[21 May 2009]
A warning: if reading The Lonely American doesn’t give you the urge to call an old friend, organize a potluck or at least turn off the electronic devices and actually talk to your spouse, child or roommate, you may be a robot. In this haunting book, Drs. Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz have pinpointed the intriguing process that drives us to seek out solitude and then defend our choice even when it makes us miserable.
This bizarre-sounding phenomenon begins to sound more and more familiar as Olds and Schwartz write about their psychiatric patients—the couple who moved to a country home to “get away from it all”, only to find they felt isolated; the young single man who makes excuses to avoid social engagements, only to find that the invitations stop coming; the woman who, upon losing her job, also loses her only regular social connection with her peers.
Building on their own research and observations, as well as seminal works such as Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Olds and Schwartz paint a tragic picture of a nation of individual units—families, couples and, increasingly, single people—that have all but ceased to function as a society. While the authors focus largely on the psychological impact of all this isolation, they also explain its physical toll on Americans and their world.
Not only is social isolation an indicator for substance abuse, violent crime and early death, it is also linked to greater consumption of consumer goods. As Olds and Schwartz put it, “As the social resources that each of us one had easily at hand are reduced, the material resources that each of us wants to have easily at hand simultaneously increased”. In other words, “I have no friends, so give me more toys.”
In keeping with their profession as psychoanalysts, Olds and Schwartz maintain a kind and caring tone throughout The Lonely American, neither scolding nor scoffing at the nation of individuals Americans have become. They offer understanding of the myriad excuses modern life affords us for pushing everyone away, but gently explain how this strategy is self-defeating. “Virginia Woolf eloquently proclaimed the importance of ‘a room of one’s own.’ She also walked into a river with stones in her pockets”, Olds and Schwartz point out. This is surely an extreme example, but the authors do argue convincingly that isolation can very easily lead to depression and its accompanying woes.
If The Lonely American has a weak spot, it’s lack of attention to how these issues affect lower-income individuals. While the authors note that they “do not mean to ignore economic necessity” as a cause of the busyness that isolates people, and acknowledge that “just keeping (the proverbial wolf at the door) at bay can be a cause of social isolation”, Olds and Schwartz have little more to say on the subject. Yet the experiences of many of their case histories—a recent college graduate, a divorcee, a retiree—could ring true across the socioeconomic spectrum.
The most important message in The Lonely American is a therapeutic one: Olds and Schwartz reassure the reader that loneliness is not supposed to feel good. Despite helpful American cultural myths about outsiders that make it easier for people to glorify their own isolation, Olds and Schwartz explain that we are not meant to enjoy the condition. Looking back at American history, they point out that even the supposedly isolated explorers, homesteaders and pioneers succeeded with plenty of help from family and community. Drawing on sociological and neurobiological research, they explain how Americans have evolved with an extreme sensitivity to their role within small social groups. What was necessary for survival eons ago leads us today to attach great importance to the idea of belonging or being left out.
Though this heightened sensitivity may lead to unpleasant experiences—such as, say, junior high—Olds and Schwartz argue that Americans do not have to view this response mechanism through an entirely negative lens. What they call the “alarm system” of the mind, which is triggered when we feel excluded, lonely or isolated, should be seen as a call to action rather than simply as a symptom to be medicated or suppressed.
While The Lonely American is at times a heartbreaking book to read, its silver lining comes from the simplicity of the solution Olds and Schwartz propose: reach out rather than withdraw. They argue powerfully that the “obligations” many Americans have sought to avoid may just be the salvation for which they secretly long.
“When a person sheds too many obligations because they feel more like a snare than a hammock, he may shed the very connections that keep him from going to ground”, Olds and Schwartz write. The Lonely American shows us how simple acts—picking up the phone, sending a Christmas card—can have profound consequences, not only for ourselves, but for our friends and family.