One of the first class activities I do in my critical thinking class goes something like this (there are varying ways to do this activity, but this is the easiest):
I tell the class to close their eyes and imagine their life at 35 years old. What do they see? Imagine? Then I ask the students to open their eyes and write down what they envisioned. After about five minutes I ask students to share.
Almost always they have all envisioned the same thing: a house with a green lawn, a few kids, a handsome/beautiful husband/wife, a nice car, a good job where they’re climbing the ladder of success.
I ask them to consider why they all have seen themselves in the same way ( and most of them are a bit shocked that their dream is the same as everyone else’s) ? Eventually, someone will say, “well, because this is the American dream.”
This is a great way to discuss group think or the collective conscious. We don’t even think critically about our future. It’s seemingly implanted in us from birth. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the American Dream and the point of this assignment is not to negate any student’s dreams (unless I choose to play and dissect the Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime.” Then the whole class gets really somber), but rather to show them the power of not thinking critically.
And then to ask: What happens when you turn 35 and perhaps you haven’t achieved this goal? Someone always blurts out, “You take anti-depressants,” and we all laugh, until we realize the truth behind this statement.
All this is to say that this past weekend, as I was driving down to my 20 year high school reunion, I couldn’t help but think of the American Dream and how much I don’t fit into its perimeters. Normally, I’m okay with that. I like my life–actually, I love my life. It’s unconventional, I know, but it’s also my reality. And why would I feel badly about my own reality? I worked hard to get where I am and I am proud of my achievements even if they can’t be labeled nicely or fit into a tight definition.
But even I have my doubts. And as I drove down to Newport Beach last Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel insecure. I was about to see a whole lot of people that, for the most part, I haven’t really seen in 20 years. But some of them I follow on Facebook, so I can see how perfect their lives seem: they are the epitome of the American Dream.
I arrived at my hotel, checked in, and immediately took a nap. The drive was exhausting, but I think I needed a mental shut down before returning to my past. Because I was going to the reunion by myself (my best friend Michelle is about to have a baby any day now, so she bowed out, and my other friend Danielle refused to go), I had made arrangements to meet up with a friend from high school, Toffer, who was also going alone. Interestingly enough, Toffer and I, while acquaintances in high school, have developed a pretty good friendship via Facebook. Actually, I think he’s the only person I’ve ever become better friends with on Facebook.
Toffer is single, never married, and has no children. Perhaps that’s why we gravitated toward each other as the days leading up to the reunion neared: texting each other and making silly jokes. To be honest, it was Toffer who convinced me to go in the first place, using FINE persuasion skills (his JD degree is not going to waste, that’s for sure). Anyway, he met me at my hotel room and we got ready together and caught up on our lives. But we were both nervous (albeit, me more so) about not fitting in. Toffer was worried that everyone would ask him why he’s never been married (His joke: because of 9/11. The reality: he’s picky and was in school for a long time), and I was worried about having to answer to having 2 kids (who are the dad? dads? wow! dads! and still single!). But we put on our game faces and went.
And it was actually fine! Everyone looked great–I don’t know how we did it, but I think we all looked tons better than we did at 18 (OK, if you think about the fashion of 1994 then some of this makes sense, but still…). And there were so many people that I didn’t expect to see and yet was so happy to catch up.There was no hierarchies of “coolness” leftover from 20 years ago, and everyone seemed to mingle in and out of groups. Of course, there were people that I barely knew in high school that I didn’t talk to, but for the most part, it was really nice to see everyone.
While it was nice to see everyone, the conversation tended toward superficial: where are you living, what do you do, how many kids do you have, your wife/husband does what? But I think that’s to be expected when re-meeting so many people after such a long time. yet even though the conversation was kind and no one said anything judgmental or asked any overly-invasive questions, I still had this lingering feeling: God, everyone here has achieved the American Dream. I mean, really, the statistic could have been that everyone owned a nice house, most living in California still (and many still in Southern California), 2.5 kids, a dog, a nice and expensive car, a wonderful spouse. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of shame for my low(er) income, my renting status, still being single, and even my aging dog.
But then people started drinking more and slowly things began to change.
The drunker people got and the more comfortable, the more “real” their lives became. Many are in unhappy relationships, but feel stuck (I say feel because I don’t buy into the “I am stuck” version of life. We choose to remain stuck and can un-stick ourselves at any time) because while they’re in a loveless marriage, they have kids and a stable 2 person income. Many hate their job (I swear, one guy I spoke to, I actually thought might kill himself the next morning, he spoke with such bitterness). Kids, well, we all get overwhelmed with kids so that’s no big surprise. But slowly the American Dream didn’t look so good anymore.
And while I’m no statistician, I have to say that this was not a small sampling of people at the party. This was almost everyone I spoke to. During our post-reunion conversation, Toffer said he had the same experience, so between the two of us, we covered many of the attendees.
I didn’t actually have any real moments of schadenfreude, but rather, I just felt really good about my life. It might not be the most conventional way of living, but I am happy. I do like my job. I may be single, but I’m not miserable at all.
I don’t know what I think about the American Dream anymore. Some people make it work brilliantly and others get caught in misery. I do know, though, that we should all look at our lives critically and understand that the American Dream is, in fact, mostly just a dream.