Culture & Race, Travel

The American dream versus the good life

A deep bass beat rippled through the darkness of the dance club.  Strobe lights flashed outlines of bodies, some clinging, some flailing, some just sitting and staring.  A newly arrived English teacher to Burkina Faso,West Africa, this wasn’t exactly the way I had anticipated learning about a new culture.  However, my new West African friends had mistakenly assumed that because I was American, this would be the scene in which I felt most comfortable.  I am neither a clubber by personality nor a dancer by ability.

I ordered a Coke and did my best to play wallflower – not an easy task for one of two nasaras (white people) in the room.  Pondering the scene, I realized ironically that I was the only person in the room not donning the “American” uniform of jeans and T-shirts.  As the beat shook the walls, we abandoned our attempt at conversation and coolly turned our attention to the crowd, all the while Solomon’s warning about chasing the wind thundering through my head (Ecclesiastes 1 & 2).

With tight Levi’s, smooth moves, and Coke bottles, the clubbers of the night chased their imagined version of the American dream.  In class, my Burkinabé students echoed similar assumptions, believing that American streets were literally paved with gold.  Consequently, it wasn’t difficult to understand why a ticket to America was their dream come true (especially since most of the roads in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, were not paved at all).  This mentality recurred throughout Ouagadougou – American flags on T-Shirts, pictures of American movie stars on billboards, or American rock classic playing in restaurants.

As I grew to love the warmth of African hospitality and graciousness, I also grew increasingly fearful that such cultural strengths would be blown away by the very winds they were chasing.  “This isn’t what you want,” I challenged my students one day as we discussed the opulence of American culture, “I know it appears enticing, especially in comparison to the poverty, hunger, and injustice people here face on a daily basis.  But what I see being chased – the pride of “image”, the greed of materialism, the selfishness of “independence” – is a façade.  It won’t get you any further than where you are now.  Financial poverty in America is limited, but spiritual poverty is widespread.  Not many go hungry for food, but droves starve for love, recognition, and success.  The injustice to our own is not as blatant as what many countries see in their leaders, but there are still many left unfairly forgotten, neglected.”

Living in America, I know full well the great gifts offered by my homeland.  Yet both Americans and the world alike need be cautious to mistake the American Dream for an authentically good life.  The good life in America is not, as many movies broadcast, a big house, flashy car, and fat paycheck.  It’s not even a trip to Disney World or luxurious day at the spa.

Where I currently live in rural Indiana, the good life sings loudly through the friendliness of the local gas station clerks, the concern of community members providing for young parents with a sick child, the companionship found in a walk around the block.  Several years ago, I lived near the nation’s capital of Washington D.C.  While the goodness there shows a different face, it is worn wholeheartedly nonetheless.  It is found in the thousands of brilliant minds who work tirelessly for deserving causes, in the intense rhythm of a street person pounding his soul out on some garbage-can-drums, in the milieu of cultures converging in the ethnic food aisle at the grocery store.  This summer, while visiting family in New York City, I saw the good life flourishing as parents relished time with their children at the Central Park Zoo.  I saw it blossoming in the free-spirits who thrive on the faster-than-life/in-your-face pace of the city.  When we continued our journey to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we heard the song of the good life as we rode in a buggy with an Amish man who quietly lived out his devotion to simplicity, family, and community.  For our wedding anniversary, my husband and I escaped to a bed-and-breakfast inMichigan.  There, we shared the song with other weary couples stepping out of the craziness of life to retreat to a peaceful sanctuary, celebrate, and breathe.

Like some of my West African friends, many Americans waste valuable time chasing the wind.  Surrounded by such abundance, the line between needs and wants becomes indistinguishable at times.  Yet an authentic life, one that chases more than just the wind, works hard to flesh this distinction out.  Both in America and across the globe, may the faithful not confuse the flashiness of the American dream with the rich blessings of a life well lived.

Originally published in Vista Magazine, Summer 2007.  All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “The American dream versus the good life”

  1. Your post is very thought-provoking. It is a bit scary how dominant the material wealth=happiness paradigm has become. Great to be reminded that the good life isn’t simply about a big fat pay cheque, or streets paved with gold!!

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  2. Great analysis here. The perceived happiness in America is very common. Gregg Easterbrook, an analyst at the Brookings Institute had written a book on this topic – specifically about happiness and materialism. The results is exactly what you just state. It’s been a while since I read about this book (I haven’t read the book), so please don’t quote me on this.

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