The American Daydream

Picture this: A well-known motivational speaker paces the stage of a crowded elementary school gymnasium. The children sit cross-legged on the floor, little faces eager with expectation. The speaker pensively surveys the crowd then leans into the microphone:

“Guess what, kids? You CAN’T be whatever you want!”

Ok, stop the film. What?

This image makes us uncomfortable because it goes against everything we were brought up believing: namely that we have unlimited potential, that we can follow our hearts, reach for the stars and succeed. “The American Dream,” as we were taught, means that anything is possible. You can be whatever you want.

The more I observe my own generation, the more I notice a dangerous mutation of the American Dream into a sort of “American Daydream.” We have made an ideological shift from “If I work hard I can succeed” to “If I work hard I deserve to succeed” to “I deserve to succeed whether I work hard or not.” We have equated American “freedom” with the notion that we are entitled to do, be and have whatever we want. Essayist Wendell Berry observes this phenomenon in his essay “Faustian Economics,” stating that Americans tend to “confuse limits with confinement” and employ a “doctrine of general human limitlessness: ‘all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable’—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.”

The American Daydream is ingrained in almost every aspect of our society, but what concerns me most is the way it is being passed on to the next generation. For example, a growing number of grade schools have adopted policies such as “Zeros Aren’t Permitted” and “No Retention,” which prevent children from receiving failing grades or being held back. Not only do these policies lower overall standards, but they teach children that a good grade is something they deserve, not something they have to earn. We live in a society that confuses desire with entitlement; a consumeristic culture where credit cards, fast food and rapidly advancing technology teach us that we need and deserve instant gratification. We are literally telling our children that they cannot fail.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe children should be loved, encouraged and inspired, but this country is going about it the wrong way. Here is the message I think we should be sending the next generation: You can’t do whatever you want. You can’t have whatever you want. You can’t be whatever you want, at least not without a lot of hard work. And sometimes, hard work still isn’t enough. The harsh reality in the United States is that it is harder than ever to break out of one’s income bracket. The unemployment rate is at a historic high and about 40% of college graduates don’t even end up utilizing their degrees. But Americans seem to have a hard time with the word “no,” so we plunge deeper into national debt while happily checking off A’s on our children’s report cards.

Wendell Berry does an excellent job of illuminating the beauty of limits: “If we always have a theoretically better substitute … we will never make the most of anything …Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.” The best way to wake up from the American Daydream is to find contentment in the here and now–to be okay with inconveniences, limits and failings. It’s okay to dream big, but just realize it’s a fantasy that success can be achieved without a whole lot of pain, sacrifice and, of course, hard work.

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