Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Waking Up from the American Dream

August 25, 2015


There is a great sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to direct our own lives. As Americans, we brandish this badge of progress—this stamp of sovereignty. It’s an ideal that has been instilled in many of us from childhood, fueling us to aspire toward some great career or purpose. This encouragement to do something great—and the presence of such an opportunity—is a very good thing. Our Land of Opportunity, despite its shortcoming, is still a tremendously blessed one.

Yet, there seems to be a cloud of disillusionment that’s rolled under the sun of optimism, especially with many younger Americans. There is a loss many of us are experiencing—a sense that things are not coming as easily as we had hoped, maybe even had been implicitly guaranteed. According to a new study by Bensinger, Dupont, and Associates (BDA), Millennials (Americans born between 1980 – 1999) are more likely to experience depression in the workplace than any other generation.

This disillusionment—a lament for the loss of the unadulterated and fully-fledged American Dream so many of us grew up clutching—is causing many to lose their way. It’s not totally surprising, as we’re still recovering from one of the worst recessions in recent memory. In a culture that affirms individualism and the freedom to make choices and push into them with unabashed vigor, something isn’t working out quite right. However, despite the recent findings, this is by no means a new wellspring of angst in our culture. For decades our culture has wrestled with the tension of the American Dream with the American reality. In literature, books like Death of a Salesman and The Grapes of Wrath have explored this tension. In more recent memory, movies like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (originally a book) have done so as well.

I can personally relate to this. Right after college—fresh-faced, endearingly naive and ready to dive head first into the world—I found myself obsessing over what I should do with my life. What should my career look like? What will give me a life of personal happiness and success? And how do I go about acquiring it?

These are good questions and are surely worthy of reflection, time and consideration. As a young man at the time, I had to make decisions that would help me create the life I hoped to live. Yet, I sauntered right into the trap of believing the American Dream was my dream—and only mine. The danger is that we can cherish individualism to the extent that it limits our ability to see the other as just as important in realizing our dream or calling in the world. When my job wasn’t what I had expected, and to a greater extent, things in my life weren’t working out as I had hoped, I became disillusioned. Why weren’t my efforts procuring a happy and easy life? What was I doing wrong?

I had failed to allow God to act as, in a sense, as a co-dreamer. And because of it, I found myself living for the future, hoping that things would be better and more life-giving tomorrow while I settled into a mild restlessness and general unhappiness with my life’s work and direction. Of course, part of growing up is realizing that life is difficult, and definitely far from perfect. But if this realization is uncoupled to a relationship with a God who instills a sense of hope and purpose, it leads to a lurking, underlying despair. If we embrace an American Dream that allows for the pursuit of our own personal happiness then we become depressed, restless, jaded. We become a nation of narcissist—a land of the listless. And such a state can spin us into a web of fruitless nostalgia, a reliving of former dreams that haven’t come to be. Perhaps no other line captures this theme—a perpetual reliving of past, moribund dreams—better than the last sentence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Christ offers us something else though. Christ offers us a way out of this otherwise endless loop of depression and disappointment. The dream Christ has for each one of us is anything but disappointing or boring. Christianity speaks of a perfect dream, one that is realized in the life after this one, though one that we can begin to experience now. G.K. Chesterton, when he came to the faith, found this incredible realization to be liberating. It allowed him to accept the imperfection of the current world, enjoying more fully the gifts it offers, while holding onto anticipation for the life after this one. But such a life can only be experienced if our dreams and hopes are ordered rightly to Christ, not to blind individualism.

“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
C. S. Lewis

As Christians, we are called to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven today, not to wait around, merely putting up with a world rife with sin and suffering. This means our life should point to something heroic, meaningful and fulfilling—the complete antithesis of a life lived for one’s own personal happiness. God’s dream for us can be realized through Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection, a truth that impels us to preach the Gospel to “all of creation”—to seek the wellbeing of others and not just ourselves. When we envision our life’s future, we should see one that has God as our guide. Our life becomes meaningful when we, paradoxically, give it back to God for his purposes.

“What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.”
– Hans Urs von Balthasar

And so our life is ultimately not about what we want or what will make us individually happy. Such a life may prove pleasurable and enjoyable for a time, but eventually we will yearn for more. We will wonder why—even if we do reach our dreams—we are still wanting, unsettled. Our life is an invitation to share in the divine life of the triune God—to live with and love others as God does.

We were created to serve each other in love in order to fulfill our purpose. Instead of asking, “What am I going to do with my life?” Maybe we should be asking, “What are we going to do together for God?” As great as the American Dream may sway in the collective mindset of our culture, it pales in comparison to the dream God has for each one of us.