- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

"One is the loneliest number
that you'll ever do."

from "One," by Three Dog Night, Top 40 hit, 1969

Pop sensation Britney Spears wanted to let the world know she doesn't have it all. . "My loneliness is killing me," Miss Spears confessed in her hit song, "…Baby One More Time."
In a society where so much emphasis is placed on mass communication, it seems surprising that loneliness could be a major American ailment. Despite the burst of community exhibited all over the landscape after September 11, Americans seem to have moved back to a pre-attack mode.
Society has "basically returned to the status quo," says Mary Jo Marchionni, a career and personal coach in Havertown, Pa., who counsels clients about the matter.
The villain? Mrs. Marchionni blames the Internet.
"It allows us to be isolated from activities that once required participating in the world, such as grocery shopping," she says. "Things that used to seem like chores, like shopping, now are the avenues for getting out to see people."
Pundits are now talking about the general loneliness experienced by many Americans who have not been able to connect. Individualistic lifestyles are fodder for loneliness, they say. Examples:
The handicapped man who, lacking any close friends, has amassed a houseful of books to keep him company.
The busy, single career woman whose cats are the only creatures she gets to hold and caress.
The important CEO whose job takes him hundreds of miles from his family and who hangs out at the office on Sundays just to have some human contact.
"Some people are willing to accept the price of loneliness for the freedom that they think they have," says Paula Danzinger, counselor and educator at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
"Loneliness is not so much about being alone as it is about feeling alone. The feeling of not being understood, of not being supported, of not being cared about, can cause a person to feel much lonelier than if they were actually alone."
Johann Christoph Arnold, a New York author and social critic whose book, "Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapped in Life's Hells," came out in February, says Americans cannot seem to depend on others for even the smallest things.
"To me, loneliness is one of the greatest hells today's man can live in," he says. "Forget about the Information Age; we live in the age of loneliness."
His solution: Relying less on technology and more on people.
"The time we spend on the computer cuts down on the time we could devote to a spouse, child or co-worker who might be sitting right next to us," he says. "I wish the day would come that our technology would collapse, and instead of depending on the technology, we would depend on each other.
"Any act of love reaching out to anyone from the taxi driver to the stranger on the street will help to overcome loneliness in yourself," he says.
It's a medical fact that lonely people get sicker sooner, says Bruce Rabin, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's health-enhancement program. People who have had a heart attack or stroke are at a greater risk of having another one if they have little social interaction, he says.
But isolation seems built into the American psyche. Some 16.4 million Americans work out of their homes.
And more Americans are living alone then ever before: 27 million one-person households, to be exact. Such a large population of single adults was unthinkable in previous centuries. Loneliness also exists among the married if their partner cannot or will not understand their needs.
"Most people do not know that loneliness is a problem until they feel it," says Gilda Carle, an authority on relationships and grief therapist in Yonkers, N.Y. "Our culture typically incorporates Band-Aids in the form of material things to get us to forget about ourselves."
"September 11 made people more aware of how they had been replacing their own loneliness with activities, upward mobility on the job and other things. Suddenly, we were shocked into admitting our vulnerability and our need for relationships."
Loneliness inspired James Huckenpahler, a local artist whose "Age of Loneliness" exhibit at the Fusebox Gallery in the District portrays the mood as a pervasive condition. His abstract digital monoprints simulate skin, each print being a combination of neutral colors with a textured image mimicking cracks, pores and blemishes.
The idea behind his prints is that human touch is utterly necessary to a lonely person. "The pioneer spirit and the ideas of rugged individualism inherent to American culture explain why we are more individual and less community-minded," he says.
Joseph Tecce, an associate psychology professor at Boston College, says the lack of human touch is the essence of loneliness.
"With all the cyber-richness of the Internet, its virtual reality cannot replace a warm smile, a firm handshake, or a reassuring hug," he says. "It is essential to connect with someone in conversation and to share good and bad feelings to ward off loneliness."
Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," finds it ironic that "Most people watch [TVs] 'Friends,' rather then having friends."
People may be a little less lonely now, Mr. Putnam says, citing interviews conducted in November with 500 subjects. The same people were also interviewed in September 2000. When asked to identify the number of people they felt they could talk to if they were having a personal crisis, most couldn't think of anyone or only a few people.
The events of September 11, however, made those interview subjects realize that people they didn't consider close are actually individuals they can turn to in times of crisis.
The solitary have no one to blame, says the Rev. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in the District. "People are as lonely as they want to be," he says.
But, he adds, it doesn't help that "society specializes in making people lonely."

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