The American ‘Dream’

Bring on our annual national holiday hangover. The presents are unwrapped. Gift returns are underway. Parties are over and cleaned up after. New Year’s resolutions have been made… and many have been abandoned already. Once again, it’s Groundhog Day in our post-holiday world. We’re all ‘spent out’ figuratively and literally. Interestingly enough, our nation’s seasonal spending was actually projected to decrease in 2020. According to the American Research Group, planned gift giving expenditures were projected to go down from $976 (2019) to approximately $851 in 2020. The downward spending trend isn’t simply a Pandemic year phenomenon. Planned holiday gift spending has actually been trending lower since 2001. And consumers have relied less on credit card debt to make their purchases– using their existing available funds instead. However, Covid-19 clearly impacted how we made our gift purchases in 2020, with nearly 75% of buyers indicating that they planned to use the internet to buy some or all of their holiday presents. That’s an all-time high. According to data from Adobe Analytics, online Cyber Monday e-commerce sales increased by over 15% in 2020 versus the previous year. So, while we may be spending a bit less of late, we’re finding new ways to spend more in the future when the economy improves.

E-Commerce is shaping not just year-end holiday consumer buying. It’s now far more generalized and transcendent in its all-year-long global scope and reach. Our new purchasing experience extends well beyond the online ‘click and buy’ process we acclimated to several years ago. The buying process is far more elaborate and sophisticated these days, involving things like online shopping ‘events’, celebrity consumer ‘influencers’, real-time online purchase consultants, social commerce, and automatic coupon search/applications, to name just a few. The next generation adoption of 5G wireless technology across our nation will not only speed up data on our mobile devices. It will also enable new, innovative technology platforms for marketing products and services to consumers. We’ll be able to purchase a wider array of things through the use of ever-more-sophisticated selling applications at our fingertips. The American Dream in 5G. Freedom to purchase and consume to our heart’s desire. To buy the happiness that we so desperately crave as Americans.

But is this the real essence of the American Dream? What is this dream anyway, and how has it devolved into our nation’s current consumer-driven frenzy? The American Dream concept has certainly evolved through the years, but it is grounded for many in the ethos that the U.S. is a land of opportunity. In our country, anyone (whatever their background) has the chance to make it big. The job of our government and its economic policies should be to protect our individual rights to pursue this opportunity with vigor and determination. Historically, the idea of the American Dream was employed to justify the nation’s Westward expansionism in the 18th and 19th Centuries. To support white flight from our cities to the suburbs following World War II in the 20th Century. And, more recently, as the backdrop for an incessant barrage of commercial messaging that each of us receives every day. Whatever the century, though, the message is essentially the same: we should yearn for things we don’t have… but think we should or must have. It’s only through consuming stuff that our unsettled souls will ever be calmed. But this is a wholly distorted notion, as we shall see. 

Origins of the Dream

Perhaps the earliest and most accurate interpretation of the American Dream concept is enshrined in the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Not simply in the statue’s majestic symbolism, but in the actual words inscribed on it. These words are from an 1883 sonnet by poet Emma Lazarus, entitled ‘The New Colossus’. Lazarus wrote this poem as part of fundraising efforts for the statue itself. Her words would be memorialized on a bronze plaque actually placed on Lady Liberty years later in 1903, and they perfectly distill the American Dream:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

You’ll note that the phrase, ‘American Dream’ is nowhere included in Lazarus’ poem. But the author’s vision was clear. The dream has nothing, whatsoever, to do with making it rich in any financial or propertied sense of the word. In fact, Lazarus was an activist who stridently advocated for Jewish refugees who were immigrating from Czarist Russia, where they had been brutally persecuted. Her poem was about human dignity, opportunity, and freedom from oppression.

While the actual term, ‘The American Dream’, was used periodically throughout our history, its real widespread popularization came in 1931 when writer James Truslow Adams included it in the book, Epic of America. In his book, Adams said this about the American Dream (slightly edited for more current usage):

“It is a dream for a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every person, with opportunity for each according to his or her ability or achievement… A dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

Distortions of the Dream

So, you see, the accurate definition of the term ‘American Dream’ has very little to do with buying the perfect house with a white picket fence in the front. Even less to do with owning the right automobile. Or wearing the most fashionable outfit to the most desirable party this weekend. It has little to do with achieving a 6-figure salary. Or keeping current with the latest smart phone rollout. Instead, it’s about broader human fulfillment and meaning. 

Now, let’s not be naïve here. Making ends meet financially does matter. For it’s difficult to pursue fulfillment when we can’t pay our bills in meeting basic needs. But consumer consumption is not at the core of the American Dream. Our quoted author, James Truslow Adams, knew that. He understood that our insatiable quest for monetary and material ‘wealth’ is harmful to our nation. He recognized that the truest sense of our American Dream is a higher calling– one that speaks to the transcendent aspirations of our country as a whole (and of each of us within that greater whole). But somehow we’ve been duped along the way. Misled into thinking that it’s all about getting what’s coming to us. That getting ahead in life means possessing more in life, often at the expense of others. 

Where did we go wrong here? It’s an age-old problem with roots dating back to our ancient past. To be fair, ancient times placed an understandable and necessary focus on securing things in order to survive. Hunter-Gatherer societies were transitory and unsettled by their very nature. Each day presented new and daunting challenges in securing enough food, adequate shelter, and warm clothing. It was a world based on human deprivation and a corresponding need to secure things required to live. But we have long outgrown these primal conditions for the most part in modern America. Sure, many of us struggle mightily to make ends meet. Deprivations are real in today’s environment, even with our nation’s social safety net programs. Especially in these unprecedented times of Covid-19. But we should have evolved as a society in ways that render the worst of our ancient urges outdated. Yet, we haven’t to a large extent. We’re still hunting and gathering. With a difference. For we ‘hunt’ with laptops and smartphones, not with clubs and sticks. We ‘gather’ in stores, not in caves. We ‘consume’ not to live, but we live to consume. And we swap achieving material sustenance (food, clothing, and shelter that we need) for brazen ‘materiality’ as our life’s guiding ethos. In truth, we’ve not evolved that much along the way. And, in certain important respects, we are probably less happy and fulfilled than were many people in far simpler times past. 

Changing Up the Dream

Some in our modern U.S. society recognize that we’ve gone off the rails here. And they’ve responded. The current Minimalist Movement has made a substantial, positive impact in awareness building and behavior modification. Movement advocates call us to become ‘refugees’ and flee from the material rat race. To declutter our lives. To buy and keep less stuff in our homes and wardrobe closets. In so doing, they beckon us to free up time and space to pursue (and own) only those things that add real, lasting value to us. They believe we should worry less about the image we create and project to others. The movement has spawned numerous books and documentaries, many of which convey sound ideas around changing things up. That said, we must remain mindful that the overzealous and undiscerning pursuit of ‘minimalist’ gurus can, itself, turn into nothing more than another offbeat version of the American Dream. That’s because substantive answers aren’t usually found in oversimplified self-help books, lively presentations, or entertaining documentaries. Finding the real American Dream calls us to go farther. And it recognizes that our problem resides largely in an unhealthy Transference: from our human need for People to a need for Objects. From Relational to Possessive. In the end, our problem sits squarely in our efforts to ‘objectify’ our need for Love. And, as we’ve learned, it’s a misplaced strategy that doesn’t work. Either individually or collectively as an American society. For the ‘thing’ can never be the thing in life. Living this way isn’t a dream. It’s a nightmare.

Our ongoing national transference is worsened by the outsized influence of externally based motivation in our lives. We’re motivated for sure. But we’re often guided by a ‘regulatory’ influence that comes from outside ourselves. We’ve become increasingly programmed (either consciously or unconsciously) to respond to external stimuli that reduce life to ‘reward’ oriented behavior. Simply put, we’re trained to desire (and acquire) things that we don’t already have or think we need more of. And the rewards offered are, all too often, not positive ones for us. We think we’re acting in our own best interests for the right rewards. But, in actuality, we’re simply being manipulated by unhealthy outside influences. In order to get us to purchase more stuff, we’re told that we’re not good enough. Not smart enough. Not rich enough. Not beautiful enough. And the answer to our longings is merely a purchase click away. Delivered the next day. But, in truth, we’re simply feeding the inward guilt, worry, shame, entitlement, or obligation that someone else has foisted onto our souls. Their voices have become our own voices. Our behaviors are no longer autonomous, self-differentiated ones.

It’s all a hollow sham. It’s someone else’s dystopian ‘dream’ for us, not our own virtuous one. For I believe that we are born for Purpose more than for anything else. And our primary job in life is to fulfill that purpose. Doing so encompasses the whole of us, not simply a part of us. It’s driven from our God-given DNA ‘instructions’ to make our country and our world better because we were in it. Granted, a decision to live with purpose involves difficult choices on our part. And these choices are always tempered by the practical realities of paying our way in life. But pursuing purpose should be our first priority, not one that we tentatively ‘back into’ when we’re able to free up a little time and space in our routines. Our choices must be motivated by our intrinsic human value, not our net financial ‘worth’. Grounded in kindness, not selfishness. Fueled by generosity, not possessiveness. Guided by authentic love, not self-obsession. And powered by action, not passive possession. To use an analogy here, we can stand around all day gazing at the magnificence of the Statue of Liberty. We can read the moving words on the statue’s bronze plaque. But unless we leave that place and do something in response, it counts for little. If it inspires us, but doesn’t move us, it doesn’t change anything at all.

It’s patently obvious that the Statue of Liberty cannot get off her lofty pedestal. Of course, she’s a statue and can’t move. But we can in life. Because we aren’t fixed in stone. As Americans, we are the living ‘bodies’ of the Statue of Liberty. We are real, breathing people. As such, we must act as Lady Liberty’s eyes, mouth, hands, and feet. We must be the embodiment of her calls for freedom, mercy, compassion, equal justice, grace, and new beginnings in life. The embodiment of reaching our individual and collective potential as a nation. Which, by the way, has little to do with making gobs of money and owning stuff. Or with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ in life. For, in truth, a life well lived doesn’t boil down to keeping up with someone else. Rather, it’s about keeping someone else in our life. About nurturing communities across our nation where everyone can succeed. Communities where each and every one of us can contribute to a greater, more perfect union to the fullest extent possible. As we begin 2021, perhaps this should be our nation’s most important New Year’s resolution. Especially at such an unsettled and nightmarish time in our country’s history right now. If so, be it resolved that we’ll actually bring the real, authentic American Dream a little closer to reality. One that’s truly priceless but cannot be purchased. One that’s ours to share, not to possess.

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