Sunday, August 23, 2009

(15) Party Of One: The Loners’ Manifesto

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!


WalkerP said...

I wish I could be more of a loner at times.

There are a lot of positive portrayals of loners, especially in masculine fiction like the western (think of Clint Eastwood or Shane) or Batman.

Goth80s said...

Yeah, i agree with the person above me.. I just read some comments here "Protagonist loners in movies", not all movies portray loners as antagonist.

Italia said...

This book seems to address various loner aspects of people who tend to live alone. One thing I haven't found yet is what about married loners (which the author is). She mentioned a couple times about their home-life but not much.
I haven't read the entire book (through 2/3 of it now) but wanted to post this message. As a loner person, I have always had trouble with my wife in terms of our relationship. She keeps saying that I don't love her because I don't "show it" by talking with her more, or spending more time with her. I do love her very much but it grates on her the way I am. If the act of talking is her measure of love, I have little chance. However, our family is great with great kids and all you'd ever want. Well, this book puts words to my feelings and I agree with much of it. I am a loner. This is not "bad" but different.

meezly said...

Thanks for your comment, Italia. Yes I agree that the author doesn’t explore loners in relationships in much detail. But she does mention that her husband is also a loner, so they both understand each other completely.

not sure if you'll be revisiting this page, but I’m in a similar situation as you, as my husband is a nonloner, very outgoing and demonstrative in his affections. When we first started living together, he didn’t get why I wasn’t very affectionate with him in return. I just don’t need or seek out physical contact like nonloners, who seem to just wither if they don’t get enough hugs or reassurances of love.

Over the years, however, he’s come to understand me much better, and now accepts the fact that I’m not as affectionate as he is. He just asks taht I let him embrace me whenever he wants to. I don’t know if I’m a true loner because I don’t think I can live with a partner who’s also a loner because our apt isn’t big enough for two homebodies!

Unlike many nonloner relationships, I encourage my husband to go out with his friends because it means I have some alone time at home, and he gets to satisfy his need to socialize. I also recognize the fact that I’m married to a nonloner, so I try in my own way to show him that I love him, like making dinner together or suggesting activities we can do, because I also happen to enjoy hanging out with him as we have common interests.

I think with a marriage that involves a loner/nonloner combo, there has to be some compromise from both sides. Your wife should try to understand that you are who you are, and should try to not be resentful and try to change you. But as a husband, you are also obligated to make your wife as happy to the best of your abilities. Women can be incredibly insecure about themselves and sometimes they just want to hear from their significant others that they are loved. As a loner, I’m sure you’ll come up with unique and thoughtful ways of showing her that she is important to you, in your own way. This is only an example, but if talking isn’t your thing, then the utterly simple act of leaving her a rose with a simple note can do wonders. You may think the idea of flowers is silly and clichéd, but when it boils down to it, it’s the simple gesture that counts.