Grieving the American Dream

by francine Hardaway on April 27, 2010

For the past few years, I've been wondering why so many strange incidents keep occurring:  every vote in Congress is a filibuster; Joe Stack flies an airplane into the IRS building; snipers shoot students and teachers in classrooms; men kill their wives and families. Babies are murdered at the border. Senators are found with cash in their freezers. Devout Christians are exposed as philanderers. Otherwise intelligent people believe the President is not an American. 

I don't remember this many violent incidents occurring in quick succession every before in my life. Admittedly, part of that is the 24-hour news cycle, but there's also something else. The social contract that underpinned the US seems to be falling apart.

And here's why: I believe the entire United States, as a culture, is grieving. Individually and collectively/ We are grieving for the American dream, which we now correctly assume is gone. And because there are so many of us, we are all at different stages in the grief cycle.  

According the Kübler-Ross model, "there are five stages that a dying person goes through when they are told that they have a terminal illness. The five stages go in progression through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model has been widely adopted by other authors and applied to many other situations where someone suffers a loss or change in social identity." 

For many years, as we watched wages stagnate and jobs go offshore, we were in denial. As the world became global, we moved from denial through anger at offshoring to bargaining: we made a deal with India and China that we would outsource certain jobs to them in exchange for cheap products.

We are now, obviously, in a depression.  Not just an economic depression, but a coming to terms with the fact that our lives, as Americans, will never be the same.  Our kids will not live as well as we did. If we are older, we're depressed because our retirements have been wiped out either by falling home prices, unfunded pension plans, bankrupt companies, stock market gyrations, or layoffs when we are 50. Younger people are depressed because they can't afford kids, can't get health insurance, are watching the decline of public education, and can't find jobs even when they are college graduates.

We thought the American dream was one of opportunity, and that opportunity seems to have been snatched from us.

What's next? Acceptance. It's the only possible healthy response. We have to redefine ourselves as individuals and as a nation. We have to rethink and re-invent in light of the available opportunities. Unfortunately, not everyone in the country gets to the same stage of grief at the same time. 

While some are already at acceptance, starting new companies or finding joy in things that aren't material, others are still hoping to cheat the inevitable death of the American dream, stuck somewhere along the grief spectrum. Most of us are still caught somewhere in these stages.

Unions, for example, are bargaining for wages and benefits the employers simply can't provide. They were born to bargain: what do they do when that utility is over? 
Political parties are bargaining for power, at the expense of the public.

Gun rights activists are still angry, thinking that if they can carry their guns unconcealed into bars and restaurants that will solve everything for them. So are Tea Party activists, who are angry at taxes. And anti-immigration activists are angry at outsiders. Oh, if we could only blame somebody.

The people who shoot their families and commit suicide are in depression, seeing nothing better ahead.

But the American dream may always have been an apparition, a mirage just a bit further out in the distance. If we look at it that way, we can just keep walking, as a nation, putting one foot in front of the other, and perhaps even beginning to enjoy the journey again.

Posted via email from Not Really Stealthmode

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

wstocker April 27, 2010 at 12:33 pm

In light of Arizona's current immigration law, it is interesting to me that immigrantes are some of the strongest believers in the American dream. Indeed, the grieving process travels far and wide.

gemorgan April 27, 2010 at 2:24 pm

The American dream is not an apparition. Nor is it as intangible as is led to believe. Our sense grief arises from forgetting what the American dream is. You've summed it up nearly perfectly in stating “We thought the American dream was one of opportunity, and that opportunity seems to have been snatched from us.” The American dream is the universal ability to better one's life through unfettered opportunity. This Dream, afforded by opportunity, is under siege by an elite few, perhaps benevolent but certainly misguided in believing that, out of some sense of fairness, one can ensure equality of outcome without sacrificing equality of opportunity. In actuality, one must necessarily deny opportunity for some, in order to guarantee outcome for others, for at some point, the lines demarcating “too much” and “too little” must be drawn.

Those that believe themselves qualified to draw those lines are to be feared and are most often the very people of the “Political parties… bargaining for power, at the expense of the public” you mention. In this quest for power, it is all too tempting to steal from the rich to bribe the poor, since power is, after all, a matter of numbers. Once achieved, this power must be maintained and thus the recipients of this largess must be kept in place, not only sufficiently complacent as not to achieve, but also stripped of the desire to achieve since with achievement comes independence and the bribes are no longer effective. Uneducated, faithless, and shackled with mandates on top of responsibilities, it's easy for one to surrender to temptations of security and accept the incarceration that accompanies it or worse, withdraw from society. This is where opportunity dies and with it, the American dream.

But today, the Dream's far from dead, and in a fleeting moment of genius some 233 years ago, the creators of this country put in place the tools necessary to revive it. The “public” is realizing that from the very discovery of this land, to the country's creation, to a defiant young woman on a bus, every great accomplishment has occurred not due to the guarantees of the state but through the determination of individuals to overcome the uncertain, even at the cost of personal sacrifice. History is replete with examples of individuals, not simply inconvenienced, but giving up everything to preserve freedom of opportunity for future generation. All that's necessary to revive the American dream is for every American to abandon that misplaced notion of entitlement and the soul crushing sense of worthlessness that comes with it, pick up those historical tools we has been given and get to work. For it is during these times that legacies are made and dreams are realized.

hardaway April 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm

What a great post, especially the End. Thanks for taking the time to write it. That sense of entitlement kills you every time.

Francine Hardaway, Ph D

nilandmortimer April 28, 2010 at 11:53 am

Last night I had the rare opportunity to see Hal Holbrook perform his famous Mark Twain tonight. This was at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium and part of Stanford's celebration of Twain's 100th anniversary of his death and 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Holbrook is now an old man, and his performance of Twain was set in 1905 when Twain was 70. It was a very dark performance, focusing on Twain's writings and comments about Congress, Wall Street, the Rich in America, Religion, the state of the country. Twain used satire to grieve over his country's failings. 1905 could easily have been 2010–his sentiments were exactly the same as we are feeling today, and for the same reasons. There were times when the audience didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. I've read that Holbrook has never given the same performance twice, and last night was his grim, heartfelt warning to America to listen to our greatest social critic. It was also a commentary on history repeating itself, or at least never changing it's tune. Holbrook's wife died only a few weeks ago, and he ended his performance with a few pieces Twain had written about his own wife Clara. There was no laughter here; truly tears.

hardaway April 28, 2010 at 1:11 pm

I wish I were able to see that. I love Mark Twain and I know he has
something to say about this.

Francine Hardaway, PH.d

Hattie April 29, 2010 at 2:08 pm

I'm surprised that anyone is surprised at what's happening now; we sure saw it coming and protected ourselves and our family. We're all right, Jack.
After all, it's not as if we have the kind of social safety net that the amount of taxes we pay might entitle us to; it could be different if we did not have to pay for our bloated military and all those wars were fighting.
In the absence of social solidarity, what can we do?
Rescue yourself if you can.

hardaway April 29, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Exactly. The wars are the source of much of our deficit problems. We have
chosen to police the world rather than to protect each other in every day

nilandmortimer May 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Hi Francine: I forwarded your blog post to my 20 year old son, a sophomore at Bowdoin College in Maine, and I though you might be interested in a younger generation's response:

“I guess the question to ask is whether or not an American dream exists in the first place, or in other words, is the American dream that exists for you the same that exists for me. We have always been taught that different is better, and I believe that this statement clouds many peoples mind when it comes to the American dream. Thinking of immigration during the early 20th century and late 19th century, the quality of life did not increase THAT significantly from wherever an immigrant came from. Rather it was a different quality of life, a difference in culture and opportunity but that difference seemed so much better due to the hardships that they were able to forget from being in new place. But the Industrial Revolution wasn't great for most of the working class, and in fact it was downright horrible. But I don't want to talk too much about history since it is quite out of my realm.

Speaking from the young adult perspective in the 21st century (and from someone who grew up with pretty much everything provided for them), I like to believe that the American dream never existed for us. Or rather, that the American dream that used to exist has now become the norm for much of the middle/upper middle class. My want of becoming a doctor is certainly not a dream. I absolutely with all my heart still want to become a doctor, and I will try extremely hard to do so, but once obtaining that goal, I doubt I will look back and conclude: “Yes I accomplished my dream” and instead say, “Yes, I am socially accepted. I am now someone who should be looked upon with respect and dignity.” But this cannot be any dream of the future.

So, I guess I haven't exactly answered your question of whether or not our generation “grieves the American Dream,” but putting it in terms of grieving or not grieving I say that we are not grieving. We see where our parents have come from and how the world has changed but frankly, I doubt our generation cares that much. So it is not an issue of grieving or not grieving but instead, we must ask ourselves what the dream of the future will be. These are transition years (or even centuries) for things like technology and biomedical research. We are moving to a mobile and effortless world, so the dream of tomorrow will be harder and harder to come by. This is supported by how good our society is at saving lives. So I may not be grieving the old American Dream, but I certainly am afraid at what the next American Dream may be and what it brings us. What that dream consists of though, I have no idea…

Hope this helps you understand our generation a little better. Did David or Sam respond? I'd be interested in seeing what they say.

Peace Pops,”

hardaway May 11, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Thanks SO much for sharing this. It shows you how much of our thinking is
generational. I stand corrected, or reprimanded, or both:-)

nilandmortimer May 12, 2010 at 7:47 am

Neither corrected nor reprimanded! Only different. Same world seen through different eyes. Perhaps there IS hope.

KPO India January 11, 2011 at 5:48 am

The “American Dream” today is very interesting because some people don’t see it possible in achieving it. Though, what are the right thing for the society then?

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