The American Dream
Several years ago now, my company pushed to relocate me from my comfortable hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona to the struggling (and now depressed) economy of Detroit, Michigan. It was an increase in responsibility and pay, but forced me to reflect on what I really wanted in life. In the end, it was the straw that broke the back. I asked myself the age-old question, “What would you do if you could do anything?” There was one clear answer-travel.
I googled around the world tickets and within a few months I had purchased a ticket committing me to my first solo-travel adventure. The world was much bigger then. I knew no other language; I didn’t really know that much about travel. It was intimidating, scary, overwhelming. It was the best decision of my life.
Since then I’ve traveled over six continents-missing still the ever-elusive Antarctica- yet in all these travels there are a couple of life-lessons that stand taller than the others. They were there from the very beginning. They were there at my first stop in Yangshuo, China, when I sat down at a small restaurant and talked to the young Chinese server, who dreamed of education but reality had her working 7 days a week just help provide rice for her parents and self. They were there in Thailand, when on a ferryboat to one of the islands I spoke with a young attractive girl who tried to explain why she was inclined compromise her body to live. Or in India, when I walked with a man outside the dusty desert walls of Jaisalmer and he reflected first on a dream to go to America, then explained that dreams are different when you have a wife and family to take care of and understand those greater dreams are unreachable.
These lessons are everywhere. They are in the widows of Africa who trade sex for fish to feed their family. They are in the prisoners of Malawi who were imprisoned because they were unable to bribe as much as the “other guy”. They are in the orphans of the Dominican Republic, trying to go to school. They are in the faces of small-town Argentineans who rise with the frozen morning, wrapped in wool to work in a mine.
I was born into fortunate circumstances. Sure we had problems. A single mother struggled at times to make ends meet, cleaning hotel rooms, looking for a way to support her two children. Food stamps, powdered milk and blocks of processed government cheese were normal. We were privileged to have our elementary school covered the costs of our 70-cent meal tickets, so my sister and I could have lunch on a daily basis. But we had education, we never actually went hungry, and it brings tears to my eyes to type about the amount of love and sacrifice my mother offered my sister and I.
Above all, perhaps next to love, we had opportunity. Both my sister and I graduated top of our class. We paid our way through college. My sister is now married, with a beautiful daughter, another on the way, and she is reinvesting her life into our education system. My mother, it brings me joy to say, is going back to school to finally pursue her own dreams. And you know if you’ve ready any of the past two years of my life, I am living a dream. Which brings me back to that lesson.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our day-to-day routine. We forget, or maybe have never realized just how comfortable that routine is. To get up in a heated house, take a hot shower, eat a full breakfast, then climb into our individual cars and stop by our favorite coffee shops on our way to and from work to buy a coffee that is worth 3 times the daily wage of billions of people in the world. We come home, watch our favorite shows on our favorite TVs before climbing back into our warm beds.
I’m not knocking these things, they are warm and comfortable and good. But sometimes they mask a deeper truth, that is our ability to dream. It’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. There is a world of people that work so hard to survive, their dreams are buried in reality. They are thankful if their plates are full at night. But we have an opportunity, not just to work, to have house and a car, we have an opportunity to live. And in that I can’t help but think that this “American Dream” is more than just a privilege, it is a responsibility. At least to me it is.