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Not My Dream

February 28, 2012

The American Dream. It’s a phrase that conjures very specific images: a medium-sized house; a couple trees in the front yard. Inside are a pair of people who love each other. They probably have two children, one boy and one girl–a dog, too. The man has a steady job, not especially glamorous but not bad paying, either. The woman bakes good pies.

What kind of dream is this? I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word, “dream,” I think of something much different than this. I think of grand ambitions. I think of young people earnestly speaking about what’s wrong with the world and what they are going to do to change it.

One of the most vivid images our culture identifies with the word “dream” is  Martin Luther King Junior’s famous speech. Go ahead and click that link. Listen to it once. No, listen to it two or three times, and then come back and tell me that a couple of bratty kids and a dog are worth dreaming about.

Just for a moment, to illustrate something, I want you to think of the nighttime. Of what aspect of night did you think? Sometimes at night, I sleep. In fact, that’s what I do most of the time, and that’s good. You will find almost nobody in the world that would argue that sleep isn’t an appropriate use of the night. But if that’s all that night represents to us, there is a serious imbalance in our lives. Nighttime represents so much more: it’s shooting stars flickering across the night sky; it’s conversations that wouldn’t be possible under the harsh light of the sun; it’s the soft radiance of moonlight assuring us that everything in the world isn’t as dark as it seems. These things are the essence of night as much as sleep is.

If we spend our daylight hours dreaming of sleep, what does that indicate? If we desire nothing more than something that could easily be ours, what does it indicate?

It means that there is some fundamental deficiency in our lives. For me, I choose to spend my days dreaming of shooting stars.

What scares me the most is that this dream appeals even to me. Who wouldn’t want a wife who can bake good pies, after all? But God has so much more for me than this dream of simplicity and ease. It isn’t an end in itself.

That reminds me, I’m by no means saying that these are bad things to find desirable, but a dream is different than a desire. A dream is an impossible aspirations–something that one should by no means expect to achieve. Dreams are the driving force behind the greatest of human advances. They are a refusal to acknowledge the status quo as immutably permanent. Do you understand my ire when something so mundane is referred to as “The American Dream”?

So what is lacking? Why do we want pies and a dog instead of world change and accomplishment? I’ve thought long and hard on this, hesitating to write this post for many months for fear that I would misrepresent something, and there are three factors I think are primarily responsible for this atrophy*.

Life is easy in this country. Sinking back into the couch and just letting life fly past is an actual option. Never before has that been true. If one doesn’t even have to work to provide for his own basic needs, where would he learn the skills necessary to do something worthwhile? Why would he even desire any impossible thing when he doesn’t even have to get out of his seat to change the channel? I think we need to stop coddling ourselves. We still live in a world very much under the curse, and we all acknowledge that. But our actions and attitudes say differently. We are angered when a webpage doesn’t load fast enough or when we are cut off in traffic. What if all these little hardships are just preparations for something bigger? Would we be ready?

But how can we know the appearance of readiness? All the people our culture idolizes and exalts have things easier than even Americans can dream. This lack of role models is the second factor. We exalt the Tim Tebows of the world and the Lebron Jame’s, and there is nothing wrong with respecting their talent and skill, but do they change the world in any way, or is their influence ultimately ephemeral? My heroes are people like Martin Luther and even Tolkien. Martin Luther channeled the yearnings of a generation for truth and freedom from mere human tradition into the creation of a church that honors the Bible as the ultimate source of truth–a movement that stands to this day. Tolkien nearly singlehandedly breathed new life into the stagnant, dying literary tradition of fantasy, and now books with dragons or vampires on the cover dot the shelves of every book shelf. Those are my heroes. In my heart is a desire, a dream, that somebody might someday write something similar of me.

People like this are honored in classrooms of the world, but at the same time, we’re told that they were nothing but results of the times–that if given the chance, another man would have done the same thing. At first, this seems like an approach that would yield many would-be heroes. It encourages them, telling them that they would have done the same thing in the same situation as these people. But knowing that heroes are so common, would they really? Here’s the secret: living out a dream, being a hero, is hard. Martin Luther was nearly burned as a heretic for his beliefs. Tolkien devoted his entire life to a work he felt he never actually finished. Would anybody really have done the same? Are heroes so common? And if one thinks they are, would he be more or less likely to do the hard things to become one?

So what are your dreams? Are they enveloped by the simple, unambitious label of “The American Dream”? I hope not. I hope you dream of more. I do.

american dream

*I apologize for this. I feel like the preacher who says, “and in conclusion,” and then proceeds to give at least six more points.

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