessive Fandom. Which leads us to:

Some Real-Life Examples of Obsession

    Okay, I need to be more honest, most of the time we Geeks have a distorted view of our intimacy level once we've become obsessed.

    I read an article once written about a Lord of the Rings convention from a journalist who I would classify as a non-Geek. At this event several of the actors who played the hobbits in Lord of the Rings movies were there. In their commentary of the films, these actors had told a charming story about playing "tig" which as far as I could gather was either a British version of "tag" that they had made up on –set. Now what this journalist could not wrap his/her head around was the strange gifts that these fans of the movies had brought to present to the actors at the autograph table. One of the gifts mentioned was a long, hand-calligraphed in ye-olden lettering scroll that listed all official "Rules of Tig," that were mentioned in the commentary. To the geeks who created it, and put much time into it, this was a thoughtful and sincere gift that clearly communicated they got it, they knew all the rules of tig too! They were part of the inner circle. Which of course obviously they weren't. All geeks think we are on the inner circle because in our minds, the area of our lives in which we feel the most free, we are-we have achieved that level of intimacy. It makes sense to geeks, but to someone on the outside of the obession they look at that gift and conclude "this is the most bizarre behavior I have ever seen."

    Yeah, we get that a lot.

    And if you think it's weird out here, be thankful you've never been inside our heads.

    I will say that as I have gotten older my perspective on geek fandom specifically pertaining to gifts has changed. I understand the reasons why the geek to give an ornately detailed and intimate gift to a person who is somehow responsible for the object of their obsession, but I don't think this is always the best thing. I am sure that the actors who played the hobbits in the LOTR films accepted the scroll of tig rules with a generous cordiality, but we have to also recognize that one of them didn't go home and hang it up on their wall.

    But some of you Geeks in the throes of your obsession are saying: "What if I want to make something?! Who are you to tell me not to make anything? I'm not good with words and words aren't enough for me to express my level of fandom." To which I will say, okay, then here's my second round of advice. Make something that expresses your fandom, and not an assumed level of intimacy.

    Here's my own, still hard to admit, painfully embarrassing example.

    I have been obsessed with many things in my lifetime, one being The Lord of the Rings, and another was this little band I came across while flipping through channels one day. One of the singers in this band was what I considered a dead ringer (pun intended) for Legolas. When I got my hands on their first CD, and they had a track entitled, "In the House of Tom Bombadil," (remember geeks love interconnectivity) it seemed a further confirmation that this band was, astoundingly awesome.

    They were called: Nickel Creek.

    The band consisted of a violinist, Sara Watkins, guitarist and sibling Sean Watkins, and best friend mandolin playing Legolas-impersonating Chris Thile. My sister and I listened to their music non-stop, we learned their lyrics and melodies by heart, and we drove miles upon miles through the great state of California to attend their concerts. A merry obsession in full bloom.

    It will be therefore no surprise to you when I say I was interacting with their music on a very intimate level. Around the same time I was getting into scrapbooking and decoupage, though not in the straight corners, pretty patterns, flush edges, precise captions, and bubbly stickers style that is so popular now. What I did was just use whatever I thought was fun (magazine pictures, advertisements, napkins, discarded library books etc) and instead of documenting life I created art-projects. I got pretty good at it after a while- collaged the inside of cigar boxes in pretty ways and gave them to my friends.

    And so, since I loved Nickel Creek, what was there for me to do but make them a cigar box collage like any other of my friends? I worked very hard and made a beautiful box. It took me about a month to get all the images and text I thought they would find inspiring, and I also added a few marbles and a small metal knight in shining armor to give it that childhood feel. This is mortifying enough to me now, but did I stop there? Oh no. I felt an intimacy with their songs remember? And being a writer and a poet, I then put a series of songs, some of them replies to songs they had written in the box too. Then I wrapped it and presented it to them quietly at a concert. Oh, and I also put my name and contact information in the box on the side, you know, just in case. At the time I was full of hope, innocence, a longing for art and friendship, and gratitude. And part of me looks at this gift and the desire behind it and is very merciful to my sweet stupid naïve geeky self.

    But in the same moment the larger part of me is saying: "What the heck was I thinking?"

    You see these band members were not my personal friends, I was a fan. Clear distinction. And while I have the advantage of knowing me and that my motives for giving the box were pure, to them this was likely one of the creepiest gifts they received of all time.

    And when I think about that box now, ever, even just for a few minutes, I cringe.

    But this story does have a happy ending.

    Years later my sister and I drove down to L.A. to see "The Watkins Family Hour" at Largo, at the Cornet after the band had mutually split up into two factions. We went to see Sean and Sarah play, and let me tell you it is amazing-and totally worth the trip if you live in CA. Wandering through the aisles at Michaels craftstore, I saw some foam fingers like the kind people use at sporting events. Inspired, I made us some Watkins family hour foam fingers, that read-Sean is #1 and Sarah is #1-very simple and silly. We asked permission to produce them at the opportune moment at the concert to express our appreciation for the music.

    And they were a smashing success! Sean and Sara talked to us afterwards, and we gave them to them as a sort of trophy for their musicianship. Why did they respond to the fingers in such a positive way? Because they expressed our actual relationship-artist and fan-with no bloated level of intimacy assumed. So don't get me wrong, express your geeky fandom, but maybe run it by a few of your not-obsessed-with-that-thing friends first, to make sure it is reality based and expressing an accurate or appropriate level of intimacy.

Behavior Modification

    Hopefully these two real-life examples have shown you one of the greatest dangers of obsession-the obsessed person involved can suffer a disconnect from reality that they regret later on in their lives (box-cringe!). And if the obsession is deep this can take time to realize-it took me several years of maturing to realize that I was living in la la land when I made that box. And likewise, my obsession changed and matured-it turned into fandom instead. I still listen to their music with that deep level of intimacy, but I know I'm not on the inner circle and that's okay.

    Another danger to obsession is how it can dominate your life and displace things that are far more important. I'm going to talk about obsession disrupting my relationship with God, which is by far the most important thing in my life, but this can also be applied to an obsession displacing relationships with friends and family or other necessary human pursuits. When I first started watching Doctor Who (the new series starting 2005) I had been provided with all the episodes of several seasons from a friend, and I became obsessed in a very brief amount of time. I was watching 2-3 episodes a day, just tearing through seasons. Then one Sunday morning I am in church, singing a familiar worship song, and in the middle of singing I catch myself wondering what would be happening in the next episode. Although this happened entirely in my head, I was both embarrassed before God and myself. So I repented and backed off of my obsession by not watching any Doctor Who for a week and trust me that was hard. Then I adjusted my viewing to one episode a day, no more, and an equal amount of time in bible study and other things.

    Now that's what I had to do for me, if you are obsessed you may not have to go to such extremes, or you may need to take way more drastic measures to get a handle on your obsession. And you may not be experiencing any "ah-ha!" moment regarding what you are currently obsessed with. But here's a few steps you can take to make sure your obsession hasn't reached an unhealthy level.

  1. See what the people who know you, and you trust think about your obsession.
  2. Ask yourself, "How much time am I devoting to this object vs other things in my life?"
  3. Count how many times in one day you are thinking about the object of your obsession.
  4. Ask yourself, "If I was forced to forgo experiencing/interacting with this object for a while, could I do it?"
  5. Ask yourself, "Has this object become more important that anyone (i.e. God/Family) or anything in my life that should have priority over it?"

    I'd like to clarify-I don't mean see if the people you trust like the object of your obsession as well or even understand your obsession; I mean notice their reactions to it. Pay attention if your friends/family are making comments about you caring too much about your obsession-people are put in our life to help normalize us. If they don't comment, ask them directly, remember, in a multitude of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14). As for the other steps, they are only going to benefit you if you are honest with yourself in your answers, and if your answer to step 4 is on some teeny level uncertain, test it-because that is an indication you could do with a break. After all, the kind of obsession you want to have should be one that inspires you to live your life more fully, to create art your own art, to speak truth, and to reach out and connect to the people you care about. Which leads us to:

A Worthy Obsession

    Finally, I would argue that the greatest danger of obsession is how easily it can happen with something that is not really worthy to be an object of your obsession. If you are going to allow yourself to be preoccupied with or even compelled to action by an object, it had better be worthy because it is going to produce results in your life. Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks" (Mathew 11:24); in other words, what you internalize is going to become externalized by you. Remember obsession involves a level of intimacy, so it is a more than reasonable stance to ask what exactly it is you are allowing yourself to become intimate with.

    So here's a filter I have used in my own life more and more as I examine the things I delight in, the things in my life it is fair to say I am somewhat if not fully obsessed with (from Philippians 4:8):

    "Whatever things are true,

    Whatever things are noble,

    Whatever things are just,

    Whatever things are pure,

    Whatever things are lovely,

    Whatever things are of good report,

    If there is any virtue,

    If there is anything praiseworthy,

    Meditate on these things."

    To meditate is to consider thoughtfully, to be preoccupied with, to obsess on. If I find myself caught up with a tv show, band, song, book, comic, web series, movie, or the like I ask myself-does it tell the truth? Are the actions of the characters/thoughts that are advocated noble? Is there justice? Is it pure and uncorrupted? Is it lovely? Are any virtues such as self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, or faith demonstrated, illustrated, and reiterated by this thing? What about it is praiseworthy? The non-Christian who is ethical I think could also look at this list and recognize the wisdom of it if they desire good in their lives. And this is more than a check list, it is interconnected as well, for what can truly be called lovely if it is a lie? How can something be of good report if it glorifies injustice?

    In conclusion, a worthy obsession is something that will encourage the obsessed person to act rightly, and to do good- to grow as a person. How unfortunate it would be if I obsessively escaped into a series such as Doctor Who, where characters travel to the edges of the universe to help others, and I myself didn't start looking for who I can rescue, befriend, and take on adventures in my own life. What a failure it would be if my obsession with The Lord of the Rings only went so far as admiring the self-sacrificial actions of characters and then shutting the book with the thought that it is decently written. In contrast, if I meditate on Samwise Gamgee's attitude of humility and daily self-sacrifice then maybe I will begin seeking ways to become a less self-centered person and more devoted friend.

    So my friends, are you obsessed? And if so is it a worthy obsession?

    I challenge you to reflect and see!

Until next time, I am yours obsessively,

~Geek Girl

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