Saturday, April 17, 2010

What do Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes Have in Common?

The answer? They are all considered "eccentrics." In this post, I will do a highlight reel of my new favourite book, entitled: Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness by Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James, wherein the two psychologists present a study they conducted throughout the U.S. and Great Britain to explore what an eccentric is and what causes a person to be one. Before this study, psychological research on eccentricity was almost nonexistent, since eccentrics do not seek psychological treatment because their condition usually does not impose suffering. Weeks and James hoped that examining the sources of eccentricity might shed light on how we can all better become ourselves. Throughout the course of their research, they were amazed to find that eccentrics seemed significantly happier and more comfortable with themselves than the population at large.

The study, which they argue makes for the largest population group ever sampled by a group of psychologists short of the U.S. census, found that the prevalence of eccentrics in the population could be estimated at about 1 in every 10,000 people, with the highest per capita population to be found in none other than Minneapolis/St. Paul! While the people in the study varied greatly in character, Weeks and James developed a list of shared characteristics among eccentrics, including: "idealistic (wanting to make the world a better place and the people in it happier); happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses (usually five or six); intelligent; opinionated and outspoken, convinced that he or she is right and that the rest of the world is out of step; noncompetitive, not in need of reassurance or reinforcement from society; not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except in order to persuade them to his or her--the correct--point of view; single; usually the eldest or an only child; and a bad speller."

The book also includes a review of historical eccentrics from Benjamin Franklin to Davy Crockett. My personal favourite is John Chapman (1774-1845), better known as Johnny Appleseed, who "devoted his whole life to the apple, traveling across the country planting countless thousands or millions of apple trees over an area of land estimated to exceed 100,000 square miles... He dressed in old coffee sacks with holes cut out for his arms and legs, and went barefoot except in the extreme cold... The one thing that could ruffle his placid demeanor was to hear any slanderous reference made to the apple in the Garden of Eden."

While I recommend that you read the book for yourself, I can't help but share the portraits of a few of my other favourite eccentrics from the study itself:

-Minnesotan Marvin Staples walks everywhere backwards, believing living life in reverse makes him feel younger and has cured him of chronic backache and arthritis in his knees. (He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for traveling the furthest distance by walking backwards.) He said, "The Hyokas Indians used to walk backward trusting the Great Spirit to catch them if they fell. The Hyokas and the Sioux also did things backwards to make people laugh and to forget about their problems."

-John Slater, who has spent the better part of the past ten years living in a cave in Scotland which floods with water at high tide, is the only person to have ever walked from Land's End to John O'Groats (in Great Britain) in his bare feet, wearing only striped pajamas (but accompanied by his dog who wore suede booties). He once volunteered to spend six months in the London Zoo as part of a "human exhibit" to raise money for the conservation of pandas, but zoo authorities "foolishly declined" this offer. Slater's life goal is to raise a million pounds for charity. His motto is: "Wag your tail at everyone you meet."

-One man, who became completely enthralled by the legend of Robin Hood, moved to Sherwood Forest and legally adopted the name "Robin Hood." "He now wears a historically accurate medieval forester's costume--all in green, complete with longbow, a quiverful of arrows and a feathered hat--seven days a week." 

Weeks and James conclude that certain types of deviant behavior can be healthy and life-enhancing. Eccentrics embrace their freedom to be original and inspire others to do so. Moreover, this book reminded me of the pervasive societal misconception that "It matters what people think of me." The authors show that realizing that as a foolish notion unleashes a wealth of possibility for our human potential and happiness. 

But this book also got me wondering: have I ever even met an eccentric, if they are only about 1 in every 10,000 people? (Maybe Mark Smith, K College folks?) Anyway, I am on the hunt now, and I would love to hear from you, if you think you might know one!

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