Patricia - Lee, New Hampshire
Entered on May 27, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe in eccentricity, the strong form of what used to be meant by

individuality. By this I do not intend having the perfectly decorated house

with custom-made details to suit one’s particular cravings for luxury, nor

stylish piercings or tatoos, nor playing the tuba or viola to enhance one’s

college application—but instead, by championing eccentricity I mean to endorse

really being able to disregard the current norms in order to ask oneself the hard

questions in life. An eccentric is someone who has stopped to ask questions such

as: what do I myself value that others slight; or what do I have to contribute

to the world, that others don’t? An individual doesn’t just try to stand out, but

is quite happy to stand apart. An eccentric doesn’t look at the world as a

competitive race, but as a broad playing field.

Having watched my daughter go through the college application process this year,

I worry about the pressures on a whole generation to excel in very prescribed

ways. Professional advisors steer the kids into improving their dossiers:

athletics, conspicuous community service, standardized test scores. It reminds

me of the way my colleagues and I are encouraged to tot up our accomplishments

for annual reviews, not real accomplishments of which we are proud, but hours

spent on committee work, and scores given us by our students on how much they

enjoyed our classes, and twenty-minute papers given at conferences, some of them

rehashed from one conference to another for years. Have those college applicants

had time to read widely and thoughtfully? Have their elders taken the time to

step back from their jobs and routines and articulate the principles by which

they live and which they want to share with their students, or are they operating

on automatic pilot? The eccentrics I applaud are the ones who don’t measure

themselves—or others—by how they look on the forms they fill out and

statistics that show them to be better than average. They have a private sense of

worth, but one which measures public as well as private roles. Respect for

eccentrics offers our best bulwark against the ever-increasing power of


Eccentricity may be considered a way of delegating time: not according to the

prescribed steps to financial success but instead by thinking of our lives as a

chance to change the world, even in small ways, so that we don’t increasingly

dislike the place as we age. That requires not only lots of work, but the

willingness to stick one’s neck out and be eccentric. Especially in a world of

edging toward seven billion persons, a world which increasingly monitors and

regularizes its vast population, eccentricity can be a positive force. It’s a

luxury we must afford, a mark of distinction on the body politic, the special

timbre in the music of world harmony.