In Brief: On the American Dream

In retrospect, I realize that my last entry, a brief reflection of There Will Be Blood (2007), was a little hard on the American Dream. Well, it was meant to be. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film came out at a good time, just when the corporate greed on Wall Street was coming to a head (which the majority of Americans were completely ignorant of). We now live in a time when honesty and hard work are not all that you need to succeed in America. This is due to many reasons, including the previously-mentioned rampant greed on Wall Street, the overpricing of college education, and the exporting of jobs across American borders, just to name a few. Thus, as Daniel Plainview demonstrates, the pursuit of the American Dream is futile, and such a pursuit will in fact leave you isolated and lonely. Why? Again, let’s turn to Plainview: he alienates everyone who might get close to him because to him, wealth is more important than relationships. Unfortunately, I see this to be true in the age we’re living in: people are willing to screw over their friends and acquaintances in order to gain hold of a fortune. (Bernie Madoff is an extreme example, but one that easily comes to mind.) Whatever value we used to place in the American Dream has been displaced by greed. I count myself lucky to never have embarked upon that rat race.

But what There Will Be Blood — and the culture that produced it — tells us is that we need to redefine the American Dream. Perhaps instead of dreaming about being wealthy and influential, we should dream about being — I don’t know — happy and well-adjusted. The scramble for wealth in these times is a dead-end; I’m 100% convinced that unless you are particularly lucky, you won’t find financial success short of inheriting it. Thus, don’t focus on becoming wealthy; rather, focus on the steps you need to take to find happiness. (Hint: those steps should not include trips to the mall to buy stuff.) For example, I did not become a teacher because I thought it would lead me to wealth (HA!) but instead because I knew it was something I would find fulfillment doing. Now I have a wife I love, a son I adore, and a new baby on the way who I will also have a boundless adoration for. These are the things that make me happy — no amount of wealth or material possessions could replace that gratification.

Thus, instead of focusing on fattening your bank account, focus on developing relationships with the people in your life that make you happy. Daniel Plainview doesn’t do this in There Will Be Blood, and thus we see him at the end alone and crumpled up on the floor, declaring, “I am finished.” When I am finished, I hope to look back on my life and see memories of the people whose lives I’ve touched and benefited in some way, of the people who I have loved and was loved by. How tragic it would be to be on your death-bed and realize that all you’ve accomplished in life is the pursuit of material wealth — a pursuit you may not have even been able to complete. Thus, as the great thinkers and artists have been telling us for millennia, in the end it is the people in your life that matter, not your “stuff.”

Now, go hug somebody.

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