What has happened to the American Dream?

The American Dream is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity…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 position.””

It was predicated on the notion that each of us is free to pursue our own goals and that through hard work we will be able to improve our lives and that our children will be better off that we are. Fundamentally, the American Dream is about faith… and a belief that life will be better for each succeeding generation.

Confidence in the future is the foundation of our economic and political system. Without it, we collapse into social and economic conflict in which “today”… and “getting mine” are all that matter. The political and philosophical divides within our country are indicative of this collapse.

It is our faith in what lies ahead that has broken down in our country and it is at the heart of much of what ails us today.

For example, why would anyone use Meth if they truly believed that tomorrow will be better than today? Why would you drop out of school if you believed that education would lead to better career prospects? Why would someone not seek employment if they thought that the job would help propel them into success? All of these events are endemic in our society, particularly in our region.

What has caused this collapse?

First, we have drunk our own Kool Aid. We have propagated the unjustifiable myth that we can be “anything” we wish to be. We believe that the “dream” is utterly unconstrained. This is incorrect.

Our potential is conditioned by our Innate capabilities…the talents and gifts God gave us. And, for each of us, those are different. We can be all that God intended us to be, but not necessarily the fantasy we may imagine.

Sadly, we seem unwilling to accept such limitations. Often, we simply try to wish ourselves into the world we want. When reality sets in, our disappointment leaves us feeling incapable of even trying to fulfill the true potential we do have.

Our response to rejection is to lose our sense of self-worth. In doing so, we then seek gratification today rather than working for a better tomorrow.

This is exacerbated by society. We have lost our respect for trades people and those who work with their hands. We have erroneously bought into the idea that only “knowledge workers” and those with a college degree are worthy. We lose hope when we cannot be a picture of what modern culture defines as success. Tragically, that definition is incorrect.

This situation is prevalent in our local governments as well. Rather than accepting the reality of who we are (a rural metro area with an industrial legacy), we look enviously at other places we would rather be. Kingsport is neither Asheville, NC nor Greenville, SC, yet those are the places we want to emulate. Our inevitable failure to do so leaves us in a malaise of purpose.

When we cannot become who we wish, we act as if we are unworthy. We try to “buy” respectability. We offer tax subsidies to virtually anyone from the outside, regardless of whether there is a real economic benefit to the community. We want to appear “popular” even if we have to pay for it.

Rather than trying to be a cheap version of someone else, we should become the “best” version of us we can be. That requires accepting our weaknesses and limitations, but also capitalizing on our particular strengths and capabilities. It requires us to take ourselves seriously and to have confidence in the abilities we do have. If we do not believe in ourselves, why would we expect anyone else to do so.

Perhaps the most poignant question we face today is whether we can rebuild our faith in the future…our belief in the American Dream?

Unequivocally, my answer is “yes.” However, it requires that we break with the status quo. The current “go-along-and-get-along” attitude so prevalent in government and society simply cannot stand. We must be willing to speak honestly and directly and to acknowledge our failures. We must remove the rose-colored glasses and begin asking the hard questions…and be willing to embrace the answers we may not want to hear.

We must also acknowledge and rejoice in who “we” are. I believe that our “hard-working, build our lives on the frontier no matter what it takes” spirit still lies just below the surface. We may not be Silicon Valley, but we have a pretty impressive legacy and a beautiful environment. We can work with that.

Perhaps if we believed a bit more in ourselves, others might find us worthy of their attention as well. And that is how we start to rebuild our future.