In Praise of Eccentricity

I’ve long thought of myself as neither far out nor deeply within social norms, a progressive, not a radical, an innovator but not a revolutionary.  I sit on the margins, with one foot inside the establishment and one foot reaching out to the fringes.  A marginal man.  That troubled me until I realized that my friends walked a similar line, and that afforded me a sense of community.  An anti-community, of sorts, but one that countered the loneliness that threatened and replaced it with a sense of belonging. All my life, I have accepted an eccentric place in our society.

These days, I find myself making declarative statements, shorn of modifiers like “it might be so” and “all things considered.”  The modifiers bore me; it feels good to say what I think, even if I know that there are other ways to consider the question.  Even if, after listening to others, I come to different conclusions.  I don’t mind changing my mind, after sounding so sure of myself.  I imagine that my declarative statements lead others to think me a little odd, a little arrogant.  Because it has become such a pleasure to let it rip, though, people don’t seem as put off by my declarations as they did when there was a hitch in my assertions.  They see the fun in it; and they know that they can let it rip too.

This is how I am growing more eccentric than marginal as I age.  It’s not entirely different from how I’ve been but it isn’t one hundred percent “normal” behavior, either.  Other people begin to dress a little oddly, maybe emphasizing fashions that were current decades ago; some espouse ideas, instead, that flout fashion; still others speak very slowly or emphatically, as though there is wisdom to be had in their every word.

As we get older and both the need the opportunities to achieve and to gain external approval wane, many of us wander from the norm.  As we wander, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric.  We can see the change.  Some of us are upset by the difference and fearful of the people’s reactions, then pull back.  Some of us are pleased to be different—so pleased that we insist that others accept what we might call a more essential or core self.

Eccentricity generally refers to odd or unusual behavior, carried out time and again.  To onlookers, these behaviors might seem unnecessary, even maladaptive.  But eccentricity is in the eyes of the beholder and generally serves the eccentric among us pretty well.  I have grown interested in eccentricity because it promises freedom.  Freedom from convention and constraint and freedom from social opprobrium.  When eccentricity emerges over time, as it often does, we get used to the sideways glances of onlookers, which eventually seem amusing.  Literally, I get a sly pleasure when I notice that people are taken aback by my declarative statements—or by how far out they seem.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are problems with eccentricity.  It can be alienating, lonely, and off-putting.  Even the most benign eccentricity, like an obsessive need to make everything around you extra neat or a form of laughter that goes on too long, can make people nervous.  The seemingly stubborn insistence on being different can be annoying.  And when the eccentric person inserts herself into the center of the action, it feels controlling.  There are many faces of eccentricity, some more tolerable than others.

The same people whose oddness irritates us, however, may become our friends and heroes.  Think of Maggie Smith’s Violet Crowley in Downton Abbey or Robin Williams’ John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society.  Keating, who encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary,” is annoying to fellow faculty.  At first, his students also find him weird and keep their distance. With time, though, Keating is inspiring.  Think, too, of how irritating, then endearing, then admirable we find characters like Charlie Chaplin and Goldie Hawn.  I am sure that our experience of Albert Einstein, with his wild hair, sloppy dress, and thick German accent, followed a similar trajectory.  His big brain might have been fearsome but people domesticated him in their minds; he became their genius.  His eccentricities became lovable, almost like a pet is lovable.

Eccentric people may be quirky and unusual.  They are not “normal.”  But their quirkiness is usually inoffensive, at least in the long run.  In fact, we come to love them.  Surprisingly, their behavior isn’t very maladaptive.  In their own ways, they are unusually effective.  They may be tart, odd, dreamy, or almost insanely intense, but when they come to the point, we listen.  They are our avatars.  Until we really tune in, the eccentric’s habits of thought may be almost incomprehensible, not because there are crazy or illogical, but because they are original.  They teach us something new.

You might even say that, as a society, we need eccentricity.  Here’s how the great British Philosopher, John Stuart Mill, put it: “…the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.”  For emphasis, he added that we should mourn the lack of eccentricity as “the chief danger of the time”. Conventionality leads to rigidity and staleness. Comforting yes but not so compelling or creative.

According to researchers, most people do not grow eccentric with age.  They are too nervous to stand out, and hide as best they can in conformity.  But, for those who are eccentric, there is good, counter-intuitive news.  While many of us assume that “eccentricity is one short step from serious mental disorder,” they actually suffer less from mental illnesses like depression than the majority of the population.

David Weeks, one of the few researchers who have looked systematically into the eccentricity phenomenon, found that “eccentrics visit the doctor 20 times less often than most of us and, on average and live slightly longer.” This, he attributes to the benefits of non-conformity. Those who don’t repress their inner nature in the struggle to conform, he observes, suffer less stress. As a result, they are happier and their immune systems work more efficiently. “Overall, Weeks found that eccentrics tend to be optimistic people with a highly developed, mischievous sense of humour, childlike curiosity and a drive to make the world a better place.”

These days, psychologists and doctors tend to divide old age roughly into three phases: young-old (65 – 75) middle-old (75 – 85) and old-old (85 and beyond).  The drift towards eccentricity that I’m talking about encompasses the first two; the last is generally a time of anxiety, lost capacity and a type of eccentricity that comes from diminishment.  It’s not fun or original or productive.  But there is a long period, beginning in our sixties, when we can have great fun and freedom with our emerging eccentricity.

While Weeks says that you can’t intentionally become eccentric, I believe that we all begin with at least a little eccentric at heart.  For much of life, most of us keep those eccentricities hidden or in check.  When we let them surface and play out in our social life, our strangeness becomes a bigger part of our public personalities.  But here’s more good news: In the light of days, the same personality traits that might have seemed shameful or dangerous seem much more benign, more acceptable.  By giving them room to operate, we are given permission to be more fully ourselves.

There is a paradox in eccentricity.  It represents a narrowing of thought and behavior.  Eccentrics do not try to be everything to everybody.  And it represents a freedom to be just who you are.  Being just who you are presents the opportunity to shape relationships just a little differently, just a little more authentically.

Ours is not a society that honors age, wisdom, or eccentricity.  But it might and it should.  We need the moral courage and creativity of people who are willing to think oddly, to take risks, and to do so with good humor.  We need a large dose of the Albert Einsteins, Violet Crowleys, and John Keatings of the world.  We need to unleash our own eccentricity.

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Free to Be You and Me

I had long thought that drawing a strong, unbroken line dividing work and retirement was for those who disliked their work and wanted to retreat to lawn chairs, mixed drinks, golf and cruises, and for those who had created large bucket lists to make up for unfulfilling lives.  A haughty framing, wouldn’t you say? When people asked me what I was going to do when I retired, I said “I don’t know.  There’s such a dense cloud cover between here and there, I can’t see what’s on the other side.  I can’t feel what it will be like.”  But I had a notion.  I wanted to be very engaged by activities that would continue to add satisfaction and give meaning to my life.

Along with others, I anticipated retirement with mixed feelings.  We looked forward to leaving the grind, to the absence of responsibilities, the slower pace, taking time over coffee and the newspaper in the morning, then a long leisurely walk in the early afternoon.  Some of us couldn’t wait to take up the piano again, throw pots or paint pictures, travel to far off places, and take time with friends. We wanted to take on work-like projects and board seats just for the satisfaction they brought.  For others, more time with grandchildren seemed an irresistible lure.

But there were also anticipatory anxieties.  We worried that we might be bored.  We would rapidly become irrelevant and ignored by all but those closest to us—and maybe some of them, too.  Our minds might wither without challenge.  Then, too, many of us associated retirement with the nearness of infirmity and death.

Since engagement—being deeply absorbed in activities for long periods of time—was  my Valhalla, I assumed that others would join me.  By being absorbed in meaningful activities, the primary desire for more leisure and social life would dissipate.  In an uncharacteristic fit of modesty, though, I began to doubt that my way was so universal and sent a note to about thirty friends asking what had changed in the way they attended to projects and other activities when they moved from work to retirement.

Their thoughtful responses spoke of many—not one—solutions to the developmental challenge represented by retirement.  They also led to a discovery: continuity of character seems to supersede changes in activity.  Even while many changed what they did with their time, they all seemed to remain very much themselves.

Some were like me.  They found projects that occupied their attention and gave zest to their lives.  Some of the projects mirrored their life’s work.  One friend, for example, expanded her research and writing about affordable housing.  Another pursued her passion to fix our climate but did so with greater flexibility and ease.  A third deepened her love of literature—something she had taught for decades—by writing a book on Dickens.  In each case, freedom from institutional constraints, from bosses, pay checks, and from injunctions to be well behaved turned out to be delicious, even liberating.

Others turned away from lifelong patterns.  These are people who had worked very, very hard, often with great success.  Now they don’t work hard; they hardly work at all. They play.  Where before they were highly focused, now they jump from one activity to the next, almost without pattern; the jumping, the freedom to follow their whims, to be inconsistent, is what they find pleasurable.  Even as they defy their own need to stick with work and projects, though, they retain their characteristic intensity.  Each little activity is taken up with great care and concentration.  But they eschew long-term projects with goals, measures of effectiveness, and airs of importance.

From what I observe, this second group is composed of people for whom work contained a driven and seriously anxious component, which they don’t want to repeat in retirement.  Even professional success had taken a great toll.  They dearly wanted to shed responsibilities and to stop pleasing.  They are ready to be responsible only to themselves.  Sustained projects would plunge them back into the old cauldron.

There does seem to be a third type: those with shorter attention spans, who never could or never wanted to manage lengthy projects. One friend, for instance, dearly wanted to be done with institutions.  He maintains that he could have continued in his work without them but that’s hard for a surgeon to do.  He does not want to conform to organizational norms—or to any norms.  He chose early retirement and has become happier than he’s ever been as he grows more eccentric with time.

Knowing him, I noted that he does have a sustaining project: building a beautiful art collection and broadening his expertise in Asian and African artifacts.  He insists that I am wrong.  What he’s doing is just so much fun.  Even auctions, which others find tense, are an engrossing game to him.  He pursues his project by choice and in the style he wants and in accordance with the timing he chooses.  He engages and disengages as he sees fit.  He is free and that’s what he likes.  Much of his behavior looks very much as it did when he worked but he is the master of the whole domain.

I suspect that the desire to distance ourselves from our masters is what many of us have in common—whatever and whoever those masters are.  Some are external—bosses, financial responsibilities and the like—or creatures of our own psychic creation.  We want the freedom to make our own choices and to serve as our sole judges.

Character crosses the developmental divide more or less intact..  Whoever we were before we continue to be after retirement.  If we were intense before, we remain so.  If we had a short attention span beforehand, that is how we are afterwards. If we were focused before, we remain so, though in retirement, fearing the need to achieve, our focus may be in brief bursts of energy and attention.  If we needed sustained engagement with something outside of ourselves—like big projects—then we are likely to continue in that vein.  The post-retirement strategies we choose are meant to provide satisfaction and pleasure and to protect us in new ways from our inner demons.

At the same time as we doggedly remain the same, we also roam.  We roam from old consistencies, from the need to achieve, from the need for approval and external reward.  As we roam from old behaviors and, more importantly, from old injunctions, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric.  The permission we give to ourselves to be eccentric and the way we demand that others accept our eccentricities may be the truest achievement of retirement and aging.