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.