The American Dream

I just recently stumbled upon this reflection I had written in August in response to the Mission Trip I took to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. It reads as follows:

Murmurs of the “American Dream” have resounded plentifully through out the country since James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in his 1931 book, Epic of America. Even I, a mere eighteen year old girl, have both spoken and heard this term several times. Despite this fact, only recently have I begun to grasp the complexity and beauty of these words.

I’ve grown up privileged, spoiled even, in a comfortable suburb of New York City, full of Coach Purses, Ipod touches, and the best Canolis imaginable. However, my sheltered upbringing does not come close to counterbalancing my interest and reverence for other cultures. I use the word ‘culture’ rather loosely; I endlessly thirst for knowledge about religions other than Catholicism, third world countries, and even the more shadowed areas of our own country, where this “American Dream” still reins.

In an attempt to learn about southern culture, and learn about myself, while lending a hand and sharing hope, I embarked on my second Mission Trip to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina’s wrath may have been most brutal. We were a large, quirky group that consisted of 17 of my peers, 10 adult leaders and Notre Dame’s newly retired priest, Father Ed (or “Fred” for short).

As this was my second trip, I prepared myself for the destruction and poverty southern Mississippi held. Many streets were still desolate, aside from the concrete foundations that made it through the storm. Stores were scarce, as the economy was too atrocious to fight, and there was even a “homeless resident trying to adopt the camp”, as the camp director put it. I felt sorry for these people; they had so much less than I do, both materialistically and figuratively. My future is looking bright; I am enrolled in the university I hand picked, while I utilize my parents support and encouragement. Yet several Mississippians I met were living on their own, working every day, or raising families by the time they were my age. I looked around me, at the barren streets, at the hopeless people, and I felt genuine sorrow and sympathy.

While on lumber run to Home Depot with my construction supervisor, Ammy, I tried to get to know and understand her. Bearing a name that means beloved, Ammy was Native American and left her reservation to come to this…well, wasteland. I was truly impressed; did she really give up her home, her family, and her culture to help these people thousands of miles away? I asked her, “Why Mississippi” and she replied, straight faced, “to live the American Dream”. I tried hard to hide my astonishment, yet it was as if she was reading my mind; she asked if I thought I was spoiled. This launched us into an extremely heartfelt conversation, as I tried to explain yes, I was spoiled, but no, I do not get everything I want. As I shared several examples from my childhood paralleling my general upbringing, she was shocked to find that I have been spoiled but in a much less superficial aspect than she ever considered. The limits my parents have set with me have privileged me in a much deeper way; I can always realize and respect the right thing to do, which will open endless doors in the future. “How”, I asked her “is this life the American Dream?” As if she already had an answer prepared, she affirmed “if you work hard, you will achieve”.

All of my preconceived notions of this “American Dream” shattered instantly. How could I have been so close minded? The American Dream in the Tri-State area seems to be moving fast, getting rich, and retiring early, and I was almost fooled by my fellow New Jerseyans. But that lifestyle, it could not be what Adams meant when he praised America and the opportunities it offered.

I was deep in thought for the rest of the day, tuning in and out of conversations, while mentally revisiting my talk with Ammy earlier. Before bed, we headed to Wal-Mart for some after dinner entertainment, the center of this lonely town. As I sat in the back of our SUV, I listened to Fred’s sincere voice in the front seat. He turned around to me, smiled, and said, “After a nice, hearty dinner, we’re heading off to Wal-Mart with our family – The American Dream”. There it was: that phrase again. My mind kicked into four wheel drive; what aspect of the night was he targeting? The simplicity? The comfort? The… prospect of happiness?

What did Adams really mean when he first uttered these words that caught on and now sum up the undeniable lure of our nation? As quoted from his 1931 text, “The American Dream 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” … “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 positions.”

Being the deep thinker that I am, I think I’ve uncovered most of the ingredients that go into making this so-called “American Dream” possible, although there are still a few secrets unwritten in the recipe. The American Dreams stands not for the easy lifestyle America offers, but the privilege to work towards these comforts. The American Dream does not guarantee happiness, or love, or wealth to any citizen, but instead promises each with the opportunity to work for anything and everything they desire. The American Dream ensures no material objects, yet it does ensure the freedom to be the best human beings we can possibly be. As Adams himself once put it, “The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

After reading this, pause and think of where you may be or what you’re doing. Cherish it,

Alyssa

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