What does it mean, this American Dream?

It’s been so rainy for so long now, that I thought we might lighten things up with a fun chat about tropical vacation destinations…but nooo! The crew at Coffee Social is always eager to discuss bigger, broader, more important issues, like what is the ethos that defines America? What promises has this country made to its citizens? And how is it that so many people, across this great nation, feel let down?

First off, we need to accept that the American Dream is a fiction. A powerful, hopeful, important fiction worthy of our attention. Just like money, law, and nation states, the American Dream is only real because we say it is. But just like all of the other fictions that allow us to build societies and construct monuments and defend borders, the American Dream helps to create our reality.

So what is it? An assurance of independence, a promise of opportunity, a dream of self-determination, a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? When you’ve been told these principles are the birthright of all hard-working Americans, how disappointing it is to work three jobs and still be fighting hard just to get by. And for each person who has fought their way up the ladder of economic mobility, does that mean another person is now on a lower rung? Is there room for all of us toward the top, or are we being graded on a curve, ensuring that some of us will always be at the bottom?

I’d like to think that the American Dream is worth supporting – I feel like I’m living it. But it doesn’t come free, and it isn’t a given. And it takes more than a promise to make it a reality. I was lucky enough to be born into a supportive white family in a strong community. I didn’t have much money (I remember using quarters and then dimes to buy Top Ramen during the last days before my financial aid came through in college), but I never felt poor. What I did have was a lot of opportunities — parents who taught me to be curious, teachers who bolstered my confidence, friends who inspired me to take the right kinds of risks, plus an early passion for architecture that gave me a clear pathway to a professional career.

But luck is the operative word here. Not everyone is as lucky as I was. I suppose the question is, how do we spread more luck around? Valuing parents and teachers and financial aid packages might help. And I’d propose making sure we are not being graded on a curve, so that my getting ahead doesn’t mean someone else is falling behind. And I’d like to make sure we include more than economic prosperity in our metric for success. Our definitions will certainly vary, but “happiness” cannot be forgotten. I’d gladly trade a rung on the ladder for more time with my loved ones and an opportunity to help others, because they make me happy. In fact, my family has made this trade quite intentionally.

This is a big topic for a short blog, but even this brief discussion has given me food for thought and a renewed sense of patriotism. May we all find ways to make this American Dream more than a dream, and may we be strong enough to extend the promise of the American Dream to all who seek it. We’ve told the world how great our vision is; now let’s be kind enough to share it.

Published February 9th, 2017

Written and photographed by Natasha Juliana. Edited by Linda Jay.