In very general terms, the “American Dream” can probably best be defined as the promise of a better life for ourselves and our children. What constitutes a “better life” has always been the subject of debate. Freedom and self-determination were probably at the core of things that motivated the migration of people from other parts of the world to North America, from before the American Revolution to the present day. Seemingly lost in our currently challenged economic climate, and perhaps distracted by the posturing, venom and impotence that seem to characterize our current political environment, it is very easy to forget what we still have. It is also disturbingly easy to imagine a permanent loss of some of the fundamental things that we were raised to believe would be ours, as Americans, forever.
It has been argued that Americans have become much too focused on material gain, and perhaps nothing like a near-death experience or a deep recession can cause a serious re-evaluation of our collective priorities and values. This point in history is probably not the first time a culture has been forced to re-examine itself… its assumptions… its goals… its aspirations. The “Roaring Twenties,” just before the Great Depression, probably bore many similarities to the United States of 2007 or 2008. Although few alive today are old enough to have any personal recollection, the Great Depression of the 1930’s was far more traumatic that what we are currently enduring in this country. And it took something that threatened our very existence—a World War—to bring us out of it. But we survived as a nation. The dream endured and even thrived over the next several decades, thanks largely to the personal sacrifices, stubborn optimism and relentless determination of people we have come to characterize as “The Greatest Generation.”
Despite the self-doubt of current generations, and perhaps with an almost unconscious recognition that we may have been excessively focused on material things in the decades preceding this latest and most stressful economic downturn, one can hardly characterize the aspiration of home ownership as excessively materialistic. It goes to the yearning for self-determination that has motivated people to uproot and settle in this nation, or uproot and start again in another region of the nation, since the country was in its infancy. We can “beat ourselves up” over the selfishness or Narcissism that seems to have characterized so many of us in recent decades… or our failure to be as prudent and forward-looking as our parents or grandparents… or the opportunities we may have missed or squandered on the way to the current economic crisis; but it is hard to argue that the aspiration of owning a decent home, in a secure neighborhood, for ourselves and our children is too much to hope for.
In all the stress, confusion and uncertainty that seems to pervade our current national psyche, we seem to have lost sight of this. Many of lost confidence in themselves and their country. Many have good reason for this. There are those who may have overextended themselves financially, and filed bankruptcy as a last resort. There are those who bought homes during the real estate boom in areas in which prices and values seemed to be on a perpetual trajectory upward, only to discover in 2009 or 2010 that they owed far more on their dream home than it was likely to be worth for a very long time—perhaps in their lifetime. Lenders who had been quick to approve loans for acquisition during the boom were very slow to recognize any need for loan modification or cooperation in efforts at short sales. And many of these home owners opted to allow “strategic foreclosure,” walking away and hoping to start again with a clean slate. For those who have been through any of the above– and they now number in the millions—it may seem like the American Dream has become an impossible dream.
The reality is probably something much less dramatic, and much less dismal. They say time heals all wounds; and the wounds many have suffered through in recent years have been deep and traumatic. But I have to believe that our country has seen worse and managed to survive and even prosper. There was World War II… and the Great Depression before it. Perhaps the greatest, most devastating challenge in the life of this nation and in the lives of hundreds of thousands of individual Americans was the Civil War; a war in which more American lives were lost than in all the conflicts fought before or after. We might all benefit from one who was most familiar with the stresses and extreme hardships of the Civil War, speaking on how the nation might proceed toward an end of the war. Abraham Lincoln said at his second inauguration, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
The reality our nation now faces is infinitely less difficult than that faced at the end of the Civil War. We may arguably lack leadership even approaching the stature of an Abraham Lincoln, but the personal suffering and sacrifices many of us face, while difficult and demoralizing, cannot honestly compare to the hardships suffered by most of the nation by the end of the Civil War, nor during the Great Depression, nor during World War II.
Perhaps for a lack of political leadership, we need to do the best we can to take control of our individual destinies. That would take us full-circle to the spirit in which the nation was born, and it might go a long way toward enabling us each to believe again in the great American Dream.