The American Dream and the Ability to Change

The American Dream of achieving success is behind much of our country’s energy and innovation–in medicine for example, and advances in technology. But as I suggested in an earlier post, it is possible so to immerse ourselves in hopes of succeeding that we grow afraid of enjoying the little leisure we have left from work, as if thoughtful enjoyment were a forbidden departure from the relentless pursuit of our goals. So instead of leisurely reflecting on our lives and how satisfying or troubling they have become, we feel compelled to so something more “useful,” like re-checking our email.

But besides encouraging an obsession with work, the American Dream carries the danger of wrongly convincing us that the possibilities of success are limitless: “there’s no end to what you can accomplish,” we say to our children. We fall for the addictive fantasy that our work will open the door to a future of uninterrupted smooth sailing. Tons of work, we imagine, will eventually lead to almost no work and living with no leisure to nothing but leisure. Advertisements for retirement facilities are good at promoting this illusion. They suggest that “peace and quiet and open air,” to borrow a line from West Side Story, “wait for us somewhere”–more specifically, at their place.

Smooth Sailing

If we can ditch self-reflection for the sake of getting our work done, we can also ignore bad news because all that does is upset our unrealistic attachment to the limitless. Never mind reports that an accountant given to precision has raised legal questions about how the debts on so and so’s private jets, multiple homes, Jaguars, yachts and off shore bank accounts can ever be satisfied. Never mind the “bad news” about a billionaire caught paying for sex in a strip mall, the shooting at a local high school, the fatal overdose of an A-student on the night of his college graduation, or the latest suicide of a rock star. To the dreamer these are all just unfortunate exceptions to the prevailing rule of hitting it big.

The great representative of this dreamy American type is Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” So convinced is Willy that his son Biff will make it to the top that he shuts his ears as the young man admits that, in an effort to satisfy his father’s illusions, he has become a chronic thief. I only want “good news,” Willy insists. And yet we understand Willy because often so do we.

Unquestioning belief in the limitless opportunity offered by the American Dream makes it hard to adjust to the changing conditions of the limited lives we actually live. Our talents may be considerable but they are not unbounded, and neither is the uprightness of our behavior. (Willy Loman’s travels as a salesman included a mistress– more of the “bad news” he’d rather not be reminded of.) We may be healthy on the whole but we also have physical weaknesses it is foolish to ignore, as do those who refuse to visit a doctor until their cases get critical. Similarly mythical is the common idea that we must hold onto our homes until death is on our doorstep.

Long-term care, if we are fortunate enough to have it, now consists mostly of a choice between in-home care (aging in place) or moving to what used to be disparagingly called a retirement “home” but now, with the increase in our aging population, is more like a fancy, well equipped (and expensive) retirement palace. The American Dream will be of little help in deciding which of these options makes the most sense. The wisest solutions depend not on some grand preconceptions about what old age should look like, but on the circumstances of each aging individual or couple.