“The American Dream” was originally a term coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 to mean opportunity regardless of social class. It made perfect sense seeing as how that promise was the reason so very many people immigrated to America. Unfortunately now, the term is abused. – Kiran Umpathy from “Our American Dream” (AC)
I was made to think (ow!) while reading an article on AC by a young man whose writing I admire. He’s a deep thinker, a dream seeker, a person frustrated with the status quo and life’s quagmires. Kiran’s a good man to have on the planet. I started to respond to his latest thoughts in the Comment section of “Our American Dream”
But (shockeroo!) my comment spilled into an essay of its own. I hope Kiran won’t mind that I responded by way of an article and high-lighted his work. His few publications on AC deserve more attention, anyway. What am I saying?! With 10 articles, Kiran has more page view than I do!
The article on “Our American Dream” is very thoughtful. It’s helpful that Kiran quotes the origin of the term “The American Dream” (quoted at bottom of this article) and the good intent of it, rather than just rail against the concept, or tout it for an agenda, which many people do when they don’t understand. As he says, it became an easy term to coin & use to mean “my dream” or to idealize nostalgia. I felt drawn to one aspect of his concerns that I hear expressed by a number of young adults, and not just in recent years. Many see American family lifestyles as counter-productive to the greater good of all. I’m suggesting they can be incorporated productively as part of the original American Dream.
It’s right and good to burst upon adulthood with strong ideas for doing things differently. If we’re conscious beings, we look around & conclude that certain ways of doing things have caused genuine problems. That’s the start of new thought, a worldview & the desire to affect change. And it beats the hell out of the sad situation of entering adulthood in a state of hopelessness or apathy.
The problem I see here is that a stereotyped view of “marriage, kids, nice home & retirement” becomes disturbing because of pigeon-holing those parts of life into one scary boxed package. It’s a common scapegoat used to represent excessive spending and energy consumption. The pressure to spend more on homes, cars, utilities, toys, and buy into a wasteful throw-away lifestyle is often linked with marriage, kids, nice home, suburbia, rat-race jobs, unfulfilled dreams, and it looks scary if you’re deciding how to direct your life. My point is that marriage, kids & home life is not a one-size-fits-all deal. It needn’t be an ominous trap, and it needn’t be socially or environmentally destructive.
Kiran is right that pressure to follow that path is wrong. As is putting pressure against those who feel called to have families. As he points out, it’s absurd to believe we should all look alike. Isn’t the dream about choices?
I was counter-culture in the late 60’s, and my own circle of friends was into breaking down the nuclear family, but it didn’t turn out well for most of us who tried alternatives. We didn’t plan for personal boundaries much and sharing everything got messy. Not saying it can’t be done. Ain’t easy though! A lot of folks have learned ways to be better stewards of the planet, whether solo or within the nuclear family. So what about marriage, kids & all that?
Marriage (legal or not) is just a union of a couple of people who, under good circumstances, find themselves loving & wanting to partner their lives with a person who enriches them. It’s not a “happy ending” if we’re realistic, but a choice to take a path made of chopping down obstacles, arguing over tools, building things we can take pride in & holding each other when they fall apart. By making time together to enjoy the view or commiserate over it as we go along, we’re likely to feel that we do it better as a supportive team than we each would do alone. The ability to laugh helps a helluva lot! Marriage is not a cookie cutter choice. It’s as malleable, changing, organic as the people in it. Many of us don’t seem to get it right the first time, but it doesn’t make the concept of committed partnership wrong, any more than living single is wrong.
As for kids, well, it’s a pretty strong natural drive (for good reason), but again, it’s the pressure that’s wrong. Or the people themselves who haven’t evolved enough to be life guides for dependant new souls. Nonetheless, most of us who have kids believe it can be a powerful path to learning & growing as conscious beings. I sure have screwed up along the way (starting at 18), but kids are astonishingly forgiving if they’re convinced they’re loved…even if they see mom & dad are a little wack! I think the key is to make parenting about conscious, responsible choice. And knowing it’s a double-edge sword of a choice. Pain and joy come side by side. Both are intense. It’s not one choice. It’s a complex life-long learning experience. Most of us end up convinced the good stuff is worth the gray hair. But no one should feel pressured to procreate.
That said, who would have people wanting to live in crappy houses with those they love? That’s happening the world over, of course. Or no homes at all. I know that’s part of the point. We needn’t indulge in excess if it means others have nothing. But it’s also natural to want to be comfortable rather than cold or miserable. All creatures seek the best shelter. You probably know about “sustainable living”. Those kinds of choices should be taught NOW. Our kids went to a unique alternative school where the curriculum incorporates environmental ecology, no matter what the class. Recycling, conscious spending, being aware of how our choices affect the planet are worked into everything quite naturally.
What I’m responding to is the idea of “marriage, kids, nice home, etc” as a hidden horror story (my words) being touted as the epitome of The American Dream to lure us into destructive lifestyles. That can happen, but it’s not a given. We’re talking about living people who have a million ways of growing a marriage or kids or a home. Common threads run throughout these experiences. That’s good when you can share stories with others or get advice or offer support to each other. Like if you’re taking up bicycling, it’s good to know others have done this. You might learn something helpful. As long as no one forces you to buy their brand or makes you join a biking club where everyone dresses alike. (Unless you’re into that!)
But there is no platter of “marriage, kids, nice home, retirement”. All those parts break down into each day, each job done, each secret shared, each sickness faced, each meal eaten, each outfit chosen, each drive taken, each show watched, each orgasm, each hurt, each plan, each disappointment, each conversation, each laughing fit, each death, each sunrise… just as your life does now. Doing it within a partnership, with or without kids, doesn’t change that into a suddenly uniformed life. It’s a long rich, constantly shifting evolution of souls. Within it, we can learn to make better choices.
I agree that we need a reminder of what the term “The American Dream” was about. Kiran expressed that well, when he quoted James T. Adams in 1931:
“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but 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 dream was about equal opportunity to work toward our goals to our best capacity, and receive due respect regardless of class, gender, ability or origin. Not, as Kiran reminds us, about expensive cars. Whatever path or lifestyle we travel, we can try to incorporate our own highest ideals of what that American Dream means in our lives.
PS. I have the feeling I’m trying to reassure my younger self here!