The American Dream
I have been thinking about what a friend told me about his father and his uncles. They had fled a civil war in the Middle East when they were young men and, while they came away alive from the experiences in their home country, they bore serious emotional scars.
Most of them fared well in this country. They became business owners or professionals, they married and had children, they owned their own homes. Many people would say that they achieved the American Dream. But as my friend tells the story, they tended to be glum, depressive. Several had problems with substance abuse. Their marriages ended in divorce; their children too were mostly addicted to alcohol or drugs. They did not enjoy working in their businesses even when they were reasonably successful; their professions did not seem fulfilling. They were boring.
How shall we think about this? We can say that these men were ungrateful, self-indulgent whiners. They should cheer up and be grateful for what America allowed them to achieve--a standard of living that would never have been accessible to them in the country they came from.
A somewhat less harsh form of this criticism might wish them some help with the damage done to their psyches in their native country and its brutal civil wars.
But perhaps we should pause a minute and consider more carefully what it means to achieve the American Dream. The most common idea considers the American Dream to be all about becoming a property owner, of making a good living, of owning personal property such as a house and cars, of being able to send their children to good schools where they could learn to make a good living, to own their houses and all that.
But is this too limited? What about love, close friends, work that excites and challenges, personal growth, acquiring new skills, new knowledge? A wise friend said to me once: "Earning a good living is not enough; you want a life that is meaningful."
But did these men not to have meaningful lives? They earned money in order to enable their children to have better lives. What could be better?
What makes human life meaningful is not easy to say. Different people may give different answers to the question about what makes life worth living. But is the life of the rich really the best life?
Consider this. All over the world there are religious persons who take a vow of poverty. Do they thereby foreclose the possibility of leading a meaningful life? Don't we rather want to say that religious persons lead good lives because they have found a cause to which to dedicate themselves completely? The daily trials and tribulations of our lives, the pressure of desires, hunger, fatigue do not affect them seriously because their days are dedicated to a greater cause, the worship of their deity.
I have talked before about the myths that Americans hear constantly and rehearse for others, about the blessing of capitalism, or that our political system is a democracy.
The myth of the American dream is another part of this mythology. But on examination it turns out to be dried up, impoverished. The good life is reduced to owning property.
All of this is very important at this moment when a new president promises to "make America great again." What does it take to make our country great? Must we have our names on everything we own? Must we have gold faucets in our bathrooms?
I would think that in a great America everyone would lead meaningful lives. Everyone would have access to education in the subjects that really fascinate them. Everyone would have a chance to be as good an athlete as they could. People would actively participate in the affairs of their neighborhood, in their schools and playgrounds. Instead of complaining about the failures of city government they would build small parks to enhance shared living spaces. Americans today are spectators of sports, of politics, of their neighbors lives. They depend on well-paid “experts” to tell them what to think and how to understand the events of this world. They consume information and understanding much like they consume food and drink.
We have become utterly dependent for almost everything we use. In a great America, everyone would once again be active, creative, inquisitive and thinking for themselves and sharing their ideas and their dreams with their neighbors regardless of how expensive their car is or their house. In a great America what matters is what we are devoted to, not what we earn.