Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
I should think, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J. (originally posted May 5, 2015)

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Untitled–first Friday fiction

Carl often thought of himself as the man in the Eagles’ song, driving down the road with seven women on his mind. When he heard that song, he often could identify seven women who all were in his thoughts, though he doubted that any of them wanted to own him or wanted to kill him.

There was the young woman at church, vulnerable and yet appealing. He prayed for her; he wished he could make some gesture toward her that would comfort her, but anything he did would probably frighten her instead.

Then there was a woman who lived a few blocks from Carl. Sometimes they passed each other in the mornings when they were both taking their walks. She had long, straight, black hair, deep brown eyes, and a shy smile. Carl had never spoken with her. By luck, not by effort, he had been able to identify her house. Carl knew that she had children; he did not know whether or not she had a husband.

There was also the Olympic athlete he had seen on TV. She was also a brunette, with sparkling brown eyes and a lovely smile. Of course she was in top physical condition. They would never meet, but Carl had downloaded pictures of her onto his work computer. When the screen-saver brought up his slideshow, he would pause in his work and wait for her to appear.

Speaking of work, there was the intern with the blonde hair and the bright blue eyes. She was polite and friendly, probably considering Carl neither an interest nor a threat because of the difference in their ages.

There was the supervisor of another department, efficient without being unfriendly, able to charm customers and coworkers with equally sincere interest in whatever they had to say. A few months ago, she had announced a name change. A little Internet research revealed that she was changing from her married name to her maiden name. Carl wondered if that signaled a divorce or merely a desire to use her family name professionally from now on. He didn’t see her often, but when their paths crossed he generally managed to exchange hellos with her.

Carl remembered the woman from his department who had left for a better job more than three years ago. Carl still missed her. Every day on the way to work he passed the building where her new office was located. He hadn’t seen her since the day she left, but he still marked the anniversary of that day with regret and gloom.

The seventh woman on Carl’s mind had, in a sense, replaced number six. Not that she had been hired to do the same job, or even that she had been hired shortly after number six left the business. Carl was starting to feel the same glow in her presence that he once had felt when he was near number six. Through Facebook, Carl had discovered her birthday. It happened to be the same day that he had been marking in memory of number six. If for no other reason, Carl found that coincidence a reason to consider number seven an appropriate replacement for number six in his mind.

Not that Carl would make an inappropriate advance toward any of these seven women. Carl liked to think of them. He liked to be with them. He didn’t want to marry any of them, and Carl would never want or attempt a one-night stand. Some men had crushes on singers like Taylor Swift or actresses like Amy Adams. Carl’s crushes were (with the exception of the Olympic athlete) on people a little closer to home, but he was no more intending to stalk or to try to seduce these women than the vast majority of fans who follow celebrities.

In his own mind, though, Carl could imagine a closer relationship with any of the seven women on his mind. As he headed to his car at the end of the day, number seven was most on his mind. Before he started the engine, Carl decided that the songs he heard on the way home that evening would represent a conversation between Carl and number seven.

Of course he invited the lady to go first. Her opening song proved to be “You’re my Best Friend,” by Queen. Carl flattered himself that number seven might say some of those lyrics to him, or might be thinking that way about him. At the same time, Carl had a strong negative association to the word “friend.” “Let’s just be friends” was a kind way of saying, “I have no romantic interest in you.” Often, in Carl’s experience, the woman who said “Let’s just be friends” was the woman who would disappear from his life (if not from his mind) in a way that was distinctly unfriendly.

After a string of commercials, Carl’s reply came on the radio. The song was “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. This song was widely treated as a love song—it had even been sung at weddings—but it was a song about obsession and a claim to ownership, not about genuine love. Carl could imagine himself watching number seven as closely as the song described. He knew that a day or two of that behavior would be creepy to his coworker and might easily draw a reprimand from their boss.

Her next song was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce. Carl did not have to stretch to fit this story-telling song into the conversation. It was an unsubtle warning about men who take an interest in women who have already found their life’s partner. The title character, accustomed to taking everything he liked, took an interest in a woman who “looked nice.” This interest led to a brawl with her husband, and by the end of the brawl, Mr. Brown was not in a very good condition.

The deejays chatted about traffic and weather and played a few more commercials before Carl had a chance to answer the warning that had been given. His answer turned out to be Survivor’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Any Longer.” The anthem was a love ballad so schmaltzy that even the writer and singer seemed embarrassed by it. (Carl remembered the group joking about the song at the beginning and ending of their music video.) Calling his beloved a candle in the window was barely passible; promising to land a boat and “throw away the oar” was definitely over the top. After the clear warning involved in the story of Mr. Brown, Carl knew that he would never dare such a bold confession of love.

Number seven’s answer, though, was as enigmatic as the previous four songs had been forthright. She replied with Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” The song was still playing as Carl reached his home. He spent the rest of the evening trying to decide what the song meant. Was it an invitation to some sort of mutual involvement? Or was it a reminder that all Carl had to enjoy was fantasy and dreams? Carl knew that he would have to ponder those questions for a while before he would arrive at an answer. J.

 

Goethe’s Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a pivotal figure in European literary history. Coming at the end of the Baroque Period (also described as the Enlightenment), he was one of the writers who introduced Romanticism into European literature. Goethe was a poet, playwright, novelist, travelogue-writer, scientist, lawyer, and government advisor. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to improve upon Isaac Newton’s theories regarding light; he also studied the shapes of rock crystals and tried to make parallel studies of living creatures.

Of his many writings, two stand out as highlights of his long career. One is his verse interpretation of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and wisdom. Goethe worked on this project for most of his professional life. The other is his early novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, translated as the Sorrows (or the Suffering) of Young Werther. Based very loosely upon some of Goethe’s own experiences as a young man, along with accounts he heard about other young men, the novel explores issues about mental and emotional health in a way deeply profound for the early nineteenth century.

Werther, the title character, is highly intelligent but deplorably lacking in social skills. He is impulsive, obsessive, anxious, and given to bouts of deep depression. That the other characters in the novel are unable to perceive or comprehend the depths of Werther’s emotional struggles is a key to the plot. That inability is still widespread today in spite of a century of psychological studies.

A previous crisis, only vaguely mentioned in the novel, causes Werther to relocate into a small German town where he meets and becomes enamored of Charlotte (Lotte), the eldest daughter of the local magistrate. Lotte and her fiancé Albert willingly befriend Werther, unaware of his obsessive tendencies or the damage those tendencies will wreak. When Werther tries to share the emotional storms in his mind and heart, Albert and Lotte respond casually. Werther defends the act of suicide, which Albert scorns as unimaginable for any person of intelligence. As his obsession with Lotte deepens, Werther realizes he must leave the area. He does so, and in his absence Lotte and Albert are married. Werther’s lack of social skills brings him into another crisis, which sends him careening back into Lotte’s hometown. His deepening gloom leads to a suicidal depression; none of his friends and associates understand what is happening to Werther or know how to help him.

Most of the novel is presented as letters and diary entries written by Werther, although at times Goethe must add some third-person paragraphs to fill gaps in the story. That Goethe closely associated himself with Werther is revealed in several details, including the fact that the author and character share their birthday (August 28).

Werther was a bestseller and established Goethe’s reputation as a great author. For the rest of his life, he was a celebrity, as famous as contemporaries such as Napoleon and Beethoven. Young men in Europe imitated Werther’s clothing and even his suicide. Werther remains a powerful description of mental illness, one which can be read with profit by anyone seeking to understand obsession and depression. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

Obsession, or seven of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs

I can’t speak for you, but I always learn the most interesting things while researching something else. For example, yesterday, in a bit of mild curiosity, I wanted to know which group sang the song “Obsession” in the early to middle 1980s. (The answer is Animotion; it was their first and biggest hit.) Along with the answer to that question, I also found several interesting internet lists about popular songs related to the feeling or condition of obsession.

Earlier this month I posted an essay about the meaning of love. Three of the points I made were that love cares more about the other than about the self, that the opposite of love is selfishness, and that popular culture tends to confuse the two, expressing selfish thoughts and feelings as if they were love. I now wish that I had used the theme of obsession to show the difference between selfishness and true love. After all, obsession cares more about “what I want” and “how I feel” than it cares about “what you want” and “how you feel.”

Last night and this morning I started examining my favorite popular songs for themes of obsession. I did this because several of my favorite songs appeared on those lists of songs about obsession. About fifteen years ago I made a list of my favorite songs. Some preferences have changed over the years, but the top of the list has remained remarkably stable.

My favorite rock ‘n’ roll song for much more than fifteen years is “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys (1966). I have always loved this song for its harmony and polyphony, and the actual words have never been as important as the sound. In this anthem to love, the singer mentions a few details about the appearance and scent of his beloved, but the bulk of the song is dedicated to the good feelings and “excitations” he is experiencing. One might gather that she feels the same way about him, if the two of them have good vibrations, but from the lyrics alone it does not seem to matter to him whether she truly likes him or not.

A strong second favorite song is “Hey Jude” by the Beatles (1968). Hard-core Beatles fans know that Paul McCartney wrote this song to comfort Julian (“Jules”) Lennon on the divorce of his parents, John and Cynthia Lennon, and John’s on-going romance with Yoko Ono. Some of the song directly mentions the sorrow of the boy (“Take a sad song and make it better.”), and other lines seem to encourage him to accept his father’s second wife (“Let her into your heart.”). As Paul filled out the lyrics, though, he seemed to add just a touch of obsessive “love.” (“You have found her. Now go and get her.”) Neither of my two favorite songs made the lists of songs about obsession, but they contain elements of the feeling.

My solid third favorite song is “Cherish” by the Association (1966). This song was featured on every list of songs about obsession. “Cherish is the word I use to describe all the feeling that I have right in here for your inside.” The singer sings about how she makes him feel and laments the fact that she has no interest in him. Writers of these lists comment how strange it is that this song is sometimes featured at weddings, even though it describes unrequited love. I agree. The song seems more suited to the sad and lonely guy at the back of the church than to the happy bride and groom.

After this, my favorites clump as a group, so I will list them in chronological order. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley (1960) is a simple love long about a man who is helpless in the face of love. Elvis had already sung about the symptoms of love, making them sound much like a panic attack, in “All Shook Up.” Now Elvis sings more calmly about those feelings, but again the singer does not seem to care whether or not she feels the same way about him.

The most obvious song on this list of obsession songs is “Every Breath You Take” by the Police (1983). Sting even wrote this song to portray the thoughts of a stalker, and, according to interviews, he remains astounded by its popularity. Like many other people, though, I have been drawn to this song since the first time I heard it. Its simple tune and beat describe a feeling that might well be mistaken for love, even though the singer is so obsessed that he sings, “Oh, can’t you see you belong to me,” without even stopping to ask whether or not she wants to be with him.

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar is a much gentler song about love, but seen in this light it may be just as demanding as “Every Breath You Take.” Although the song is about us instead of me, unlike most of the songs on this list, the singer takes for granted that “we belong together.” One wonders if the song is being sung because the beloved has suggested a bit more distance between the two of them might be healthy.

I was surprised to see the deeply romantic “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” by the Moody Blues (1988) on the list of songs about obsession. This song would appear to be one of the healthiest expressions of true love on my list of favorites, with reminders of “the promise that we made each other” and, “My arms will close around you and protect you with the truth.” On the other hand, the singer is obsessed with someone who is not present at this time. He remembers the past and he hopes for the future, but his love has no reality right now. He sings, then, only about his obsession, not about a love that the two of them share.

Here, then, is a challenge: how many popular songs from the last sixty years actually sing about true love—love in which the beloved matters more than the lover—and not merely about how the lover feels toward the beloved? Are there many love songs from this era that really express love rather than an addiction to the feeling of love or a desire to own and control the beloved? Let me know what popular love songs you like that actually express true love.

J.