american flag photo

I Ask: What Is The American Dream To You?

american flag photoThe American Dream.  Rags-to-riches.  Anyone can “make it” if they just try really hard.

But what does it mean to “make it?”  Own a home?  Have a family?  Take a vacation?

Perhaps the wealth gap and other inequalities are lost on so many people because when we hear 20% of the country own 80% of the wealth, we think way down deep in our hearts: I want to do that. Or at the very least, we are sure that we CAN do it.  We deserve it.

The American Dream! Be whatever you want to be and earn lots of money while doing it! Or just earn lots of money!

So many of us covet what wealthy Americans have.  Instead of thinking 4 cars for 2 people is excessive, we think: I could drive a convertible when it’s hot out and an SUV when it snows. Secretly or not so secretly we yell: That sounds awesome!

I think most Americans believe that more money in our bank account would equal less problems in our lives.  We’ve been lead to believe that money is the most common cause of divorce (although studies don’t necessarily hold up).  Scott and I joke all the time about what great trust-fund babies we would be. No work. No worries. Endless opportunities.

And when Americans aren’t coveting the wealthy, we are emulating them.  Fake designer bags.  Living off credit cards.  Working 2 jobs so our kids can attend an elite private school.

The America I believe in gives equal opportunity without guaranteeing equal outcomes.  But what are these opportunities leading to?  Full bank accounts?  More clothing?  Homes?  Comfort?  Is the American Dream just having the basics to live or is it having more than we need?

Where is the part of the American Dream about helping others?  Giving back?  Is there a dream about living simply and being humble in this country?  If we are lucky enough to debate between a beach home and donating to church or the local homeless shelter, the beach home seems to win out in every home.  Even in my own head it’s hard to not justify getting my children just one more toy.  Or one more book.  Books are important!  That’s why we own 100s, right?

Sometimes I wonder what I’m hoping to accomplish in fighting for the America I believe in.  I fight and continue to live a life of hope and hypocrisy, not knowing what I deserve and what I should give back, not knowing if I’m living America’s dream or my own.

So I ask: What is the American Dream to you?

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

12 thoughts to “I Ask: What Is The American Dream To You?”

  1. The American Dream I believe in is based on John Dewey’s concept of positive freedom. I am owed more than the right to not have others harm me (negative freedom, and frankly, what our country operates under today, at best). I am owed the chance to foster my individual gifts, my talents, with the explicit understanding that I must, then, in turn, use my skills and talents to foster someone else’s development. It’s not about cars or money or investments. It’s about the chance to fully develop my potential as a human being– potential that is unlike any other’s because it is mine, as an unique individual.

  2. I believe “The American Dream” to be what John E. Nestler stated in an essay he wrote in 1973. It still rings true today almost 40 years later. I love this essay.

    “Whereas the American Dream was once equated with certain principles of freedom, it is now equated with things. The American Dream has undergone a metamorphosis from principles to materialism. When people are concerned more with the attainment of things than with the maintenance of principles, it is a sign of moral decay. And it is through such decay that loss of freedom occurs.”

  3. The American Dream to me is my in-laws. Escaping a war in a third-world country in which genocide was the major military strategy. Starving, stealing, running, hiding to get out of the home they still love, but greatly feared. They traveled with multiple family members, 3 kids – 1 on the way. They found refuge in a camp in Thailand. A generous American church sponsored their family, along with brothers and sisters and their children, to gain entry to America. A generous American family sponsored my in-laws, husband, and his 3 other siblings. They helped them find and pay for an apartment, get mattresses, clothes, and a few other pieces of furniture. They helped my father-in-law find a job as a janitor in a medical building. Eventually they moved to a low-income housing development. Eventually they saved enough to buy their own home. They put all 4 of their children through college – two went on to grad school. They eventually bought their own dream home. They still make less together, than my husband makes total. But they are happy, and healthy, and blessed.
    Two people that lost EVERYTHING they worked for in life came to America and were able to give more to their children than they ever dreamed of. That is the American dream. The opportunities to make life better than the one you knew or the one your parents knew. At least that’s what it should be.

  4. I think I have the standard American dream: 2 cars, a few kids, a humble home I can call my own, a job I don’t hate. Having enough to live comfortably, with a little extra to give back. I do think I’m guilty of harboring wants for things we can’t afford. And it can sometimes affect how happy I am in the life we have. It’s something I examine under a microscope often. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I got my tattoo–to remind myself to be grateful for all I have in the world and not to focus on the things we don’t have.

    I can say, with absolutely certainty, that we do not live above our means. We are very careful with money, especially with Brian in nursing school. We have to pinch every penny we’ve got. It makes “giving back” a little more difficult, so I try to help where I can. It doesn’t feel like enough–it never feels like enough–so I just strive to be better.

  5. That’s a great question. The American Dream, to me, is wrapped around being able to improve your life by working hard. Around being able to take action to change what you don’t like. Around being able to make your voice heard and have it count for something. No matter who you are.

    I’m not feeling this in my life. But I also haven’t been down to Zuccotti Park (yet) to fight for it.

  6. We talk about this very question in my 11th grade English class that I teach. It’s an American Lit class and we read The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, The Crucible, and A Raisin in the Sun among many, MANY shorter works.

    My specialty in grad school was the ex pats, so we talk a LOT about the opinion that the American Dream is unachieavable. that it is only there for a few, and even those who acheive the “dream” are not necessarily satisfied.

    That the “dream” doesn’t always mean “success” and that “success” is all about the individual.

    It’s a lovely conversation to have with young people who come from nothing (i work in an urban, at risk, title 1 school).

    Personaly we are living pay check to pay check, have a baby on the way, have one of us in college and the other working a thankless (very much underfunded) job. But I would say that we are successful.

    We are living our dream. OUR american dream.

  7. My husband likes to joke with the kids he teaches that the American dream was not an IPOD, Xbox and Wii in every home…it was the ability to figure out what you wanted and then pursue it without being held back.

  8. We had the “typical” American dream- and were miserable. We gave up homeownership, stable jobs with good retirement packages, comforts, good public schools, etc. and left. We now rent a condo for more than double our former mortgage, we still have good jobs and have stopped worrying about retirement since we plan to just move on to something different when we’re sick of teaching, gave up a bunch of comforts, did put the kids in good private schools, and moved to Hawai’i. Hawai’i. Where our quality of life is awesome, but we have far less quantity. Our daughter attends one elite private school for free as a part of my husband’s benefits as a teacher. Our son attends a different elite private school (in fact, it’s the one Obama graduated from) that we have to really work hard to afford (I need a job there- working on it). We decided to invest in our kids because of some misguided notions of the American dream. We’re swimming in debt from that “dream.”

    Our new, simplified dream, is to have joy. It’s definitely not coming in the form of money nor stuff. Our joy comes from living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, the ability to be at one of the most stunning beaches ever created in less than five minutes, live a chill lifestyle, learn culture completely different than “white” America, and simply just be. Yes, we have financial stress, but our kids our thriving (our public schools are sadly suffering greatly) and we’re thriving.

    So, that’s our dream. Not based on any philosophies or expectations. No one can tell me how to be happy but myself. And I’m happy, so I guess I’ve hit the dream. 🙂

  9. Being Canadian, I find the “American Dream” a weird concept.

    I often hear about rights, but rarely are those screams backed by responsibilities… Heck, I’m glad to call myself a “resident” of this fine country (yay me I just got my conditions removed on my Green Card – trust me, its a BIG deal) and wish I could truly participate in the American way of life (no, I don’t mean driving fuel sucking cars) but VOTING. I can’t do that.

    So what’s the American way? Not voting (judging on voter turn out) yet complaining about any political outcome. Sorry, that was rude. The American way is growing up with the belief / hope that no matter your beginnings you can make your way to Presidency and a happy life (oddly enough “life” had a typo and I wrote “lie”) It’s having the right to speak your mind (and losing followers) but not losing your freedom over it.

    I’m rambling. Americans are so much luckier than they could EVER realize. The only way they could truly get a grip on what The American Dream truly means is to travel, Poland, France, Tunisia, Chili… See how the rest of the world lives. Go taste the World Nightmare to know the American Dream…

  10. The thing I most worry about in America is a sense of entitlement. I’ve lived in enough other (often poor) countries to know that we aren’t entitled to anything. We are lucky, or God-blessed, but with that comes responsibility.

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