Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When extravagance isn't the answer

Last night, while cleaning out my daughters' fish tanks, I was listening to NPR, and they broadcast an extraordinary program which was just so illuminating that I found myself thinking it ought to be required listening for every graduating high school student. The program, created by Kate Ellis and Ellen Guettler, was called "A Better Life: Creating the American Dream," and you can listen to it or read a full transcript of it here.

The statement of the program's premise is this:

The American dream has roots in the nation's loftiest ideals - the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So when did it also come to mean a house, a car and a college education?

As they walked through this amazingly perceptive overview of the history of the American dream I was particularly struck, not just by President Gerald Ford's efforts to curb inflation and consumption (I definitely did NOT remember that), but by a quotation from President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" Speech, delivered thirty years ago this month on July 15, 1979. In the speech, which was intended to address the energy crisis (remember those long lines at the gas stations?) Carter said, "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." How curious it is, I thought, that we've been struggling with this issue for so long.

And then, this morning, in Elizabeth Lesser's book, The Seeker's Guide, I read these words about Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and its astonishing promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"The great strengths of America can be traced to this revolutionary promise. But the weakened soul of the nation can also be traced to the promise. John Adams warned of the dangers of the promise when he wrote, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." The drafters of the Declaration of Independence were well aware of the risks they were taking when they signed off on such a radical promise. Thomas Jefferson took the greatest risk when he substituted the words "the pursuit of happiness" for the original word, "property," in the trinity of inalienable rights. and while he pointed out that "happiness is attainable only by diligent cultivation of civic virtue," he was unclear on how, or even if, that civic virtue could be legislated...the promise set in motion the ongoing dialogue between the old value system of Puritan restraint and civic duty and the new hankering for self-expression and individual advancement."

Lesser goes on to explain that "in retrospect we can see that our founding fathers opened a Pandora's box by molding a govenment around individual freedom and happiness. Even as the American Constitution was being crafted,debate raged around the possibility of its lofty ideals being distorted by self-serving individuals. The correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in their later years is full of concerns of what could happen in America if its citizens took advantage of the sacred promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"AT THE SAME TIME," she writes, "Americans were in the process of shifting their definition of happiness from the procurement of rights to the acquisition of things. Industry, mobility, and communication technology all contributed to the rise of consumerism as an American passion. To have more was to be happy."

So there we have it: the struggles we face today, the challenges we have as a country in learning to balance a commitment to the common good with our individual striving and needs -- the urge to acquire and consume -- are a natural outgrowth of the founding premise of our country. Does that excuse or justify our extraordinary materialism and acquisitiveness; our ridiculous and ever-more extravagant "needs"? And, more importantly, does this emphasis on individuality necessarily preclude spirituality?

I think we can all agree that allowing the materialism to flourish unchecked by spirituality is a serious problem. But isn't it also true that those founding principles are giving birth to a uniquely American spirituality? Lesser goes on to address that very thing:

"We are witnessing the birth of a wisdom tradition that is uniquely American. Within traditional organized religions, as well as in the hybrid creations of our times, the stamp of American thinking is plain. We see the American spirit in the proliferation of nonaffiliated Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Islamic churches, and also in the profound changes within sanctioned denominations. This spirit values independence from religious hierarchy. It crosses religious and social boundaries, telling the tale of a diverse people, gathered in close proximity, and absorbing each other's ways of worshiping, ritualizing, and mythologizing the great mysteries of life... It respects both a mistrust of heavy-handed authority and the willing surrender to a higher power."

What intrigues me about all of this is that I hear echoes of something I learned in a workshop a few years back and which continues to crop up in my readings and thought: our greatest weaknesses always have the potential to become our greatest strengths -- in fact a quotation to that effect surfaced in a conversation with a neighbor just the other day. It’s from Brother Tolbert McCarroll’s Notes from the Song of Life, and I've put it in this blog before:

“You are like a blade of a knife. When you were born your edge was sharp. But it did not stay sharp. With use it will dull and need to be resharpened. So at birth you were also given a whetstone. Your natural weakness is your whetstone. Through it you sharpen your edge. Without it you would remain dull."

What if that tricky phrase, the pursuit of happiness, were our own corporate whetstone as a nation? And if that's true, wouldn't it be wise to begin to question what exactly makes us happy? Now, at a time when so many people are realizing that things -- addictions, whether to stuff, or drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or other things we can over-accumulate or overuse -- actually DON'T make us happy, isn't it possible that we could, as a nation, begin to work toward realizing that the happiness of others feeds our souls; that connection with the divine feeds our souls; that a sense of purpose feeds our souls; that it is THOSE things which will ultimately make us truly happy?

Well, heck; a girl can dream, can't she?

1 comment:

altar ego said...

So much to consider in this post, and I'm afraid that my reflection would end up being as long as the post itself! I'll spare you that. This is all good stuff to ponder, and is definitely worthy of discourse. What a great op-ed piece, in fact!

I struggle, however, with the idea of our weakness being our whetstone. In my own experience my weaknesses have done more to dig me deeper into a mess. It doesn't mean I don't learn something, but the learning seems to be that I recognize my limitations and make wiser decisions in the future based on that recognition. I guess I would need some sort of example to illuminate this idea of weakness as whetstone (either that or I simply am not awake enough as I write this for my thinking to go deep enough!).