Sadie Stein is obsessed with food, a fascination which she documents in a lovely essay entitled The Gift of Hunger in the Paris Review. And it is not just food that is her quest but the activity of sharing food with others who are similarly obsessed. She seeks a community of fellow obsessives. Her fixation is so complete that she enthusiastically endures the company of old lovers just because they share her love of food.
That really does seem over the top.
Obsession has a bad name. It seems extreme and unbalanced. We naturally shy away from people who seem like they will do anything to continue their quest. Aristotle, the great purveyor of ancient wisdom, and proponent of moderation in all things would not approve. For Aristotle, extremes were always at risk of becoming vices. Neither would the Stoics have endorsed Stein’s quest, for they thought such excessive preoccupation would disrupt our equanimity and capacity for detachment and thus sap our moral strength.
Indeed some obsessions are not healthy—we could do without stalkers, the power-hungry, or gun nuts. Drug and gambling addictions are not pretty. But when directed at non-lethal activities with a focus on quality rather than quantity, obsession is not only virtuous but may protect us from oblivion.
For human beings our greatest threat is a loss of meaning. We can endure all sorts of hardship and pain if we are convinced it is in the name of something meaningful. And we will do virtually anything to avoid boredom. In those moments in which nothing seems to matter, an abyss opens up that threatens to swallow the personality. People who are chronically depressed will tell you a day in which nothing matters lasts an eternity and is worse than any torture.
The virtue of obsession is that we obsessives need not worry about loss of meaning. Meaning for us is always there staring at us when we wake in the morning, riding shotgun as we hurtle through the day, for every moment is entangled up with a quest about which we cannot help but care.
Stein is quite aware of these benefits:
People wax eloquent about food as love, food as community, food as sociology. Conversely, we hear about food as an avoidance mechanism, or a crutch. But sometimes a crutch helps you walk when you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
An obsession is a warranty that insures against loss of meaning. The virtue of a food obsession is that the premiums are affordable. If we are among the food secure, food is all around us, all the time, and with a little concentration, creativity, and knowledge even relatively inexpensive meals can warm the heart, enliven the intellect, and thicken our attachment to people and places.
Hunger is indeed a gift; it makes a virtue out of necessity.