The Hermit Paradox
People who choose to live among few or no other people are challenging for mainstream culture to understand.
What’s the longest you’ve gone without face-to-face conversation with another person?
For Maine hermit Christopher Knight, it was (with one tiny exception) 27 years.
You can read Knight’s story in The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. Knight created a hard-to-find encampment in thick woods near Maine’s North Pond. He survived by stealing food and supplies from the dozens of cottages and a summer camp around the pond, cleverly evading cameras and avoiding leaving any footprints. After becoming a mythical figure in the area – people weren’t even certain they’d been burglarized because he’d do things like replace a full propane tank with a near-empty one – he was captured by a determined game warden in 2013.
Obviously, Knight is no hero. But writer Michael Finkel was captivated by the story and wanted to know what made him tick. He visited Knight in jail numerous times, as well as after his release on probation. They sent letters back and forth, and Finkel also interviewed people who lived around the pond and those who finally caught him.
The book isn’t an “as-told-to” narrative. Knight was skittish about discussing his motives for leaving human interaction behind and staying on the margins of society for so long. But amidst the details that Finkel was able to coax out of him about how he survived the brutal Maine winters and how Knight spent his solitary time were many points that interested me.
Knight was and wasn’t a hermit. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, he lived within earshot of human activity. Among the items Knight sought to steal were books, magazines – and batteries to power a radio and small TV. His experience thus wasn’t like the classic hermit going off to meditate in a desert hideout, or like Robinson Crusoe forced to fend for himself, alone on an island.
From what Finkel tells us, Knight didn’t hate other people. He wasn’t delusional or nursing grievances. He simply felt better – incomparably better – in solitude, and he went to extraordinary lengths, even risking his life, to enjoy, nonstop, the comfort of being alone.
Finkel addresses – somewhat clumsily, in my view – the question of whether Knight had a mental illness, such as schizophrenia or depression, or a neurological condition, such as autism or Asperger’s. A court-appointed psychiatrist certified Knight as “completely competent,” and many of the experts Finkel consulted found Knight’s mental health status a challenge to pin down.
Knight revered Socrates and the ancient philosophers collectively known as The Stoics. He said something odd and wonderful happened to him in the woods. “I lost my identity. My desires dropped away. I was completely free.” Alone for so long, he savored the state of simply being.
Knight told Finkel he regarded himself as having made “an unusual lifestyle choice.” Is it possible he simply took being an introvert to a most uncommon (and illegal, since he stole) extreme?
Maine Tolerance and Incredulity
I found the reactions of nearby Mainers to Knight fascinating. On the one hand was a group of ice fishermen – a grandfather, father and son – who spotted Knight in the woods just weeks before his arrest and realized immediately that he was the notorious North Pond hermit. The grandfather strongly argued that this solitary man had some reason for being alone that needed to be respected. So all three members of that family promised out loud that they’d keep the encounter to themselves. Knight bowed to them in thanks.
The woman who owned the land where Knight set up camp said that the trespassing didn’t bother her at all. Had she discovered him, she too might have simply left him alone.
On the other hand, some locals vehemently rejected the very possibility of someone living for decades as Knight purported did. Someone had to have helped him, or he had to have slept in a vacant cabin during the depths of winter. (He did not.) Finkel astutely observed that the vehemence of their rejection of the story signified the extent to which Knight’s feat went against ordinary assumptions about human life. In Chapter 2 of Genesis, Finkel noted, God says that it is not good for man to be alone.
“I began asking cabin owners – and later, many others – to estimate the longest time they’d ever spent without human interaction,” Finkel said. “Nine out of ten people, often after a contemplative pause, realized that they had never passed a single day in solitude.” Finkel’s own record is only around 48 hours. (Mine is a couple of weeks.)
The “Ultra Introverts” Label
Last February The Atlantic published an article profiling people who work nights partly as a means to a minimize their contact with other people. A 26-year-old nighttime security guard, for instance, said, “I don’t have any ill will towards people, it’s just exhausting to me.” Nighttime “can feel calmer—most people in your time zone are asleep, not posting or responding or expecting communication,” the author observed. Added Anneli Rufus, author of Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, “The nighttime, with its silence and its darkness and its solitude, helps you settle more into who you really are.”
The Atlantic author, who called the folks he interviewed “ultra-introverts,” also asked psychologists to weigh in on whether or not there are people who could live perfectly healthy lives apart from others. One replied, “So people who live their life alone without others, they may not be unhappy. But they also may not experience the full spectrum of pleasure.” For my riposte to that, see my article on introverts’ brand of excitement. Another psychologist responded, “We should take seriously the possibility that there are people who really don’t need social connection.”
Hermits Never Started Out as Such
It’s important to point out that Knight turned his shoulder on society at the age of 20, after he’d been socialized and educated. The same goes for those profiled in the Atlantic article. Knight was no wild child brought up by wolves. Even if he put conversation and jobs into his past, he used what he’d learned up to that point to survive. He read a good deal during his years alone, and what he read informed how he understood himself.
Unless we’re in prison or shipwrecked, every one of us, whether extrovert or introvert, makes decisions about how much we want to be with others and how much on our own. But that occurs on top of growing up with other people who give us language, culture and social norms like “Don’t steal” (which did trouble Christopher Knight a lot, he acknowledges).
And so we have a paradox. Many introverts experience aloneness as comfort, as our internal baseline of normality. Yet that’s a state we can achieve only after we’ve grown up in a family and a world where togetherness is the daily reality, where many people feel that anything except togetherness is unimaginable or violates the order of the universe.
My takeaway is that normality has a huge range, larger than some people are willing to acknowledge. For most humans, in most cultures, life is with other people. But then there are some like the machinist quoted in the Atlantic piece who dreams of quitting his night shift and moving to the middle of nowhere. “A tiny little ranch somewhere—somewhere in Montana with nobody around. There’s my dream retirement. Peace and quiet and dark.”