The loner as hero is not a uniquely American concept, but it’s an idea that Americans have embraced as distinctly ours. It began, for us, as the image of the cowboy conquering the West, taking on all comers as he fought for freedom and justice and the American way.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman: all loners. They all work outside the system doing what the system can’t do as they bring order and civility to the rest of the country/world. But it isn’t just comic books and movies that promote the idea of the loner.
Look at literature. The Great Gatsby – while largely devoted to an exploration of the American dream and the decadence that arises from its overzealous pursuit – also presents Gatsby as a loner, a man outside the system, looking in, trying to find a path to the metaphorical riches of Daisy Buchanan.
Huck Finn and Atticus Finch are loners, as are Augie March and Holden Caulfield. And don’t forget Shane, who takes being a loner to a new level. We celebrate these loners, these individuals who make their way in the world without the help of, and often despite the obstacles placed by, the world at large.
We come to see loners as a special kind of American, a special kind of hero. We embrace the notion that they are smarter, tougher, stronger, better than the rest of the people who populate their universe.
But it’s important to point out that the loner mythology is just that – mythology. No one lives in a vacuum. And great literature does not always define reality accurately. It presents a slice of life, a temporary image, and at times we all row upstream. Yet we can’t only row against the current. We can’t refuse to go along with the crowd every moment of every day.
We rely on others for roads, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, safety or … (well, you get the idea). Everything we accomplish, we accomplish in part because of the efforts of others who have come before us. We are creatures of society and we are far more dependent on that society than we are often willing to admit.
The loner mythology even colors our politics. We want the candidate who will buck the system. The maverick. The outsider. The loner who will ride into town and whip the nasty politicians into shape.
However, true outsiders rarely make it to the inner chambers of our political system and when they do, they struggle against the entrenched special interests who run things. What does that mean for us? It means we need to recognize that it takes more than one loner to change our world. It takes a community of us, working together, to achieve the change we desire.
Loners can’t help us. Only we can help us.
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