By | January 13, 2018

There was a movie I had been meaning to watch for some time now, The Number 23. It’s a heartwarming tale of someone who kills the person they love after discovering they weren’t loved in return, buries the body, writes a “book” about their life as a suicide note, jumps from a window but doesn’t die, forgets everything that happened due to the head trauma, and goes on to live a mostly normal life until it all comes back to them through…you guessed it…the number 23. I finally got around to watching that movie today as a result of a series of interesting, coincidental (or not) events.

Also, it “kills” me not to spell “twenty-three” in proper English form, but the movie used the numeric “23,” and I shall, reluctantly, follow suit.

I had been keeping the topic of “obsessions” on my future posts board for a while now. You have to wait for the right inspirational moment to address a topic, and for whatever reason, I recently found myself in the obsessed kind of mood. Not knowing where I wanted to take the subject, I decided to just surround myself with readings and videos related to obsessions to start synthesizing ideas.

Surprisingly, it was a little hard to find what I was after. And so, the chase had begun. There were YouTube videos out there about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), even some about Michael Jordan’s obsession with winning, in basketball and anything else he did. But those weren’t really what I was after. Do you remember what number MJ wore on his jersey for most his career, by the way? I figured you might (it’s 23).

Still not knowing what I was after, or where to find it, I decided to turn to Netflix. I searched “obsession,” hoping to find maybe a psychology documentary or something about obsessed lovers, stalkers, 9/11 truthers or other conspiracy theory types, but nothing really materialized. Then, in the middle of the search results, there it was…The Number 23. The one Jim Carrey movie I never saw. And that’s odd enough as it is considering I’ve been…um…obsessed with him ever since Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which was released in 1994. Wait a minute…1+9+9+4 = oh my god…

Click…loading…approximate time remaining…23 seconds…

I didn’t really remember the plot line, but I recalled it being a thriller, something a little…well…a lot different for Mr. Carrey. I was hoping it would be a least a touch better than The Cable Guy, which I thought shouldn’t be too hard to manage. Though I had always held a nostalgic soft spot for Jim, even I would admit The Cable Guy was…well…not great. Anyway, I was curious to find out how this movie turned up in a Netflix search for “obsession.”

Not surprisingly, the obsession was with a number (the twenty-third one), which came to him in the form of a novel, The Number 23, given to his character as a birthday gift from his wife. Soon this book, and the number, invades his mind, haunting him at every coincidental(?) turn of events until he neither sees nor thinks of anything else. Everywhere he looked for it, he found it, until he was convinced the pattern was significant, possibly foreboding, eventually something from which he, and everyone else involved, could not escape.

When something seems to reveal itself to you everywhere, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine if it’s really a significant theme, prophetic and connected in some grand pattern, or if you just happen to see it more once you’re conscious of it. Is the world really more violent today, or is violence just reported more often? Does the weather seem to be more volatile now than when I was a child, or am I just paying more attention? Are Jim’s comments at work really passive-agressive digs, or am I just obsessed with what people think about me?

Jim. J-I-M. The tenth, ninth, and thirteenth letters in the alphabet…9+10+13 = 32…23 backwards. Jim Carrey. The Number 23. Someone zip my straightjacket.

Obviously perception is everything here. You can find anything if you look for it. You can always find justification for your actions if you try hard enough. You can always find some shred of evidence to seemingly prove or disprove what you believe or don’t believe.

Then again, I was NOT having very much success finding what I was looking for when I first set out to research this topic of obsessions. What I found instead was a movie, The Number 23, a movie I had always intended to see, ever since it was released on…when was it released…holy sh…freaking February 23 of 2007?! Are you kidding me now?! Well, that was probably on purpose since the producers of the movie could release it anytime they chose, but…but…but today is when I saw it. That movie was meant for me. This can’t be happenstance.

Okay, Bert, get a grip here. You’re becoming obsessed (I know!), so let’s just rationalize this thing. Remember what this blog’s all about, right…for a better understanding of humans and their world…let’s get a handle on this objectively. What is obsession anyway?

Right, definitions…a safe haven for my brain to play momentarily:

Cambridge: Unable to stop thinking about something.

Well, yes, I suppose that goes without saying, but it’s a start.

Dictionary.com: (psychiatry definition) A persistent idea or impulse that continuously forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety and mental illness.

Anxiety and mental illness…a bit unsettling, but we’re getting to the heart of the matter.

Urban Dictionary #4: A word used by the lazy to describe the dedicated.

Kind of funny, but on behalf of dedicated people everywhere, also a little offensive. Is it so wrong to care about something? To try a little? Now I have to be lumped in with “anxiety and mental illness” because I put effort into something important to me?! Not that I’m judging, but dedication is its own animal. Okay, Brett, not the time to relive high school here, buddy. Let’s move on…

Psychology Today has a sobering read on obsession in relationships. In discussing a case of a relationship turned into stalking, it writes:

“People think it’s about being so in love, you’re not able to control yourself,” she explains. “But you’re driven by retaliation and obsession rather than love and idealization. Once you’re aggressive, you’re not idealizing, you’re not in love. All that’s left is the obsession.”

It seems there is a spectrum here, and a fine line to cross, where what can start as a healthy love of someone or something, a passion, if you will, suddenly flips to obsession once the empathy for others is lost and the obsessed becomes completely focused on himself or herself and fulfilling some objective. There is a point of disengagement where extreme cognitive dissonance opens the door to acts seemingly crazy, and possibly hurtful to others, while feeling fully justified and sane from within.

So where does one draw the line between a vigorous yet healthy pursuit of a passion vs an unhealthy obsession? Perhaps, more importantly, what is the likelihood of the pursuer having the self-awareness in the moment to step outside of themselves and make such a judgement?

What is it with this movie anyway? I mean, so what if 23 shows up everywhere? How does that mean anything? So Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times. And Kurt Cobain was born in 1967 (1+9+6+7=23) and died in 1994 (which we’ve already established adds to 23). And each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to a human embryo. And my dad was 23 years old when I was born. Whoa…my dad was 23 when I was born.

Alright, so there’s one coincidence. Like I said, you can find anything if you look hard enough for it. It’s not as if this number is coming after me and haunting my life now. Like I’m just going to find some random 23 embedded in, I don’t know, like my house number of my address or something. Like 4982…4+9+8+2…Bert! No! What are you do……………………

(screams…then silence…)

Pretty creepy, right?


You know what’s creepy? Asking yourself the question “Who am I?”

Whoa!!! Hold on!!! Wait a damn minute here!!!

My better judgement, and the pragmatic voices of a couple close friends (also, I might add, readers for whom I am eternally grateful), would say “Come on, Bert…you can’t start all over now! They just got done reading what is already a normal, full-length post! Can’t you save this for next time? Make it a ‘Part II’ or something?” And to that I say…”No.”

No. I have to go on because I haven’t really gotten to the beating heart of this whole bloody mess (“bloody” in the British context, not the murder-mystery thriller context). I was merely skimming the superficial surface with my ever-distracting skis of avoidance (Skis, huh? Are they yers? Both of ’em?) It’ll make sense in the end, I promise, if you could just indulge me one more time. I mean, really, you’ve followed along this far.

And so we continue. And Freddie Mercury belts to the back row “The show must go on!” And somewhere near the edge of Mordor, Frodo and Sam, with the one-thousandth of an ounce of strength left in the deepest recesses of their soul, holding on for their dear fifteenth and sixteenth life, respectively (a feat to which even the most pompous of felines can only squint their eyes and acknowledge a whisker of admiration), resume their epic journey to Mount Doom. 

Seriously, who am I? Who are we? What’s the difference between who I am and who I think I am? Or who I want to be? Or who others think I am or want me to be?

It’s odd, the longer you live, the more “you” you put out there in the world, building others’ expectations of you, creating something to live up to. Every move you make in this Land of Oz lays down another yellow brick on an ever narrowing road, zeroing in on this thing called “you,” until you get to the end, meet the dude behind the curtain, and realize this “you” is a little more arbitrary, random, and fragile than you may want to believe.

Yet we hold on to it, like Alice hovering over the rabbit hole, white-knuckling that last bit of sod and dirt, the roots of which are the last thing holding us together. Unless, of course, you’re one of these “personal growth” types…then one day you drop down, check out the scenery for a while, and climb back out a whole new “you,” all reinvented and whatnot.

Then you’re free again, clean slate. You get to decide who “you” are, for real this time, you know, really “find yourself.”

A few years ago, I decided to get really serious about this. This wasn’t my first go-round with reinvention, and I felt I really knew how to do better this time. I even went so far as to create a character, an alter ego, this guy named Bert…you may have heard of him. It was a bit tongue-and-cheek, yes, but part of me truly identified with him in certain ways. It’s very liberating having an alter ego; much like being an actor, you can get out of yourself for a while. Suddenly, however briefly, the possibilities are endless.

The funny thing about egos, though – whether they be alter egos, original egos, new and improved egos, whatever – is that you can get just as hung up on them as you did the original. And I, being the dedicated perfectionist that I am, was dead set on making Bert Betterman even better every single day.

One by one I laid out blogs like yellow bricks of expectation. This new, better road I had set out on, which seemed so wide and luxurious at the outset, eventually started to narrow same as the rest of them did. Too afraid, or too stubborn, to contradict myself and change course, I just stood there for a while, holding a bunch of heavy bricks.

At first I was finding all these things I could do to make my life better. It was exciting realizing I had that sort of control. It was exhilarating to discover that I could make myself stronger, healthier, dare I say…better. I had discovered a new passion in life.

And of all the things I was adding to my life, there was one thing I was reducing…pain. Unless you’ve ever had chronic pain strangling your life force, it’s hard to understand just how motivating that dangly little carrot of relief can be. Though true “narcotics” were never part of my diet, it’s not hard to see how one could easily fall under their spell.

When it came to pain-reduction strategies, I began to take a “more is better” approach. Ironically, as someone who considers himself at least an intermediate level economist, I should have been able to forecast the inevitability of diminishing returns on my investment.

Nevertheless, as I stood there at the end of my road balancing more bricks than Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the rest of their crew could collectively handle, I was overextended and stressed out trying to be “better,” which didn’t make me feel very good. Then, since I didn’t feel good, I’d do more, which made me feel, ironically, worse yet. I had forgotten the whole reason behind it, the feeling good part, the fuel for my passion of health, wellness, growth, whatever you want to call it.

And when the passion was gone, all that was left was the obsession…and an excessively large amount of yellow bricks, a gluttonous supply I would be so lucky to sell for pennies on the dollar.

Unfortunately, it was also a futile obsession. More fundamentally, what I failed to understand was that you can’t completely eliminate or insulate yourself from pain, at least not in perpetuity. That especially holds true for emotional pain, which slowly became the larger piece of my pain pie chart until it resembled Pac-Man eating a cheese wedge. Eventually you run out of road to kick the can, and you have to face it. You have to work through it. 

I gathered a lot of information during that period, but that’s the easy part. The trickier bit is to extrapolate truth and wisdom and figure out how to apply them effectively. Some of it was valuable when applied in the right context, but the rest simply amounted to distractions allowing my subconscious more time for can-kicking. They didn’t seem like distractions, though, because I felt self-assured by taking action. I was “doing something,” trying to make a better life, however misdirected it may have been.

Eventually my previous, naive understanding of personal growth, the basis of this blog for most of its young life, begged an important question…what do you do when you’re finally “better?” Are you happy then? Are you happy when you’re free from pain? No, you just have nothing. There is no happiness without pain; any one of a thousand memes from any pseudo-Zen Facebook ad will tell you that.

In fact, personal growth isn’t about getting “better” – which suggests that one is “broken” to begin with – it’s about simply being more aware of the journey and cultivating experience. It’s about being present as life unfolds rather than running on autopilot. It’s about consciously setting intentions and periodically resetting them as life changes and you adjust course. It’s about being purposeful in thought and action.

Instead of just blindly letting life go in one end and out the other, you taste the sweet nectar, savor it, and absorb its nutrient-dense lessons for future reference.

Also, while you’re attempting to be more present of life’s experience, the ultimate challenge is to simultaneously loosen your grip on “you.” Let go of that man or woman behind the curtain, because really it’s the same person running all of our shows anyway; we just dress up our version of them in different clothes and cut their hair in unique ways to try to make them our own.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of the beauty of life that we can all look at the same thing and see it in different ways, offer a different perspective, and express it in a unique way that literally know one else can. Once you realize, though, that you and I are really the same thing expressed differently rather than a separate “you” and a separate “I,” it’s kind of a game-changer. And the game is much easier to play when you remember that it is really just that, a big, long (but still important) game, The Game of Life (I guess we have Hasbro to thank for that?).

As for finding happiness? A friend of mine recently wrote me, “Happiness is a choice.” In a way, that’s true; certainly our human emotions are separate from the events of life. In other words, nothing is inherently good or bad, it’s a matter of how we react to it, which emotions we attach to it. That said, realistically, we are predisposed to perceiving certain events through the lens of either happiness or sorrow. While arguments can be made, it would be hard to experience the death of a loved one, for example, without at least some amount of sorrow.

Perhaps I can offer a compromise…it’s up to us to chose to see happiness when the universe presents us with the right conditions. Likewise, in the midst of sorrow, it’s up to us to remember that this too shall pass. If you don’t like the emotional weather of the moment, give it a while, and it’ll eventually change. And how would we ever recognize happiness if it weren’t interspersed between all that pain and sorrow? 

So here’s to a new year…one colored by the richness of both happiness and sorrow, the heads and tails in the coin flips of life…

And that should be a good enough ending, yet I still have two more thought-provoking questions swimming in my consciousness like a couple of sexually-mature salmon begging to get up into this thought stream and lay their inquisitive eggs. The first is “Why do we want to be happy?”

Seems an obvious thing to desire, but as I sat here at my computer, feeling unhappy with the first half of this writing, questioning whether anyone would read or care about my choices of words as I suspect writers often do (at least those of the mere mortal variety), my next thought-provoking question came to mind…”If I become happy, will I cease to be interesting?”

The first question was a classic devil’s advocate thought progression that can sometimes be helpful in understanding anyone’s motivation for desiring a thing. Sometimes desires that seem obvious are worth questioning to understand deeper, which is exactly where the second question probes.

“If I become happy, will I cease to be interesting?” was the springboard for my thought bubble diving off into uncharted waters after it seemed ready to towel off and head back to the resort with an unsatisfactory yet “complete” blog post. It was the basis of my once-naive understanding of personal growth and “self.” It implies that my “dude behind the curtain” is just my dude, no one else’s, and he can’t be anything he wants to be…or all things everyone wants to be. It’s a thought soaked in a sea of light and dark, one that hasn’t yet been introduced to the rest of color wheel or, more profoundly, the concept of a spectrum.

At a very personal level, that question went straight to the basis of why I even write what I write here with (as?) Bert Betterman. Furthermore, it explains my very real struggle to express this post and why it took me so long to get it “right” – though you, the reader, was none the wiser given it only now reached your field of awareness – because I persistently worried whether or not it was enough, whether it meant something to anyone but yours truly, and that sort of self-doubt combined with a professional level of perfectionism can be astonishingly paralyzing.

And then I talked about it today with someone very important to me, and they offered the following bits of wisdom…

First, it’s better to do one thing really well than to attempt to do them all. For this reason and this reason alone, despite how strongly my Frodo-like ego is craving something much more epic, I’ll wrap this up more promptly and leave any remaining thoughts or questions (or worries about completeness) for another day.

Finally, they noted how important this must be to me that it would take so much of my time and attention, rewrite after rewrite, perfectionist struggle after perfectionist struggle, to which I say “Yeah, this was a big deal for me.” And I am finally content to say that this was enough…for now.

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