Today is my daughter Lindsey's 17th birthday. I can't believe the sweet, precocious little blond headed girl that was just in 5th grade the other day, is now a senior in high school, and 17 years old to boot. Tonight, I took her to dinner to celebrate.
Something you need to understand about Lindsey and I: we talk, often very deeply, about everything under the sun. We're both born-again Christians, and we often debate some of the deeper issues of faith, and sin, and doctrine, and why we believe the things we believe. Often we agree, sometimes we don't, but the conversations are always stimulating.
So tonight at dinner, Lindsey asks me, "Dad, define The American Dream."
Huh? You mean like a big house with a white picket fence, a loving spouse, 2.5 kids, and 2 cars in the garage?
"Well, whatever it is for you, dad."
Turns out Lindsey's history class has an essay assignment to write about what they think is "The American Dream".
So we got into it. The big house, white picket fence, et al, is kind of the face of The American Dream, I guess. But what does that big house represent? Success? Security? Strength?
I think what we figured out for ourselves is that The American Dream is virtually indefinable by anyone other than the person being asked. My dream is certainly not the same as anyone elses. We all have dreams, each one of us. Some lofty, some quite mundane, but they are our dreams, unique unto each and every individual.
I think The American Dream isn't so much "American" as it is human. The American Dream is, to put it simply, Hope. It's that world-wide human drive to grasp onto the Hope that I can achieve something more than what I have achieved today. Hope that if or when an opportunity presents itself, I have the freedom to try my best to take hold of it. It is American in the sense that our society provides the climate where individuals can try to grasp their dreams, but not because The Dream is uniquely American.
It's not about fairness, or justice, or equality. Those are laudable social values, and we naturally have to strive as a society to maintain those values, but The American Dream is far more than that.
A person grasping for The American Dream doesn't complain about fairness: they do what needs to be done to achieve their dream, in the face of unfairness.
A person grasping for The American Dream doesn't complain about injustice: they face injustice square on and forge ahead, and continue working to reach their goal.
A person grasping for The American Dream doesn't complain about inequality: they prove that they are more a match for any adversity and work hard until they achieve their dream, or die trying.
What The American Dream is about, is Hope: as long as Hope is alive, the possibilities are alive. As long as the possibilities are alive, The American Dream is alive.
Hope is what drives poor Mexican workers to risk life and limb to cross the border and look for work on US farms.
Hope is what drives Cuban refugees to face 90 miles of ocean on a shoddy, overloaded raft just to make it to the US shoreline and dry ground.
Hope is what makes people from every corner of the globe look to America and dream of a better life.
Hope is what will help many survivors of Katrina who have lost everything to rebuild their American Dreams. You can see it on the faces of people as they are interviewed on TV. They just exude a "My family and I are going to make it" attitude. They are down, but not out, because for them, The American Dream, The Human Dream - Hope - is still alive.
But there are others for whom all Hope has gone. You can see it in their eyes, too. The sadness, the lostness, the...... well..... hopelessness. For them, not only is The American Dream lost, many of them have never had The Dream. They've never even seen The Dream. For many, The American Dream is a myth. They've lived lives of such hopelessness that there never was and never will be A Dream.
I hope the survivors of Katrina will see that Hope is still alive. As horrifying as their experience has been, there IS hope. They are alive. They are members of the most prosperous, most generous and kind nation on the face of the earth, whose fellow citizens are doing an enormous amount of work to care for them.
Even the Dalai Lama, who I respect as a thinker even though I don't follow is religion, talked about hope in a speech today in Idaho:
"When we are really passing through a difficult period, it is very important to try to keep calm," he said. "And then, most important, you should not lose hope and optimism. We must keep our determination, our self-confidence and look at (the) more wider perspective"1
"Generally, where there is a challenge, we have the capacity to overcome that challenge."1
"For those people who are still alive, some friends passed away. Now it is the reality. It has happened, it has already happened. Even if you are frustrated, it will not solve the problem... too much anger, sorrow, and frustration will never bring return (of your loved ones)... only more suffering for yourself', he counseled. "Now try to rebuild your life with self confidence, with effort. 2
He's talking about The Human dream, fostered here in American in a way unique to the entire world. Hope abounds, we just need to grasp it.
Pray for the Katrina victims all over the Gulf Coast, and give what you can.