When you are stressed do you withdraw?
If you do, without doubt it must be due to bad stress, not good stress. Withdrawing, or avoidance, is a commonly used coping strategy. Your husband upsets you, don't speak to him. Wife's nagging too much, don't say much -- it feels better. Some people do it for a day. Some for a week. And those who do it for months, if they're married, are at high risk for divorce, or as the case may be, incarceration.
Others are not so extreme. They simply crawl into a shell of sorts, still functioning the essentials, protected from any encounter that requires one to articulate their problem or cause them grief for whatever reason. Getting up every morning expecting everyone around you to behave as you would like them to makes for an unhappy day -- or an unhappy life.
But then again, people without dysfunctional coping mechanisms might minimize their social contacts simply because of who they are. They move to the country or away from others for no reason other than they feel comfortable and at peace being alone.
Such is the extreme case of one Christopher Knight, who as a twenty-year-old, for no known reason, walked into the dense woods of central Maine and remained there for twenty-seven years. He interacted with no human and uttered not one word, except "Hi," when he happened once upon a wayward hiker.
Knight's story is chronicled in a just released book, "The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit," by Michael Finkel. One might think it boring to read about a hermit, but this is truly a fascinating read, a page turner, that reads like fiction but happens to be true.
Knight would still be alone in the woods if he had not been nabbed pilfering an unoccupied vacation cabin, something he did to survive, evading the long and short arms of the law for twenty-seven years!
There's a fascination about people living at the extremes of social connections -- of those who maximize their relationships and those who minimize their relationships. In the case of Knight, he had none. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of these extremes, labeling it shades of extroversion or introversion. There is an explanation for why you are as you are.
The author, in an attempt to explain why Knight did what he did (even Knight himself didn't know), consulted many research and clinical psychiatrists, experts in the field of human behavior and neurosciences. And upon studying Knight after his capture, they inferenced Knight's medical diagnosis, but were unable to arrive at a consensus. Those diagnoses ranged from Asperger's, to schizoid personality, autism, and many others. But one psychiatrist, declaring that Knight did not fit the requirements of any of these or any other psychiatric diagnoses, finally gave up and quipped in exasperation, "I diagnose him as a hermit."
Everyone has something to teach others. Even this guy. Upon reading the book I'm sure you will find many yourself. With respect to insights gleaned from Christopher Knight's story I found three things of note.
One is that one of Finkel's experts explains that there's a hormonal imbalance that explains our tendency to connect with others or not. Biologists have found that one's desire to be alone is partially genetic and can be measured. If you have low levels of the pituitary hormone oxytocin, referred to as the master chemical of sociability, and high quantities of the hormone vasopressin, which may suppress your need for affection, you tend to require fewer interpersonal relationships. Supposedly we inherit this from our parents, according to John Cacioppo, a cognitive and social neuroscience researcher. He says everyone has a "genetic thermostat for connection." Finkel says Knight's must be set at zero.
The second thing of interest is that churchmen, naturalists, and mystics of all stripes will tell you that becoming quiet, eliminating noise and distractions, is necessary to find, be close to, or commune with the Absolute, or what most of us call God. Knight would spend stretches of time day after day after day in his own thoughts -- truly a pure introvert. But, when interviewed in jail by Finkel, Knight paradoxically declared he was not a religious person and did not believe in a God and held to no belief system, the closest being Stoicism. Knight opined that there were many gods but not one over all. This of course, is in contrast with the major religions, each with their mystics who during long times in solitude as eremites experienced the divine. It's hard to believe Knight didn't experience something transcendent, the closest being, according to Finkel, his commune with, and feeling one with nature.
The last thing of interest is that in the absence of any contact with humanity, notwithstanding speaking or writing and sharing one's thoughts, which Knight did not do, is that it would be difficult to comply with the commission of the ascending Christ when he said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded..."
After reading Knight's story some might think he's a nutcase. He may be. He certainly now is having a hard time integrating back into society. But then again there's just enough rationality, and even genius, that in this technologically-soaked world his revealed wisdom will make you wonder about who we really are and why we do what we do as community. It's a good book.
Take a closer look at Christopher Knight's story. Regardless of whether you think he's a fool, a nut, or a genius, one thing that's indisputable is that while he was in the woods he was truly at peace. Something to think about if you're wading through bad stress.
Being alone, even if for very short times, can be therapeutic.
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