Positive (?) Obsession*

I have an obsessive personality.  My dad attributes it to the ADHD that runs in our family; I am not sure if I believe him (though our work patterns are similar), but when focused, I can work at 110%, ignoring my own needs to accomplish my goal. On the other hand, if I am not focused, nothing can possibly get done, at least not in an efficient, timely manner, and it feels like torture. I have gotten very good at regulating this behavior after a while; my days are very regulated and task-oriented so that I can more easily redirect this obsession from, for example, spending hours upon hours playing Pokemon Soul Silver on an old DS to actually doing something that is productive and helpful (this is also the reason why I absolutely cannot have any games on my phone).  I think that’s why blog posts are easy for me – I can just find something I am interested in and let my brain do its thing. A prime example of this is the very first blog post I wrote for this class on Immanuel Velikovsky. I googled the term “Veliskovskyan,” as is written in the introduction to Apocalypse by Amos Nur, and immediately needed to know more. In this case, my obsession seized upon how outlandish his theories were and at that point, it was easy to sit down and not move from my desk until three hours and 1200 words were done. Other examples of these include the ones I wrote on geophagia and the uncanny valley. In these cases, Octavia Butler’s “Positive Obsession” is spot-on in its analysis of the better side of obsessive mindsets: “I saw positive obsession as a way of aiming yourself,  your life, at your chosen target” (129). In this way, obsession works very well for me in terms of productivity. Of course, perfectionism likes to intervene, so I never feel good about this work, but that is beside the point. Obsession rules my life to an extent that is perhaps more than I’d like to admit, and it certainly has affected my experience with this course and with the Broken Earth trilogy.

The problem with obsession is that it is all-consuming and very difficult to control. When it is aimed properly, it is impossible to feel as though you have ever felt any other way. Writing thousands of words feels easy and it is difficult to imagine why you ever thought it was hard to focus and be productive. On the flip side, when your obsession is not in line with the work you need to do, it is truly detrimental to your happiness and productivity. As Butler writes, “Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts. Positive obsession is dangerous. It’s about not being able to stop at all” (“Positive Obsession” 133). Butler is talking about positive obsession, which is something I relate to, but this sense of not being able to stop is also one that applies to negative obsessions. In relation to this, the etymology of obsession becomes perfectly clear. The word came into English from the French word “obsession,” which means “siege, blockade, a blocking up.” In the 1600s, the word came to mean something similar to possession by an evil spirit, and eventually transmuted into the definition we know today, “action of anything which engrosses the mind.” This relation to possession is eerie in how much it makes sense, though the current definition does not necessarily mark it as a bad thing. The two blog posts I wrote about profanity are a good example of this duality. For the first one, I found the subject to be captivating. The ability to research in other fields, in this case psychology and etymology, is always interesting and I was able to direct my obsession at that. However, for the second one, this was not my mindset at all. The obsession with profanity and the worldbuilding ability of N.K. Jemisin in relation to that had passed, but I needed to produce a blog post and I felt obligated to come back to the subject since there were things I did not cover in the first one. The results are very different: my first post is well researched, well thought-out, and better written; the second – not so much. Not to say that it is a bad post, it is just objectively worse than the other one. Another problem that I run into is the one-track mind fallacy, where sometimes things that should be in my posts are not there. For example, the blog post I wrote on The Fall by Albert Camus failed to mention “that for existentialism, for Camus, the problem of slavery and colonialism is the engine at the heart of everything, including existentialism” (Professor McCoy’s commentary on my post). However, because I was so stuck on the idea of slavery, and only that idea, I failed to realize or talk about that. Thus, obsession works as both something positive and something detrimental to my work.

Nonetheless, obsession does not just apply to individual assignments. Instead, it applies to everything in my life, especially reading. I think one of the reasons that people thought I was a “gifted child” (a terminology that is problematic and I will come back to later) was that I was able to seize upon books and make that my obsession. I know that when I was younger, I would check out stacks of books from the library and return them within a week, having read them all in record time (and not doing anything else). Teachers used to take books away from me as a punishment for reading in class; my mom bought me the last three books of a series I was reading but told me I could not read them until I finished a summer homework assignment, so I would sneak the books away from their hiding place and read them bit by bit until I had to hide them again. Therefore, obsession has and continues to heavily affect my experience with reading. One would think that this kind of obsession would be a benefit, but my experience with The Broken Earth trilogy shows that it is a “both-and.”

To be completely, 100% honest, I have little to no memory of reading The Obelisk Gate. Why? Because I indulged in my obsession with the series. I read The Fifth Season as we were asked to on the syllabus, but the ending was far too interesting for me to be able to hold back my need to know what happened, so I read the whole of The Obelisk Gate over the course of one afternoon. It was a fantastically indulgent three or four hours, but absolutely negatively affected my experience in class, since I had to hold back spoilers for a very long time, and by the time we finished discussing this book, I had pretty much forgotten what happened. A good illustration of this is that the subjects of the only blog posts I wrote on The Obelisk Gate were brought to my attention by Professor McCoy. The first blog post is about the scene where Essun destroys the ballot box, and the other was about Alabaster and his connection to the etymology of crazy, but as I said, neither of these were original ideas.  However, I do know that it was the most fun for me to read, as indulging obsession always feels amazing, even if it is not the best choice in the long-term.

Something that feels really unfair is that not indulging in obsession does not necessarily mean that my experience with the other two books was better in terms of engaging with and understanding them, even though I stuck to the prescribed schedule. Being more current with the books in terms of reading certainly helped me to remember what was going on, but I had the problem where I would forget what we had read before in the book and be confused picking back up again where I left off. Part of the problem, especially with The Fifth Season, was the complexity of the world Jemisin created and keeping characters and timelines straight was difficult. However, the biggest problem was engagement: forcing myself to stop reading when every cell in my brain was screaming for me to keep going forced me to become more detached from the story; as a result, I feel like I did not enjoy it as much as I could have. However, I do recognize that in a classroom setting this is the only way to assign readings without forcing every member of the class to read a whole book in between classes. Generally, this is not a problem for me, but because reading these books felt like indulging the fantasy and science-fiction loving part of me that I do not generally have the means to let out during the school year, I think that this method did not work well for me in terms of engagement with the storyline. I wanted to fall head-first in love with these books, but I could not because of practicality.

Because of this struggle with finding the balance between obsession with the books and holding back to be more in line with the class, I feel as though I do not understand the series as much as I should – but why do I feel this way? I think it comes back to the “gifted child” concept I mentioned earlier, which is very frustrating for me because children who are labeled as smart at an early age are raised in a way that negatively impacts them further down the line. This expectation during childhood that I am sure many are familiar with- being placed in advanced tracks for math and science, honors classes, being encouraged to take only AP classes, etc., is harmful both for those who are labelled advanced and those who are not – in this system, the second group is implied to be inferior and are not encouraged to take advantage of as many opportunities, creating a whole group of people who are undervalued from the start, while their peers are elevated for no reason other than scoring better on tests or reading at a more advanced level when they were young, which is not a measure of true intelligence or aptitude. However, children who are labeled advanced at an early age tend to experience imposter syndrome and place unrealistic expectations on themselves, making themselves unhappier and more stressed. For me, these feelings fuel the negative side of obsession – especially those that are an escape from my academic life, such as the aforementioned Pokemon Soul Silver. Thus, this is the reason why I feel I should understand the Broken Earth trilogy more than I do and why it is so frustrating for me that obsession is getting in the way of it, even though this ability to be obsessive over books is what got me labeled as advanced in the first place. Nothing can ever be simple, can it?

In the end, this class begs us to ask “so what?” In this way, I suppose it is appropriate that I ask myself the “so what?” of my own essay. For me, it is the recognition that this course has, in some ways, helped me to recognize certain things about myself and helped me to (try to) let go of some of the negative aspects of obsession while retaining the good. One of the things that I have known about myself for a long time is that large group work is hard for me, because I always want to do everything myself, but in work that involves more than two or three people, there is no way for me to have a hand in everything that is going on, which is sometimes hard for me to let go. Thus, I consider the post we wrote on Mt. Pinatubo to be a success for me – for the first time in a while, I trusted that my group had it covered and focused on what I needed to do, not on what everyone needed to do. Another example of this is the post I wrote with Abby on people’s favorite rocks – I tend to take myself too seriously, so the kind-of goofy parts at the beginning and end were a major victory for me in terms of letting that go. In combination with the other blog posts I wrote that did indulge my obsession and the lesson I learned with my one-day reading of The Obelisk Gate, this course really has been a lesson in moderation when it comes to the way I obsess (or entirely manage to not do so) over my work.

The GLOBE outcome cited in the prompt for this essay reads as following: “To reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time; to make personal, professional, and civic plans based on that self-reflection.” My own self-reflection has taught me this: it is okay to indulge in obsession if it is helpful in the long run, but things that feel good in the short-term are often not helpful. There are no concrete plans that I have made based on this, as I think this will be a theme following me for the rest of my life, but I do think that I am more aware of both the positives and the negatives of obsession, and it is something I hope I will continue to be aware of. To close, I would like to come back to this quotation from Butler: “Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts. Positive obsession is dangerous. It’s about not being able to stop at all” (“Positive Obsession” 133). What I hope to do in the future is to be more like Butler and make all of my obsessions positive ones. I will not delude myself and think that this will make me as successful as she was, but I do hope it will make my life a little easier and make me a little happier.

*Full credit to Octavia Butler on her short story with the same title, sans question mark

Butler, Octavia. “Positive Obsession.” Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press, 1995.


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