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The American Dream--Broken?

Updated on October 22, 2011

Is the American Dream broken? I recently wrote a couple of hubs about America and what it means to be an American; also about social equality in America. I got some feedback from those hubs, both positive and negative. All feedback is welcome--I know what I'm thinking, and I'm curious about what you're thinking.

America is undergoing an economic convulsion of no mean proportions. It isn't surprising that some people in America becoming very disaffected and depressed. People came to this country with high hopes for a better life and a shining future. Are those peculiarly American dreams broken? I hope not.

A lot of us struggled through college; we've patiently put up with everything everyone has dished out to us at work, while slowly and incrementally attempting to improve our lots in life, and, if we find ourselves pretty much back where we started from in a material way, 15 or 25 years later, it's no wonder quite a few people feel the American Dream has broken, has let us down. We can be worried about our bills or underemployed; some of us are unemployed now or we're scurrying around the temporary agencies. We sometimes feel our country has failed us in some elemental way.

We sniff around the internet--looking for a way to make some extra money to pay the credit cards down. We look at the news and wonder, what's happening here? The news gives us racy, shallow stories with no follow up and very little sense of the big picture of what's happening in the country or the world. The news gets us to panic over small issues while larger, more important and ongoing stories are ignored.

The state of urban youth in America is a disgrace to our country as a whole. So many young people living in urban centers that I wouldn't keep a dog in, myself; with gansta rap and needles on the sidewalk; their only hope of getting a slice of the American Pie is dealing drugs. They never were invited to the Great American Shopping Party, and they feel dissed. These children pass lightly through the school system, remaining completely illiterate and doomed to be the next generation of welfare recipients. It really does seem like something went wrong. The American youth of today might never have had the American Dream of peace and prosperity for all...if they ever had it, in some grade-school shining moment of naivety, when they believed the teacher who said, "You can be anything you want to be. This is AMERICA!", then that age-old American dream is broken for them, as they dart down the back alley, running with a gang.

I believe our current President Obama is doing all that he can do to try to fix things. He's tried some solutions that haven't worked very well; the junkers for cash, the bank bailout, the auto industry bailout, the auctioning of the toxic mortgages; none of these things have exactly produced the desired results. The economy is still in a deep slump, though the downturn is less precipitous than it was when President Obama first took office, and the stock market has stabilized quite a bit.

If the American Dream is broken, maybe it's time for a NEW American dream. A less material one, a more spiritual one.

For someone of my background, I tend to look more at the positive side of things. The place where I came from was poor; rural poverty such as most of my friends and colleagues have never seen and can't imagine. I lived in the Northeast all my life; where I came from, the winters were COLD!

My sister and I made an experiment one time. It was deep winter--the snow was three feet on the ground, and our bedroom wasn't heated. Salt water froze in our bedroom.

We ate mostly vegetables from the garden. Mother did a lot of canning.

We had well water; in the summer, we had to ration water very carefully, and there were still times when the well went dry.

I'm so lucky now--every time I turn on the tap, there's WATER!

If you've never experienced NO WATER, I can't quite describe to you how lucky I feel. Believe me, if you didn't have any water, you wouldn't be worried about jobs or credit card bills or a passing employment situation or anything else. America is experiencing an economic slump; there are other countries that are experiencing DROUGHT.

Let's count ourselves blessed.

I think you've got it by now--good or bad, positive or negative, it's all a matter of perspective. We still have it better than many people in many countries. The present economic situation is something that had to happen eventually--the whole country; individuals, government and business, got way too out of hand with debt.

I look at what's happening now as a necessary period of adjustment.

We don't need to sit here, crying in our beer, feeling sorry for ourselves or depressed about jobs, money or the economy.

We can cut back on our expenditures, live a lot smaller, work harder and longer for less money, and STILL BE OK! We can be just fine with that, because our basic necessities are covered and we can find enough work to cover the basics.

Is it FUN? No. Is it NECESSARY? Yes. For a lot of people, yes. But we're grown ups, we can handle it. We'll get through this.

We may end up finding things to do that take us off the beaten track. We may end up, during a period of unemployment, developing spiritual or intellectual goals to replace material goals and find we have a better life.

We may find a new American dream that's deeper and more fulfilling and truer than the first one.

Material goals are often shallowly rooted and unsatisfying. People achieve one material goal, and just want more. They want a house in the suburbs--they get a house in the suburbs, then they want a swimming pool. They get a swimming pool, then they want a European never ends.

Spiritual and intellectual goals are much more satisfying when they're achieved, and much more fulfilling to work on.

Child Coal Miners, West Virginia, 1938

We are still so much better off than our predecessors.  Many of our immigrant ancestors were desperately poor.  They and their children worked in factories and coal mines; they worked in meat packing plants and slaughterhouses.  They dug the Erie Canal.  I saw a picture in a book of child coal miners.  The youngest was six; the oldest, 14.

Children of Coal Miners Today (2000)

My sister said, "The secret of happiness isn't getting what you want; it's wanting what you have.

She's so right. (I hope I don't sound too preachy.) I'm working on the staying positive thing, because I believe negativity gets you nowhere but down.

If you feel your American dream has come to dust, and that you are left with blown eggshells and empty promises remaining, look at what you have, instead of what you don't have. It's easy to do once you practice it. If you have:

  • water
  • food
  • shelter
  • your health

then you are pretty much good to go. Of course, we all want more than that. It's human nature to always want more...but LOOK AT WHAT YOU HAVE! And even more important--look at what American dreams have already come true for you. Even the small ones count.

I read a lot and watch a lot of movies. I'm grateful to have access to all these movies and books. I remember one movie about early settlers in Nebraska. They had a farm way out in the middle of the prairie; they had cows, chickens and some sheep--wheat for a cash crop. They were working hard and doing well, until one winter, when they got hit by a succession of blizzards; indescribable snow--up to the roof--they couldn't even get out of the house to take care of the cattle; they brought the chickens inside; chickens roosted in the kitchen.

All the cattle died. They almost died themselves. They started over in the spring, with a dozen chickens. And thanked God they were still alive.

I worked as a General Manager for a meat company, until my boss retired and sold the company. My boss's father started this business when he first came to America. The father started the business with one cow.

My boss was in his middle to late 80's when I worked for him, and the business was winding slowly down. But in its heyday, they billed 15 or 16 million a year, and my boss stilled watched the commodities markets. I used to have to fax him the yellow sheets to his boat. Now, computers have made the whole thing a lot faster and more efficient and much less fun. Oh, well.

Still, all that from one cow!

Our ancestors were tough: they weren't spoiled at all. They weren't whiny. They didn't have the "victim mentality", and so they succeeded.

We can do it; we can get through this. Maybe we just need to adjust our goals and re-define the American Dream. I believe in democracy. I believe in our individual gifts. I believe in the American spirit.

We have to not be afraid to think outside the box. We have to not be afraid, period. Fear doesn't help us; neither do an ongoing sense of disappointment or disaffection with our country. Our energies are precious; fear wastes our energies.

We could examine where we stand and analyze what we have to work with; we could re-define our goals to get us to a better place spiritually and emotionally, if not materially, and start working on it. And we could restore a new American Dream that will never be broken.


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