story of “The American Dream” has long been one of possibility, hard work, and success. We tell this story over and over not only in our entertainment, but also in every political speech, in most product advertising, in classrooms, and even in parental advice. We tell our children that these three things — if thoroughly followed — will bring fulfillment and happiness.
“Through hard work you can achieve anything and have the life of your dreams.”
“Stick to it and eventually everything will work out.”
“Winners don’t give up.”
We want our children to “succeed” and even by using that word, we are reinforcing the old, and I believe, dangerous elements of the “American Dream” story. So why is this dangerous? What is so bad about possibility, hard work, and success?
I’d like to move outside judgments of good and bad and instead offer a perspective as a storyteller. In the age of social media, round-the-clock news, and smart phones, this particular version of the American Dream story can lead our children down a challenging road.
First of all, “possibility” is directly related to privilege. Certain demographics have more possibility than other demographics. A wealthy, straight, white Anglo male has a different amount of possibility than most other Americans. Again, I’m not judging that fact – I’m just saying it isn’t a very accessible story to many people.
Then there is hard work. I am not against hard work. I work hard. My wife works hard. Some of my most inspiring friends work hard. But the truth is, the famous “Protestant Work Ethic” is a story that doesn’t line up for many many people. Some people need to work two jobs just to keep their families fed. Other people work 70-plus hours to afford their vacation homes. Hard work was a good American story in the agrarian, small-town era of this country – but now it feels played out. It feels nostalgic. In this age of Amazon, Google, and viral videos – when accomplishment seems almost random – the hard work story can seem like a set up.
And “Success” — well, that story can breed some very bad behavior. The drive to “succeed” generally means the drive to be rich and famous. This makes people do whatever they need to do to be better, faster, bolder, or meaner to get the job done. It often involves lying, cheating, and stealing – or at least a fair amount of manipulation. Again, I am not against fame and riches — but it is a story that no longer brings out the best in people. No – for that, we need a new story.
As a teacher, a father, and now a storyteller, I have searched for better and more effective stories for the children in my life — and I found three that might surprise you. At first glance, they may seem antithetical to the American Dream story we know, but when told in language children can understand, I believe they have the strongest chance of making us a greater nation and leading us to a more fulfilling life — one that is more in line with the true nature of what the American Dream is all about. Stick with me and try these on.
The forgiveness story lives in many religions and spiritual practices but I’m not sure it is deeply understood in common American culture. When we forgive, we feel better. This is because we are no longer carrying resentments and old wounds around. When we forgive, we let go — and then we can move on. When we forgive someone who has wronged us or someone we love, it doesn’t mean we don’t insist there be justice or some accounting – it just means that we are no longer lugging the emotional burden around with us wherever we go.
In America, forgiveness is often considered weak – it is considered naïve and childlike. We don’t forgive because the old American story is about strength. To forgive is definitely not the action of a cowboy, right? I don’t agree. To forgive is to free yourself of emotional weight so you can be truly strong. It is true warriorship and the sign of a very powerful person. America would do well on the world stage if it learned how to forgive. So much energy would be available to us. Energy that could be used to transform the world.
The recovery story is the foundation of organizations that help people recover from drugs, alcohol and other addictions. Recovering addicts hear the stories of their peers and they find identification, hope, and inspiration. The recovery story always has a “bottom” or the lowest place that person sunk to. Perhaps they lost all their money, or their partner, or their dignity. They admit everything and are completely transparent — no lying, no sugar coating — just the ugly truth. Then they describe what they did to recover – what they did to get better – and finally, they talk about what life is like now living with humility and a hunger to help others.
Sometimes I wonder if America is now hitting its bottom. I wonder if we are so obsessed and addicted to growth and power that we have lost our way. We distract, we get offended, we consume quantities of bile and then spread it around to others. If indeed we are hitting a bottom, perhaps the Recovery Story is what we need to hear and what we need to tell.
But a recovery story for children doesn’t have to be about addiction. I recommend focusing instead on the “bottom” and how the character was able to “rise from the ashes” and be a better person because of it.
Here is where the real strength is – especially for men. Violence, oppression, harassment, and manipulation can be suddenly transformed by one brave act of vulnerability. We in America secretly love this story but are afraid to authentically own it. We are amazed when Obi Wan Kenobi raises his arms and lets Darth Vader kill him. It is confusing but invigorating at the same time because deep down we understand what it means. In our vulnerability, we are stronger. When we yield, when we are honest, when we admit our mistakes and faults and pain – then no one can touch us. We are invincible. If America could embrace its secret vulnerability, then we could become the inspiring leaders that the world wants us to be. In our honesty, in our authenticity, and by embracing our shadow, we could take the world into the next chapter.
Consider telling your children stories about times you forgave someone and when you were forgiven. Tell them about a difficult season in your life and how that time helped you become a little more humble and wish to be a better person. And give your children the gift of your vulnerability. Children know vulnerability and when they see their strong, capable parents show their own vulnerabilities, it feels like warm acceptance of who they truly are.
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