The other day, my son and I volunteered an evening at the soup kitchen on W.7th. A fight broke out between a police officer and a homeless man. It was a very disturbing scene. Afterwards, while driving home, Matt and I tried to make sense of the evening. I said, "…but why wouldn't he just listen to the cop. I mean, did he really think he was going to win that fight?" Then my son said something very profound that struck right to the heart of so many challenges we face today. He said, "That guy had nothing to lose." Perhaps the great brokenness we see across this country comes from a feeling that for too many people there’s nothing left to lose. I wonder if there isn’t some sort of collective subconscious awareness that the American Dream is becoming nothing more than a rapidly fading pipe dream. And if that doesn’t seem like a big deal because we happen to be living the dream, then there is still a very self-centered reason to be concerned about other’s wellbeing. These people can be violent. Besides the fight at the soup kitchen, something else really disturbed me. Some of those people at the soup kitchen looked like they were coming there from work. Have we’ve gotten to the point where the working class can barely afford to eat? Too many people live right on the edge of financial ruin while working jobs. The old clichés and easy dismissals of poverty based on individual laziness don’t hold true. There are structures in place that keep even the working class in poverty. Has anyone stopped to do the math on this American Dream thing? Given the great sell off and outsourcing of a producer-based manufacturing economy to China and replacing it with a consumption-based service-sector economy, you have to wonder, how is this all going to add up? Consumption doesn’t make as much money as production. Even apart from the great manufacturing sell off to China, given a growing influence of technology which is replacing even the low wage jobs, you have to wonder, are there really going to be enough jobs to sustain a traditional middle class lifestyle for everyone? And even if there were, could the earth’s carrying capacity support this? The American Dream belches out millions and millions of tons of carbon each year? How long can the earth’s carrying capacity sustain this, even at the present rate? Contrary to all the notions of progress that are so deeply embedded in the American psyche, we may have to come to terms with the fact that China, technology, and environmental concerns, may not allow everyone to become middle class Americans? Did it ever? Yet the boot strap mythology persists and many people are acutely aware that they are not making the cut. And our culture conditions these people to feel like losers. Which may explain why we are losing way too many people to suicide and opioid-based deaths. I believe we are losing more people every year in ‘desperation deaths’ than we did in the entire Vietnam War. As a result, for the first time since the Civil War, our life expectancy in this country is decreasing. It’d be nice if we could admit that the cancer model of economic ‘growth for growth’s sake’ isn’t working! If we want to talk growth, then let’s talk about it in ecological, economic, and emotionally sustainable terms. Not mere stock market reports. Not in the number of consumer goods purchased. Maybe the most radical paradigm shift we can make for the 21st century is that the American Dream can grow up and become less about the quantity of things, and more about the quality of our relationships with each other and nature. What if we measured our national success less in terms of the stock market, and more in terms of overall contentment with life and quality of friendships? What if America was less about what we get and more about what we can give? What if America understood that the wellbeing of others around us, as well as the wellbeing of other species, is directly related to our own wellbeing? It may be time for our young and immature country to grow up. Just like with young people in the first part of life, our country has tried to define itself by showing everyone how impressive and strong it is. “We built nukes and the strongest military in the history of the world.” Everything is a scramble to impress. “We went to the moon.” Everything is about the ego. We are collectively like a teenage boy who keeps flexing in the mirror and admiring his muscles. But will the boy ever grow up and ask, “Is this all there is?" Is a growing stock market enough? Is a nuclear arsenal that could nearly wipe life off the planet enough? Is having the latest smart phone enough to give us lasting happiness? Youth feel immortal. They live like there’s no tomorrow. Growing up means facing one’s mortality. One’s vulnerability. Maturity looks back over the vain youthful scramble to impress and feed the ego and laughs at its futility. Growing up includes a very real realization that we are all connected. The shame the man at the soup kitchen feels for receiving a hand out, is also a part our own collective shame. Growing up means realizing that it’s not all about winning and losing. Growing up means finding ok-ness with ambiguity. No group, Republican or Democrat, is totally right or totally wrong. Maturity lets go of the simplistic thinking that ‘if they’re not with us they’re against us.’ Maturity is less about placing everything in tidy little labeled categories. It’s more about connection, gratitude, and enjoying the moment. It is less about things and more about people. Maturity looks less at the world as a resource pool for personal advancement and instead becomes grateful for little things that are often free—like sunsets or just getting to be with loved ones. Time to grow up America. Time to put the adolescent dream of more, more, and more away. Time to start finding gratitude for what we already have—each other.
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