COVID-19 and its isolation, its fear, its financial insecurities, its constant reminder of our mortality.
The “Era of Trump” and all its attendant releasing of those dark, aggressive, horrifying things we have been trying to repress in the Pandora’s Box of America. The holidays and the coming New Year, paired with the astronomical Great Conjunction and the potential Age of Aquarius. There has never been a better time for philosophers and contemplatives. There has rarely been a better time to evaluate your life and decide what matters, what doesn’t, what to nurture, and what to let go.
I would like to let go of the American dream. I would like to let go of the invisible pressures I put on myself (that nobody but me really cares about). I would like to let go of black and white thinking and wondering if I am okay or not okay. No one else is going to do it for me. I want to see myself clearly in literal and figurative mirrors, and turn the lights on bright to see every wrinkle, and not only accept those wrinkles, but love them and find them charming. God knows I have earned them.
I have always been a bit left of center. Mental illness and eccentricity run strong in my family, along with a love for booze and religious enthusiasms that seemed to be compensating for something else.
I don’t judge. The mentally ill, the spiritually excited, and the eccentric are my friends—sometimes, I am one of them too.
I work as a social worker for the mentally ill. Their delusions, psychosis, and addiction to cigarettes comfort me. (It’s the authenticity and lack of subterfuge.) It is the shiny, happy people, the seemingly well-adjusted, the climbers of the ladder of success, who frighten and confuse me. The world often seems insane, with its random violence and money-lust and horrors committed to its animals and children. Those who appear so comfortably adapted to it can seem like patients in a mental hospital who do not realize they are in an atmosphere of madness.
However, these fellow citizens—the ones who have sweet 401K packages, will be able to retire with the income to take charming river cruises through Europe, don’t have to sweat how to send their children to summer camp—still seem to be the majority. The rulers of the world. Especially in America.
The people who grew up middle-class like me—followed the path of finishing college in their 20s and finding a career, building their resumes, making good money by their 30s, with the house and spouse and 2.5 kids and vacations that require plane travel—can be intimidating to talk to at cocktail parties. (Remember cocktail parties?) These are the owners of the old American Dream.
The old American dream was about always moving forward, always achieving, always sweating to stay as successful as your neighbors.
Work was the religion, the Puritanical inheritance, and your Earthly reward was a nice house and a shiny car in the garage. You had no time because you were always working, but that did not matter. You were an American; you lived to work. And you even found ways to fill up your leisure time with plenty of productive activities. True leisure was un-American; that was what the French did.
Americans have drive, have ambition, have goals. Americans like to stay busy and learn new things—further their education and career opportunities. Americans are always doing, never just being. At those long lost cocktail parties, most people seemed to enjoy talking about their jobs, their hopes for those jobs, and maybe getting their master’s or wanting to. They’ve got some type of fire under their asses. They are making things happen, or trying to—or at least pretending (really well) that they are trying to.
Besides kitchen-sink, basic anxiety and depression, I don’t have any disabilities. But my lack of ambition feels like a minor disability, like being born without the ability to enjoy food or music or hugs. Maybe it’s the depression, which loves to tell me that nothing really matters, you’ll be dead in 50 years, and why bother? It definitely could be a contributing factor. When you’re frequently depressed, it can be hard to tell if you are depressed or just lazy. I would say it’s a case of either or both. Whatever the case, it feels like a secret I hold to myself, requiring a mask to put on in social situations. I don’t really care a lot about my career (shhh, don’t tell anyone).
Remember the good old days, in your teens and 20s, when parties were really parties? People were indulging in substances and quaffing beer and wine like Gatorade after a marathon. People were hooking up consentingly in bedrooms; the music was loud; the lights were low (and may have involved a strobe light). And, people were having strange, raw, and real conversations (mostly). They may not have always been the most intellectual, but they were sincere; they were full of excitement.
People weren’t talking about their last vacation to Thailand or the Antibes. People weren’t talking about their coursework for the master’s program or a new initiative at work that they are very excited about. People weren’t talking about how pumped they were for their new kitchen cabinets being installed and how they had YouTubed the best way to grill Tilapia.
Sure, they were talking about their hopes and dreams at those old parties, but in beautifully vague and poetic terms. They were going to backpack through South America, start a feminist punk band, or the next New Yorker magazine (but less pretentious). The concepts were full of excitement—devoid of wonky details. It was the idea that mattered—the dream, the vision of who you were becoming. It wasn’t mired in bummer details and grown-up, practical realities. It was full of fire, and hope, and beautifully stupid and unrealistic enthusiasm. Someone would talk about their goals, and then sloppily and enthusiastically air guitar to Led Zeppelin and fall down the stairs. Now people talk about their goals in sensible, realistic details and say they need to leave and get home to the babysitter.
We grow up. I get it. But we don’t have to grow so old.
So reasonable, so settled, so often accepting of mediocrity or compromise, so unable to remember true passion and lust for life. We, Americans, especially, seem to grow up in ways that cut us off abruptly from our younger, weirder, more authentic selves. We hit 18, and we are no longer a human being; we are an employee, a student, a worker, with the primary goal, to reference George Carlin, “To labor hard for decades so as to be able to buy lots of boxes to put into the giant box of our homes. Then we retire in Florida, play lots of golf, and die.”
I love my work. I enjoy it. It brings meaning to my life, but I have little interest in discussing it with anyone but my coworkers. Work and children, this seems to be what grown-ups talk about (throw in vacations, yoga practice, and TV shows, and that pretty much covers it).
What do I want to talk about? I want to talk about anger, sadness, confusion, despair, and joy. I want to talk about people’s difficult relationship challenges, including my own. I want to talk about the meaning and meaninglessness of life. I want to talk about that deep, almost constant void we all feel but cover up with spiritual practices, deep breathing, dark chocolate, and bourbon. I want to talk about ways to bring more light into our days, into our hours, into our hearts.
I also want to talk about music and sex and food and politics, tattoos, shoes, and dumb TV shows from the 80s. I want our wise, humbled, beat-down, exhausted, carefully-hopeful adult selves to also invite our excited, fumbling, puppy-dog-like younger selves into the conversation. I want to meld the passion of youth with the depth and sagacity of age. I want to have stupid conversations about deep things (and vice versa).
I want to see someone in their 40s talk about the meaning of life and then air guitar to classic rock and fall down the stairs.
As someone who has been writing for a couple of decades, someone who pursues, for better or worse, some form of artistic creation, my heroes have always been the bohemians, the artists, the beautiful freaks trying to bring some form of truth and raw beauty to the world. In their quest for deep communication through art, they often suffered profoundly. (Or were unable to find ways to engage with society in ways that made sense to them.)
Some of my heroes are: Jack Kerouac, who worked as a mediocre train brakeman, lived with his mother most of his life, did not raise his daughter, and died of alcoholism in his 40s. Virginia Woolf, who walked into a river with stones in her pocket and never walked out. Van Gogh, supported by his brother’s money and spending his last years in a mental asylum. The 27 club: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Robert Johnson (all dead too soon).
These people lived imperfect, often dysfunctional, lives. But they lived. They were tuning into something deep and eternal and meaningful, and they did not hold back.
Yes, all my heroes are suicidal alcoholics. (That would make a great bumper sticker.) It’s not entirely true, but there’s truth to it. But really, all my heroes are strange innovators, eccentrics, mavericks who changed America, and the world, by being themselves—their truest, deepest selves—with total commitment. They grew older, but they did not lose their childlike wonder and creativity. When I have felt disappointed by America’s greed, racism, and military-industrial addictions in the past, I have found comfort in loving America if only for all the great art, music, and movies we create. It speaks to the true soul of America. And, thanks to freedom of speech (more or less), we Americans create art that is powerful, profound, and breathtaking.
That is the America that I love the most—that will never die.
We just have too much to express. One thing about America: we go big.
I don’t mean to glorify substance abuse or suicide. I still am recovering from my brother’s death, almost 25 years later. What I am glorifying is human beings who seem to have come to Earth to remind us of the holiness of life, the sanctity of existence, of consciousness, of emotion, of truth-telling. Some can handle this immense power; some cannot. To look life deep in the eye, to feel all the feels, to have the light of consciousness pour upon you so directly, is dangerous and exhausting and scary. It is a double-edged sword, and not everyone can keep swinging it. Some turn it upon themselves.
There are shooting stars—the obvious, miraculous beings, famous poets and rock stars and painters and thinkers, who held large, heavy swords and never seemed meant for a regular workaday existence. Then there are those of us, like myself, who have artistic sensibilities—too many emotions, too many thoughts, doubts, and dreams—who have made it to middle age with steady jobs, families, and responsibilities. And they never end, man. But we can’t quite bring ourselves to drink the Kool-Aid of middle-class respectability. We can’t quite put the harness upon ourselves. We are aging bohemians, dreamers, artists of the flesh and spirit, in a world that prefers facts, money, and clear answers.
We always want more, and yet what we want is hard to define and hard to explain. We want meaning, but we don’t go to church. We want to go to heavy metal shows and lose our minds with tasty riffs that blow our heads back, but we want to be seated because our feet get sore. We want to straddle the world of spirit and the world of flesh, but the world of flesh keeps forcing us to pay too much attention to it—its car insurance and plumbing repairs and stupid fights with our partner about how you forgot to get the butternut squash they requested twice and why don’t you ever really listen?
America, in particular, asks us to pay attention to the world of flesh—HR manuals and numbers and hard bills coming in the mail. America is very binary; it has clear winners and losers. Everything is a contest, a Monopoly game. And not wanting to play the game is a source of shame and failure.
I am done with the American dream.
Covid, Trump, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and unemployment rates to rival the Great Depression have taught us all that the “American Dream” of old is dead. The buffer so many of us believed in—security, safety, common sense, justice, facts, truth, love for those different than you—has been destroyed. The hard truths are here. And they are painful. But they are necessary to learn from; they inspire us to change, to adapt, and to be our best selves. From the ashes of the old American dream, a phoenix is rising. A phoenix of, if nothing else, more truth, more consciousness, more clear choices of what is right and what is wrong—what is of the light and what is of the darkness.
It is a relief to put down this American dream—the one so many of us already questioned but wanted to believe in, perhaps because it was easy. It is a relief to remember that we are more than our jobs and our hobbies and our (often false) identities of confidence and capability. Right now, in the hard crucible of 2020, if we can admit to it, most of us are hot messes, tired of staring our fears and insecurities and eventual deaths in the face. We want to escape, but our escape has been temporarily denied. (Even Netflix can’t save us.) So, instead, we can lean in; we can peer into ourselves; we can decide who we really are (or want to be).
My ex-wife has many good qualities, but she wanted me to be something I was not: a hard-working dude really into climbing the ladder. I would rather be a good employee who comes home and has time to take hikes, write, read, loaf, and dream.
I want to come home and not worry about returning work emails or practicing my big presentation for the meeting tomorrow. Sometimes, I want to come home and watch stupid TV. More than anything, I want some level of freedom; freedom is priceless. That is the true American dream. That is the dream of the world—freedom of time, freedom of justice, freedom to be our truest selves.
I am a great father; I care about my clients; I try my best to be a good partner, recycle thoughtfully, practice the Golden Rule. I own a home, and we can afford to take modest vacations and drink whole-bean, fair-trade coffee. I try to be a good friend, and I try to be a good neighbor and citizen of the world. I am a good tax-paying adult.
But I am also a lifelong bohemian who only really needs love, a roof over the head, books, nature, dark chocolate, wine, and song. I’m not perfect; my life isn’t perfect. But I am alive—running, stumbling, getting up, and running until I fall again, just like the rest of us.
It may be that I will someday retire and never be able to afford that damn European river cruise or pay much for my daughter’s wedding or buy that vintage motorcycle I always wanted.
That’s okay. My daughter can elope or pay for it herself, and a cool, old bicycle would be great, too. And I’ve already been to Europe once. (How many incredible, old buildings can you see?)
I don’t want the American Dream. I just want to be an old guy who can talk about really deep stuff at cocktail parties and then air guitar to classic rock on Spotify.
(Hopefully, without falling down the stairs. I would probably break a hip.)