Former Furman President David Shi researches the trend
JANUARY 13, 2011 11:26 a.m. (0)
There are more ways than ever for people to keep in touch.
E-mail. Facebook and Twitter. Instant and text messages.
But people are lonelier than ever, said former Furman University President David Shi.
“Loneliness is not simply a social phenomenon or a painful personal experience,” Shi said. “It is a major public health problem.” Shi has been named a resident associate fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. He’ll be there until May working on his new book, “All the Lonely People: Alienation in Modern American Culture.”
And while Shi said it’s obvious Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused in the shooting spree that injured Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, was a “loner,” it appears he had far more profound mental issues than simply being lonely and operating at the periphery of social life.
Shi developed the idea for a book about loneliness in modern American culture when he was teaching history at Davidson College in the early 1990s.
Shi said he noticed loneliness and alienation was the most prominent concern during and since the 1950s.
“It dominated social discussion in the decades after World War II and was the most frequent theme of the major works of fiction, poetry, art and film,” said Shi, who gave examples of the short stories of John Cheever, the novels of Ralph Ellison and Richard Yates, the paintings of Edward Hopper, the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and the plays written by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
He started researching the book before he became Furman’s vice president for academic affairs in 1993 and was named university president in April 1994.
“Even popular culture was preoccupied with the loneliness theme,” Shi said. “Think about the Peanuts cartoon series. Charlie Brown was a very lonely guy.”
As a cultural historian, Shi was intrigued about the factors that converged after World War II to generate a widespread sense that loneliness had become an epidemic in American life.
Some of the most powerful factors were the end of World War II and the bond it created among military personnel and citizens alike; the migration to stark, new suburban neighborhoods; construction of interstate highways and the transformation of American corporations into huge, multi-national conglomerates, Shi said.
“People who worked for one of the new fast-growing companies, IBM, complained that the letters stood for ‘I’ve Been Moved,’” he said.
At the same time, the career of traveling salesman skyrocketed, he said. The lonely life of traveling salesmen spending night after night in generic motels quickly became a prominent theme in literature, art and film, he said.
“Think about Willie Loman in Miller’s play, ‘Death of a Salesman,’ or Hopper’s powerfully evocative paintings of isolated businessmen starting out of the window of a motel,” Shi said. “Mobility and rootlessness very much contributed to the loneliness phenomenon.”
There’s a difference between simply “being alone” and being “lonely,” he said. Everybody needs some privacy and time to themselves, Shi said.
“Solitude can be a very positive state,” he said. “But loneliness sets in when we don’t feel connected in any significant way with anyone else,” he said.
Reasons for loneliness vary. Some people don’t trust others enough to invest candor and friendship. For others, it may be shame and the inability to admit they are lonely. It could be family background or experiences.
But, Shi said, many of the reasons have to do with the societal forces that have emerged to make it even harder to feel intimate or connected with someone.
And, ironically, the very social networking that makes it easier to keep in touch can exacerbate loneliness, Shi said.
“Even though people have lots of ‘friends’ in chat rooms, the electronic communication that emerges is usually superficial and fleeting,” he said. “And because people invest so much time in such social networking they don’t invest time on more conventional – and usually more serious – relationships.”
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