In her book, Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, author Anneli Rufus attempts to reclaim the word “loner” from the negative associations it often carries. Frequently used by the media to describe serial killers and sociopaths who are said to have “kept to themselves,” the term “loner,” Rufus asserts, more aptly corresponds to the much larger group of people who are not mentally disturbed, but simply prefer solitude to any other state.
While I don’t consider myself a loner (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I strongly agree with the argument Rufus puts forward, namely, that it is unfair and incorrect to assume that introversion should necessarily be equated with anti-social and violent tendencies.
I was reminded of this argument when I began reading the news coverage of the incredibly tragic events that took place at Virginia Tech on Monday. True to form, newspaper articles made liberal use of the word loner to describe the shooting suspect, subtly implying that his solitary nature somehow influenced his horrific behavior. I found the information that he had previously displayed signs of mental illness to be much more pertinent to his state of mind.
While it may be empirically true that this man did spend a lot of time alone, what gets missed is that there is a difference between having a preference for being alone, and feeling isolated. One state of being is a choice; the other may be a symptom of a larger problem. It is the difference between someone who gains happiness and contentment from their loner state, and someone who yearns for connection with the larger world, but is unable to realize it. Sadly, it seems that for some people, committing large scale acts of violence is their twisted attempt to communicate their rage and despair to others; it may be that they felt unable to communicate in any other way.
For this reason, I think there needs to be more attention paid to distinguishing between happy and unhappy loners. While those of a more extroverted nature might not be able to understand how being alone can bring happiness, there are a lot of us who understand this perfectly well. Perhaps we need to set aside our preferred mode of silence more often to make this point; to proclaim that it is possible to be healthy and happy even if—and sometimes especially if—we are left to our own devices.