Dream or Trap ?


You know that feeling you get when you find out you’ve been had? The one where you roll your eyes back a bit and think to yourself, “You sure fell for that one.” Sometimes you can laugh at your own empty-headedness and appreciate that the joke is on you. But sometimes, like when you never even perceived that a joke was afoot, realizing you’ve been had is like a swift kick in the gut. Sure, you catch your breath after a few panicked moments of gasping, but then you go on with things, albeit a bit more cynical and wary.

No, I did not send my bank account number to a prince in Nigeria in exchange for a bazillion dollars. Had I, such would fall into the first category of being “had.” Instead, I think that I’ve finally reached a moment of clarity, an epiphany if you will, regarding the mythical American Dream.

(Cue sound effects) What a sucker.

Maybe more accurate to call it the American Delusion, for like the magical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the American Dream is always, by deliberate design, just out of reach. No matter where you are in the pursuit of the dream, the hazy promise of more or better something convinces you that you have not yet achieved the success that the American dream represents. It is both alluring and insidiously rotten, and yet it is as much a part of who we are as is the air we breathe. And as invisible as the oxygen that passes into our lungs, so too do we fail to see the trap slowly springing until we are too far in to make a clean escape.

The American Dream (capitalized, probably trademarked by some corporation somewhere) is vaguely described as a society where the “citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a “better, richer, and happier life.” But better than what? Richer how? Happier by what measure? How does a person know if they have reached the dream? Is it an individual dream for us each, a particular dream for similar groups of people, or a generalized dream determined by the behavior of the majority?

Actually, it’s all of the above. There is a societal, generalized version of the American Dream that includes a well paying job, owning a home and car(s), having a familial unit of some sort, taking nice vacations and having lots of things. One layer down there is a second dream layer applied to particular groups of people-groups divided along ethnic or professional or religious or educational criteria, for example. This dream gets more specific in how the generalized dream gets flushed out. Add the final layer-the personal dream-then squish them together and “Voila!” -your American Dream-customized, but always within the parameters of the larger, pre-determined dream variables.

Let’s take a step sideways for a moment. In a normal dream-the kind you have when asleep- things are often fluid and non-sensical as they play out. Sometimes these turn scary, other times confusing, but you always wake up knowing you’d only had a dream. In a daydream-the spaced out for no reason kind of thing-the desired outcome almost always is realized, and with the minimum effort required, but you snap out of it and get back to your business. Now step back to the American Dream. In this dream, things are often stuck in slow motion, non-sensical and scary and happy and wierd, but you know you won’t wake up because you aren’t asleep. And you also know that no amount of hard work will guarantee a happy ending. Because it’s still just a dream, stupid. And reality never follows the script in our head.

To ever even come within reach of achieving the classic American Dream, there are certain steps that you must take, and once taken, you must take them again and again and again until your legs finally stop working altogether. At the heart of the classic American Dream is the source of its power- money. Without this key resource, the American Dream can not be yours. So most of us work and toil day in and day out to amass as much of this magic ingredient as we can. Then we can feed it back into the dream machine and claim our prizes. The more we work, the more money we may get. The more money we get, the more things we can buy. The more we can buy, the closer we are to having the things that make up the American Dream- in whatever shape it takes for us. We measure our worth through wealth; our mastery of the dream by the size of our warchest. We equate happiness to treasure, and never more than when we are surrounded by our material things. We trade relationships for e-lationships. We abandon the real world for reality-based entertainment. We prefer sensation to real feeling. And yet somehow, we never quite reach the dream. It’s always just a little bit farther away than we thought.

And so we keep doing the same things. And so does everyone else. And so the dream continues to wield its silent power, keeping us in line by keeping us reaching.

And mostly, we just go along with things, because that’s just how things are supposed to go. This is how we live, at least most of us do. Those who don’t clearly don’t count anyway, because they aren’t part of or striving for the American Dream. And if you’re not going to have the American Dream, what, really, is the point?