American Pie

By Will Baker

The American Experience, the American Dream. I've been thinking lately about what that really means. It seems to me that most things are relative, and I believe that that is true in this case as well. For instance, the dreams that a newly arrived immigrant might have are probably very different than the dreams of a young college student that is trying to do as well as or better than her or his parents have done.

And then there are those folks who see evidence of the American Dream all about them. But the evidence remains anecdotal, for they have yet to have experienced it. Politicians like to reference these individuals in the speeches they make. They say that they don't want any Americans being "left behind." Well, these are the people that they are talking about. But what is this dream? And does it have any relevance anyway?

After carefully considering this question, it occurs to me that it is all about the pursuit of happiness and everything that flows from it. And lest you think that this an over simplification, I should assure you that it is not. It seems to me that the pursuit of happiness is serious business. Happiness is what is striven for after all of one's basic needs have been met. Happiness is where art, philosophy, history, literature, the sciences, and mathematics reside. Happiness is having contented, well-educated children. Happiness is being able to be with the ones you love. Happiness is self-actualization and fulfillment.

So, therefore, achieving it can be a very tall order. As well it should be I suppose. For in my opinion, happiness is all that really matters. And by happiness I am not referring solely to feelings of pleasure. No, I can imagine circumstances where one might very well be happy, but not pleased. For instance, years ago, when I left for college, my parents were very happy that I was making my way, but they were not pleased to see me go, to leave their nest.

But sadly, it seems to me that for some of us, the notion of life without happiness, for whatever reason, begins to take root and grow. And for these folks--and it seems to me that there are so very many of them--their hopes and dreams gradually wither and die on the vine. And what remains is a desperate, unfulfilled shell of what they might have been. And for those that are truly gifted, in my opinion, this amounts to no less than a personal and societal tragedy. From time to time we all want "more," and I believe that when we say this, happiness is exactly what we are referring to. Yet it seems to me that we sometimes have feelings of guilt over this yearning. As if this want is something that we do not deserve and therefore, should not aspire to.

But I feel strongly that wanting to be actualized to the maximum degree is nothing to be ashamed of. However, some of society's paradigms might be in conflict with me-constructively I would hope. A very important person in my life recently quoted me some lyrics to the "Jungle Book" song, "Bear Necessities." In doing so I think that she was describing to me her feelings of angst, of longing for wanting more in her life, juxtaposed against her other realities. As an aside, she is a brilliant, beautiful, and fascinating woman, and our relationship flies in the face of almost every societal norm, and challenges our ability to pursue happiness by enjoying the self-actualization that our interaction with each other brings. "A bit of heavy topic," as she would say.

But where she and I are left to sort this all out is not such a terrible place when compared to those folks whose basic needs are not being met. For those folks, there can be no real happiness. For how in the world can one be happy if you are in the midst of worrying over adequately feeding your children? That is why, even though it is probably just political rhetoric, the words of some of the politicians do resonate with me. No, we shouldn't be leaving anyone behind. This idea rings true, even when smothered with platitudes.

But again, the American Dream: the pursuit of happiness, what does it mean? It seems to me that this is a very subjective proposition. For some it can be a decent education, a fulfilling career, a spouse who loves you, having two point five children, two cars in the garage and a vacation home. For others it might mean the realization of one's potential by the proper application of one's personal gifts. To get back to my dear friend, in my opinion she has more of these personal gifts than the average person does. She is a very young, extraordinary individual. And my hope, made on her behalf, is that she will have the opportunity to be, and experience everything that her substantial potential might make possible. But I know that no amount of hoping, nurturing, supporting or encouraging on my part, will make her self-actualization possible. It will help her to be sure, but her motivation, as with all of us, must come from within.

So, does the American Dream speak to that which is physical: the accumulation of material assets, or to intangible things like a sense of personal fulfillment? It seems to me that it is probably a combination of the two. However, it has been my experience that, once one’s basic needs have been met, if good progress can be made towards the mental aspiration of well being, material benefits often follow. But I have observed many folks, rich and poor-perhaps even the majority of us- who seem to have a skewed understanding of this. It seems to me that these individuals fail to grasp the notion that material accumulation is simply a "symptom" of happiness…not the cause. Therefore, they believe that it is possible to purchase happiness. Sure they are sometimes left with quite a collection of toys, an appearance of the American Dream, if you will, but they are not truly happy. Happiness is an illusive thing. The poor man keeps on searching, while not letting himself see, and the rich man keeps on wanting to buy, that which is absolutely free.

 

 (Essay Collection)