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The American dream and the American paradox

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"The American dream," says James Truslow Adams,

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 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.

But for the late Filipino evangelist Greg Tingson, who was a friend to the famed American evangelist Billy Graham, this is no longer the case. And so he quipped, “The American dream is to own a house, and yes, a car, too, to get away from that house.” And to this he adds the Filipino dream: "to emigrate to America, the most beautiful country in the world, next to the Philippines."

The American dream, of course, is more than just a matter of simply having a house and a car. It’s all about affluence and a better lifestyle. In short, material prosperity, the end goal of much of America’s workaholics. But this side of the 21st century postmodern world, it seems to have been not just that simple anymore.

Consider David Myers’ observation when he wrote the book The American Paradox at the close of the relatively affluent 20th century:

From 1960 to about 1993, we were soaring economically, especially at the upper levels, and sinking socially. To an extension of Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are we better off than we were 40 years ago?” our honest answer would have been, materially yes, morally no [italics added].

Myers continues,

Therein lies the American paradox. We now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and double what money buys. We have espresso coffee, the World Wide Web, sport utility vehicles, and caller ID. And we have less happiness, more depression, more fragile relationships, less communal commitment, less vocational security, more crime … and more demoralized children.

Material and financial gains at the expense of the soul

Notwithstanding the global economic recession caused, to a great extent, by the rampant manipulations of America's financial institutions by only a few heartless greedies in Wall Street, it still remains a land of milk and honey, a haven of opportunities for material and financial gains. If you are smart enought and have the guts to master the tricks of amassing wealth by any means, you can have all of these in America. All of these, yes; but only all of these.

Wealth is really not the issue here, of course; the human heart is. As the Christian Scripture puts it, it is not money per se, but the love of money, that is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10; see also Proverbs 10:22). So if you’re not careful, if the disposition of your heart is wrong, pursuing the American dream will cost you your soul.

The 21st century American family

Look at the American family arising from the unbridled pursuit of the American dream. Much of Time magazine’s prediction in 1992 of how the family of the 21st century would look like appears to have already come to pass (to which Myers also refers at end of his book):

The family of the 21st century may have a robot maid, but the chances are good that it will also be interracial or bisexual, divided by divorce, multiplied by remarriage, expanded by new birth technologies—or perhaps all of the above. Single parents and working moms will become increasingly the norm, as will out-of-wedlock babies, though there will surely be a more modern term for them.

Call it a disintegrated family or just the newly accepted norm of what the 21st century family should look like based on the prevalent social convention of the day, such a new arrangement is not without a price. So that as early as the last decade of the 20th century, the United States’ National Association of State Boards of Education reported that “never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared of, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.”

Far too easily pleased

As Blaise Pascal reminds us:

There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

This is but an echo of what Augustine of Hippo cried out to God centuries ago: “Thou hast created us for Thyself; and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

What then is the American dream compared to this? According to C. S. Lewis (who is known today in Hollywood for his Chronicles of Narnia series):

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Pursue the American dream by any means at any cost, and the much larger moral and spiritual infrastructures of human existence will soon dissipate. Great will be the price of it, and how excruciating the pain. And great will also be the celebration of the enemy of our soul and of his cohorts at the other side of the horizon.

“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeit his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange of his soul?” – Matthew 16:26.

References:

  • Adams, James Reuslow. The Epic of America. Simon Publications, 2001.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans, 1965.
  • Myers, David. The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Pascal, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensees. Trans. W. F. Trotter. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958.

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