Developing Magnificent Obsessions
by Sunny Schlenger
I subscribe to People magazine, not for the celebrity stories but for the features on “ordinary” folks who achieve their 15 minutes of fame through their interesting or unusual obsessions.
How is it, I wonder, that individuals come to be fixated on Swiss cheese? Marbles? Recordings of everyday sounds? Cookie jars? A recent People article about a man preoccupied with the subject of extinct birds quotes him as saying, “You don’t choose your obsessions.” But do you?
We’re shaped by so many influences. Some of our obsessions are born of collectors’ instincts; we want tangible evidence of the sights we’ve seen and the things we’ve done, whether they be nostalgic memories or reminders of far-away places. Maybe we’ve grown up around collectors or travelers. Or perhaps we have to go farther back than that to discover the roots of something that unaccountably drives our interests.
Since childhood, I have wanted to be a cowboy, which always made my parents scratch their heads. After all, I was brought up in Average Suburbia, without role models for this particular fascination. So where does this passion come from? I used to be infatuated with TV westerns and riding horses; somehow it all seemed familiar to me. But the only answer I could come up with was perhaps a past life experience on the prairie.
Maybe that can explain my cowboy connection, but how do you make sense of a man’s overwhelming zest for mustard – a zest so all-consuming that he opened up a museum in order to display every different kind? (That, too, was in People.)
What I am most fascinated by are the special passions of individuals who are determined to make a difference in the world. I ask you: What makes someone campaign for cleaner water, as opposed to taking care of the homeless? Why are certain people drawn to raising guide dogs for the blind, while others fight to eradicate a specific disease? Some commitments can be linked to personal experience; others just seem to appear on their own.
Passions can be lifelong. My son has been crazy about animals practically since he was born. Some of my earliest memories of him have to do with watching the Discovery Channel together on TV and being amazed at his level of concentration. As he grew older, he would reach out to any and all creatures that came near and he had an uncanny ability to calm them. He never doubted for a second that he would pursue a career that allows him to study and contribute to the wellbeing of wildlife in some way.
I wonder how it is that some of us know our missions from the start, and the rest of us can take years to figure them out. Early in life, I knew that I loved to write. I composed poems and contest essays for school and thought that I might become a journalist. But when I was 16, I met a psychologist who inspired me to move in that direction. Now, years later, I’m circling around and developing one of my original passions. Only this time, I’m combining it with a particular sense of purpose: an intense desire to reach people through my writing in order to teach, encourage and support.
Am I obsessed? Is my son? In a way, I suppose so. Everyone who fiercely loves what they do and believes that they’re here on earth, in part, to do that is in touch with their life force. It doesn’t matter whether your force is your vocation, avocation or just part of your role as a parent, partner, friend or mentor. It doesn’t matter whether you’re here to educate or entertain, or to build on or oversee what’s already been created. If you can pass along some of your energy and dedication, you will have used your talents well.
Should you find that your thoughts or emotions are dominated by something that spurs you in a positive direction, pay attention. It may seem out of character for you or even out of reach, but don’t judge. Deep inside, we do know what’s right for us. And what’s right for us may be just what our own little world or the world at large needs to receive.