The other day Luc had to give a presentation to his English class about the novel “the Great Gatsby.” It had to be 12 minutes long, so I volunteered to listen and time it. He argued that the theme of the book was “The American Dream,” or, more accurately, the Illusion of the American Dream.
See, Gatsby was all about excess – the old idea that the more you have, and the more you can accumulate, the happier you’ll be. You’ll finally reach some point of maximum return, you’ll hit the top of the top. Then people like Tom, who are born rich, will let you into their fold. There’s this idea that everyone has an equal shot at being one of the chosen few. It’s just a matter of hard work. The movie is coming out this summer, in case you didn’t read the book in high school.
Have we really changed all that much? Look at the famous one percent. There is a non-negligible percentage of the American population that isn’t okay with raising taxes on the insane wealth of this group. I believe it’s a very deep-seated part of the American psyche, the belief that anyone has a shot at this. We can’t begrudge these people something that we desperately want for ourselves, can we?
We brought it up at dinner one night, and Marc disagreed with our thesis. For him, the American Dream isn’t about getting rich so much as it is about following your own path to self-fulfillment.
I still think that for many people, the very notion of self-fulfillment involves lots of money and material things.
I’m a bit obsessed with material things at the moment, because I’m in the process of shedding them in preparation for our move. I was fascinated by an article in the New York Times last week about Graham Hill, a man who struck it rich (the Dream come true!), bought all kinds of stuff, and realized it was making him anxious and unhappy.
Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me.
He says it took him “15 years, a great love, and a lot of travel” to get rid of the inessential things that were cluttering up his life. He claims he lives a “Bigger, better, richer life” with less. I don’t doubt it. He’s designed a 420-square foot apartment that has everything he needs.
My experience is that getting stuff, and thinking about stuff you don’t have but want, occupies a good deal of mental energy. It’s also built into our society, particularly American society, in a way that makes this stuff-focused mindset very hard to avoid.
I have often complained about the fact that everything is closed on Sunday in Switzerland, and it drives me nuts that shopping online is all but impossible here. The way I see it, it’s like a government-mandated moral code: Sunday is Family Time, and If In Doubt, Buy Swiss. Everyone eats a Mandatory Big Lunch, often with extended family, and then goes for a Family Walk. In the paper the other day, in an article about the parliament considering a bill that would allow shops to stay open until 11 pm, a politician even argued that workers “need” to be able to go out on the weekends, and spend time with their families.
Maybe it’s the libertarian American in me, but I still think that this kind of thing should be up to the individual. “No you can’t work on weekends, because you ought to be socializing with your friends or spending time with your family,” strikes me as awfully paternalistic. If I want to work my ass off and build up a chunk of savings, that’s my affair. And if I’d rather spend my Sunday shopping than hanging out with my relatives, that’s my business, too. Why should someone be prevented from making or spending a buck, just because it’s Sunday?
But this American Dream idea gave me pause. As I go through all the things we’ve accumulated in ten years in Switzerland, I realize that a lot of it is totally unnecessary. And I never even shopped on Sunday! A strawberry slicer? Five metric tons of lego? Ten different kinds of candle holders? Granted, I hauled a lot of it over from the US in the first place. But, still. I am taking this opportunity to pare things down, to spend time thinking about what is really necessary.
Here’s one of my favorite songs, from the movie “Into the Wild”- it sums the whole thing up perfectly. I’m heading into the Northern Wilderness, too. “Society, you’re a crazy breed.”