To Dream, Perchance to Succeed

The American dream, as it is called, seems to be the object of universal scorn, condemned from both inside and outside the church. Indeed, in some circles, faith in an American dream is no doubt considered the very litmus test of naiveté. This may be because such derision is in vogue, or because the American dream is an easy target; I don’t know.  But I do know this attitude toward the dream makes me sad, especially when it has for its object so noble a thing. But I think it’s not unlikely that the dream being criticized is deeply misunderstood.

What do dogs, “2.5” kids, the suburbs, and white picket fences have to do with the American dream? Well, very little. (I hate whenever someone says 2.x kids; every time I see it used, it is used as mockery.) The American dream, as I see it, is not primarily about one’s own success or comfort as it is about the wellbeing of one’s children, and dedicating one’s exclusive love to one’s spouse. That is, it is not centered around the self, as many seem to think, but around the family.  Surely, one’s own financial success is closely related to what a person is able to provide for his or her family. But therein lies the reason for seeking such success and why that success is tied as it is to the American dream—for the sake of others, namely one’s own dependents: one’s children, one’s wife, one’s husband.  The people you love and care for the most. Is the longing for this, the working for this, so wicked?  Would you aspire to raise a family in squalor?  If you did, why would your aspiration be more praiseworthy?  That’s what I can’t figure out.

If there is anything wrong with the American dream, it is that it is poorly named. It is the American dream to us only because we are American, but the dream is not uniquely American. Not at all.  It is universal in its scope, and is realized in countless forms in countless cultures around the world. It means the hope for a decent life, relative comfort, and opportunity for your posterity.  It is nothing more or less than is wanted by almost everyone. In fact, I have to be honest here: I find slinging mud at the so-called American dream to be one of the most judgmental exercises one can engage in. It is basically making a sin out of one of the most cherished and honorable goals that reside deep within the soul of man.

God may call Christians to abandon the American dream. He may call them to abandon a life of relative comfort, or the raising of children in a livable neighborhood. He may call them to celibacy. If this happens, jump ship and leave the American dream behind, by all means. You will not regret it. The point I wish to make is merely that such calls are the minority of cases and are not more holy than the call to plant yourself in the culture and city where you find yourself (be it in San Diego, Dublin, Tokyo, or Ulan Bator) and to work with your own hands and raise and love a family. That is what, and that is all, the American dream is.

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7 thoughts on “To Dream, Perchance to Succeed

  1. Gordon says:

    The American Dream, according to James Truslow Adams who first spoke of it, is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. 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." Seeking to achieve a life which is richer, fuller (as defined by the individual), and where your merit is more recognized by others is the American Dream. This is not what you wrote about, and this as your life's end goal is not Christian. It is perhaps Humanism. It is American.

  2. You're right: it is not what I wrote about. If you think that the first person to use a term has the authority to define it for all time, I simply don't accept that. I have given you my definition, and I will continue to use it, defending it when I have to. But let's say I accept Adams' definition for a moment. It seems more like a corporate American dream, a kind of vision of America, rather than the individual's dream I talked about. Still, it doesn't describe anything particularly malignant, does it? I do grant, seeking to achieve a life that is richer and fuller is not Christian, per se; but then again, neither is eating a bowl of Wheaties for breakfast. But neither of these things are unchristian, either, as the American dream itself is not Christian, but human. And I may add that the expectation that one and one's work be recognized for what they truly are (that their "merit" be recognized was your own interpretation) is a reasonable one, not in any way antithetical to Christian ethics (please see Prov. 22:1, 1 Cor. 16:18, 1 Thess 5:13, 1 Tim. 5:17, Phil. 2:29). It's this whole idea that something not merely as innocuous, but as admirable, as the American dream is contrary to Christian morals that I find to be just plain silly.

  3. Gordon says:

    There is more to say, but I'm preparing for a retreat. I will respond at greater length within the next several days.Let there be no confusion. One can be a good Christian and still have the benefits of the American Dream, as described by Adams. It is the seeking of this as your end goal which is malignant. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Luke 12:34).

  4. @gordon: Ah, we're agreed on that.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This "nobody", by the way, has read every post you ever wrote. Thought you should know.

  6. You have? I appreciate it. Thank you.

  7. Gordon says:

    I'm glad we agree. I appreciate the care you put into your communication. Keep it up.

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