The Lonely American (Olds, Schwartz)

Community is intentional.  Like anything else, interaction with others takes work.  Books such as The Great, Good Place by Ray Oldenburg encouraged a targeted approach to gathering.  Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities told us how to create stability for gathering.  Leon Kass in his The Hungry Soul encouraged us to feed our interiority for the benefit of gathering.  A reverse historical display of famous progenitors has already warned against individualism and established the case for community: Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1995), Bellah’s Habits of the Heart (1985), Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (1953), and Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950).  One wishes that The Lonely American could have added new active ideas toward their purpose of “push and pull” (11) to relieve our loneliness.

Of course, Olds and Schwartz leave us with much to agree.  Concerns over social isolation mirror Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone. Examples abound.  The individuality of “accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior” (37-38) strikes a cord with biblical theology which rightly sees the cosmic concern of Christ for His creation.[1] Ecclesiology[2] is also impacted if American individualism shapes and changes the collective whole of Jesus’ Bride.[3] Chapter 5 highlights what ought to be obvious for those committed to The Incarnation—technology cannot overcome our relational difficulties because we have bodies.  The authors rightly contend, “The worry is that we will forget the importance of reaching at least some people through the fullness of a shared physical presence” (104).  And surely anyone can intuit that multiple choices lead to a technological “tyranny” (110ff).  The writing team contends we accept the new interface with internet connections without losing the face-to-face community necessary for our bodied persons.  “The loss of witnesses” (123-24) is a strong intergenerational concern.  Communitarian audience may enhance individual growth.  “Religious small groups” (187-89) acts as a cohesive advantage in a culturally diverse society, giving more common ground.

Yet Olds and Schwartz do not develop common ground for definitions: the lifeblood of any research.  Words seem to stand alone in the book: connection, depression, loneliness, and myth (9).  The complication of the term “myth” is exacerbated as the authors discuss Emerson’s writings as a “virtue,” again, without definition (34).  “Our private mythologies” (35) are mentioned without description.  The reader is left quite conflicted not only with the lack of explanation but trying to understand the nature of the argument: is self-reliance a positive trait to be possessed or one to be subsumed within community?  Is myth another word for “false,” “superstition,” or “an unproven, cultural assumption?”  Or, is myth a codeword for meta-narrative or universal truth hatched within human history?  As the book hinges its argument on “the myth of the outsider” it would seem important to define the term.

Chapter 3 makes one think that the issue of self-reliance is solely an American phenomenon.  Widely quoting the western genre of film, the authors could have pointed out that “the outsider myth” is a ubiquitous cinematic statement.  Yul Brenner and Clint Eastwood, for instance, tip their cowboy hats to Akira Kurosawa’s famed Seven Samurai. In short, Gilgamesh, Greek mythology, or Star Wars fantasy all look for a hero, a transcendent source of salvation from “beyond.” The book ends on this, albeit, conflicted note (191-93).  The authors desire both: the individual hero within community.  This reviewer could not agree more, yet, I’m left with a decidedly unsettled focus: is loneliness a problem or is it not?

The authors then assume an evolutionary biology-psychology (62ff) which frames the argument, choosing aspects of the worldview that makes us warm to the beneficence of community.  However, unspoken ideals of evolutionary biology-psychology are conveniently left out—self-preservation as the strongest survives.  The authors adopt the mythological elements—what they view as the positive traits of evolutionary biology-psychology—setting aside the fact that the theory cannot support the practice of communitarian altruism.  Communal commonalities and shared work cannot be sustained by a “red in tooth and claw” ethic; rather, the secular belief is necessarily buttressed by a Christian footing of love and self-sacrifice.  Could the authors’ concern of narcissism (86) be the result of an evolutionary lifeview?  Why desire diversity when an evolutionary model mitigates against it (147ff)?

Ultimately the blame for our current condition is laid squarely on Calvinism, capitalism, and competitiveness (29).  Without support, trite, simplistic definitions are laid down as a gauntlet through which American guilt should run.  It is interesting that researchers can be so bland about some aspects of their study because they predetermined certain causes as the genesis of a problem, seemingly having built in biases against it.  To link self-improvement and consumption to Calvinism is beyond the pale, much less unsustainable given any serious historical research (29-30).  While associations born of “organized religious communities” (31) are given a nod, one wonders why Tocqueville’s more famous comment “if America ceases to be good she will cease to be great” is not quoted.  Within the context of the French sociologist’s writing America’s “goodness” was consistently linked to Christian ethics.  Worrying that family may actually debilitate personal engagement in society (chapter 7) one wonders if the authors are not at cross purposes.  If one community creates good neighborhoods is this not better than “political structures?”  If families raise good children who do good things will they not produce good societies?

Why is “the respect of the world” and “using up the world’s nonsustainable resources” given as reasons for community? (32)  Social bromides bandied about do not an argument make.  Trite, dangling connectors to “our planet’s ecology” (80, etc.) belie a personal agenda better served by being left out.  The concern for one-person households as a strain on earth’s resources ignores the obvious imposition of high-birth rates and deleterious city squalor in other countries.  Why, for instance, is little ever said about pollution of the Ganges in India or the Yellow River in China?  Only in rich, Western cultures can anyone truly care about environmental concerns (91-93).  Totalitarian countries (Russia, China, North Korea) care little about the rape of Earth making pages 189-191 a moot point.

Chapter 4 does give the reader an exceptional overview of good research.  Yet one wonders why that same dedication to research is left out in other segments of the volume.  Acknowledgment of the “risky” practice of applying studies from one people group to another is given a nod and then accepted (i.e., 83).  Experiential, anecdotal, and personal reasons sustain other portions of the book (70, 85). One of the key concerns in research is the credentialing of the author in her field.  Key to this discussion (chapter 4) is the transfer of ideas from one discipline to another.  But theological, sociological claims come in the form of fact.  These “facts” in turn then form the assumptions (68-76).

Herein, the authors would have been helped by theological direction.  One could not agree more with the concept of being “left out” (chapter 4): “We are designed to become attached to one another” (57).  We are made to be in relationship.  Relational sinkholes begin with the emptiness we feel without connections to our Creator.  Social exclusion and the terror of detachment are grounded in Cain’s story in Genesis 4 (57-58).  Could our being “left out” be linked to pride, selfishness, and jealousy (47)?  Freud’s Oedipal child (76ff), for instance, ought to generate the question, “How much of our behavior is plain envy?”  When do we address concerns about self-centeredness versus self-sacrifice?

Deeper questions arise.  Chapter 8 says social isolation is created by social isolation.  How is that possible?  The authors do well to raise questions concerning a general reticence in American culture toward making judgments.  But while decrying the loss of parental and teacher authority, the authors do little to attack the scourge of relativism which has brought the culture to the precipice (148ff).  What is the influence of cultural teaching on tolerance—not wanting to get involved because we’re taught the downside of intervention, that is, making a judgment?  Do we run to psychological help (Chapter 9) because we’re afraid, prompted by the doctrine of niceness?  With the press to build community, can we build consensus without consistent beliefs?

If The Lonely American teaches us anything it is the need to link belief with intention.  We need to seize opportunities for fellowship.  We need to establish our own “third place” (Oldenburg).  We need to reinvigorate our cities (Jacobs).  We need to see eating as a connection to our soul’s nourishment (Kass).  But most of all, there is a need to practice the direct teaching of Jesus above all others: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  Building community, lessening loneliness, is grounded in these great ideas.

Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz. The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009.  Reviewed by Mark Eckel, Dean, Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College.


[1] Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:15-20

[2] The study of The Church

[3] see Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:1-6

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