Grieving the Loss of the American Dream

7 years ago

For the past few years, I've been wondering why so many strange incidents keep occurring:  every vote in Congress is a filibuster; Joe Stack flies an airplane into the IRS building; snipers shoot students and teachers in classrooms; men kill their wives and families. Babies are murdered at the border. Senators are found with cash in their freezers. Devout Christians are exposed as philanderers. Otherwise intelligent people believe the President is not an American. 

I don't remember this many violent incidents occurring in quick succession every before in my life. Admittedly, part of that is the 24-hour news cycle, but there's also something else. The social contract that underpinned the US seems to be falling apart.
And here's why: I believe the entire United States, as a culture, is grieving. Individually and collectively/ We are grieving for the American dream, which we now correctly assume is gone. And because there are so many of us, we are all at different stages in the grief cycle.  
According the Kübler-Ross model, "there are five stages that a dying person goes through when they are told that they have a terminal illness. The five stages go in progression through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model has been widely adopted by other authors and applied to many other situations where someone suffers a loss or change in social identity." 

For many years, as we watched wages stagnate and jobs go offshore, we were in denial. As the world became global, we moved from denial through anger at offshoring to bargaining: we made a deal with India and China that we would outsource certain jobs to them in exchange for cheap products.

We are now, obviously, in a depression.  Not just an economic depression, but a coming to terms with the fact that our lives, as Americans, will never be the same.  Our kids will not live as well as we did. If we are older, we're depressed because our retirements have been wiped out either by falling home prices, unfunded pension plans, bankrupt companies, stock market gyrations, or layoffs when we are 50. Younger people are depressed because they can't afford kids, can't get health insurance, are watching the decline of public education, and can't find jobs even when they are college graduates.

We thought the American dream was one of opportunity, and that opportunity seems to have been snatched from us.

What's next? Acceptance. It's the only possible healthy response. We have to redefine ourselves as individuals and as a nation. We have to rethink and re-invent in light of the available opportunities. Unfortunately, not everyone in the country gets to the same stage of grief at the same time. 

While some are already at acceptance, starting new companies or finding joy in things that aren't material, others are still hoping to cheat the inevitable death of the American dream, stuck somewhere along the grief spectrum. Most of us are still caught somewhere in these stages.

Unions, for example, are bargaining for wages and benefits the employers simply can't provide. They were born to bargain: what do they do when that utility is over? 
Political parties are bargaining for power, at the expense of the public.

Gun rights activists are still angry, thinking that if they can carry their guns unconcealed into bars and restaurants that will solve everything for them. So are Tea Party activists, who are angry at taxes. And anti-immigration activists are angry at outsiders. Oh, if we could only blame somebody.

The people who shoot their families and commit suicide are in depression, seeing nothing better ahead.

But the American dream may always have been an apparition, a mirage just a bit further out in the distance. If we look at it that way, we can just keep walking, as a nation, putting one foot in front of the other, and perhaps even beginning to enjoy the journey again.

GV: 816-WRITTEN (9748836)

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