It's what we all long and hope for. What we spend our whole lives trying to achieve, or in some cases what gets handed to us without very much work at all. It's what many of our forefathers came to North America for, and what we've stayed for. It's what we hope for our children and what has become the central focal point of many of our lives.
This may come as a shock to you, but I don't want the "American Dream" for my life.
The American Dream has meant slightly different things to different people, but it's often equated with material prosperity, wealth, a home, success, and the ability for our children to receive a quality education and achieve whatever they want to achieve regardless of social status, gender or race. Whenever I picture the term, I see a large house, a healthy marriage, two kids, some expensive cars, and the ability to acquire whatever material items desired. Yet, for me, most of that (aside from the healthy marriage and the kids) doesn't actually appeal to me anymore, even though admittedly my upbringing has allowed for all of those material items which the American Dream supposedly calls for. I reject the American Dream for my life. Here's why.
Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of positive ideas associated with the American Dream. In fact, I like aspects of the original American Dream, which involved much about social equality and freedoms--a very Martin Luther King Jr. kind of dream--much more than the idea that most people carry around with them today of wealth, success and "the pursuit of happiness." I think it's telling that the founding fathers of America phrased it "the pursuit of happiness" in the United States Declaration of Independence rather than just "happiness." Why the pursuit of happiness? Aren't the other two unalienable rights (life and liberty) enough to fulfill the third as well? Apparently not. Happiness needs to be pursued, chased, tracked down, attained, and presumably with some difficulty. The phrase implies that we need to seek happiness in a good job, the fulfillment of our dreams, a big house, a family, a car. And if we don't get all of these things? Then can we not be happy? That seems to be the attitude of many of us in today's world, at least as I perceive it. Ironically, however, I look at those who do have all of these things, and I don't see their happiness. It seems to have still eluded them somehow. It's somehow slipped just out of their grasp just when they thought they had finally caught up to it. I remember being told about an interview in which Eminem publicly confessed that he wasn't happy in spite of all of his money, success, women and fame; in fact, he said he was depressed. Similarly, tennis champion Andre Agassi wrote about how he felt upon finally attaining his lifelong dream of winning Wimbledon:
"They say my victory at Wimbledon forces them to reassess me, to reconsider who I really am.
But I don't feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I've been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I've won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn't feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn't last as long as the bad. Not even close...
The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I'm happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be.
It's a lie. This isn't at all what I feel. It's what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing...
I spend many hours roaming the streets of Palermo, drinking strong black coffee, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I did it--I'm the number one tennis player on earth, and yet I feel empty. If being number one feels empty, unsatisfying, what's the point?"
One thing in particular strikes me about the American Dream. It's about us. You. Me. Ourselves. The modern expression of it is almost entirely inwardly focused (although there are certainly many pushing for those elements of social equality and freedoms for all). The house is for us. The family is ours. The cars are in our driveway. Our career is taking off (or not). Our bank account is thriving (or not). Everybody likes us (or they don't). Our dreams have been fulfilled (or they still will be). The TV is tuned in to whatever we want to watch, and if we're not home, we can record it to watch it whenever we feel like it. There's nothing necessarily inherently wrong with any of these things, but there are a very select few of us who seem to care intensely about all of the other people just like us who don't have these things around the world. We are in the minority. Sometimes, we might even comment on how sad it is that so many people around the world don't have things like we do, but a couple of dollars or a couple of seconds bring us back to our self-focused American Dream again pretty quickly. And yet inside, like Agassi and Eminem, we still feel kind of empty. Something's still missing. Somehow, we're missing the point. The pursuit of happiness hasn't quite ended yet. We must keep going, keep getting, keep improving, keep upgrading...or else just give up.
CBS News conducted a national survey in 2005 asking Americans "Have you already reached 'The American Dream'?" 32% of those surveyed said yes. In 2009, 44% said yes to the same question. Interestingly, the New York Times' suggested explanation for this rise in "dream achievement" is actually the economic recession. According to "experts" (I have no idea who they are), when times are harder, our notion of what the American Dream is changes. The dream becomes more about values and freedoms than about material wealth. Ironically, this seems to imply that people can actually be happier with less material success, not more. The hunger to get more once we have a little creates this unceasing drive to never be satisfied with what we actually do have. We even see this in countries around the world where some of the poorest people who have next to nothing are actually happier than we are, and have more hope than we do. Mind you, there is intense suffering in many of these places as well, but I've been in villages in the middle of nowhere, Panama where the primary needs are not seen as material. According to the people living there, their greatest needs are actually both medical and spiritual. They don't miss all this 'stuff' we have. In fact, many of them have chosen to avoid it.
Here's my take. If you really understand what this life is all about, then you understand that it's not about you. It's just not. That's why trying to live the 'American Dream,' at least with regard to 'having it all,' is so unsatisfactory. The only way that that makes sense is if this life were not designed for us to seek our own satisfaction and self-fulfillment through material comfort or simple success in the first place. Trying to make something about us which was never meant to be about us will ultimately just make us more unsatisfied. Maybe that's what happened to Andre Agassi. The only thing wrong with his dream was that it was all about him. Maybe physical comfort can actually directly cause spiritual discomfort as we try to make our own sense out of life and in the process completely contradict life's purpose.
I used to think that having it all would bring me happiness, but now I see things differently. I see that living where I do in North America comes with a responsibility to make a difference to those immediately around me and to those around the world who do not have what I have, and that is not a sacrifice to me. That is an amazing gift, an incredible opportunity, and a worthy purpose. Something worth being a part of. There is no 'free ticket' through life and it would not give me any satisfaction to live that way. In my experience, The Rule of Satisfied Living is actually putting others before yourself. In fact, it's putting yourself last that really, truly leads to self-fulfillment. *GASP!* Yes, that's right, I said that. You will never enjoy a truly fulfilling life until you put yourself at the bottom of your own priority care list. And no, I'm not messing with you. That's what I truly believe. Jesus claimed that the greatest two commands of all time are to love God and "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-40). The best definition for love I've ever heard is to "seek the best for another regardless of the cost to yourself." That means giving up selfishness. That means living for God first and others second.
Conversely, if you want an empty life, keep trying to create your own means of satisfaction (i.e. the 'American Dream'). You can't. You're trying to create meaning and purpose and fulfillment by a means completely contrary to how you were intrinsically designed. That's like putting leftovers in the fridge and expecting them to get warmed up in the process. That's how we're missing the point. The ironic thing is that the only reason we don’t put others before ourselves is because we want to be comfortable, have fun, and be satisfied ourselves, but it backfires on us without us even realizing it every single time. And even sadder than that is the fact that it’s really just our selfish desires and lack of selfless desires that keep us from experiencing this fulfillment. If we actually lived to put others first, we would experience real life and realize how much selfishness sucks!
The American Dream will not (by itself) give you a better life. Your physical comforts can never fill your spiritual voids. In fact, sacrificing those comforts for the sake of others will do far more. One of the men I respect most in this world is Francis Chan, a popular author and former pastor. I respect him so much in part because he refuses to give in to the American Dream in the way that he lives. Chan allegedly gives over 90% of his income away to those who need help. He and his family do not have a big house, or lots of money (even though they easily could from his book sales), and yet they are constantly opening up their home to those in need and giving and sharing all that they have. They get it. They're not missing the point. Reminds me of a guy named Paul in the Bible who once wrote that he had "learned to be content whatever the circumstances. [He knew] what it is to be in need, and [he knew] what it is to have plenty. [He] learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." And just for the record, he gave all the credit to Jesus (Philippians 4:11-13).
Chan would also say the reason he lives this way is because Jesus has changed his life and his life's purpose. And he would say there is no more fulfilling life to live. I agree. Who wouldn't want that kind of experience? That kind of purpose? That sounds like the real American Dream to me.
What about you?