Here’s the thing.
The American Dream has been twisted around and built up and made so impossible that not only is it something that can never really happen for most Americans, but it also lends itself to poisoning our sense of community. After all, if ‘you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it’ is true, then those less fortunate must not have tried, right? If the only thing required for reward is ambition, then the homeless must just be lazy. The jobless must not want to work, and the working poor must find it easier to complain about their lot in life than try to improve it. This is all self-evident from the ‘effort equals reward’ concept that lies at the core of the current American Dream.
And that dream is bull.
We simply don’t live in a world where all efforts are rewarded, where you can do anything you want in life if you want it badly enough and try your best, where we have fairytale endings. We just don’t. We live in a world where you can study hard, throw yourself into your education, and finish the first in your class – but still accomplish nothing because you’re not able to get enough scholarships to cover college expenses and your parents are working-class citizens who simply don’t have the resources to help. We live in a world where you can refine your craft and be the hardest worker in your field, and still never be taken seriously because you’re a woman in tech. We live in a world where you can do years of soul-searching to find out who you really are, find that one special someone who makes you feel complete, and still not be able to marry them because your state doesn’t think gay people deserve rights. We live in a world of random chance, bigotry, and institutionalized injustice. We live in a world where the original American Dream can only come true for you if you are either born rich and white, or born very, very lucky.
We need a new dream. We need to admit to ourselves that sometimes effort does not equal reward (though reward does still require effort), that the world is not a fair place, and that only a few dozen people will ever be astronauts, and chances are one of them isn’t going to be you. We need to admit to ourselves that the less fortunate didn’t do anything to cause or deserve their situation in the vast majority of cases. We need to admit that many who lose themselves in alcohol or drug abuse don’t choose their lives, they wind up there either through mental illness or the entirely understandable desire to just escape for a few minutes, and never realizing until it is too late the lasting cost of their escape. We need to understand that the woman selling her body to afford food and shelter for her child needs options, not a sex offender rap (Thanks, CA Prop 35). We need to finally admit to ourselves and to our next generation that sometimes, no matter how hard you try or how much you want to succeed, sometimes it isn’t going to happen, and that it is not a personal failure. It’s just how it is sometimes.
We need to make our American Dream a little more real if we want to pass it on to future generations without setting them up for failure and misery. We need to reach out to those less fortunate instead of shunning them for imagined offenses. We need to remember that we are members of a society, and that we all benefit when ‘yucky’ problems like fiscal injustice and worker exploitation are fixed. We need to remind ourselves that not everybody needs to be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman. After all, someone’s got to be the sanitation worker or the electrician, and these are also worthy careers – and in fact pay pretty darn well if you have the skill and drive. And as long as you are succeeding by whatever ambitious but realistic goals you set for yourself, and you’re being a helpful member of your community by helping who you can, how you can – well that sounds like something worth dreaming about.