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Black Lamb


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The pleasures, and normalcy, of solitude

February 1st, 2003


I saw it again, in a newspaper item about a man who held police at bay in a quiet suburban community. The L word. A nasty, icky, pitiful thing, a thing you scrape off the bottom of your boot or dump hastily into your compost heap.


They said Tim McVeigh was one, that years of isolation sparked his murderous explosion. They never print Ted Kaczynski’s name without the “loner” caboose, linking the Unabomber attacks to cabin fever. Lee Harvey Oswald, we’re told, was one, too. And Jeffrey Dahmer. And every Hinckley and Chapman and Whitman and Starkweather and Speck and Gilmore and Gacy.

Heck, his supposed “loner” tendencies were part of what got poor Richard Jewell basted by the FBI.

You never see the word “loner” in print unless it’s linked with a felony, or lunacy.

Enough. I hereby elect myself public advocate for LALs (law-abiding loners). We’re tired of being lumped with sociopaths and insurgents and serial killers. We want credit — we’re saving the world.
Streisand sang about people who need people — what about people who don’t? OK, maybe we’re not chairing PTA meetings, organizing fundraisers, going door-to-door for the March of Dimes, doling out water to exhausted firefighters on the front lines. But we’re also not keeping you awake with loud parties, blocking your view at ball games, or stealing your chief squeeze at a night club. In fact, we’re your best friends.

Frustrated by the crowds at your favorite retail store? Don’t blame us — we shop by catalog. Angry about traffic jams? Not our fault — we telecommute. Concerned about global overcrowding? We rarely reproduce.

Nor are we, I hasten to say, sending anthrax particles to your elected officials. That’s pathology, not privacy.

We’re the quiet, respectful, outta-your-face “good neighbors” and citizens, the people everyone wants to live next to.

Imagine a human race comprising only loners. No numbing badinage at cocktail parties (hey, no cocktail parties at all!). No plumber/contractor/electrician who comes to your house and spends more time chewing the fat than completing billed-by-the-hour repairs. No telephone solicitors. No sharing the remote. And you could drink right out of the milk carton.

Remember Thoreau and his lyrical observation “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude”? What’s not to like about Thoreau, or about Emily no-visitors-please Dickinson? And consider J.D. Salinger, whose book sales blossom partly because a photographer hasn’t shared his air in four decades.

It’s not just writers who benefit from lonerhood. Could Charles Lindbergh have so stoically endured those thirty-three-plus hours over the Atlantic if he’d required cockpit companionship? Would Bill Gates be a world-beating billionaire without those “individualist” proclivities of his? Vladimir Kramnik practices in solitude and, needless to say, doesn’t befriend his competitors, human or hardware.
Wasn’t Greta Garbo’s solitary bent part of her timeless, seductive appeal?

Galileo. Edison. Einstein. Deep thinkers, all, and not people who would have changed history if they’d desired bubbling social lives. Could countless heroic researchers have slaved over beakers and microscopes if they’d been surrounded by yammering pals? Would Beethoven have crafted those sublime symphonies if he’d been poring over a clogged social calendar? Matisse didn’t become one of the twentieth century’s most important artists by making toasts at banquets. And Marie Curie? No post-Pierre Nobel for her if she’d been out playing the merry widow.

I was born a loner. As a child I retreated into books, took long walks, created my own language, wrote essays and doggerel. Loner, yes; lonely, never. I crawled into a shadow beneath the hibiscus and devoured Jane Austen, Nancy Drew, Ogden Nash and Lewis Carroll. I played the piano (no duets, please). Being self-befriended was a boon; as a child of the military, I relocated frequently. I never worried about finding friends, I never brooded over companions left behind.

There’s a lot of pressure on children to be socially adept. Child development experts prattle on about peer connection, interactive play, forming and cementing friendships. I have no objection to that, and I don’t dispute the inestimable value of confidants, defenders, allies. But kids who are by nature “loners” are happier and more productive without the chaos of cliques. The same is true of adult loners. Contrary to stereotypes we are not necessarily misanthropes. Some of us are extremely shy; others are simply enrolled in pursuits requiring intense focus. We are perfectly capable of stellar achievements in any profession. We have fulfilling and multi-dimensional lives.


Love of solitude is not a disorder. It’s a trait, much like love of flowers, lasagna or Schubert. For me, and for people like me, there is transforming joy in a solitary hike or swim. Without our Minimum Daily Requirement of solitude, we destabilize.

We become, that is, extremely crabby.

Extroverts baffle me, but I would never use “gregarious person” as a pejorative, the way “loner” is so commonly employed. I think it’s time we loners spoke out. I think we should band together, establish committees, hammer out a mandate, march on the Capitol . . . oh. Hmmm. Pretty tough to make a chorus when all you have is soloists.

But soloists, remember — not anarchists. •

Posted by: The Editors
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