Obession. Passion or pathology? The state in which “want” and “need” are all mixed up.

August 13, 2013

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Too much of a good thing?

Last Sunday, I read a story in the New York Times Magazine about a woman who had become obsessed with an obscure songwriter and producer from the 1960’s, Curt Boettcher. It’s an interesting story. A classic tale of a talented artist that almost became famous. But for the writer, Alexandra Molotkow it was Boettcher’s obscurity that fueled her obsession with him and in turn with another writer who was also obsessed with Boettcher, Dawn Eden. Eden actually did become famous, first as a rock historian and then as a born again dogmatist.

As fascinating as the story and the people in it are it is the theme of obsession that I’m left with. This short article is shot through with it. Boettcher, Eden and Molotkow were all obsessed with different but related things (music, fame, destiny and even God) propelling them forward into life and in Boettcher’s case, death.

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The object of obsession, Curt Boettcher

Teen-agers and myriad other types throw around the term obsession, expressing devotion to a person, place or thing. For example: “I’m obsessed with Pretty Little Liars!” Or “I’m obsessed with Sprinkles cupcakes!” It comes and goes. The word obsession is like the word awesome. Played.

Obsessions like those in the NYT magazine piece are fairly named. They altered the lives of the people obsessed. They became all encompassing, driving forces. Perhaps because I have an addictive personality, I find these stronger affectations deeply interesting. I have become obsessed with malignant things (alcohol) and benign (leather jackets). For better and for worse, these obsessions have indelibly altered my life.

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Advertisers take note of obsessions; indeed they can become obsessed by them. After all, a person obsessed with a product or service is one hell of a customer. Whether she is a collector of toys (Beanie Babies) or a fanatic about a professional football team (Cheese Heads), these obsessed people are customers for life, often spending good money after bad living it.

I wonder if that’s bad. Most religions and many spiritual teachers tell us that craving material possessions is wrong. As we all learn soon enough, ‘you can’t take it with you.’ True serenity, it is said, comes only when we “let go” of materialism and “selfish pursuits” and open ourselves up to a “higher calling.”

I won’t argue the point. Yet, as we are not saints, it seems impossible for most, if not all of us, to let go completely. Hobbies, collections, habits are part of the human condition. We can’t help ourselves. Fishermen always buy more tackle than they need. Women own more shoes than they require. I can only wear one leather jacket. I have twelve.

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Pathology or Perfecto?

People get “need” and “want” all mixed up. One becomes the other. Obviously, there is a difference between hording and collecting, addiction and passion. But just how big a difference?

As a copywriter, I’ve always wondered what magic combination of words and pictures I might conjure that could trigger obsession. I’m not sure any one thing can. But certainly our contributions can provide fuel. I saw for myself what a handful of “curiously strong” posters did for Altoids. It took more than one TV commercial (“1984”) to create the cult of Apple but few doubt it wasn’t a catalyst.

The rise of the cult of Apple…
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This is the power I love and at times loathe about our craft. When done to perfection it is witchcraft. As is written in the header to this blog, We make you want what you don’t need. Word.

5 Responses to “Obession. Passion or pathology? The state in which “want” and “need” are all mixed up.”

  1. Well said and so true… Such a fine line between passion, obsession and yes- addiction. Hard to say who gets to make that call!

  2. Paul Lindemeyer said

    Thank you for writing this and noticing the distinction between passion and obsession.

    As a longtime New York Times reader, I am convinced that they have a standing editorial policy on the issue. If someone they profile collects fine art, precious jewelry or wine, it is a passion. If they collect anything else, it is an obsession.

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