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Archive for February, 2011

The American Nightmare

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

To achieve the American Dream, you must be successful. But our current definition of success is unattainable for most of us. Just when you think you have everything covered, the rates go up or you are fired or disqualified. Or you have a birthday. And then you become a “loser”. According to the current groupthink, the vast majority of us are losers.

To be considered successful, you must first and foremost make tons of cash. You must have a fantastic, exciting job. You must be CEO or at the very least, Senior VP. You must own a four-bedroom house, a family sedan, a motorcycle and/or a boat, and a two-seater sports car. You must decorate the house with new draperies and furnishings every two years. The house has to be kept spotless and smelling fresh, the latter hopefully through a little plug-in gizmo that spews artificial lemon verbena scent throughout your travertine tile-floored manse.

Your children must be stellar scholars, captains of the football team, chess champions and violin prodigies. You must have good health insurance, belong to a gym, and have a Bowflex in your heated garage. You must send your children to Ivy League schools. You must buy every new gadget on the market within 24 hours of its release. You must take expensive vacations and have a second home in the country—or at the very least, take cruises and own a timeshare in Tahoe or Hawaii.

For women there are a few extra things you need to be successful. Number One, you can’t age. Number Two, you must be a size one. You have to wear the absolute current fashion: nothing with more than a two-month shelf life. High heels are a must. Don’t forget the foundation, stylish make-up, perfectly coiffed and dyed hair, and polished fingernails. You must be tanned, gym-toned, get Botox injections and look perfect at all times. And don’t get caught driving the minivan. So embarrassing!

These out-of-reach goals are even more ridiculous considering that basic survival is hardly achievable anymore. My generation has been spending what’s left of their devastated 401Ks taking care of their elderly parents, putting their kids through college and trying to pay down an underwater mortgage. Health care is unaffordable for the majority. How the hell are we supposed to pay for the new roof or sewer line repairs or the dog’s hip operation?

But the worst component of the devastation of the middle class is that our culture considers us all failures. No matter how hard you worked, no matter if you went to graduate school, no matter if you followed all the rules, if you still came up short, you are a loser.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to realize that we are not losers. We’re experiencing a global shift in wealth distribution, and corporate greed on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the 1920s. The skyrocketing cost of health care is busting the budgets of the self-employed and making it too expensive for businesses to hire people over 50. Jobs are becoming obsolete at record pace. None of this is our fault. All of these factors are beyond our control. But how we deal with these changes is within our control. We need to become much more flexible in the ways we earn our living and how we spend our money. We need to save more. But more importantly, we need to redefine success.

We need to realize that society’s “markers of success” are made up, mostly by advertisers. And that the goals focus on the external. Whatever you do to your body will not bring you deep, lasting satisfaction. You will still age and therefore “fail”. That new Mercedes is used the moment you drive it off the lot. Spending hours of time distracting yourself with TV, smart phones and iPods will only make you feel more isolated. You actually must interact with people face-to-face to satisfy your basic, human need to connect with others. Two-word text messages do not promote bonding. They promote ADD.

Happiness comes from our interior lives, not our outside shell. Happiness comes from finding meaning in our lives. Beyond our basic survival, happiness can’t be bought.

The new definition of success should start with some questions: What will put food on my table and bring meaning to my life? Do I really need to own a house? What do I really need? What do I like? Not what you think you should like, but what you actually like. Work on widening your choices. Due to the current economic upheaval, you may need to change careers or move. Consider everything and everywhere that interests you, no matter what anyone else thinks. Stretch. Try something you never thought you could do. And if you’re broke, don’t be too picky. Do what it takes to survive and forget how you look. People who think lesser of you because you took a food server job after you lost your corporate position aren’t your friends. Besides, you never know where any job will lead. You never know where your next opportunity may come from.

Palliative care specialist Bronnie Ware interviewed many people on their deathbeds. She asked them what their regrets were. The number one response? I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

When you’re dying and reviewing your life, what will you be thinking? Will you be proud of your McMansion, Gucci slippers and plasma screen TV? Or the hours you spent in a tanning bed? Or the years you spent staring at the tiny screen on your smart phone instead of experiencing the world around you?

The American Dream has been co-opted by our corporate-profit-driven culture and has become the American Nightmare. We deserve better. Our dreams should emphasize emotional fulfillment, not isolate us and make us feel like failures.

©2011, Janet Periat

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