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6527212 March 02, 2009

Leave Me Alone: An Aberration Story

... if someone is perfectly content living in a way that doesn't harm anyone--that's beautiful.

As a teenager and young adult, one of the ways I described myself was, "I don't run in herds of girls." With that in mind, let's kick this off with a vocabulary review. The term loner is defined as a person who is or prefers to be alone, esp. one who avoids the company of others.

That's it. Period. Over. Done.

It doesn't mean strange, weird, deviant, lacking in social skills, or susceptible to a life of crime. Now, the majority of loners are introverted folks.
The term and the state of being introverted happen to be highly misunderstood. Introverted means to turn or direct inward. Again none of that life-of-crime-weird-neighbor-stay-away-from-them-killer stuff. So if loners are minding their own business, enjoying their own company in their own little neck of the woods, content as snugly little bumps on logs, why does the rest of the world insist that they somehow painfully scrape themselves off the log, run outside, give a shout out to the world, and join the party? Is that fair?

One of my favorite reads of 2008 was Anneli Rufus' book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto. It now has a permanent home on my short list of all-time favorite books. According to Anneli's research, famous loners span every era and realm. To name a few: Albert Einstein, Anne Rice, Michelangelo, Barry Bonds, Isaac Newton, Franz Kafka, Stanley Kubrick, Janet Reno, John Lennon, James Michener, Emily Dickinson, Alexander Pope, Hermann Hesse, Paul Westerberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kurt Cobain, Haruki Murakami, Gustav Klimt, Charles Schulz, Dan Clowes, Piet Mondrian, Saint Anthony, H.P. Lovecraft, Beatrix Potter and Joe DiMaggio. As a journalist and the author of several critically acclaimed books, and a lifelong loner, Anneli wrote Party of One as a way to expose mainstream culture’s anti-loner prejudice. But she also wrote it to show the ways in which loners have not just survived. They have actually changed our world. They have not just saved civilization; they had a heck of a lot to do with creating it.

With that said, being a loner is an aberration that can cause suffering and hardship. The ongoing societal pressure to somehow magically detach from that comfortable log can be unbearable. Many loners go through life feeling as if they're considered second rate citizens, corporate leaders, mothers, teachers, etc. because although they strive to do their very best at what's thrown their way, they continue to lack what society insists they give: extroversion, togetherness, comradeship, life-of-the-party behavior, and plain ole' conversation.

What Anneli illuminates in Party of One so emulates the concept behind Aberration Nation that I just had to invite her to join. I was thrilled when she said, "Sign me up!" Anneli is pleased to share some of the key points of her book, as well as insight into her own experience being a loner. You can read more online content from Anneli on her Psychology Today blog, Stuck.

We've all known or heard of shifty folks referred to as loners. You're a self-proclaimed loner. Can you define for us what that really means, and shed light on why it can be perceived as an aberration.

A loner is someone who genuinely enjoys being alone. It's as simple as that. He or she savors his or her solitude. The "shifty folks" situation is usually the result of misdiagnosis: Criminals and/or the mentally ill are seen to spend a lot of time alone, and are thus (wrongly) dubbed "loners." I draw a distinction: Those people are not alone because they WANT to be. Most of those serial killers described in the papers as "loners" want very much NOT to be alone, yet are patently avoided by others because they are so difficult to be around. Being alone a lot against their will makes these individuals even more miserable, angry and/or dysfunctional. But such people aren't true loners, despite how eager the media is to slap that name on them. True loners are not sad or sick or lonely or misanthropic. We just don't feel the need to be around others all day. Preferring to be alone is generally perceived as an aberration because we live in a very crowded, social world. Loners comprise a small minority. Everything in society is geared around togetherness.

Society seems to reward the outgoing and extroverted among us. Have you always been comfortable with your loner status? Have you ever tried to not be a loner, and if so, how did that go?

No, I wasn't always comfortable with it. In this culture, it takes real courage to "be yourself" as a loner and feel great about it. Like many loners, I spent many years feeling like a freak. People were always accusing me of being weird, selfish, hateful, whatever--and some well-meaning soul or other was always trying to bring me "out of my shell." That's just a form of intolerance.
In high school and college, it's especially hard to live easily as a loner. One is thrust into group situations constantly--in school itself, in classes and in the clubs that one joins in order to have a more impressive resume. Social pressures are constant, as folks of that age so frequently hang out in groups and one is cast as a gross loser if one does not participate. It's hard to put up with that and maintain any self-esteem at all. At that age, being more vulnerable to criticism and teasing, I went out and did the group thing--and thus constantly felt drained and fake and ridiculous.

Why is being a loner consistently perceived as a negative? It seems like a case of group think. Do you believe loners have advantages that go unappreciated by our society? Why can't people seem to focus on the positive aspects of being a loner?

It is perceived as negative because it is unusual, and because society is by definition social. Compared to really sociable types, loners have certain abilities--the ability to tolerate silence, and a certain self-reliance and creativity that come from always entertaining ourselves rather than passively relying on other people to entertain us.

How did you learn to cope with the desire to spend more time alone than with others?

I learned to cope by graduating from college and moving into my own apartment--thus no longer being constantly surrounded by others who expected me to talk with them and do things with them.

At the core, I'm also a loner. Although I've learned to cope, it seems that the world is filled with extroverted people who fly through situations that make me cringe. They shine in high school and corporate America, sometimes despite their less than stellar intellect. This can be extremely frustrating to an intelligent loner at times. Have you observed this phenomenon?

Being sociable does make up for other weaknesses someone might have. Being able to engage others in friendly small talk greases the wheels sometimes. It's frustrating but it's true.

A passage in your book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, has become one of my favorites: Artists hear what no one else hears. They see what no one else sees. They say what no one else says. They must. And to do this, they traffic in the slippery yield of their own souls. They bring to earth the wrack and lode of depths that only they can reach and still come back alive. Do you believe that true loners generally have a greater capacity to tap into that inner sanctum where art is created? What can you tell us about this based on your own experience and your research?

Readers have emailed me that I focused too much in the book on artists and the artistic temperament. But yes, creative loners have more access to that inner sanctum -- by sheer virtue of the fact that loners have less distractions in their lives than sociable types do. Loners don't have their hours filled up with talk. While researching the book and investigating the lives of famous creative loners such as John Lennon and Franz Kafka, I saw again and again how their craving for long spans spent alone was a crucial part of their artistic process.

As a loner you may have found yourself in some awkward situations--that may or may not have also been painful. Despite it all, have you come to see beauty in being a loner? From a personal perspective, what are the positives you've come to appreciate?

It's often awkward, as in most aspects of life one is expected to socialize. It's beautiful, as you put it, in the sense that being a loner is just another way of being human. Mainstream society fears and loathes loners, pities loners, and misunderstands loners. But if someone is perfectly content living in a way that doesn't harm anyone--that's beautiful.

What would you say to parents who recognize that their child is a true loner? How can they best support and foster their child, helping them to live up to their own personal potential unfettered by societal directives?

Just don't pressure him or her to be more sociable than he or she can bear to be. Sure, a few basic social skills are pretty much mandatory in this world. We all have to get by, so we all need to know how to conduct a standard conversation and be polite. But parents often make the mistake of thinking a child's solitary nature is a sign of maladjustment, or something that needs to be cured. Therapists too often think this as well, so shuttling a solitary child off to therapy is not always a great idea.

If you could tell the world anything about being a loner, what would that be?

It's not freakish. Loners aren't bothering anyone. They ask only to be pretty much left alone. Why must society be so scared and intolerant?

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