Tuesday, 18 December 2012

All to himself ‘He never waves when he goes by… He’s all to himself… I think I know why.’ (Tom Waits, ‘What’s he building?’ Mule variations, 1999) In a recent tragic accident, Mark van den Boogaard, a Dutch skydiver, appears to have plunged from the firmament and his body lay undiscovered in a field for over a week. One reason he was not missed was that, according to the manager of the skydiving club, he was "a friendly and happy man, but a loner, someone who did not really talk to anyone and was always on his own". Van den Boogaard was self-employed and ‘was not close to any of his relatives’. In one sense then his demise sadly reflects the apparently severe accountancy of personal relations: if you invest in relationships and take an interest in others, they’ll come looking for you if you go missing; if you don’t, they won’t. When people describe someone as ‘a loner,’ what does it tell us about local social relations? Adam Lanza, the 20 year old who carried out the Sandy Hook School killings in Newtown, Connecticut, was described as such, someone who was ‘very shy and didn't make an effort to interact with anybody.’ And it seems that some people were aware that he was unwell. (Others must have been aware also that his mother was ‘a gun enthusiast’. A WHAT??? A ‘gun enthusiast.’ Apparently, in that frighteningly uncivilised country, there’s nothing exceptional in that). I think the word ‘loner’ is being used here in a sinister way, albeit with hindsight, to imply someone who was not just passively disinclined to socialise; not even someone just actively resistant to engagement with their peers; but one who was pathologically resistant. And in the neighbourhood or, say, the high school context, other people can draw vague conclusions without anything further being justified by way of implication or action. Up to a point, wherever that is, it is not in the group interest to interfere: 'community' has a degree of tolerance built-in for its own defence. ‘He has no dog and he has no friends and his lawn is dying’ croaks Waits. We lament to ourselves the impact that dysfunctional co-residents have, the state of their garden, the impoliteness of disregard, the impact they have on our sense of community. But the community that seizes upon and rejects the harmless dysfunctional is itself dysfunctional. The social democracy of neighbourhood relations, with its contrasting forces of shared interest and rights to privacy, means you can’t simply report someone to authorities for being weird and uncommunicative. (Unh, that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to leave guns and ammunition around the house). If someone in your neighbourhood is a loner it’s not your responsibility to be any more than a neighbour – which under most conventions means being open to encounter and conversation while respecting their privacy. But still, shouldn’t we expect families to take some responsibility for their members’ mental health? And shouldn’t we make properly-resourced support easily...

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