Photo by Marc Steiner

We began our exploration into the idea of the American dream and the realities of American life in 2012 and concluded our journey at the close of the year.  The result was four episodes that illustrated our findings.  Frankly, the work was initially a trail of despair.  The people we met were crestfallen.  Their descriptions of the state of the Dream were sad.  One of our first subjects described it, as...“you just work, work, work, then you retire, then you die.” The national ethos, the promise of our identity, was, in his words, “just a fantasy now.”  We lamented along with those who answered our questions, but we also realized that the Dream, was always just a fantasy, an expectation that focused and powered the collective, something to straighten the road for the majority. 

The accepted definition for the American Dream, by the way, was penned by, writer and historian, James Truslow Adams. “Life,” he wrote “should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” regardless of class or circumstance of birth.  Adams made that observation in the 1930s. 

80 years later and people are describing more of a nightmare than a dream and raising questions themselves about the whys and what-fors?

Is it my fault or yours or should we blame this one on less personal, less familiar entities, like THE GOVERNMENT, THE POLITICIANS, THE CORPORATIONS?

Have we become too soft?  Has our focus on the expectation overshadowed the necessary struggle required to reach the goal?  Have we bought beyond our limits and lived beyond our means? Have we become a nation of desk chair, flat screen, push button zombies ripe for the picking by the corporate farmhand, or somehow worse, left to rot and wither on the vine?  Have our  priorities and our perceived role in the world created conditions that dilute, diminish and disregard our absolute need to nurture the dreamers and fire-starters in our culture?  Or is it as simple as hard times mean the Dream, the fantasy, the expectation, is harder to achieve...making us bitter, not resolute or hopeful.

In the responses we got we heard all of these many opinions on what is originally meant to be a singular ideal.  And maybe that explains the disconnect.  The American Dream isn’t dead and it isn’t necessarily real either.  It’s an inside job, that’s a crap shoot on the outside, but we still believe in it like the generation that taught it to us, from a time that is past to a time that is inevitably different.  We aren’t, as a nation. as molded as we once were in the days and even decades following World War 2, which is a good thing, but the result, it seems, is we, rightly or wrongly, successfully or otherwise, explore the boundaries more.  Choice, change, shifting responsibilities, desires to be different or left alone have strained the power of the Dream and have forced it to evolve.

Music for Driving Jersey: The American Dream - Part 4 was performed by Ryan Bott, The Following and Alicia Testa.

I decided to conclude my search for the Dream as close to home as possible, because home, for most of us is the center of our earliest lessons into who we are and how we identify ourselves.  Driving Jersey: The American Dream - Part 4 includes stories of a new understanding of the old idea.  I was encouraged by the efforts of local artists, who were inspiring expression and possibility into the lives of disadvantaged kids.  I visited my daughter’s fifth grade class and was surprised by their unfamiliarity with the idea of the Dream and happy to hear the excitement in their voices when they shared their own personal dreams.  And finally, I visited an old friend, a childhood buddy who was right there with me in the frontline of my suburban American childhood training ground.  I hadn’t seen him in years.  His life as a single dad of three daughters is, as he would tell you, a struggle, with much sacrifice, yet more importantly, a healthy understanding and an appreciation for what he has, not for what he lacks.  “There’s no one American Dream,” he said, “everybody has their own idea of what it is...and no dream is perfect...I’m living my own American Dream.”