Another New Year, the long anticipated 2014 has already rolled around the corner. Reflecting on the toils, efforts, victories, and failures of the previous year, Americans once again unite in crafting New Year’s Resolutions to live better lives, pay off their debt, land a new job, or find new love. We ready ourselves for yet another desperate assault up the ladder of life–And then we fall. Whether we trip on the first step, or the third, we sooner or later lose our footing and fail in many of our resolutions by the year’s end. Based on historical precedent, I have little hope that 2014 will be any different. Never daunted, we regroup, renew our efforts, and try again. Pursuing that wisp of smoke, that green light, of the American Dream.
Three days after New Year’s Eve, I had the chance to finally watch the film rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Enthralled by the film and the book’s reflections on The American Dream, I could not help drawing several connections to our commonly made New Year’s Resolutions. In the classic story, Nick Caraway, a Yale man hoping to strike it big in the bond business in the Roaring Twenties, gives the account of his eccentric neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Living in a colossal mansion outside of New York City, Gatsby was famed for holding dazzling weekly parties; everyone who was anyone attended and laughter, music, and liquor ran freely. A virtual icon of the American Dream, we learn of the humble origins of Gatsby and his tragic dreams that become entangled with his love with Daisy. Gatsby spared no effort to reach Daisy, who was symbolized by the green light that shone from the end of Daisy’s dock on the opposite side of the harbor, yet always came up short. Never doubting himself, he always thought if tomorrow he just tried a little harder, he could finally reach her. Sound familiar?
The fact is the dream that Gatsby held, which (allowing for variations) we all hold, is ultimately impossible to reach. The American Dream is fundamentally flawed. The pursuit of material wealth, power, and personal achievement will always be just out of reach. While we should not neglect our material life, we need to realize that there is deeper meaning to our daily struggles and dreams in life. Unfortunately, it was too late for Gatsby to learn this lesson. The classic view of the American Dream is flawed; there is a deeper meaning in the world, and a reformed Dream is in order.
What is the American Dream? It is not hard to describe, although it may take many forms. The traditional image comes to mind of a factory worker, a young entrepreneur, or a family setting off in a wagon looking for a better life out West. The idea that, striving hard enough, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and do anything we desire. All one needs is the will to succeed. It is also important to note that the American Dream, like so many of our New Year’s Resolutions, has a particular material element. We would like a slightly larger house, a remodeled kitchen, a new car, and a better job to pay for it all. While it usually includes earthly riches, there is often also a certain degree of prestige and power that is blended in, especially for the more politically ambitious. Occasionally, this dream is complemented with more relational desires such as developing stronger relationships with family, friends, and acquaintances. Three things are always required: a goal or dream, an undying sense of will power, and ensured reward in the end. A dream fundamentally flawed.
Fitzgerald fittingly described the holes of this dream in the last few lines of Gatsby, where Caraway is left describing the dream and lifestyle pursued by his extraordinary neighbor:
I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock… Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Gatsby never reached his goal, and most Americans never will. The goal will always have the despicable habit of moving one step further down the road. In the Roaring Twenties, the stock market boomed, men were made wealthy overnight, and suddenly everything seemed possible. However, it is quickly apparent that these goals will never satisfy. As the wise Solomon observed in Ecclesiastes 5:10, “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” Personal material gains are relative. There will always be someone with more. Greed greases the whole system.
Somewhat ironically, Adam Smith the author of The Wealth of Nations and the intellectual father of much of the modern capitalistic system associated with the American Dream warned of this myth. Near one of his classic passages in which he describes the invisible hand, the hypothesized hand that guides everyone’s individual ambitions into serving the general good, Smith critiques the very system of material desires that provide fuel for his economic system:
Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body… though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to disease, to danger, and to death… It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.
Even Smith recognizes that blatant material goals that motivate people are really mere trifles. These trifles are not reserved for super-rich, but are often available to those of the most humble means. The beggar in the streets has much of the same security, “that kings are fighting for.” In which case, what is the point? Toys, a new car, a new speedboat, or one more fine dress will do little to bring one true happiness and do even less to protect one from the real calamities of life. Gatsby always thought that he was merely one step away from achieving his dream, yet even the Great Gatsby’s dreams crashed and burned, and slipped into the past.
If we are not to pursue the American Dream, what are we to pursue? What do we really want in life? While true happiness has always been an elusive subject that has received the treatment of dozens of books and lectures, I would humbly suggest two areas that should be the core of our dreams and desires: relationships and spiritual growth.
Ultimately, people hold a central position in God’s creation. When Jesus Christ came down to earth, what did he do? With whom did he associate? He related with people, especially common folk. About a year ago I remember a speaker to our college Chapel who made this point crystal clear to his young audience: “Jesus was always serving the person in front of him.” Instead viewing people as obstacles to get around to achieve our goals, or worse, as tools to achieve our ambitions, we should focus our efforts on serving the people, whoever they may be, that we encounter in life.
The centrality of building life-long relationships is commonly referred to throughout literature and movies. Over the Christmas break, I also happened to finally watch Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and the Frog (a bit behind on the ball, right?). I was shocked to see how clearly the film exemplified the core position that relationships should have in our dreams. In one of the key musical numbers, Mama Odie, a “good” witch-doctor who fulfills the sage archetype, asks the two amphibian protagonists to “dig a little deeper” to uncover their dreams. Instead of Prince Naveen pursuing riches or Tiana placing all of her hopes in owning a restaurant, Mama Odie encouraged them to find happiness in the people around them, and in their case, each other. While it is always dangerous to place all your worth in other people, growing quality friendships and relationships will prove to be more long lasting than the mere pursuit of physical wealth or power.
However, people also fail and should not be the sole source of our happiness. Ultimately, we must place our ultimate fulfillment in life in something that transcends our earthly forms. Cars rust, cherished books collect dust, fancy homes deteriorate. Regardless of how firmly we set off to fulfill this year’s New Year’s Resolutions, we are probably already feeling the short-sightedness of many of these goals. A transcendent goal is needed. We need something that is permanent, something that will not only pass the test of time in our lives, but in the lives of our children and great grandfathers. For myself? I have found this ultimate value in the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. I know that in the end, faithfulness and growth in him is true progress in life. He will stand like a rock against both the highs and lows that the worrisome tide of life will continually sweep upon us. It is critical to have an eternal center to your goals. It is also important to note that this isn’t even strictly Christian advice, as Stephen Covey wrote in the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
The spiritual dimension is your core, your center, your commitment to your value system. It’s a very private area of life and a supremely important one. It draws upon the sources that inspire and uplift you and tie you to the timeless truths of all humanity. And people do it very differently.
While there will be perpetual struggles, wars within our fallen selves, we can at least find a degree of security in our relationships and our focus on God.
This is a reformed dream. It is a dream no longer dependent on material success, personal advancement, or prestigious titles. Please do not misunderstand me, I do not believe that all material concerns and motives to be folly. On the contrary, we live in a physical world and it is necessary for us to maintain ourselves. As C. S. Lewis noted, “to like doing what must be done is a characteristic that has survival value.” Despite the chinks in the Great Gatsby’s dreams, they were at least partially redeemed in and of themselves by the very drive that they inspired in him. Nick Caraway, reflecting on this characteristic in the beginning of the book, described it as a, “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life… an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again,” and as he called out to his fated neighbor at the close of the book, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Gatsby’s determination and drive should be admired, not despised. They key to his downfall, and our potential salvation, is not his energy but his object. As we make New Year’s Resolutions, as we should, we must always remember to keep a pure and proper end in mind. We will never “beat the ratchet,” and even if we do, what then? We must be careful not to be that sad soul, who, upon becoming so exciting in climbing the great ladder of life, reaches the top only to realize that he has been climbing the wrong wall.