“Imagine infinite possibility.” The phrase reads like an advertising slogan. But as with many such phrases, people should be careful what they wish for. As someone with OCD I can and do imagine infinite possibility – and it is terrifying. A normally functioning brain sorts for us which possibilities we should pay attention to and which to ignore. The OCD brain doesn’t. For instance, when one locks a door, the normally functioning brain assumes it will stay locked. But the brain with OCD has an uncensored imagination. What if I accidentally bumped it and it came unlocked? Maybe I forgot to check to make sure it was locked for real? I heard a sound and maybe it was the cat brushing against the door which would have jiggled the door loose. And why does it matter? Because if the door is unlocked and someone breaks into the house you are responsible for what happened, and so if you don’t check – again and again and again – you are irresponsible and don’t care about the people around you. Infinite possibility is a little like the island of dreams in Lewis’s Dawn Treader. It seems like a good idea until you remember that you have nightmares. And when the nightmares, even the most implausible of them, feel as possible as the far fetched rituals that one imagines to deal with them, then any situation becomes a potential source of terror – it is disconcerting to, for instance, be slicing an onion and suddenly be afraid of poking someone’s eyes out. Imagine the infinite possibilities of things you can do with a knife. And if you imagine feeling like you are as liable to do one as the other, you will know what OCD feels like. Removing the trigger (in this case, a knife) is no good. Were we bound in a nutshell, that nutshell would simply become fodder for our bad dreams. Where there is consciousness, there is always room for the malignant creativity of OCD.
But all this is preamble to what I really wanted to talk about today. In part I want to talk about it because it has come to my attention that some of the things I have said here about ocd have been helpful to others. Also, there is the more selfish part of me that hopes writing it out will somehow break its spell over me. What I want to write about is the process of writing and editing a dissertation.
Because, you see, in every sentence and every paragraph there is infinite possibility. To put something one way is to not put it any number of other ways, and what if one if those other ways is a more perfect way to put it? And then there are sources. Titles and databases take one a certain distance. But what about those misleadingly titled papers that seemingly have nothing to do with one’s paper, but by happenstance contain a golden paragraph that you could not find except by following up the vaguest of possible references? One’s bibliography gets filled up with these and becomes useless because one can’t distinguish the wheat from the chaff. The ever looming possibility that one might find something of use in the most unlikely places places on one the infinite burden of being aware of everything, so that one throws up one’s hands in despair and wishes to be aware of nothing. This to be sure is not something I feel with all writing; unofficial writing (like this blog) or drafts are fine. But the closer I come to finality (in this case, my finished dissertation) the more terror I feel at the prospect of choosing final words that I commit to stand by.
The psychologically proper thing to do, of course, is to identify experiences of OCD and do what a hypothetically “reasonable man” would do, but it remains hard to question my work enough to edit properly without overdoing it and questioning everything entirely. And I wish I could better grasp the point of Ecclesiastes.
The latter statement might sound odd, but I often like to imagine that the Ecclesiast had something like OCD. What is lacking cannot be numbered. The frustration of eternity – infinite possibility – is set in our hearts so that we are boggled even by the smallest of things. The mundane becomes terrifying: men start at the sound of a bird. There is no end of toil. The books to read are endless and much study is a weariness of the flesh. And the Ecclesiast can’t even come up with something final to say – there are positions to be clarified and caveats to be made. In fact, someone else must step in and finish the book for him, for his thoughts are cyclical and as endless as the rivers that flow into the sea. This of course may be a highly implausible and fantastic interpretation, but I keep wondering if there might not be something to it. It would after all be a great relief to find that all was vanity – in the sense discovered by Anne Bradstreet – and that one could treat a final draft with as cavelier an attitude as this blog post. It might, in fact, even look a little like grace.