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What Americans Have in Common

We, the people, are more united than we think

John DeVore
Jul 4, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash

There is so much being written about what divides Americans but very little about what unites us.

A quick, related story: I knew a Turk who lived in the predominantly Greek neighborhood I called home for many years. The Greeks and the Turks do not like each other very much. But that didn’t stop this man from defiantly plastering his door with “FREE CYPRUS” stickers. He use to stand outside his house and glower and smoke cigars and practically dare a Greek to say something.

I would occasionally bump into him at one of the local pubs. He taught me how to gamble on horse races at the nearby OTB. The lessons were simple: play the odds. It’s okay, from time to time, to bet on a horse whose name gives you a good feeling — but don’t whine if it gallops to the finish line last. He also taught me to rip up losing tickets and throw them angrily on the ground. We did this often. A snowfall of bad luck at our feet.

Every so often I’d win enough for a round of cheap vodkas and ice. But mostly he and I would just whine and talk about how the next bet was our golden ticket.

He once told me America was the greatest country in the world because everyone was out for themselves. I responded cheerfully, telling him that, yes, Americans have a right to pursue happiness.

“I am never happy,” he said.

And neither are Americans. This is what connects us all to one another. It’s kind of beautiful, if you think about it, which is not something I recommend doing for very long. The one thing we have in common — our most basic bond — is profound dissatisfaction with everything. American history is a record of constant melancholy disappointment punctuated by a few, if fleeting, celebratory high-fives.

Our entire republic is premised on rights that are granted by a divine power. Rights that no human law can repeal. The right to pursue happiness is one of them. To chase it, hunt it like an animal. We will push the weak out of the way for a chance to grab that brass ring.

There is no right to actually be happy, however.

I distinctly remember a very young and idealistic college professor telling me once to “follow my bliss” and my first thought was, “and then what?”

Americans are not happy. A happy people do not torment each other for sport. We are miserable and, as they say, misery loves social media.

Our houses are too small or too big. The humans we elect to represent our interests don’t represent them very well, if at all. We’re not skinny or beautiful or smart enough. We’re unhappy if the boot is on our throat or if our foot is in the boot.

The healthy are unhappy that the sick suffer so loudly. The wise are unhappy the foolish get rewarded. The victim is unhappy the bullet is worshipped. Men are unhappy they have to share. Women are unhappy they have to wait. Everyone complains that everyone complains.

Oh, and if you’re non-white you’re unhappy because promises were made but never fully kept, if at all.

So the rich get richer and the rich get richer. Americans are told if they go into debt for an education there will be opportunity for them and then there is just debt. Americans risk their lives in foreign wars started for profit but sold as defense of the republic. Americans struggle and strive, claw and shoulder, and, most of all, pursue.

Everyone wants their fair share and, if possible, an extra fair share.

Sometimes our happiness is negatively impacted by other people pursuing their happiness. We are religious and unhappy if someone else isn’t. We like Batman and are unhappy if someone likes Wolverine instead. We like ketchup and are unhappy when someone else demands mustard.

There are those who will claim they are happy. Those types are usually flag wavers. Never trust a flag waver: they’ll turn on you the moment they think you’re not waving the flag right.

America has such a nice empire but its citizens hate all the splendor it provides — inexpensive avocados, electronics, and gallons of gasoline scrubbed of blood. Such mighty prizes are the envy of the world. Still, we’re unhappy. Angry, even. If I didn’t know any better I’d say late-stage capitalism isn’t as spiritually fulfilling as we thought it would be.

But what is happiness? I think we’re told that happiness is never having enough. All the pizza, all the pills, all the likes. I was raised to believe happiness is love: love of family and community and, in very reasonable amounts, country. Selfless, quiet, humble love. I was taught that so long ago, though, that I may have made it up. The truth is money can’t buy love, unless you negotiate? If America were an episode of one of those sci-fi TV shows with a twist ending, the twist would be: surprise, no one gets to be happy! Sometimes I think this country is just conflict and rage, hunger, and despair, an endless race, round and round, that ends with both winner and loser shipped off to a factory to be rendered into useful purified fats.

Here’s another mercifully brief story: I once worked for a very nice, very wealthy self-made man who enjoyed going out for lavish lunches. One day he brought his lunch to work in a brown bag. He did the same the next day. Eventually I asked him why he didn’t go out for lunch anymore. “I bought a boat,” he replied.

He didn’t seem happy. At least I learned an important lesson as a young man, and that lesson is don’t buy a boat.

It was the angry Turk, however, who taught me the most important lesson of my life. It helps me to remember it when I’m unhappy, which is most of the time. You can win a race, but you can’t beat the races.

Written by

Editor, Humungus. I won two James Beard Awards once for an essay about Taco Bell. Let’s be friends.

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