Where did the American Dream go? Or is it a Nightmare?
I’ve been watching the miniseries The People VS OJ Simpson and recently started the documentary OJ: Made In America, and I feel like both of these portray a lot of the most alluring, some of the ugliest, and some of the most fundamental aspects of American culture. There’s race, celebrity, narcissism, the role of the media, what it means to be successful, and all the myriad ways in which we are taught to live in our modern capitalist American society. I’m not at all confident I can really encapsulate all of what I saw as well as all the other ideas, feelings, and thoughts that have arisen in relationship to issues of culture over the past week. But maybe I can start putting some thoughts down and we’ll see where we go.
One idea that has been fascinating me and continuing to reveal its impact has been my realization that as I am more aware of various issues in regards to race, gender, ableism, sexuality, and society, the more I realize just how pervasive these issues are in my daily life. This means that as my perception shifts I am now presented with an overwhelming array of new, subtly shifted experiences. What this tends to end up looking like, rather than a series of specific situations and events that are now seen through a new lens (though there are those as well, many of which I am forgetting at the moment) there is often a general feeling of anxiety associated with things being out of control and/or deeply submerged in an incredible array of what seem to be toxic and flawed cultural structures.
There are many times I feel like everything is just so awful that I can’t really bare the weight and magnitude of it. There are times I want to just scream and scream and scream. It’s hard for me to tell how much of this is due to a direct reaction to living in American society and how much has to do with how I perceive myself. There more flaws and horrors I see in American society, the more I see them in myself.
This takes me pretty close to what I feel are the cruz of some of my most profound and enduring challenges. There is a monster inside of me that fearful drives me ever towards the pursuit of goodness and perfection. I believe this to be my superego trying to protect me from being abandoned and feeling worthless and hated as a child. I learned at a very early age that it was unacceptable to be “bad”, that one must be polite, well dressed, always do their homework, get the very best of grades, only watch so much TV, eat healthy, and be a good christian.
Freddy Krueger was “bad”. The neighbors across the street who watched that and listened to Guns and Roses were to be avoided. When I told my Mom how I really felt about school, she actually said to me “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I was expected to attend church or Sunday school every Sunday, and I always had to dress up for dinner outings, always at my Mom’s request and reinforced via a bland sort of guilting via my Dad. When I received less than an ‘A’ one time at school my Mom actually drove through a red light she was so upset. I don’t recall the incident myself. Maybe I repressed it.
I do recall, however, getting a ‘B’ in high school and my Mom asking me “What happened here?”. No one in my family gave me much praise for anything I recall though. I more remember being spanked or stuck in a room or corner alone as punishments as a kid. I remember no one being there for me during elementary school, and even worse when I was suicidal as a teen. We talked about virtually nothing as a family. I received very, very little positive mirroring, a whole bunch of neglect, some intense anger and criticism, and a mix of subtle emotional manipulation and more overt derision.
All this planted in a bed of christian values mired in very strong ideas (though not always well defined) about right and wrong. Watching rated R movies was a sin, a man leading Sunday school taught me. It was possible to go to hell forever, based on some nebulous ways of acting. Yet if one were to act the “right way” one would be forever granted the eternal paradise of heaven.
Although I didn’t think about these ideas overtly very much as a kid, I can see how they probably impacted my forming mind in really unfortunate ways. In some ways they closely mirror the ideas of morality and worth that I received from my parents. There are certain ways in which we expect you to live, and if you live this way, we will love you. If you don’t we will cast you out with as much scorn, shame, hatred, and disappointment as we can muster. Even worse we may simply choose to ignore everything about you that doesn’t fit in to what we want you to be. Meaning there will be no love or attention or anything for most of you, certainly not the parts that are hurting, think for themselves, or value something other than what we value (god forbid it was something I valued that they actually despised).
I am only realizing as I write this how this fits so neatly with something I grappled with my whole life. The idea that if I can make my life be a certain way I will live in paradise and always be happy and loved and content, but that I cannot rest until I get there and everything less than that is basically complete utter shit and means I have failed.
This is soul crushing and heartbreaking in so many ways. Its why I’ve lived on a kind of hamster wheel for most of my life (if not all of it) trying desperately to get somewhere else where I can feel good about myself and things are just as they should be. It is a kind of hell akin to the repetitive forms of torture visited upon the sinners in Dante’s inferno or the eternal pain visited upon Prometheus, whose liver was daily removed as punishment for defying Zeus. In my mind, it’s a kind of sickness, and the flavor of this disease is so patently American.
What does my dream look like after all? I’m afraid of what will come out as I haven’t explored all the nooks and crannies of my “dream” life. There’s a lot of shame here it seems.
Well, for starters having money is important. God, how my parents value that one. IRAs, taxes, changing the oil on your car, credit reports, those are the things my Dad made sure I was aware of. Having a ‘nice’ house, ideally the biggest one you can find, with a pool, hot tub, that is filled with beauty and at least a few relatively expensive things. I don’t see myself as someone wanting objects of immense value, but certainly having some ‘nicer’ things is ideal. In short, a house that looks a lot like my white, middle class parents house, though of course one of the mansions of the wealthy is better.
I don’t really value the mansion as much anymore, or don’t believe I’ll ever have that, but of course some part of me still thinks that is somehow better than a smaller house. Which is, to me, emblematic of some of the perversity of what I think of as the American way of life. How is it better to take up more space while others are starving or homeless? How is it valued and idealized to have as much wealth accumulated as possible, to be as famous as possible, and basically spend all of one’s efforts towards the construction of as large of a persona and legacy as possible?
It’s hard for me to even decide what to write next, there is so much to what this means for me personally and what it means in society. I can most definitely say I was, and certainly am to a lesser extent (I hope) influenced by these ideals. I spent many years trying to become a famous rock star, dreaming of the life I would have, the person I would be, how much swagger and vitriol I would possess and how I would set the world afire. I would buy my parents a house, my Dad a car. Everyone would love me!
Which I think is really the point of all that. I just wanted to be loved. To feel loved, and be seen and valued. To be thought of as special. Seeing how fame, power, building oneself up through hard work, and creative exploits of certain kinds were really, really valued, I certainly got the message that “this is what you need to be to have the best life possible. This is who you’re supposed to be.” After all, you can do whatever you want in America as long as you set your mind to it! So of course you’d want to be famous and rich and powerful, especially if you’ve felt powerless and invisible and worthless.
But what utter BS that line is! First of all, you simply can’t create whatever life you want. Sometimes you can, certainly you can in some ways. But do you really believe anyone could be a famous actor or musician? Or the President of the United States? Famous athlete? Billionaire? I am sure many have tried and wrecked themselves on the rocks as they attempt to sail way to the sirens call.
Here is where we see some of the tragic fate of O.J. Over and over it is abundantly clear in these documentaries that O.J. Actively craved fame. He spent most of his life pursuing it in one way or another, whether that was through football, advertizements, movies, or who he spent time with. It’s not clear exactly why this is but I would be very surprised to learn it had nothing to do with feeling unimportant, insecure, and unloved as a child, and the powerful forces of the American way of life as distilled via television, magazines, and thereafter in the actions and consciousness of the American populace.
He got his fame. Maybe he was happy for a time. But in the end he ended in disgrace in the eyes of much of the world. It seems pretty clear from DNA evidence that he did in fact murder Nicole and Ron. Though of course I can’t know for sure. But it seems clear to me that he couldn’t have been living in the perfect paradise given where he ended up: in an emotional state where it was possible to murder others, and later holding a gun to his head threatening to kill himself as he drove the freeways in the white bronco.
I remember seeing Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of O.J. in a state of intense emotional fragility and just feeling so sorry for the man. He seemed so twisted and broken up. In so much pain. I was operating under the assumption he did commit the murders, and I can’t really imagine how much pain he must have been in to have even gotten to the point where he could kill someone he loved. Then to think of how his whole world was being turned upside down at that moment and how we wasn’t any longer this invulnerable god of a celebrity living the dream, but a destroyed human being shaking from all the agony they were in.
But wait, am I saying O.J. Is the victim here? Not exactly. Of course it’s awful what was done to Nicole and Ron. But that doesn’t change the reality of O.J.’s state or how I feel about it.
Which has led me to think about prisons. Are they really necessary? Is punishment and confinement really what victims, their families, and society needs? Or do we just like to see the ‘bad guys’ punished? Is that so we can feel superior and project all our badness into them?
I can’t imagine anything that could possibly make up for the murder of my child. Having the murdered imprisoned and murdered would do very little to quell the pain inside me. Of course, it makes sense to remove rapists, murderers, and dangerous criminals from society in the sense that they could potentially inflict further harm on others. But might there be a better way?
The Hmong didn’t have prisons. Instead they shamed the perpetrator publicly and forced them to pay back the victim so that they would actually gain in the encounter. For example, if someone stole four bars of silver they would have to pay back five. I wonder what they did for murder or rape though? How can you put a price on that? Though of course this is done with rape, as with Kobe Bryant’s settlement, and was attempted with O.J. as well during his civil trial.
I don’t know exactly what would be better than our current system. There’s something very important about reform, and the role of therapy for criminals, I think. I think therapy can play a really important role in society as well, as can education. After all, if I am self aware enough to know I am chasing fame and riches because of my lack of self love and interpersonal love, I can try and heal that directly rather than needing to devote my life to external success and achievement in the form of music, money, sports, clothing, the shape and appearance of my body, and how many people I have sex with and what they look like.
I want to add something here about O.J. Being with Nicole who was white, and the fact that he had so many white friends, and in general spent a lot of time downplaying his blackness. The narrative in the ESPN Documentary, ‘Made in America’, seems to be that O.J. was accepted by white america specifically because he did not portray himself as a black man or deal with any issues of race.
O.J. himself said he “wasn’t black, he was O.J.” It’s sad to think this man felt he had to hide his race in order to be loved. This speaks to me of the fact that not only do you need to be rich, good looking, powerful, famous, and act and dress according to the norms of American society, but you also need to be white. Or at least some form of colorlessness that doesn’t cause white people to realize they are face to face with a black man.
I’m not informed, experienced, or skilled enough to effectively talk about this extensively here. It just seems this is what is being communicated in the film and in society.
There’s so much more to the story here, but I am tired and wish to end with a few words that I hope will encapsulate my experience. I feel a deep sense of unease thinking about the American way of life and what it means for myself and others. Are we really living in this kind of civilized hell? Just how deep do the hooks of capitalism, religion, and culture go inside of me? Will I ever really be free? Will others? Just what the hell is real anyway? The closer I look the less I know just how I’m supposed to live, the less I see anything that is free of the taint of destruction, illusion, and surface level self serving actions and attitudes that may really only serve to prop up a false self that hides a soul in constant fear, pain, and shame.
Where did the dream go? What compass will I use to go forward? Having my worldview and sense of identity disturbed is acutely troubling for me given the good/bad, ‘you’re worthless if you don’t do the right thing’ complex that exists within me, that was instilled in me from the time I was born.
I feel like one of the borg, or the babies in the Matrix thinking of this. A type of manufactured clone designed to fit in to a certain way of life and perpetuate the system and structures of society that inform my psyche and thus my existence.
I feel like I need to flee from society and live in the country, or better yet find a new planet. I feel like I need to escape to breathe. Like I need to get high or run or even just take a shower in a vain attempt to wash away all the ugliness inside and out.
In a lot of ways I feel this is related to accepting being human. There will always be things we can say are ‘bad’. There will always be things we can see that are good. Both in society and in others, and within ourselves. I believe this is just the way the human experience is and how it will always be. So there’s a kind of beauty and I daresay even a spiritual component to all this. For me that is learning to live with the ills of the world and myself. To have as much compassion for myself, as much compassion for the perpetrator as the victim. Would I have done any better in their shoes? Would you? Being human is so multifaceted. Being human can be wonderful. Being human can be tough. But it’s what we’ve got, and though I an try to run from that, there’s really no escaping it.
So I want to embrace myself, I want to embrace O.J., I want to embrace Kobe. I want to embrace all the victims as well. I want to embrace everyone who is struggling with the ramifications of capitalism and globalization. Which means everyone. And though I may recoil in squeamish uncertainty and fear of judgement from others, I even want to embrace Trump, because I truly believe he is just another victim in an unending parade towards narcissism as an attempt at getting love. I think that’s the main reason he wanted to be President. Where else can you go if you’re already rich and famous? The narcissist power drive never ends because it’s never satisfied. Because what is really needed is love. You can’t get that from fame, from power, from material goods, or even from what society calls an attractive spouse. You can have it all and have absolutely nothing.
Yet we all pay for this. If only Trump had the awareness of what really motivates him. If only his culture had invested the energy into making sure we all felt loved rather than making sure certain individuals had as much money as possible. I feel very strongly about these issues, and this is a big part of why I want to be a therapist, a writer, and an educator. Our society is hurting. I’m hurting. So many are hurting. Hell, we’re all hurting! I want to help and this is the way I know how.
I wish for us all to truly find what matters to us in our hearts. I know this is a vague and lofty goal. But I do think the more we can tune into our inner world, into our feelings and become more self ware, the more we can orient ourselves towards what may truly bring fulfillment and meaningful connection to others.
Still, this will surely be a difficult journey as I delve into the myriad ways in which I am invested in a fabricated sense of self, in the ways in which I am embedded in and unconsciously support societal structures that rip the soul of of so many, and help destroy the physical body, the heart, the mind, and the ecosystem as well.
But as ever, I want to dive in. It’s exciting and I there is a hope within me that I can someday get to the other side and find my true self waiting. My true life. But then that may be that good/bad, hell/paradise parasite within me talking. Maybe life is just a constant process and a journey and there’s no need for any destination or upheaval of society. I truly don’t know where we’re going or even where we should go. That said, of course I want the narcissism to end. I want capitalism to fail and be replaced by something more human. Something that feeds the soul, or even just the human aspect. Until then, it’s fascinating to see where we have come from, where we’re at, and to think about where we might go.