Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Closer But Lonelier

Just had an interesting conversation with a colleague today. He's a pretty good example of the average guy in medicine - early thirties, not in a current relationship (either never married, divorcing, or divorced), still living off a resident physician's "whopping" salary, etc. We talked about his adventures in online dating, and that set off some wheels in the head.

How come, given all the great changes that have taken place in the last century - ways to connect us to those far away (airplanes, telephones, email), decreases in the amount of time spent on basic survival, etc, some of us can still be so isolated and lonely? If we were in a farming community of yore, we'd live spread out over farmland, maybe have to walk miles to see friends/family, but we'd all know each other (for better or for worse!) and there would be a community support system in place. Now, in an average city, we live and work physically closer than ever (think cubicles, apartments), and yet we seem more socially isolated than ever before...

We've become accustomed to easy communication - emailing, online dating, heck, even blogging, seem to have replaced good old face to face interactions. I still remember the college roomate who used to instant message the guy next door, even though, if he had raised his voice some, they could have carried out same the conversation verbally...

What are the social implications of this phenomenon? "Loneliness" is no longer relegated to the domain of the odd person who prefers his own company. If you believe "Google Trends," the Irish, English, and Americans are all pretty lonely... This brings to mind Professor X, who committed suicide when I was in medical school. He worked at a place that was bustling with people 24 hours a day. He taught students who loved him as a teacher, worked with colleagues who thought the world of his work, but no one REALLY knew him, and no one involved in his busy days thought to take the time to really know him. He was surrounded by people, but alone... How does this happen?

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