Sunday, August 06, 2006

Is there a line between idiosyncrasy and compulsion?

I've been wondering if some of my less-than-noble character traits are merely idiosyncratic quirks in my personality or if they're actually compulsive behaviors. My understanding of the difference between the two is that idiosyncrasies are the things you tend to do - compulsions are the things you have to do. When a behavior starts to take over your life - or when you find yourself in situations in which you feel (inexplicably) that you have no choice but to indulge the behavior--well then, brother, you've probably got a compulsion on your hands.

There are people--my family mostly--who will tell you that I correct people's grammar way too much. They'll tell you that I'm "anal" about they way people speak and that I simply can't stand when people use improper grammar. They might even tell you that I am compulsive about good usage. While that might seem true - I doubt very much that grammar is a compulsion for me. Sure, I might correct people every now and then, but that's probably just because I'm an asshole. I don't think I have a grammar compulsion. Frankly, it doesn't control me or my life. In other words, it’s not that I compulsively hate bad grammar usage, it’s more likely that I just like correcting people and feeling superior.


There is one thing that leads me to worry about my compulsive behavior and leads me to write this blog-entry. While grammar mistakes don't really bother me, the geographical mistakes people make drive me up the fucking wall! When I hear someone misuse words like "down" or "up" when describing the relationship between two places, I simply shut down. I can't cope.

Today, for example, I listened to a woman tell what I think must have been a very moving story about how she went up to New Paltz, New York and met some Jewish women who were protesting Israeli aggression in Lebanon. I think she might have been saying something about how she admired the courage and commitment of these anti-war activists, and might have been praising the way they spoke of faith, peace, and the inherent goodness of humanity. I'm not sure exactly what she was saying, however, because I was too busy obsessing over the fact that New Paltz is south of here!!

I'll give you another example. Last week I had a conversation with one of my students. I asked her what she did over the weekend and she told me about a trip to the beach. "I just love the ocean," she said.

Here's why I think I might be compulsive: there was about a 10 second gap between her statement "I just love the ocean" and my response. During those ten seconds, my mind went into a sort of crisis-mode in which I considered--I mean carefully considered--the situation. She was a 17-year-old-girl in the summer before her freshman year of college, and who was casually chatting about a fun time she had the day before. I am almost 33 years old, well-educated, reasonably well-traveled, supposedly mature, and to one degree or another in a position of authority. Shouldn't I take the high road?

Well, I didn't! I found I just could not stop myself--I mean I could not prevent myself from saying: "You mean the Sound.... Connecticut is on the Long Island Sound, not the ocean."

Ok, I'm lying actually. That's what I wished I had said. In truth, I am far more passive-aggressive than that. What I actually said was probably something like "Really? You went to the ocean? It must have taken you hours and hours to get there."

I am a very small, petty man.

My point is that in that situation, I really did weigh the situation and genuinely felt that pointing out this poor girl's mistaken sense of geography was what I had to do. And here's the really important part: I felt I needed to point this out to her not because I felt she needed to know the truth, but that I needed to say it.


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