Thursday, April 14, 2011

American Dream – or Nightmare?

There’s been considerable rhetoric lately about the “American dream,” including the faltering economy’s effect on that quest. I’ve given this notion considerable thought, especially since this week commemorates the birth of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

The document opens with, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We embrace this affirmation of the equality of all people, along with rights to life, liberty – and the pursuit of happiness. This sounds wonderful, but I fear we’ve distorted what it means, crippling how we view the American dream.

“Equal” does not mean identical. We are each unique – abilities, interests, motivations, etc. Not everyone is suited for college, just as we don’t all have high mechanical or technical aptitudes. Not everyone has the capacity to own or run a company, just as we’re not all skilled at writing or painting. And not everyone has the drive – or desire – to use adversity as a springboard to success.

However, some people presume this “pursuit of happiness” should include guarantees of its attainment. A problem with happiness is, as with the dog that chases cars, we don’t always know what to do once we have it. What makes us happy one minute can make us miserable the next.

We tend to equate this “pursuit” in tangible terms. So the “American dream” translates into big houses, expensive cars and jewelry, and other trappings of material prosperity and status. But pursuing the “dream” on these terms can become a nightmare.

When James Truslow Adams coined this term in 1931, he didn’t define it as “stuff.” He wrote, “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…regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

This, I believe is the true American dream: striving toward what men and woman are innately capable – “endowed by their Creator,” as the Declaration of Independence affirms. Or to borrow the U.S. Army motto, “Be all you can be.”

To me this should include affording to everyone the opportunity and resources for understanding and maximizing their inherent capabilities. After that, no guarantees.

For people lacking the initiative or interest to become all they can be, so be it. That’s their problem, not society’s. With rewards come responsibilities. As 2 Thessalonians 3:10 states, “…’If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”

Jesus told the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which a master gave his servants differing amounts of money. He later had them report on how they used what they had received – and they were rewarded according to their stewardship.

If the pursuit of happiness can be summed up as “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” we’ve sadly missed the mark. A much better measuring stick is, “What did you do with what God gave you?”

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