One is (not) the loneliest number

In an excerpt from "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto," Anneli Rufus explains why it is indeed better to be far from the madding crowd.

Published August 19, 2003 3:33PM (EDT)


Such a simple concept. So concrete. So easy to represent on charts or diagrams with dots and pushpins either in or out. Yet real life is not dots. Some of us appear to be in, but we are out. And that is where we want to be. Not just want but need, the way tuna need the sea.

Simple: an orientation, not just a choice. A fact. To paraphrase that Boston song, more than a feeling. We are loners. Which means we are at our best, as Orsino says in "Twelfth Night," when least in company.

We do not require company. The opposite: in varying degrees, it bores us, drains us, makes our eyes glaze over. Overcomes us like a steamroller. Of course the rest of the world doesn't understand.

Someone says to you, "Let's have lunch." You clench. Your sinews leap within you, angling for escape. What others thrive on, what they take for granted, the contact and confraternity and sharing that gives them strength leaves us empty. After what others would call a fun day out together, we feel as if we have been at the Red Cross, donating blood.

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How much better if I had known from the start, if someone had said, This is what is different about you. It would have been so simple, would have explained anything. But no one ever said. That is the point. We will not, cannot, hail each other on the street and ask, Are you this way? We will not take each other into confidence on line at Safeway.

Being as we are is just a way to be, like being good at sports or being born in Greenland. If only it was not dorky to quote Robert Frost, if he was Sufi or had died young in the Spanish Civil War, then we could seize as our motto the final three lines of "The Road Not Taken": Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- /I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.

This way to be, this way we are, gets us into trouble. We are a minority, the community that is an anticommunity. The culture that will not on principle join hands. Remote on principle from one another -- this is in our charter and we would not have it any other way -- each of us swims alone through a sea of social types. Talkers. Lunchers. Touchers.

Nonloners. The world at large. The mob.

The mob thinks we are maladjusted. Of course we are adjusted just fine, not to their frequency. They take it personally.

They take offense. Feel hurt. Get angry. They do not blame owls for coming out at night, yet they blame us for being as we are. Because it involves them, or at least they believe it does, they assemble the troops and call us names. Crazy. Cold. Stuck-up. Standoffish. Aloof. Afraid. Lacking in social skills. Bizarre. Unable to connect. Incapable of love. Freaks. Geeks. Sad. Lonely. Selfish. Secretive. Ungrateful. Unfriendly. Serial killers.

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They bridle when we turn down invitations. They know we are making up excuses, but they can't handle the truth.

They cannot fathom loners any more than birds can fathom lips. The mob makes definitions and assigns identities based on the sorts of clues loners do not provide. We are elusive, not given to dressing and behaving such that we would be in stadiums raising giant foam-rubber hands proclaiming anything. We frustrate our observers, try their patience, make ourselves amorphous. Make ourselves either unintentionally scary or invisible. With the blithe assurance of a majority the mob nods knowingly when Justin stays home alone on Christmas Day. He is depressed, they say, or else he has something to hide. The clerk who goes home after work to have a bubble bath instead of joining the gang at the bar is declared undeserving of a raise, afraid of men, afraid of women, too smart, too stupid, scary, a pervert.

The mob posts jokes on the Net -- for instance, a page called "The Loner's Home Companion," which begins: "Ever had lots of spare time, a .357 Magnum burning a hole in your pocket, and an unhealthy obsession with Heather Locklear ...?" And like the mock interview with "a loner" who muses: "I spend most of my free time by myself. I steer clear of crowds and social functions ... I'm just a normal, average guy who will go to great lengths to avoid unnecessary human contact. Is that so wrong? No, it's not. Human beings are nasty, disgusting, germ-infested vermin."

The l-word as we hear it most often today sounds nasty. It is the sound of a nervous music, a whine of mistrust, the hiss of fear, the dull growl of incomprehension. Animals make that sound when foreign species invade their dens, or when they find a rogue within the herd. Loners live among the mob, so the mob mistakes us for its own, presuming and assuming. When the mob gets too close, the truth is revealed. Running or walking away, chased or free, any which way, we tell the mob in effect I don't need you.

Hell hath no fury like a majority scorned.

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Yet here we are, not, lonely, having the time of our lives amid their smear campaign.

We are the ones who know how to entertain ourselves. How to learn without taking a class. How to contemplate and how to create. Loners, by virtue of being loners, of celebrating the state of standing alone, have an innate advantage when it comes to being brave -- like pioneers, like mountain men, iconoclasts, rebels and sole survivors. Loners have an advantage when faced with the unknown, the never-done-before and the unprecedented. An advantage when it comes to being mindful like the Buddhists, spontaneous like the Taoists, crucibles of concentrated prayer like the desert saints, esoteric like the Kabbalists. Loners, by virtue of being loners, have at their fingertips the undiscovered, the unique, the rarefied. Innate advantages when it comes to imagination, concentration, inner discipline. A knack for invention, originality, for finding resources in what others would call vacuums. A knack for visions.

A talent for seldom being bored. Desert islands are fine but not required. We are the ones who would rather see films than talk about them. Would rather write plays than act in them. Rather walk Angkor Wat and Portobello Road alone. Rather run cross-country than in a relay race, rather surf than play volleyball. Rather cruise museums alone than with someone who lingers over early bronzes and tells us why we should adore Frida Kahlo.

Alone we are alive.

Alone does not necessarily mean in solitude: we are not just the lone figure on the far shore. This is a populous world and we are most often alone in a crowd. It is a state less of body than mind. The word alone should not, for us, ring cold and hollow but hot. Pulsing with potentiality. Alone as in distinct. Alone as in, Alone in his field. As in, Stand alone. As in, like it or not, Leave me alone. This word wants rescuing, this word wants pride. This word wants to be washed and shined.

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 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.

By the way, I am sane. People whose job it is to know these things have told me so.

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We loners do not know each other by sight. Every day we pass our brethren in the street unwitting. Sure, you might notice the solitary figure on the subway car and think, Aha. But we do not exchange glances or high-fives or have our own slang or symbols. What would those be, anyway? The Tarot's Hermit card? A stick figure wearing a party hat? A tiny, tightly rolled scroll in a silver capsule like Jewish mezuzahs, inscribed with the names of famous loners? Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Alec Guinness, Erik Satie, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Kubrick, James Michener, Greta Garbo, John Lennon, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Janet Reno, St. Anthony. Batman. Even that would be reductive. Would leave out so much.

Because it is all too easy to generalize. About them. About us. If this is a manifesto, it speaks for all of those -- and we know who we are -- for whom no one has yet spoken and who, by nature, do not seek to call attention to themselves. As a journalist, I have covered hundreds of subjects, reported on thousands of people, ways of life, cultures, subcultures, cults, habits, hobbies, ripples, rites, beginnings, ends. Towns where on certain days every year snakes deluge the streets, then slither off at dusk. Towns whose most famous incidents are massacres. Towns whose churches are built under the surface of the earth, whose hotels are carved out of ice, whose residents are waiting for spacecraft to land. Towns burned to the ground and towns drowned. And yet, in all this, never did I hear the voices or see phalanxes of what is as surely my own kind as rock-'n'-roll fans or Jews or people from Los Angeles. No one had linked us, threaded us like beads on one strand. Someone should. Because we have a point. We form a chorus, but the oddest chorus in the world, a willful antichorus. In saying entirely different things, usually not saying them aloud to anyone at all, we are saying a lot.

Which is why a manifesto for loners cannot pretend to speak for every last loner word for word. Generalization is impossible. It is an insult. Instead what you will find here -- the fact, opinion, research, interview, reportage, analysis and observation -- is a periscope. This is the world from here. Held up to every loner's eye, the view will be the same but different.

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The mob wants friends along when doing errands, working out at the gym, at the movies. The mob depends on advice. Eating alone in decent restaurants horrifies the mob, saddens the mob, embarrasses the mob. The mob wants friends.

The mob needs to be loved.

It lives to be loved.

Or hated, with that conjoined fervor with which mobs face their enemies. Both love and hate are all about engagement. About being linked with humanity generally, as a policy. Loners have nothing against love but are more careful about it. Sometimes just one fantastic someone is enough. As a minority, we puzzle over nonloners, their strange values. Why do they require constant affirmation, validation, company, support? Are they babies or what? What bothers them about being alone? What are they so afraid of? Why can't they be more like us?

Well, they cannot, nor can we be like them. Behavioral geneticists claim that human temperaments and talents -- skills, preferences, modes -- are inborn, like eye color. This science is comforting insofar as it frees our parents from feeling that having loners as children is their "fault," that they "did something" to "cause" this.

Was I born this way? Or am I a loner because I am an only child? My friend Elaine is one of seven children and she is the most lonerish loner I have ever met. Stephen Zanichkowsky is a loner. His memoir, "Fourteen," is about growing up with thirteen siblings.

Does it matter how I got this way? Not if I am happy. I am. Loners need no more to be cured, nor can be cured -- the word is gross in this usage -- than gays and lesbians. Or people who love golf.

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Down the years, around the world, they form a shining line -- of course in single file. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Isaac Newton, who as a boy would rather tinker and solve math problems than play. René Descartes, the pioneering mathematician and philosopher who did his best work alone in his bed and said, "I think, therefore I am." Kipling. Thoreau. Beatrix Potter, who had animals for childhood friends instead of children. Dickinson, who stayed home for sixteen years and wrote two thousand poems of startling passion. Lawrence of Arabia.

Crazy Horse, whom his own Sioux tribe called "The Strange Man" but loved him for his laconic air of mystery. Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived as a hermit. Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented TV single-handedly. Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. James Michener. Alec Guinness. Albert Einstein, who wrote in 1932, "Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated." The same Einstein who observed wryly, "To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself."

All those for whom two was a crowd. Who braved the ridicule, rising time and again to the clear view through their own eyes, the wonder and horror they found and explored in themselves. Of course I would not meet them. We are not the type who meet. We do not wish to, in the flesh. We do not need to.

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Nonloners borrow a term from Jung and call us introverts. They think it makes them sound intelligent to say so. At the dawn of the 20th century, Jung devised it along with "extravert." (He spelled it with an a.) Humankind, Jung asserted, is divided into these two types, extraverts comprising three-fourths of the total. The difference between the two, he said, lies in the way they perceive and interpret information.

Extraverts concern themselves with facts, with the objective, Jung said. By contrast, the introvert concerns himself with the subjective. Confronted with an identical scenario, the extravert will deduce its meaning based on what can be seen and what is recognized as true. The introvert, meanwhile, conjures a complex meaning based on individual and largely immaterial details. Impressions and opinions. He feels his own deduction to be correct, Jung wrote in 1921, yet the introvert "is not in the least clear where and how they link up with the world of reality."

Acknowledging "the normal bias of the extraverted attitude against the nature of the introvert," Jung added that, for the latter, "work goes slowly and with difficulty. Either he is taciturn or he falls among people who cannot understand him; whereupon he proceeds to gather further proof of the unfathomable stupidity of man. If he should ever chance to be understood, he is credulously liable to overestimate. Ambitious women have only to understand how advantage may be taken of his uncritical attitude towards the object to make an easy prey of him; or he may develop into a misanthropic bachelor with a childlike heart. Then, too, his outward appearance is often gauche ... or he may show a remarkable unconcern, an almost childlike naiveté."

Yet introverts and loners are not one and the same thing. Surely some who gain information from within and not without still enjoy company. And what of all those countless scientific loners? All those loner hackers, loner programmers, loner inventors? Surely they rely on facts. My father was an engineer without a subjective bone in his body. Yet he was a loner all his life. He taped handmade signs on the door to his den, a door he always kept shut. Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Without Knocking. Confucius Say: Get the @#! Out of Here.

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On a visit to Las Vegas, I once ate breakfast alone at the Circus Circus buffet. I just wanted to see if it was possible, how it might be done. After waiting on line for my first serving of eggs, waffles, cantaloupe, hash browns and coffee, I made my way to a booth that had been designed to seat at least four. There weren't any smaller ones, and the sea of tables crammed into the huge ring the booths made were too close together to bear. Jingly ambient music mingled with the clatter of dishes, the thud of ketchup bottles and mugs and the shrieking of children who have eaten too much syrup. Nibbling the waffles, I took out a book and began reading. Coffee. Eggs. Turned the page. It was hard to sit still. Something in the experience, in the very fact of sitting alone at a booth made for many, in a vast restaurant built to seat hundreds in a format that encourages eating fast, had an almost physical effect, a propulsion, as if the pink vinyl seat would eject me. Very deliberately I finished what was on my plate, left my book open, facedown, and went back on line for seconds. Slowly. Meaningfully. As if it was the most normal thing in the world.

But it was not. And I could feel that with every bite: that I was bucking a tide, that it took great will to stay. That I was dining on borrowed time.

And this is why loners love takeout.

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Civilization will go on whether you attend the block party or not. It will, whether you say hello and talk to anyone today or not. Whether you get married today or ever or have kids or not. Its momentum is strong. It will go on. Your participation is now optional.

From the book "Party of One" by Anneli Rufus. Copyright © 2003 by Anneli Rufus. Appears by permission of the publisher, Marlowe & Company.

By Anneli Rufus

Anneli Rufus is an award-winning journalist and author of the new book "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself." She is also the author of Stuck: Why We Can’t (or Won’t) Move On and Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto. She has written for many publications, including The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, and

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