An obsessive compulsive quest for order

Symmetry is found not just in classical art and machinery. It is an imprint in our minds that bespeaks a need for balance and safety and comfort. This can get debilitating if it impinges on your productivity and happiness, but we need this mild OCD to function efficiently.

I remember it starting off as something of an innocent game. It was to make school seem less banal. While walking in between classes, I’d ensure that my foot was always placed squarely within a tile, taking great care to ensure I never stepped on the intersections. Something just didn’t seem right about stepping on them. I hadn’t yet seen As Good As It Gets then, and so, didn’t know that I was following in the, er, footsteps of Jack Nicholson, the film’s protagonist who similarly avoids intersections like the plague. His ritual though is chronic, obsessive even; mine was meant to be recreational. You know how you sometimes kick a stone along on the road to make a long, lonely walk seem less tedious? This was something like that.

Until a few years passed, and I suddenly noticed that I was involuntarily following a ritual when wearing my shoes. I’d done it unthinkingly for months, but this was when I paid attention. I wore my left sock first, and then the right, and then, the left shoe, and then the right. If I should ever, god forbid, wear my left shoe after the left sock, instead of the right sock, I’d be almost paralysed and unable to proceed. I’d have to start over. At the risk of over-dramatisation, it always felt as though I was betraying my right foot by offering full protection to the left first. And just to make sure that my left foot wouldn’t think I was partial, I’d switch the first sock to the other foot, every alternate day. I know, I know. You’re thinking this is all just ridiculously tedious, right? But what if you were wired to make instinctive choices to lend a certain… balance, even in these utterly insignificant actions?

Over the years, these — shall we say — quirks have grown in number. Hands need to be washed immediately after entrance into any place. No, it’s not about cleanliness. It’s just not that simple. It’s more about the routine, about the ritual. It’s about knowing that these rituals indicate normalcy, and normalcy is usually safety. Curtains must always be fully closed when going to bed, and I mean fully. The teeniest, tiniest gap is the stuff of nightmares, and will ensure that sleep doesn’t come. Or how about those dastardly doormats that, for some reason, are always prone to ungainly, asymmetric creases? Have you noticed how they often curl inside, or worse, under themselves? I find the primal, obsessive need to set them right, and make sure they are placed parallel to the door, or the wall. Minor angular changes are causes of deep discomfort. Yes, I know the word you’re thinking about, by now. Yes, Issues.

However, while these may seem laborious and time-consuming for those who find these rituals unrelatable, they are anything but. They are usually quickly, swiftly, and — most importantly — instinctively done. I’ve never found that they’ve come in the way of productive life. This, I imagine, differentiates this from being a classic case of OCD affliction, a term whose overuse is made less bothersome by its wrong usage. In a usual case of OCD affliction, the affected person suffers. The rituals are cumbersome and, as OCD patients know, debilitating. Like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets who cannot walk into his house before switching his lights on and off five times. And certainly like the protagonist of The Aviator who once washes his hands so vigorously that they end up bleeding.

These rituals, in comparison, are more expressions of the manic need for symmetry in everyday life. Why symmetry? Why not? It is after all known to play an important part in something as fundamental to human evolution as partner choice. Research has shown that symmetry is an indication of healthy genes, and a sign of adaptive ability.

It’s a sign of beauty in art too. Pause to consider the bilateral symmetry of the Taj Mahal. Pause to consider the symmetry of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Pause to consider the contentment you get from reading a long palindrome: say the soulfully pleasing ‘tattarrattat’. Symmetry and balance. Symmetry and balance.

Over the years, this instinctive quest for symmetry has influenced very many of my everyday tasks, like climbing stairs, for instance. I instinctively take an even number of steps. This also serves the secondary purpose of exerting both legs equally, because — as I’ve told you earlier — it’s important not to be partial towards one leg. Because that’s not balance. For those seeking balance, even numbers are a godsend. That’s why television and radio volumes will always have to be in even numbers, for even numbers are preferable, while odd numbers are just… odd. As Gollum would likely say, “Symmetry is my preciousss.” When I occasionally note that some action has caused my body to turn on its pivot once, I always make sure I turn back in the same direction. It’s literally me, er, unwinding.

These quirks have now become routines, and stand as defiant defences against… change. Routine is safe, change is danger. At the cost of being too compulsive about it — and you’ll no doubt forgive me for it — I must draw your attention to the distinction between such routines targeted at achieving symmetry and other seemingly similar routines that are simply… habits. Take font preferences, for instance. I know many who cannot put pen to paper — or as you should say these days, finger to keyboard — unless their usual font preferences are set. Mine’s Times New Roman, size 12, with justified text and zoomed at 100%, and all the toolbars closed in MS Word. This is neither about symmetry or balance — although you, no doubt, noticed the numbers 12 and 100 — but simply the mind settling into a comfortable, recognisable, ‘safe’ space from which it knows it has previously operated efficiently.

Everybody has such habits. Restaurant seating preferences, for instance, fall under this category. I generally have my seat face the bar counter area — all the lights! — with my back always closer to the wall than my front, without my seat being close to the entrance or getting relegated to a corner. These are specific needs, but not targeted at symmetry, unless you’re taking note of how my posture is parallel to the wall.

Remember when Monica Geller of F.R.I.E.N.D.S wishes she had a smaller vacuum cleaner to clean her small vacuum cleaner? It isn’t about tidiness, or her waging war against germs. It’s about ensuring that her personal and safe blueprint for the world gets followed. That way, the world makes more sense… and only that way. That’s why my pens and phones are placed parallel to the edge of the table. That’s also why I try very very hard not to look up at framed photos on the walls of houses I happen to visit. They’re never aligned squarely with the wall. And that, as you know by now, gets me. What about you? What gets you?

A version of this column was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

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