Once upon a time, everyone lived happily ever after. The End.
The concept of the American Dream is something that somehow makes it into the subconscious of even the youngest of people in America today. The other night my daughter mentioned how she was going to pray so that we could be rich. My kids are pretty good about coming up with completely random things to say, but this one somehow managed to bash me over the head in surprise more than anything previous.
I asked her in response, “why do you want to be rich?”
To which she responded, “so we can buy stuff.”
“Like what kind of stuff?”
“you know, stuff, and things.”
The conversation continued for quite some time, never actually landing on anything she was all that interested in. We landed on the idea of getting more toys, sort of, but that was really forced. She just thought we needed to be rich and that was all she really had considered on the topic.
Of course, my first thought was, where the heck did she get this idea of being rich? I mean, we’ve talked about money in the house before, but this kid gets excited when she finds a penny on the floor and talks about how she’ll be able to spend it. Money is a fluid concept for her. As far as she knows, we’re plenty rich, with a bank account full of pennies for the spending.
Television is the usual suspect, I suppose. We watch a lot of random things, and I’m sure somewhere on there the concept of being rich came out. Heck, on one of their favorites, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, they collect gold doubloons for completing tasks, which they then deposit in their overflowing cache at the end of the show. But rich?
I often think about The American Dream, this vague concept that being in America will somehow bring about great things for a person. Locked in that original vision of America as being the land where gold washed up on shore like seashells, we all still somewhat carry that thought that America is the land of not just opportunities, but possibilities.
Of course, one just has to listen to the news for a few minutes today to learn about a country that is in severe debt, has a 7.3% unemployment rate, and has a system in which a kid can get an amazing degree from an amazing college and still has no clue whether they will actually be able to pay off their student loans, much less actually become rich.
As one gets older, the idea of the American Dream changes slightly. Instead of just immediately getting to the happily ever after bit, we realize that there must be something to it. Other fairy tales have details that fit after the Once upon a time and the Happily ever after. Hard work must be the key, right? Certainly if one were to put in the time and effort on something, riches must await on the other side.
This may be true for some, but for many, hard work can mean very little, and can also mean missing out on many other pieces of life. In fact, looking into those folks who have made their way up the ladder to the top, you’ll see that more often than not, one of two things happened. Either they became ruthless beasts, pushing everyone out of the way as they worked their way up, or some sort of divine intervention stepped in…something in which a very specific series of events is the only way they managed to separate themselves from the crowd, a series of events that they couldn’t have planned if they had tried.
The American Dream (as we envision it from childhood) is one that seems impossibly difficult, without completely selling yourself out for the purposes of attaining it. To gain money, one must lose something else, is what it really seems to come down to.
But we don’t know this as kids, or even as adults. Some piece of us still believes in the Dream. That’s one of the reasons the lottery is so damned popular. Why else would anybody spend their hard earned money on something that has such atrocious odds, unless they believe that their time has finally come. “I work hard for my money and it’s about damned time I get something for it.”
Of course, when thinking about The American Dream, I can’t help but think of those people who believe in it the most. The immigrants. One of the larger political battles of the day (although decreasingly noisy because we have other things to fight about) is immigration reform. Millions of people are currently residing in this country illegally, and many of them risked their lives just to enter our borders. Many of these people work for minimum wage, or less, are crammed into small houses with numerous roommates, but living their version of The American Dream. They’re making next to nothing, in constant fear of being deported, but still manage to send money back home to their families who are in desperate need. Sure, they probably came to our country hoping for those same riches that we’re taught from childhood to wish for, but they are still here, until we give them the boot, of course.
They’re doing the jobs we wouldn’t dream of doing, and in many cases, doing them happily as they send a portion of their pittance back home to take care of their parents and siblings. They’re being told they aren’t wanted as they take our pocket change, and they’re still here. Living the American Dream…
Once we got to the portion of our conversation in which I realized that my daughter’s wish was for nothing more than to be this vague idea of rich, we began a discussion about how blessed we truly are. I may not have a bestselling novel that allows me to write full time, my wife may not be making millions as the host of a show on the Food Network, but we’ve got more than our share. We struggle to continue to do all the things that we want, but in most situations, we still get to do them. And we’re doing it our way, without selling out, without crushing the dreams of others, but by working hard and pushing forward.
Perhaps we’ll never be rich. I’d be highly surprised if we were. But we have our own version of The American Dream. We’re fed, clothed, and happy. That’s more than much of the world can say today, even within our own borders. So, perhaps The American Dream has to be redefined, considering the status of the world today. If you look at a great portion of the rest of the world, we are rich. The old idea of The American Dream becomes more of a dream of greed than comfort, for many.
Life will be hard, money will never be flowing easily (at least for most of us). But if you can manage to be comfortable and happy, you’ve got it made.
I told my daughter that we are rich…and then felt as though it was the resolution to a 90’s sitcom…