Godtalk: Coping with Obsessions

POST BY PKnott

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Most sensitive people are liable to suffer from emotional obsessions sometime;  like for example, the feeling of being in love with someone who is hopelessly unavailable.  These kinds of  obsessions affect our whole lives, including our moral and religious lives. What we do in the pain and paralysis of obsession rarely does us proud, and is often far from a free act. In the grip of an emotional obsession we cannot think freely, pray freely, decide things freely, and we are prone to act out compulsively in ways that are not moral. What is the morality of our actions then?  Is this always a moral flaw or could it be a struggle with Divine Energy?

Classical spiritual writers speak of  ‘inordinate attachments’, a moral fault, something we need to control by willpower. However, what they mean by ‘inordinate attachments’ covers a wide range. In their view, we can be inordinately attached to our pride, to our appearance, to money, to power, to pleasure, to comfort, to possessions, to sex, and many other things. They see this as the opposite of the virtue of detachment.  And, since its opposite is a virtue, ‘inordinate attachment’ is, for classical spirituality, a moral and spiritual flaw.

There is a lot to be said for this view. Normally, lack of detachment is a moral flaw. But perhaps there is an exception. An inordinate attachment can also be an emotional obsession with another person and this muddies the moral issue. Obsessions, generally, are not freely-chosen, nor are they often within the power of the will to control, at least inside the emotions. We are responsible for our actions but we are not responsible for how we feel. Our emotions are like wild horses, roaming where they will and not easily harnessed.

So the notion of ‘inordinate attachments’, as expressed in classical spirituality, needs to be nuanced by other concepts which, while still carrying the same warning labels, carry something more. For example, we all know how powerful and crippling these obsessions can be. We cannot simply will our way free of an obsession. Yet is that a moral flaw?

Sometimes we speak of ‘being possessed by demons’ and that also has a variety of meanings.  We can be possessed by a power beyond us that overpowers our will, be that the devil himself or some overpowering addiction such as alcohol or drugs. Few of us are overpowered, but each of us battles with his or her own demons and the line between obsession and possession can be very thin.

Psychologists speak of something they call ‘daimons’, believing that what explains our actions are not just nature and nurture, but also powerful ‘angels’ and ‘demons’ inside us, that haunt our bodies and minds and leave us obsessed and driven.

But these ‘daimons’  are also very often at the root of our creativity and that is why we often see ‘tortured genius’ in many high-achievers, romantics, people with artistic temperaments.

We need a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. We should not be so mystified by what happens sometimes in our world and in ourselves.  We are complex creatures, and that complexity does not take its root, first of all, in what is evil inside us. Rather it is rooted in what is deepest inside us, namely, the image and likeness of God.

We are infinite spirits journeying in a finite world. Obsessions come with the territory. In ancient myths, gods and goddesses often fell helplessly in love with human beings, but the ancients believed that this was a place where the divine and human met.

And that still happens: the divine in us too may sometimes falls hopelessly in love with another human being. This, of course, does not give us an excuse to act as we like on those feelings, but it does tell us that this is more an encounter between the divine and the human than it is a moral flaw. 

Peter Knott SJ