The many symptoms of eccentricity

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Eccentrics live longer.

That's a comforting thought, at least to those of us who seem to be heading in that direction. But is it true?

I couldn't find much research to prove this but I did come across a study done by neuropsychologist David Weeks and Jamie James, published in their book, "Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. They conclude that eccentrics do live longer and the reason is that they experience lower levels of stress. Unburdened by the need to conform, they forego the worries of your usual garden-variety neurotics who concern themselves endlessly with standards and what others think of them.

By living to the beat of their own tambourine, these wild-minded folks tend to be happier and healthier -- according to these researchers -- because they are more in touch with their imaginations.

Surely we don't go from reading glasses straight to living with a tribe of cats. So what are the early signs of eccentricity?

One of the most honest of my correspondents claims that, after a life of rigorous honesty, she has started stealing those reading glasses wherever she finds them. She doesn't even feel particularly guilty about it. As she sees it, we are all in this together. "People take my glasses, and I take theirs."

One woman, who has always prided herself in meeting deadlines, sending thank you notes and showing up on time, has shifted her priorities as she moves through her fifties: "I now want to become part of the problem, instead of always part of the solution!" she declares.

Some find themselves manifesting eccentricity in small, odd ways, like my friend who realized that he started braking with his left foot. "At first, I was horrified, but came to grips with it, as with the appearance of hair on my back."

Lessening of the reins of inhibition is probably the most common trait for freshman eccentrics. Along with age comes a greater acceptance of who one is and less concern about what others think about that. I have a friend, 59, who has even taken up nudity as a hobby. She feels liberated from her historical worry about how her body looks. Now her attitude is: "Live well and give 'em hell!"

Barry says he feels more free to be himself because at 62 he is better able to see other people for what they are and not as the idealized 'heroes' of the past. "This allows for more freedom of self-expression. Others may be startled by it, but who cares?"

Many copped to becoming more opinionated, less tolerant, crankier. This just may be the most common "pre-cursor" to the hundred cats.

A long-time friend, Emily, 58, admits that she has become far less tolerant of behavior that offends her. This is an odd development for her as she is a shy, first-born, rule-follower. Now she is more likely to bark at someone who talks in a movie theater or smokes around her.

This same friend reminded me of a conversations we had back in our twenties when I declared passionately that I aspired to eccentricity. "You must have a long list by now," she said without any trace of doubt.

The person I live with recently asked my mother about what was viewed as my burgeoning cranky eccentricities. She thought about it -- no doubt thinking of my father -- before she answered.

"Honey," she said, "It only gets worse."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a Cape Girardeau native who is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience helping individuals and couples with their emotional and relationship issues. He has a private practice in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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