Obsession

  

A brief one.

One of the pleasures of living in my head is the pile of dog-eared pages of history and etymology lying on my dusty mental shelves.  

Last week, as I was taking the register in Year 2, I explained the significance of their names to as many children as I could. 

I told Matilda about a mighty empress who fought the king of England for year after year so that her son could claim his crown.  Eleanor, I said, married Matilda’s son and became queen of dominions that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Alexander learnt that his namesake had ruled an empire that reached almost to India. One or two of the pupils’ heads turned at this, their history touched by this long-dead man. Lucy heard how people in Denmark celebrate the longed-for return to longer days on a day named after a saint whose name, translated, means ‘light’. Sophie gave a gap-toothed smile when I said that her name meant wisdom. Later, when I told Laetitia that her name was ‘happiness’ in Latin, one of her friends joked, “That’s not what her parents think.” So much for names.

Yesterday, I was thinking about teaching and obsession. I can be quite an obsessive person, though the sieges are brief. 

I mention this because the word ‘obsess’ comes from obsideo, to besiege. We talk about people being obsessed with things or ‘obsessing’ about things; I’d like to retain a translation that is truer to the original metaphor: we are obsessed by things. It can become a passive state of mind, one in which we lose control.  Like a medieval town, or starving Stalingrad, we allow our thoughts to be surrounded by concerns, ideas, enthusiasms or pursuits that may cut us off from wider conversation, experience and company.  Obsession can constrain or narrow thought.

I’d rather be committed. Originally meaning ‘to entrust’ from the Latin conmittere (con meaning ‘together’ and mittere ‘put’ or ‘send’), there is something more active about this. I commit myself to my job and my profession. And I commit myself to my family and friends. 

Of course, if I allow the former to become an obsession, the latter may be obliged to have me committed…

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