The Fallacy of the American Dream

You know it well. Even if you aren’t American — everyone is familiar with The American Dream. It goes something like this:

Go to college.

Get a good job.

Get married and probably have kids.

Buy a house.

Save some money.

Retire so you can live “your dream.”

I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with this. In fact, The American Dream really came about post-World War II, with a rising middle class and prosperity in the good old USA. And for many immigrants who come here, especially if they’ve come from a place or life where such things are impossible — maybe due to war or poverty or totalitarianism, simply being able to have an education and good home for your family are the end goals — I do not in any way mean to demean this dream.

But over the last few decades, some more unspoken items have really become woven into the fabric of The American Dream. Bear with me here; I am getting to what this has to do with travel in a moment.

Do what is expected of you. Don’t buck the system.

Buy lots of stuff.

Buy even more stuff; stuff you don’t need. It will soon own you.

Work harder and harder to get ahead; it doesn’t matter if you hate your job, or rarely see your family.

There are always prescription drugs and more toys you can buy to help with your stress and unhappiness.

Happiness? What is that anyway?

Hey….what actually happened to my dreams??

The American Dream has gotten way out of hand. Today it seems that so many people toil in jobs they don’t like, to buy more stuff to make them feel better about it, to send their kids to expensive private schools and buy them expensive gadgets, to get those corporate benefits and that two-week vacation each year (which most Americans don’t even use all of, by the way.)

There is something wrong with this picture.

 Some rights reserved by Jerome T

The inspiration for my musings over this topic came to me when I read a rather brilliant piece by Rachel Denning at the BootsnAll Indie Travel Guide. Rachel’s article is one of the most true, honest and moving accounts I have ever read about the way that travel isn’t just about travel — but about the way it transforms us, completely changes our outlook on life and our entire philosophy. She captured perfectly all of my own thoughts about travel, and why The American Dream is one of the biggest impediments to seeing the world.

Her story was called, appropriately enough, Why You Should Forgo the American Dream and Let Travel Transform Your Life.

The Denning Family

After leading a typically affluent, successful family lifestyle in the US, Rachel and her husband and children decided to change their lifestyle, to travel and live in a foreign country. (Rachel chronicles her family’s journey at her blog, Discover Share Inspire).

But it didn’t happen overnight, and they didn’t really lose The American Dream overnight. The first move was to Costa Rica, and as Rachel writes:

We rented out our model home, sold our model furniture, and liquidated some other real estate. Within 8 months,we loaded up our four children in our fancy SUV to embark on a border crossing, reality-expanding adventure driving from the U.S. to Costa Rica, where we planned to make a new home.

We made it to Costa Rica, but we brought America with us. We kept up with the Jones’ (the other expats), shopped at the local HyperMas (owned by Walmart), and lived in a 6500 sq. ft. mansion.

We looked at buying one of the dozens of newly built homes …my husband was offered a career making six figures. The idea was to follow the formula until we were back to making lots of money, and then we would be able to travel again.

However, when we thought about actually committing to those things, we realized they were moving us further away from travel instead of closer to it.

To quote Shakespeare: Ah, there’s the rub. Living The American Dream actually stops you from truly seeing the world; in fact, can really stop you from living. All those things that you accumulate? Guess what, they begin to own you. You are trapped in a little gilt cage that you made with your own two hands.

But Rachel goes on to write:

But doing what was logical wasn’t what was in our hearts. Instead we were dreaming of the illogical and unreasonable – the impossible – traveling the world with our children; learning together from personal experiences; studying languages and cultures; encountering history and customs first-hand.

Why couldn’t we explore jungles, discover beaches, observe wildlife, learn other tongues, try new foods, examine ruins, and traverse continents? Why couldn’t that be the dream we pursue, the plan for raising and educating our kids (not to mention ourselves)?

We spent six incredible months learning a new way of life – simplifying, living with less and living without. Travel had taught us new skills, new thought patterns, new approaches to life in general.

And that didn’t come by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all our lives.

Rachel Denning's kids in the Dominican Republic; photo from BootsnAll

As Rachel says, it isn’t really about the travel itself. Travel was the tool, the method to the outcome. The real addiction was to the personal transformation that travel extracts from your mind and your soul.

It causes you to be uncomfortable, to step out of the familiar and into the unknown. It compels you to see with new eyes and to consider things you had never been aware of.

Travel is less about seeing sights than it is about searching your soul.

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2 Comments on “The Fallacy of the American Dream”

  1. July 6, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    Nice! You make me think and I guess I don’t know that it is that the American Dream is a fallacy per se. I do think that, what it is, is too narrow a focus on the things you mention. Everything in life is about balance. You help show other possibilities as to what a good life can be – thanks.

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  2. Laurel
    December 3, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    I followed the link to Rachel’s article and read it. Very interesting — but the article did NOT specify how they made money to live on during their travels. It said what they did not do on that front, but didn’t spell out what they DID do. I’d like to know what they did.

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