On Creative Obsessions

We are going through the Bible in a year with our kids. We just finished Exodus and are diving into Leviticus. Something new always sticks out to me when I read the Pentateuch. This time, it’s the amount of detail in the design of the temple. Just read Exodus 38 and you will see what I mean. The kind of detail God conceptualizes with the design of the temple and everything in it would be characterized as precise and even perfectionistic…maybe even obsessive.

We see that God had a particular vision, but qualified and talented people had to bring it to reality. This required a level of expertise that would only come by putting in the countless hours that it takes to become skilled at your art form. It takes being obsessed.

My own obsessive qualities came to mind when I’m engaged in the work I love. The level of detail and vision I have for a project or piece of art, it’s just downright over the top sometimes. I will tweak and try again, tweak and try again, sometimes for days, all in an effort to get it “right.” But, obsession tends to have a bad connotation – whereas, I am comfortable with it, and even encourage it. Let me explain.

Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being, {From psucho; breath, i.e. spirit, abstractly or concretely.} for the Lord and not for men.
Colossians 3:23

The Pulpit Commentary describes this as being, ” energetic ‘work,’ opposed to indolent or useless doing.”  It further explains, “From [ἐκout of] the soul “indicates the spring of their exertions – inward principle, not outward compulsion; the servant must put his soul into his work.

Isn’t this the ideal for every human? Acting within a symbiotic circle of love and adoration that turns into motivation, and propels us toward our work, focuses our efforts, and infuses the immaterial with the Spirit of God.

Obsession takes all faculties working together. Speaking of the work itself, it’s usually the kind that enters you in a state of flow. Where time passes quickly, and you lose yourself in it. But even when the work is put aside, it leaks into your day…you are incubating your next project and may daydream about ideas, sort out potential problems or obstacles, pick apart every minutia of information you can in regard to the topic. This is where work can be worship when done with a heart of devotion to God. Otherwise, it’s just a lifeless idol. In our culture, obsession is seen everywhere — fashion, food, entertainment, consumerism — but so many of these lead to dead ends — a purposeless existence when pursued in and of themselves. An obsession that integrates with our faith? It is so much stronger than the flickering lamp of human fixation.

As creatives, we can be naturally obsessive. A “work unto God” ethic infuses purpose into everything we do while keeping us grounded and safe from drowning in our obsession. This brings us back to the two most important directives in the Bible: Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s a simple antidote to keep us from being filled with Self rather than the Spirit of God.

A productive obsession arises from our interests, passions, and meaning-making needs. An unproductive obsession arises from our doubts, fears, and anxieties. -Dr. Eric Maisel

Obsession in our realm of creative work is good because without it, there is no great art. There is a level of precision needed in high-level art-making. Creation and nature itself require that pin-head level of exactitude. But in that definitive precision, there is a delicate balance. It could be as small as an atom that could throw everything off. All of us are wired to need this particular balance in things. If something is “off” we not only see it, we cognitively feel it. And science is just now catching up to be able to explain more of this phenomenon. This is where obsession comes in. I can work on a photo composition for days, and experience a lot of failures which can frustrate me at times, but in the end, I am happier with the result because I obsessed over the fine details.

Art commands that we are obsessive about balance and form. Which is a bit of a paradox, because obsession tilts the scales. Balance would be to allow half of the imperfection, and half of perfection. Obsession requires nothing less than our best, to point to the greatness of God. Perfection in our work is not necessarily the aim, because we are imperfect beings and our work reflects that. But there is an excellence that we strive after as we endeavor to not cut corners or take shortcuts.

“The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.” John Updike, about J. D. Salinger

Obsessions are a bit like a looming obstacle in your way that you have to figure out how to tackle and get around in order to move or progress forward. Except the obstacle is not a hindrance, it’s a welcomed challenge — a joy. And everything sort of feeds into the obsession: we might exercise to keep our bodies in shape to be able to carry us in marathons of work. We may choose to eat better because it makes us feel better, and in turn, increases our capacity for our work. We choose relationships and purposeful interactions that energize us and encourage us. We purposely find outlets to live out the Gospel in a new way, in order to see the world differently and live in obedience to Christ. Everything is usable.

Everything is relevant. Everything is usableEverything feeds into my creativity. -Twyla Tharp

There is always something to explore. Truth is not finite, Truth is infinite. Just like God Himself. And there is no exhaustion of discovery when it comes to His mysteries. Our singular obsession is to seek Him, and all in our unique ways which informs our individual artistic endeavors. The joy is to reveal what we’ve found, and when we compare notes, we see new attributes of God that we may have not experienced for ourselves.

Precision matters. Beauty matters. Persistence matters in the unyielding pursuit of an original vision. And not for the end itself. But to bring Abundant Life into what could easily be a life of mediocrity. As a devoted apprentice, this is our aim as we bring our artistic obsessions under the mastery of Christ, as we pour our life into our work, and “every task is dignified and sweetened by the thought of being done for him.” (from the Pulpit Commentary)

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