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How Famous Recluses Teach Us Important Lessons

01/27/2014 08:33 EST | Updated 03/29/2014 05:59 EDT

I had a teenage crush on J.D. Salinger.

Today, Jan. 27, marks the four year anniversary of his death. In keeping with Salinger's "uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy," a statement from his family said, there was no service to eulogize him.

Last week, within hours of a documentary about Salinger's life airing on PBS, his 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, soared to Number 1 on Amazon.com. Since 2010, three of Salinger's unpublished stories have been leaked online. It seems that even in death, Salinger cannot escape the spotlight he so desperately tried to evade in life.

We live in a society that stigmatizes seclusion, yet has an almost rabid fascination with it at the same time.

A survey of history shows that some of the most brilliant thinkers, writers and artists turned their backs on society to embrace a life of voluntary seclusion. The poet Emily Dickinson was affectionately called "Queen Recluse" by her pen pals. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was so rarely seen in public that a con man named Alan Conway impersonated him for years in the UK. Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo, Marcel Proust, Doris Day, Harper Lee, Michael Jackson. The list goes on. 

The common denominator? Extraordinary genius, creativity or talent. 

There's also a dark side, of course. In the popular imagination, the recluse's genius often borders on madness.

While a text book recluse might not be the poster child for mental health, I think there is a lot we can learn from the individual who chooses a path of obscurity -- especially in a time when "selfie" is the Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Year. In what many psychologists are calling an age of narcissism, some insights from the cave of the recluse might be just what the doctor ordered. Here are some of the gems I have learned from J.D. Salinger and other recluses from history:

1. Isolation is the petri dish of genius. I am in awe of the magical symbiosis between solitude and creativity. Envision Vincent Van Gogh, painting feverishly in his room alone in Arles. Or Emily Dickinson, cloistered in Amherst, writing of the "solitary prowess/Of a Silent Life." As Aldous Huxley said, "The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude." 

2. Conformity is the enemy of creativity. In my high school year book, I remember writing "march to the beat of your own drummer." I recall a kid in my class teasing me about this mercilessly. My art teacher witnessed the exchange and said: "Don't let anyone ever diminish your spark." I took his words to heart. "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else," according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is the greatest accomplishment."  

3. Beware the seduction of social media. We live in a hyper-connected world. People bring their smartphones to bed. But the seduction of social media is ultimately anti-climactic. Ironically, the social networks that keep us "connected" are the same ones which contribute to our deep sense of social isolation. We've all seen people texting and tweeting in each other's company. I have been guilty of this myself. But I'm trying to unplug, at least once a week, to address the estrangement social media feeds. 

4. Privacy is a lost art. I feel like people can't go to the bathroom without tweeting about it. Twitter has become a technological confessional. I think therefore I tweet. We don't need to give it all away. Some things are sacred. The recluse teaches us that not everything belongs in the public domain.

5. Alone time is restorative. Whether you practice meditation, journal, read, reflect or rest, psychologists agree that spending time alone is healthy for mental clarity and emotional wellbeing. We use this time to process our experiences, restore our balance and refuel. Take time to be by yourself everyday. 

6. Over-exposure is a path to contempt. When I was 13, I thought J.D. Salinger walked on water. But he was elusive. This made me love him more.

The Poet Octavio Paz wrote that "solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone." This existential awareness generally (although not always, as the recluse testifies) creates a thirst for human connection.

Our society typically believes the individual who sequesters himself from the outside world is mad, while we laud individuals who erect social media shrines to themselves, enabling them with "likes" and "retweets." What would J.D. Salinger have to say about the "selfie"? Probably that we're all a bunch of "phonies," myself included -- I have, admittedly, taken a selfie or two over the years.

Journalist Jonathan Freedland has a gentler take. In The Guardian he writes: "The selfie is like so much else in the digital world - all about 'me,' but revealing a sometimes desperate urge to find an 'us'."

And then it dawned on me that even J.D. Salinger had relationships. He wanted to be left alone, not be alone. He had a longing for an "us" too, just on his own terms.

Four years ago today, a statement about the world's most famous recluse said: "Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it." And therein lies perhaps the ultimate wisdom the recluse offers us: they are physically present but do not conform to the world's values. They are set apart.

In the age of the selfie, in the cacophony of social media, let's cut out the clutter and connect to something greater than the cult of me, myself and I. "Solitude," writes American poet Jessica McFarland, "gives us back our perspective, our sense of independence and our valued place in a reality larger than ourselves."

Like Salinger wrote in Franny and Zooey, "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's."

Rest in peace J.D.

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