The Twisted American Dream


[Originally published in the Simple Parenting Column by The Dispatch]

For the past 100 years, we have been fed lies by marketing and advertising schmucks about what it means to be free and prosperous. Tragically, we have been passing those same lies down to our children. Lies that say that to be successful and free you must own a house with a picket fence, own a car, dress a certain way, pay to attend a certain college, wear your hair teased approximately 2.5 inches above your head, successfully produce one male and one female spawn (in that order), and probably own a happy golden retriever that fetches your mail for you, too. What we have learned to believe about this “American Dream” is that what we own determines our worth.

The founding dream for America was based on a very limited, but still forward-thinking for the time, concept of peace and opportunity. During the 1920's, that dream changed from being about freedom to being all about consumerism. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrates how the American Dream transformed. Suddenly, it was all about money.

When I was 21 years old, I was living in Portland, Oregon and finishing up two degrees in Education. These were not degrees that I wanted, but they were the ones I thought I needed to be successful. I was also working in an office right in the middle of downtown. Every morning, I would begrudgingly get my ass out of bed, drag myself over to the mirror, and give myself a morning pep talk. “This is what life is all about, right? You are good, right? You are happy, right?”

Then I put on a corporate costume to play a game that I didn’t even want to play. Fake it until you make it.

The internal dialogue came with me on my commute. “I have everything I need to be happy. I am 21! I have an apartment, a car, a closet full of clothing and shoes, I can buy whatever I want or need. I have the freedom to do whatever I want or to go wherever I want to go….or do I?” The questions poked out from the shadows of my mind until I heard the ding of the elevator doors opening on my floor. Day after day.

Until one day when I arrive to work early, but my boss said I wasn’t early enough. To that, I thought, “Fuck this!”

Fuck this so-called Dream. If this is it, it is not for me. I quit and took a part-time barista job. I cut my hours in half, and cut my pay by more than half. In return, I gained freedom, sanity, and more than anything, I gained time to live. I traded money, materialism, and possessions for living.

Ten years later, this is still how I live and how I parent. My Rosalie and Elias are only 4 and 2, but I remind them that we don’t need much to be happy. They have a few small toys in their room, a basket downstairs, and that it is it. Rosalie is starting to understand that the less we buy, the more adventures we can go on, and she likes the adventures best.

The original American Dream was for freedom and peace. Whether it has ever been achievable is up for debate, but at least the concept has gone far off of the original track. As parents, we get to reteach the “Dream” to our children. We can teach them to accumulate, or we can teach them to value. We can live fast, or we can show slow. We can pass down our values by explaining why we buy less so we can prioritize time together. We get to teach them that peace and freedom are found in simplicity and that we’ll never reach an internal dream if we measure ourselves against someone else.