The Crumbling of the American Dream and How to Rise Above
I recently read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates because I consistently feel powerless to help those around me that are likely to be denied the American Dream (the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American according to dictionary.com).
It’s a lie.
It’s not available to all Americans and that has been demonstrated time and time again by the inequitable incarcerations based on socioeconomic status and skin color, murder of people of cover at the hands of “civil servants” of the government, the forgiveness of said murder by the court system, and all of the other atrocities that happen in this country day after day.
In the book he talks about his personal experience in discovering the lies told by the American Dream, the depression after, and then finally the positive things that he can focus his attention on now that the Dream has been murdered, alongside his peers.
I couldn’t help but think of my Philosophy studies and my love of Existentialism. There are three steps to the full process. A lot of people focus on the nihilism piece and mock the idea, but like most things that people mock, there is more to the story.
Stage 1: God is Dead
According to Nietzsche in inevitable truth of learning that “God is Dead” comes discomfort, depression, and chaos because everything that added meaning and guided life is gone prior to this is gone. You thought that if you did as you were told in Sunday school that you would on the right path to being rewarded. If something was hard you could ask for help from this being that had the power to assist.
Stage 2: Nihilism
Without God, nothing is an absolute so now you find yourself adrift in the chaos with no planks in the ocean to anchor yourself to. You don’t know where to turn. There are no absolutes so everything that anyone with a clear understanding of the world seems gullible. The believers are still under the influence and safety of thinking that God is real and able to influence their lives. You question the meaning of life and have a hard time organizing your thoughts around what you should and shouldn’t do. Justice is an illusion and crime isn’t intrinsically bad because there is no reference book that holds the black and white truth to life. There is no map.
Stage 3: Free Spirit
As you realize that there is no God moving things around on a chess board you start relaxing. It explains why horrible human atrocities have happened: slavery, wars, racism, sex trafficking, etc. It wasn’t part of some bigger plan, it was human greed and wickedness.
In the free spirit stage you get to decide what you want to guide your life and hopefully it will involve some ethics. The Golden Rule for example is the one that I hold very dear, above everything else. This explains the social contract — I won’t bust down your door and rob you if you agree to do the same, so that we can both rest easier and focus on bigger purposes in life than mere physical safety. The Golden Rule also works in reverse — if you scam people over as a way of life, then you assume others are out to get you as well and therefore you are creating your own discomfort for the rest of your life.
Fast forward to the present.
Racial profiling. It happens in the United State. A lot.
When a human that is believed a black individual encounters a police officer, it is rational that their flight or fight biological response gets triggered.
Definition of fight–or–flight: relating to, being, or causing physiological changes in the body (as an increase in heart rate or dilation of bronchi) in response to stress.
But in the case of Freddie Gray he is dead because he ran. That’s it. His crime was to choose flight, which is understandable given the history. He was pursued and then arrested him because he ran. They put him in the van with any restraint and his body was banged around the van until it broke and he died.
Police are civil servants. The basic definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Civil servant: a member of a civil service
Civil: of or relating to the people who live in a country
Servant: a person who is devoted to or guided by something
What is that something that the laws in the United States are guided by? It doesn’t seem like the written laws are guiding these actions. Take the interactions between police and people of color. When some law has been broken or suspected broken police officers get involved. The law mandates that humans get read their (Miranda) rights prior to being arrested for a crime. That person has the right to not say anything in response because it could be used against them in a court of law.
There is no court, there is no booking in a police station, there is no lawyer assigned that is ethically bound to help the person on trial by their peers, state, or federal lawyers tasked with determining guilt or innocence. “Innocent until proven guilty” seems only pertinent to white citizens or the wealthy. In Florida a privileged white boy got in a fight at dinner, stormed out, and literally killed two strangers sitting in their driveway and ate their faces. The police called went to an extreme amount of effort to pull him off and take him to the hospital. He was after all “a good kid with promise.” If he was black he would have been filled with bullets prior to them assessing the crime scene.
When these innocent until proven guilty black humans are murdered the “civil servants” involved aren’t punished in a courtroom. They are typically able to keep their jobs, stay out of jail, and keep their lives as they were prior to becoming objective murderers.
The American Dream is a hoax. Much like the belief in an all powerful God who can help people pass tests, heal illnesses, and punish the sinners. It’s a system to assign praise to those with power and a system and conversely blame the people who aren’t able to achieve what those with power stole.
Now for the silver lining in that foreboding storm cloud… I want to revise G.I. Joe’s message that knowing is half the battle. I’d say it’s a third of the healthy process.
Breaking down the ignorant, innocent views we are taught throughout our lives as Americans. We are taught that success or failure at reaching the American Dream is solely the reward or punishment of working hard. This system is only realistic for the upper middle class and higher. It’s available to white men. It’s available to entitled individuals with high social status they are born into. They are given opportunity, unwavering public and private forgiveness of wrongs, they are given connections that the generations of their family before them forged on college campuses and business and social relationships. There is a true division of the haves and the have-nots. The haves are set up to win and the have-nots have no chance of winning but they are blamed anyway. Knowing this is the first step so you can stop blaming the people who are set up for failure from day one.
Dealing with the stage of grief so that you can hopefully come to terms with the reality of what is and isn’t available to American citizens. This can take a lifetime and if you don’t go through Stage 1 you can not move to this stage. People who are the receiving end of the inevitable “failure” by our society’s standard may just feel like there is no hope for happiness. This is sometimes characterized by self-medication (food, alcohol, prescription drug abuse, or addictions to hard drugs). People in this group are the more likely to abuse their family, in various forms, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse are most likely present in homes with financial stress. Not being able to provide basic necessities to your loved ones carries very extreme consequences. The level of guilt and self-hatred attached to this situation can be soul crushing. It can come out in many ways… “treating” your family to a rare meal at a fast food restaurant, going into debt to fulfill their birthday and Christmas dreams (which only buries these family deeper in the root issue of financial instability).
Forming your own authentic meaningful reactions to a seemingly hopeless environment. This comes with a renewed freedom. You can decide what is right and wrong for yourself but that in no way guarantees that others may not agree or care to think about it. All you can control in life is your own actions.
One way of moving to a more balanced, rewarding life is to explore how to reprioritize what will encourage personal fulfillment and what takes you towards the other end of the spectrum. Self awareness is key.
In the book “Happy City” Charles Montgomery explores case studies and research studies on what helps or prohibits happiness. Some of his conclusions are that social connections are far more likely to lead to happiness than material success or failure. People who learn how interacting with other, whether it be in the home, work, or neighborhoods, are statistically more likely to self-identify as happy. Commuting is a huge factor in happiness. The longer the commute to/from work, the more likely to be depressed and hopeless individuals tend to be about their overall happiness. The ideal commute is 15 minutes or less, and the biggest way to give your personal happiness a boost is through moving your body to get there, such as running, walking, or biking there. This is great news for those dealing with poverty or living paycheck to paycheck because you can check this box for free! Connecting material gain and loss typically doesn’t lend to personal satisfaction. The Beatles said it so well, “Money can’t buy me Love,” or I’d argue love and contentment. If people who have enough money to not think about it on a daily basis, or they don’t ever have money anxiety nightmares, it can significantly help but if their focus becomes maximizing money then it will dip the other way. Growing up I always thought that if I had money most of my current issues would cease to be current. When I found out that my peers who grew up in financially stable homes weren’t happy with their childhoods it came as a bit of a shock. I think the key is Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs, if you can meet the bottom couple levels then you can relax and focus on spiritual fulfillment over safety and meeting basic survival needs.
People who dream of a particular house with amazing perks, like a great kitchen or giant yard might buy their house but eventually they may find they aren’t as happy as they assumed. Being in your perfect home is a fixed reward that diminishes over time, whereas having a very long commute perpetually carries negative consequences.
Before people with their dream houses start to grieve these findings, it must be stressed that everyone is different and everyone has the ability to mitigate the negative automatic responses to their reality with tweaks (or therapy). If you don’t like driving in stop and go traffic to/from work then you can brainstorm on an environment that makes you happier, such as carpooling with friends or neighbors.
If changing your commuting sadness isn’t possible keep in mind that social/personnel connections is the number one factor in happiness. Anyone can change this in some way at any point if they are motivated to do so. There is a great website called NextDoor that helps connect neighbors in multiple ways — crime watches, items for sales, sharing references for various services, advertising rental units, or offering free or paid services. People in each community are verified so that you know you trust that there is some accountability if something disreputable happens. In Portland the local government encourages block party neighborhood events and even incentivizes them (asking fire fighters and ambulances to make appearances). They acknowledge that neighbors who know each other will look out for each other and then as a result the neighborhood safety increases.
In Montgomery’s book they talk about cities with little hope of economic growth and recovery reprioritizing their goals and strategies to increase happiness. He discusses shared green spaces, shutting down areas to automobile traffic to encourage children to play outside without fear of getting hit by cars and encouraging bicycles to reclaim streets safely. Regular exercise has been studied and suggests that it’s more successful at decreasing anxiety and depression when prioritized on a regular basis. Exercise is significantly more effective, long-term, than taking anti-depressants. Our bodies are designed to move and when we sit inside at computers all day there are negative consequences to mood and health.
As Existentialism discusses, there are no absolutes in life. “Facts” that are assumed true can be broken down into social constructs that serve a purpose. The only absolute is there are none. If you disagree I can debate with you, in a respectful way. Everyone goes through their own process to figure out a way to approach life in general. Some ways lead to more personal fulfillment and other ways don’t, but each person is responsible for figuring that out for theirselves (or not). I’m not here to say that religions are wrong for all people. Some people benefit greatly from celebrating shared beliefs and many people who leave organized religion after being raised in one, miss the community support it provided. This also ties back to the studies Montgomery discusses about human connection contributing to individuals’ life satisfaction.
My hope for all people is to challenge their understanding and world education, because what a school, group, family, or the news advocates may not ring true for you. I feel like a life unexamined leads to regrettable life choices and damages people around you. If you tend to be more negative than positive there are most likely consequences that you might not be able to recognize while you are in that mindset. I think teaching children from a very early age how to question the world around them is the best foundation you can give a human.
If an athlete decides to sit down during the national anthem he should be allowed to hold a belief and want to demonstrate that belief. Unquestioned allegiance to an idea, country, or religion leads to lack of accountability but it’s actually no excuse from blame, if those views are debunked further down the road in the history of humanity.