By Anneli Rufus
Alone, we are alive.
Everyone’s got an idea about what the archetypal ‘loner’ is. Usually the associations are negative. Like loners are anti-social or asocial dweebs. Loners have no life. Loners are, well, losers. At first glance, a manifesto for loners seems, well, paradoxical. But the author makes the argument that a loner is an oft-misused identity label, and her book pretty much tries to dispel the common misconceptions, and in the end, reclaim the word for the loner community – if there is such a thing!
Though I’m more of an introvert than a loner (more like an introvert\extravert, or ambivert, really!), I’ve always valued solitude and a part of me has always identified with the loner mentality. So when I heard about this book, I was quite interested in reading it.
Early on, the author makes clear that this is not a new agey or self-help book. Yet a title search for Party of One on online bookstores yields a bevy of recommended reads such as “Solitude: A Return to the Self”, or “The Highly Sensitive Person”, or “Intimacy and Solitude”, or “The Happy Introvert: A Wild and Crazy Guide for Celebrating Your True Self”. Of course, Rufus regards these types of books disdainfully, as she writes:
There are books, out there, about solitude. They give instructions on being alone. These books talk of “stealing away,” of “retreats” and of “seeking sanctuary.” They pose solitude as novelty and a desperate act: the work of thieves and refugees. But for loners, the idea of solitude is not some stark departure from our normal state. We do not need writers to tell us how lovely apartness is, how sacred it was to the sages, what it did for Thoreau, that we must demand it. Those books are not for loners, not really. This is not one of those books.
So Rufus embarks on the task of defining what it means to be a loner. It has absolutely nothing to do with being lonely and has everything to do with embracing true independence. Yes, loners prefer to be left alone, but they use their solitude constructively. They tend to be opinionated, curious, intelligent, creative, and nonconformist. Largely because they feel no need to compete, they ae notably calm and stress-free and robustly happy.
There are basically two camps: the loners and nonloners (guess which group the status quo belong). The reason she is so critical of nonloners is because they are the ones that have given loners a bad name, mainly because they simply cannot conceive of true loneness. Take for example, the almost “ironclad” conventional attitude that holidays should never be celebrated alone, since for nonloners, the prospect of holidays alone is “truly horrifying”. Ah, those silly nonloners!
Rufus explores how pop culture and the media have perpetuated positive and negative images of the socalled loner, much of which comes from loners themselves. She looks at loners of yore, ie. hermits, monks and anchoresses, and phony loners, ie. bedcases. She looks at how loners deal with love and work. And she also brings up famous loners, like Piet Mondrian, and makes the case of how loners can be misunderstood:
By all accounts, Mondrian was a contented man. He was not a crazy man or a lonely man or a suicidal man or a failure or a man who lived in squalor. He had social graces, knew his manners, but chose not to be in situations where these would be called upon. Fully functional, he published an art magazine and achieved great renown in his own time. For his troubles this quiet figure was lambasted by one art critic as a “cold, ruthless Dutchman.: Like any loner whose openness to others goes only this far and no farther, Mondrian would of course be called ruthless.
When Rufus gets to the subject of loner-bashing in law enforcement it gets the most interesting. It’s amazing to learn how the vast majority of criminology experts and FBI profilers still rely on archaic definitions of personality types and fail to grasp some basic distinctions. The l-word is far too often “too loosely applied, or even misapplied”. The author writes:
What we have here is a crisis of semantics. The word “loner,” based on the shallowest impressions of surface appearances, is being used wholesale to tar an amazing diversity of people – most of them not loners – with the same mucky brush.
Rufus wants to make clear that being a loner is not the same as being a social outcast or sociopath. But too often “loner” is used in place of these words. She uses Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber as the classic example of the mislabeled criminal loner. As a teenager who was so far ahead of his peers intellectually, he became regarded as “a freak by a large segment of the student body.” Kacynski was actually a nonloner who came to resemble a loner because he was an outcast. As he admitted once in a letter to his mother: “…the many rejections, humiliations and other painful influences that I underwent during adolescence at home, in high school and at Harvard have conditioned me to be afraid of people.”
What Rufus tries to point out that these so-called loner criminals who seek revenge, retaliation or retribution… well, these are not the motives that move loners. We do not want those things from others – acceptance and admiration and control and power – that make social people kill. We neither hang nor thrive on what others think, say or do. The fact that we mind our own business saves us from the types of torment that typically lead to violence. We want nothing from others but to be left alone.
Yes. It did take me a little while to get past the overall snooty tone of the writing. As a writer, Rufus is more insightful than entertaining. There are no humorous anecdotes, as she does not aim to amuse, but to enlighten. In the end though, I was indeed very much enlightened and I ended up enjoying this book after all!