Solitary compatibilities

John M. Oldham identifies several personality types related to or intersecting the solitary personality type. These include the self-confident, the serious, the conscientious, and the vigilant. He also counsels the solitary to avoid high-strung, emotionally needy, and highly social types such as the dramatic, mercurial, adventurous, devoted, idiosyncratic, and leisurely.

Because no individual is completely one type or another, such recommendations are practical advice concerning tendencies and characteristics. Degrees of interrelationships ought to be the functional rule. But some specifics are worth pursuing as to what the characteristic personality types or traits actually involve.

The Conscientious type is actually what Oldham calls the “backbone of America,” reflecting mainstream social dynamics of work, perseverance, order, detail, prudence, conscience, moral conformity, and emotional constraint. The solitary will pose no psychological challenge to the domain of the conscientious and so will find nominal compatibility as long as the conscientiousness does not veer off into obsessive-compulsive behavior or perfectionism that intrudes on the solitary’s preference for working alone or without excessive constraints.

The Self-confident will have strong self-esteem, be poised and sensitive to others, and tend to have a vision or dream of where they want to go with qualitative projects and relations. The self-confident person will have a high sense of tolerance, which is good for the solitary, and a high sense of competence, which will also usually be amiable to the solitary. Though the self-confident are skillful in politics and do display ambition, these are exactly what the solitary avoids, so that as long as the self-confident is not goading the solitary in the direction of competition, all is well. Of course, that is not what the self-confident would do anyway, being busy with themselves and usual perceptive of others’ style.

The Sensitive personality will value privacy and discretion. The sensitive remain reserved and diplomatic in all settings. But they carry concern as worry and unease due to a lack of if not curiosity then risk-taking. These traits suggest a strong need for security mingled with reticent distrust. As part of their avoidant style, the sensitive may seek a social role that is safe both intellectually and emotionally. These are all parallel to most Solitaries, although not necessarily because solitaries are sensitive.

The Vigilant share a strong sense of autonomy with the Solitary. Complimentary characteristics include being perceptive to what is going on around them, being cautious about relationships and entanglements, and having a keen awareness of authority relationships. An extreme of the vigilant (paranoid) may circumscribe the Solitary and overreact emotionally to stress. But the non-threatening nature of Solitary personalities makes them compatible with vigilants.

The Serious are realistic and have a strong sense of being responsible for their learning, mastering, and rationalizing of whatever they encounter. Serious people are good at thinking before acting, are skeptical of others, and plan carefully. They do not have illusions about themselves or others and are even-tempered and fair-minded. Serious personality types are sober, hard-working, pessimistic, and exhaust themselves at their task. A too-serious Serious type veers towards depression.

Solitaries will find it hard to get along with others, though.

Dramatic and Mercurial people are unpredictable for the even-tempered and disengaged Solitary. The Dramatic blows everything out of proportion and the cloying Mercurial blows up unpredictably in energy, emotions, and lack of inhibitions.

Leisurely types are hopelessly pleasure-oriented, slothful, egoistic, and indifferent for the likes of the Solitary. The Adventurous is too reckless and unfocused for the Solitary, substituting risk for irresponsibility. Similarly, the Idiosyncratic are too concerned with their own reality to accommodate the solitary. The Self-Sacrificing personality type is naive and tolerant to the point of not luring the Solitary out of their self-initiated perceptions of the world. The Solitary will not admire the lack of self in the self-sacrificing. Finally, the Aggressive type is automatically shunned by the Solitary for their impulsiveness and desire to command.

War and human nature

Reading The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, by David Livingstone Smith. The author is a philosopher but here incorporates cognitive social sciences and neurology to assemble a compelling presentation about human aggression and violence. Smith’s perspective is evolutionary biology but his control of the literature from philosophy to anthropology to history and beyond makes the book very cogent, organized, informative, and compelling.

As a premise, Smith states that “it is both possible and desirable to understand our capacity for war scientifically,” which he sees as an “innate biologically-based potential” and not strictly cultural. War and aggression have neurological bases in both evolution and observed evidence in primate group behavior. (Humans share nearly 98.77 percent of our genes with chimpanzees.) The emergence of territorial groups in chimpanzees culminated in raids and mass killing, even atrocities and mutilations of non-group individuals, as Jane Goodall first observed. Smith correctly notes that humans are not part of the Carnivora family but the Primates, and thus aggression and violence has nothing to do with the behavior of lions, tigers, or wolves but rather with the behavior of chimpanzee and their brain functions, genetics, and social behavior as hunter-gatherers.

One can appreciate Smith’s points here because so much New Age thought blames human violence on the emergence of civilization, agriculture, and cities. All the evidence from anthropology shows that hunter-gatherers (human and primate) were fiercely territorial and xenophobic. The transition from hunter-gatherer to hierarchical did not introduce new behavioral instincts but only exacerbated them.

In their famous correspondence titled Why War?, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud identified three factors or triggers to war:

  1. resources: territory, food, fertility, expansion — and in humans — the idea of resources and the creation of intangible ideals
  2. evolution of behavior that fosters reproductive success, and
  3. evolutionary transformation of motive (provided by biology) into pretexts contrived by humans in appropriate or opportune circumstances.

One mistake made concerning evolution is the notion that evolution represents progress or improvement rather than merely adaptive change across generations. As Smith puts it, “change is horizontal nor vertical.” The expectation that humans ought to be moving into an ethical paradigm that separates them from chimpanzee behavior is itself an assumption. But in fact the development of intellect has merely provided sophisticated justifications for aggression and war.

Even before these justifications enter human social behavior, the vestiges of primate social behavior remain quite strong. Smith offers examples such as male dominance in war, the endorsement of war by women, the genetic sexual attraction of soldiers to women and groups, and the proliferation of rape and atrocities as instinctual reproductive success are all vestiges of primate behavior that goes unquestioned in human society. But furthermore, the development of self-deception, of “coalitionary violence,” as Smith calls it, and of reciprocity makes morality itself a justification rather than a curb on violence and war.

Morality becomes the justification for three central expressions of aggression: ethnocentric, xenophobic, and nepotistic. Society exacerbates these by fostering competition at every social and age level, emphasizing group over individual, and exploiting mirror neurons (the existence of which, however, few people are even aware). Unlike chimpanzees, humans contrive a “web of beliefs” overlaid on social behavior concerning “good, evil, pride, humiliation, friends, heroes, villains and martyrs.”

Smith concludes that chimpanzee warfare transitioned to primitive human warfare, which then was systematized with concepts of sufficient cognitive sophistication that the concepts attained ideological dimension. The social and cultural process seeks out channels of aggression and war and exacerbates them further through dehumanization, demonization, and predator imagery. These are fascinating chapters that Smith amply illustrates with clear examples from history.

Smith’s conclusion is simple and sober: “Taking my cues from the past, I am far from optimistic about the future.” He continues: “We will never stop men from enjoying wars, and trying to do so is a fool’s errand. … The most that we can hope for in the end, is for men to detest it more than enjoy it, and the only way to shift that balance is to expose the self-deception that makes killing bearable.”

Exposing the self-deception is exposing the entire conceptual construct that drives cultures: beliefs, social identity, and all the mechanisms Smith enumerates, such as xenophobia, territoriality, and the whole apparatus of good and evil conjured to bolster what are base neurological instincts.

All of this is pressingly relevant to the issue of what the individual derives from society and the group. Group behavior overrides the potential behavior of the individual, especially constructed to override the behavior of the individual who is thoughtful, serious, reflective, and solitary. Coalitionary violence in chimpanzees is instinctual, but in humans it is manufactured and refined to override common sense and reflection. Smith even refers to social animals in general as xenophobic, versus “loner” animals that do not reflect such instincts. Humans are “hierarchical, ethnocentric animals” as Smith puts it, social rather than individual in its instinctual characteristics.

Of course, no individual escapes socialization and the inevitable identification with groups, nor the inevitable tagging of that individual with group labels. But the potential for not going in that direction, for honestly examining what we do as instinctual or provoked potential, is real and available. Can Smith’s pessimistic conclusion be addressed? Only in the individual.

For the individual, the way to address instincts or potentials is in ways of thinking and working with nature, people, and self. In part, this work calls for an understanding of the brain as a kind of material condition. The neurosciences are increasingly helpful in that regard. We are also pressed to address the status of those parts of the brain (those parts of our lives and personalities) that harbor the most primitive instincts or potentials. What motivates our lives? What behaviors and thoughts mimic the causes of aggression enumerated by Einstein and Freud? What characteristics of society do we see reproduced in ourselves?

As mentioned we are pressed for a method or process, and the neurosciences can help by showing where to work and how. This is also why the Dalai Lama’s frequent meetings with neuroscientists is so helpful. The wisdom traditions of the world can help us in this work by providing archetypal models of how to work with the brain, the self, and all that is around us.

Eustace Conway

Eustace Conway has all of the physical skills necessary to be an American hermit. He has lived for years in the Appalachian Mountains in a tepee, without running water or electricity. He can assemble and maintain his own clothing and tools. He can survive from edible plants and forest animals. He can make a fire from scratch. He has survived the rugged terrains of southwestern desert and Alaskan winter.

Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American ManEustace could easily be a hermit, but he is “the last American man,” in the estimation of his biographer Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote a book about Eustace Conway by that title.

That title refines the hermit possibility in Eustace with the frontier imagery of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, undoubtedly established survivalists but also shrewd politicians and entrepreneurs in their own right. Eustace is no bumpkin, either, with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and English, and long a meticulous keeper of a personal journal.

Eustace had ambition, and focused it on creating the thousand acres he calls Turtle Island Preserve, dwelling on a mere sliver of it (now with working farm and solar power) to highlight simplicity and ecological wholeness to a paying public that manages to support him a little and to maintain his wilderness near Boone, North Carolina.

So Eustace Conway is not a solitary in the strict sense, but this is probably the result of the horrible psychological abuse he suffered as a child from his father. Ambition comes, then, from his grandfather, who ran a wilderness skills summer camp, and from the compensation of achieving success to refute his father. Eustace’s benign mother encouraged his acquisition of native American skills but could not rescue him from psychological abuse. And as Gilbert’s book painfully shows, Eustace has had a hard time getting along with people up close. The grand irony is that Eustace was undoubtedly driven by this psychological baggage to create the environmental vision of Turtle Island Preserve.

At the preserve, Eustace teaches simplicity, self-sufficiency, and an alternative to modern life. He runs kids camps, survival workshops for adults, horse-training, and friendly small group tours and open houses.

Eustace is not optimistic that people will put his ideas and model life into practice. His optimism has waned over time. Daily reports about climate change, peak oil, and consumerism only confirm Eustace. Though biographer Gilbert describes enough painful experiences in the social turns of Eustace’s life, one can still see the original hermit in his longings.

Freud’s hermit option

In a celebrated passage of his Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud describes the various methods by which people address the essential problem of suffering and the unattainability of happiness. Freud observes that the extinction of the perception of suffering is the most ambitious goal.

The crudest approach is the chemical one — intoxication. Here the end is the suppression of sensation in the relevant parts of the brain that perceive suffering and pain. While chemical suppression works for a while, it’s injurious repercussions are notorious. Yet culture has given intoxication a rather celebrated place, as if there must be some merit there, despite the hazards. Given this ironic cultural approbation, Freud notes with characteristic irony that intoxicants are largely responsible “for the useless waste of a large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot.”

Freud then refines the issue by concentrating on the regulation (or suppression) of instinctual impulses or drives. The ultimate example is “prescribed by the worldly wisdom of the East and practiced by Yoga.” This succeeds at the expense of the expression or satisfaction of other drives which are renounced or suppressed as well. Freud implies that since the practitioner understands this trade-off and is in fact successful in regulating the drives, then the option is viable — for those who can master the discipline.

That Freud is willing to accommodate the above option is suggested by his discussion of aesthetics.

At this next level there is first the displacement of the drives, which is best seen in the artist, scientist, and creative person wholly given over to creativity, discovery, and investigation. This is a refined method but not, Freud suggests, a guarantee against suffering.

The next level is that of the aesthete, who may not enjoy the talent of creativity as much as the artist but who makes art, the contemplation of beauty, and the life of the imagination a method for managing suffering and unhappiness.

Freud first describes the aesthetic method by presenting the extinction of the mechanism of suffering. This extinction is accomplished by a transcendence typified by the aesthete who takes up the contemplation of art and beauty. However, Freud notes that:

People who are receptive to the influence of art cannot set too high a value on it as a source of pleasure and consolation in life. Nevertheless the mild narcosis induced in us by art can do no more than bring about a transient withdrawal from the pressure of vital needs, and it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

Freud then introduces the method of the hermit.

Another procedure operates more energetically and more thoroughly. It regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of all suffering, with which it is impossible to live, so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be in any way happy. The hermit turns his back on the world and will have no truck with it.

It is not clear if the hermit is really Freud’s term for what follows or if he considers the hermit simply the extreme of the continuum of the one who refuses reality introduced in the same paragraph. For the continuum is the solitary who identifies a world-set or reality-set and simply eliminates the objectionable (as much as possible) from this world:

But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes.

In a sense, Freud is giving the hermit helpful advice. Don’t just reject the world, he suggests, but reject it selectively. This appears to be what the historical hermits have always done: physically isolate themselves from that which impinges upon their priorities and values, and progressively refine this “world.” Granted, however, that Freud excludes religion from the success of any mental process, so that the motive of the hermit or solitary must remain a psychological and mental one, which is a clear and “scientific” way of safeguarding the method.

However, Freud has not excluded “the worldly wisdom of the East and practiced by Yoga” from his options, so perhaps his notion of hermit was only the literal one who recluses from the world and other people.

Still, Freud is not optimistic. For most historical hermits have been religious, in his judgment, and therefore have been delusional and mad. But that is not the main objection to the ambitions of the hermit. The hermit can be entirely secular and still, in rejecting the world and other people, risk everything.

Whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. It is asserted, however, that each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoiac, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbearable to the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common.

Freud does not enumerate any more “extreme” methods in this section of his essay. He emphasizes the trade-off between any given solution and what it renounces, suppresses, or loses. But of great value is the fact that Freud provided a context for considering the psychology of the solitary outside of its traditional historical context of religious vocation, seeing it as what today is usually considered a personality type.


Gratitude is amorphous, ambiguous. We consider gratitude a virtue but see it used in petty, trivial, and self-serving ways. On the one hand gratitude acknowledges the infinite and unknowable gifts of the moment; on the other hand, it is taken to be pleasure in luck or fate, satisfaction in consuming or possessing or occupying what one happens to have at this moment and hopes to perpetuate.

Things may fall to us serendipitously, but to be grateful for that is to be grateful for luck or chance, which is necessarily not of our own doing, not the result of our own virtue or strength.

Gratitude set right is the recognition and conscious awareness of that which is present to us and which we need. Conscious gratitude must be the companion of mindfulness, where mindfulness places us fully in the process of the task so that we understand what we are doing and where we are going. Then gratitude will consist of reflection on this track or path. Gratitude will be conscious thinking that affirms to us that the task is right, that we embrace it. At that point we can be grateful for the path. Gratitude is a self-confirmation that the task is worthwhile and the pattern of engagement full, that we will not be distracted.

This is not the conventional way of looking at gratitude. Conventional gratitude is gratefulness for a gift. Conventional gratitude relies on pleasant surprise, social contrivance, material procure-ability, and a cycle of reciprocity. Such gift-giving and gratitude is ultimately projected to diurnal existence as a gift and our necessary acceptance of it, even obeisance. The entire process remains dependent on a mysterious ritual process which we cannot address, control, or hope to understand.

The ground for a mature gratitude is based on the human possibilities revealed by altruism. Neuro-science maintains that altruism is but a device for nurturing the brain, a behavioral response that has a beneficial social function in the cycle of reciprocity: mutual back-scratching. It does not work that way with individual versus social life, though. Reciprocity is based not on individual worth but on social relations of power and order.

But it turns out that altruism is not a social expectation after all. Altruism is easily overwritten in the brain by more primitive and negative emotions. Nor is altruism strictly speaking a neurological expectation, being simulated by science but empty of anything other than utilitarianism as an explanation for why it exists.

We must return to the human possibilities of altruism and gratitude not only to see that such virtues are real but also that such virtues are reproducible outside of social conventions like gift-giving.

This point about potentialities is important because gratitude must be extracted from the cycle of self-gratification and pleasure (which is a “social” cycle within the self) and projected into a new individual potential, both as virtue and as philosophy of life.

Buddhism speaks of codependent origination to show that the substance of everything is basically a version in space and time of something else. Gratitude limited to space and time (that is, to a particular social event, for example) dooms gratitude to impermanence. The gift or courtesy received and the pleasure experienced is impermanent. Rather, gratitude is not an experience but a way of life not dependent on the vicissitudes of gifts or even feelings of altruism. Rather, gratitude is conscious of interdependence and the experience of being conscious of that relationship to everything.

Gratitude is embodied in a way of life that is conscious of our part in the whole, no matter how small our knot of complexity or our ties to space and time. Gratitude for sun, moon, life, trees, books, music, art, food, land, birds, water, or other people, is not an experience so much as a way of life. We must have a way of life that expresses gratitude at his very moment for … this very moment.