Dreaming the Wrong Dream
January 24th, 2011

A Note About This Post:  I originally wrote and published this post one week ago, on Martin Luther King Day.  It lingered here all day, garnering no comments – a first in my blogging existence.  By that evening I was convinced my title had given the wrong impression of my beliefs about Dr. King, so I took it down.  For the full explanation of my actions (and the thought process behind them) you can read last Wednesday’s post, which is available here.  I offer this explanation so that when you reach the end of this post and I write, “Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day…” you will not presume me incapable of reading a calendar, but will realize that this is the second time out of the gate for this post.     

There’s something off about the American dream.

I’ve been thinking about this intermittently for the last month and I’ve finally put my finger on it.  The American dream is too simple.  It is not nuanced or multi-facted.  It is plain, and brute, and a little crass.  Quite plainly, the American dream is financial.

I realize that this country was founded on principles of opportunity  and the freedom to pursue that opportunity.  And these are very worthwhile principles.  But over time we have come to a single, shared interpretation of them: money.  Sure we still value the opportunity to speak freely, congregate as we wish, worship as we believe and so on.  But when we talk about the “American dream” as a concept what we are talking about is the pursuit of fortune.

As a person who likes money and the things it can buy, I realize that there is value in the financial interpretation of this dream.  For people who live paycheck-to-paycheck it is a compelling idea that with hard work and some good luck they could live awash in comfort and luxury.  But for the rest of us who live somewhere in the middle of the socioeconomic strata, I think the American dream makes us myopic.

I started thinking about this last month when Aidan asked the question “Is bigger always better?” When I first commented on Aidan’s post I focused on the implicit expectations of “bigger.”  That is to say, the bigger something is the more we expect of it.  Sometimes we find that when we opt for something smaller we are ultimately happier because we are unburdened by massive and sometimes-unrealistic expectations.  I have thought more about this since then, though, and decided that this diagnosis falls short.

I happened back upon a website I bookmarked a long time ago called The Not So Big Life.   A few years back architect/author Sarah Susanka wrote a book about home scale and design call The Not So Big House.  In it she described how the American dream has eradicated everything we love about our homes.  New houses traded thoughtful design, charm, intimacy, and attention to proportion and scale for carelessly conceived vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and giant open floorplans that leave us feeling unmoored in our own homes.  The success of the book indicated that Susanka had struck a nerve and she went on to apply the same attention to “composition” that she uses in home design to the rest of her life.

Susanka points out how much of our lives are crammed with obligations and activities that we have piled onto our existence without consideration for what value they bring (or what value they destroy).  She argues that we pay little attention to the way that we compose our lives and that as a result we are left with days that are filled to the brim, yet leave us feeling empty.

I wonder how our cultural evolution might have been different if the American dream weren’t about success; or perhaps rather if success were measured by some yardstick other than the dollar sign.  Might we live in homes that were designed with more regard for our needs and less regard for our reputations?  Might we think more carefully about the ways we choose to spend our time?  And might we be more inclined to say “No” every now and then, leaving more space in our lives for things that really matter?  If the American dream didn’t drive us to prove our success to the rest of the world would we find ourselves happier, and with less?

At this time of year our New Year’s Resolutions are still fresh in our minds.  Mine focused on ways that I can improve myself, my relationships, and my imprint on the world.  As I thought about how I want to be different in 2011 the pursuit of fortune and the acquisition of more material belongings did not factor into the equation.  I think this is true for most of us.  When we really take time to consider the aspects of ourselves and our lives that matter the most we get it right.  I think the problem is that we spend so little time really considering them.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Today we will think about his dream for America.  We will laud his vision and applaud his leadership, and rightly so.  We should also remember, however, that his dream – perhaps the most noble of any dream dreamt by an American – had nothing to do with bigger begetting better.  Tomorrow, when the commemorations have passed and we are back at our regular lives, we would do well to remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting more from our lives.  But we should ask ourselves “more of what?”

9 Responses to “Dreaming the Wrong Dream”

  1. Anne Says:

    My husband and I talk about this ALL THE TIME. He’s a little obsessed with it, actually. I think you’re right…as individuals, we often get it right, but as a culture we dream the wrong dream. There’s so much pressure to achieve, spend, achieve, and spend. We pay lip service to “balance” and “mindfulness” and all that stuff, but often our choices are dictated by a need to chase “success” the ways it’s been defined by the whole vision of meritocracy. (Often a myth). Think about the movies we see–the “success” stories of our culture are often of the “rags to riches” variety. For that reason, I kind of like that little segment at the end of the Nightly news called “making a difference”. It’s normal people doing good stuff. And they don’t get rich because of it. That’s a dream worth striving for. King’s dreams were about equality–on a very basic scale. Thanks for this…and thanks for resubmitting.

  2. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    So happy you decided to repost this, Gale. Thank you for writing so well and thinking so deeply. And for asking the big questions. A wonderful example for us all.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I think your example of home size is a good one. The “bigger is better” approach run wild – and showing off bucks through square footage. I see what small neighborhoods become when wonderful older homes of modest size (1500 to 2,500 square feet) are either torn apart and tripled in size, or flattened, to make way for soul-less cookie-cutter containers of “stuff.”

    Yes, we need bigger houses now because we have so much “stuff.”

    Frankly, I’m grateful for the times I’ve lived abroad where the “dream” isn’t purely financial, bigger is better, more is never enough. Sometimes, more is too much, and “little” is just right.

  4. Viola Says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on “Dreaming the wrong dream” and that bigger is not necessarily better. We all like have beautiful things, and there is nothing wrong in that. But do they truly bring us joy, or are they just because they are the latest fad. I love older homes that have character and that the spaces were built for a purpose. Your post is very thought provoking. Thank you again.

  5. alan towers Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.I think the power of Sarah Susanka’s narrative is that it anchors our contemplation of the American dream to something we can clearly see, measure and evaluate: our houses. And we see something that articulates, in its undeniable excess, that we have lost our way in pursuit of something noble and are chasing something less that will always be just beyond our grasp. What that something is can be appreciated in the fact that our houses are often no longer homes; we have substituted growth for progress so that we now see the economy in a contest with “the environment” and find justification there for unlimited consumption. Dr. King’s dream was about progress towards social justice, and people understood his narrative as being about a dream that is attainable, worthwhile, noble and worthy of sacrifice. In contrast, today’s dream is about self-indulgence and conspicuous excess.

  6. RLTarch Says:

    Fortunately much is changing, including the nature of “the dream”. I’ve seen a seismic shift in the dreams my clients bring to my office; just a few years ago it was indeed all about bigger homes…but now it’s about a quality living experience in as little space as necessary – less “house”, more “home”.

    I see it at every income level; the less-affluent are realizing that quality isn’t limited to expensive homes, and the more well-off are spending their money on more fulfilling things.

    We’re also seeing a gigantic demographic shift from the suburbs to more urban environments; retiring baby boomers are asking us for a quality life in a walkable urban setting; “Gen Y” wants to walk everywhere…if you dream a future of living close to your wrokplace, fewer cars, and closer ties to community then your dream is coming true.

    I’m very optimistic about the future of housing in America!

  7. Kimc Says:

    Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” series has truly struck a nerve. As someone who is older, I remember that in the 1950s, the American Dream wasn’t Strike-It-Rich instant wealth, it was a good middle class life: a home, a family, feeling financially secure enough to take a vacation every year, retire, send the kids to college to start them off on a good life, and all this supported by meaningful, honest work so that we could feel we earned it ourselves. In the 1960s this dream expanded to include a spiritual side — based on Love. Then, in the 1980s, with Reagan, money came to be the center of everything. Now, money is more important than people, and we are feeling impoverished by it. But we keep trying to assuage the feeling by trying for more money…. This doesn’t work, but it does feed the whirlwind. The problem is that now, that feeling of financial security is not possible unless one has wealth; there is no longer a middle class security. We are slaves to the search for enough money, and only too much is enough. It’s a change for the worse in our culture, and it is still reversible, but just barely. We have about nine years left for the current generation of young adults, the Millennials, to decide to put people before money. If they don’t, we will enter another Dark Ages. And you know what ended the last Dark Ages and spurred the Renaissance? The Plague. By decimating the population of Western Europe, it made labor scarce and therefore expensive, triggering a middle class… and around we go again….

  8. Hue Grant Says:

    Thank you for your blog, I received it through my link to Sarah Susanka’s facebook link. I have just written a couple of posts on my firm’s facebook page regarding “bigger” houses and intend to write more. It’s amazing that we, as a country, have forgotten our core values (or at least have let them fall to the background) and are languishing in the idea that money, power, status, etc. solves all problems. I will share this with all of my connections and hope that the message becomes viral. Thanks, again, for your insight and candor!

  9. Gale Says:

    Viola – Susanka offers a quote in The Not So Big Life that reads something along the lines of “Have nothing in your house which you do not find useful or beautiful.” I really love that thought because it leaves us the latitude to have things that bring us joy based purely on their beauty. However, so much of our stuff is neither beautiful nor practical. And that is where our lives get crowded for no reason. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    Alan – Yes, the tangible can be a dangerous thing. When we describe that which we love about life it is typically intangible – time, freedom, creativity, connectedness, etc. But it’s hard to look at our lives and see those things. We want markers for our success and happiness and so we look to objects to provide them. I have written previously about my love of beautiful things, and so I struggle with this. But I recognize that while these things may bring me joy, they cannot bring me joy in the absence of more substantive aspects of my life. It is hard but important work to remember that.