Distortions of the Dream

You never hear anyone talk about the French Dream (which sounds like something dirty) or the Sudanese Dream (which no doubt involves adequate food), or the Siberian Dream (which is probably connected to weather). You only hear about the American Dream and only the American Dream sounds rich, promising and personal. 

The American Dream is new in the world. Never before had any country offered a person a chance, like Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, to “become what [he] can become.”  Only here do we have the opportunity to choose our manner of life. The Founding Fathers envisioned a land where anyone, using the gifts God gave him, the help of that same God, and the work of his own mind and body, could spend his life reaching for and enjoying the results of his dearest dreams. Only here could a person live life for anything more than paradoxically trying to stay alive. Only the American Dream promotes and supports personal choice.

Choice, however, involves the possibility of choosing the wrong dream,  choosing a twisted, distorted, immoral version, and then passing it off as the real thing. A casual examination of American culture produces plenty of evidence to demonstrate this abuse of the Dream, this development of an evil twin to the original aspiration. As Paul said,  “Not all Israel is Israel.” Just so, the American Dream is not always the real thing.

At the heart of the real thing is integrity, and behind integrity stands the holiness of God. The American Dream allows us to climb to the top of our hill-of-choice while protecting and respecting everyone else’s right to climb other hills. A truly free and honorable person invents, plans, works, and struggles -- often over a long period of time. A true American Dreamer doesn’t lie, cheat, steal, or hurt anyone to reach his goal. He knows himself, and dreams accordingly. 

One can see these dreamers in the homesteaders of the 19th century -- the Sooners who tore across the Oklahoma plains to begin building their dreams. American Dreamers walked the hollow halls of Ellis Island. They built railroads and automobiles, farms and factories. They figured out how to fly, and how mass produce everything a person can imagine. They transplanted hearts, developed life-transforming drugs, and cured and prevented the most terrible diseases. 

The real dreamers produce; they invent things. Start with Ben Franklin and his electronic experiments, then move to Thomas Edison’s patient, persistent pursuit of the electric light bulb, and then look at America today – a society enjoying all manner of electronic wonders courtesy of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the thousands of nameless dreamers who helped them and built on their ideas. The American Dream, because it begins with God, creates and makes the world a better place.

The faux-dream doesn’t. The distorted dream fractures into a nasty pair of fragments; the quick-and-easy dream and the immoral-and-often-illegal version. Buying a lottery ticket illustrates the first, robbing a bank the latter.

Buying a lottery ticket, however, is fairly innocuous, but that I’ll-get-it-all-fast-and-easy mentality ruins lives and builds nothing. Willy Loman, the hapless drummer in Death of a Salesman, lurks always at the back of the American mind. Willy admires Dave Singleman, the salesman who appeared to be living high and easy, selling whatever he was selling by lounging around his hotel room wearing his green velvet slippers. Willy wastes his entire life working without success at a job he has no aptitude for, lying to himself, destroying his sons, mistreating his wife and grasping frantically at the dream of, “going into the jungle and coming out rich.” His neighbor Charlie says of him at his funeral, “He had all the wrong dreams.” He did, and that eventually killed him. 

Thinking you can have it all without lifting a finger is an abuse of the Dream, but thinking you have a right to it, no matter what the cost to others, is criminal. The Great Gatsby tells that story. Jay Gatsby, who we find terribly attractive and romantic, wants Daisy (Fitzgerald’s symbol for the American Dream), but he knows he can’t have her unless he has money, so he makes a fortune in just five years. The story never divulges the source of his riches, but we know no one becomes a millionaire that fast legitimately, not to mention the shady characters he’s seen lunching and partying with. He doesn’t care how he gets money – bootlegging? Fixing bets? He also doesn’t care that Daisy has already married someone else. Gatsby’s misplaced ambition causes two deaths -- one his own – and he leaves nothing behind but a big, empty house. 

Our society is full of big, empty houses – lately due largely to overwhelming debt – people pretending they had reached the dream -- putting it all on the credit card. Since reaching the Dream can only be overtly measured with trophies, awards, possessions and money, anyone with a short-cut attitude easily jumps to the conclusion that if he gets the trappings, he’s made it. 

We can fake wealth easily in America. This is the wealthiest society in history and all we need to present a façade of success is easily available. This is true because so many before have truly attained their Dream, because others before have given up their dreams to protect the real Dream for the rest of us, yet America is rotting from the willingness of some to distort it. People deal drugs, run scams (think Bernie Madhoff), pump millions into slot machines thinking money gained in such a way will put them into the winners’ circle.  It doesn’t, of course, and what’s worse, it ruins the dreams of all those bystanders, the friends and family, who get too close to the distorted dreamer.

Those distortions are so powerful that they taint us all. Too many of the poor buy the pseudo-dream and assume that the rest of us got ours easily and therefore should be willing to share. It’s called redistribution of wealth, but it is thievery perpetrated by the government.

Twisted ambitions have twisted our schools into knots of cheating and plagiarism, enabling and public relations schemes. Our stadiums have become steroid temples. These fake dreams affect even our churches, which also try to measure success by the numbers. They put up huge buildings, water down biblical teaching and fill their calendars with meaningless social activities. (Think Crystal Cathedral, which just went into bankruptcy, in debt nearly $48 million.)

The real American Dream, because it honors the God-given individuality and amazing potential of each and every human being, not only promises, but delivers, riches and happiness. It provides hope for everyone. But if the dream goes sour it has the power to destroy families, friends, and our future. If, however, we can look our errors in the eye, return to the realities of the original Dream – to God, to work, to sacrifice, to integrity – we can pass on to our children a life where the Dream is alive and well and where they will enjoy the option of becoming all that God made them to be.