Monday, January 20, 2014

My American Dream

Warning:  This is not very spiritual, but it is truthful.  I am working on being more graceful and accepting.
I was promised the American dream. 

I’ve been told I should write about my experiences with poverty, but I don’t think I can yet.  It’s too hard.  It’s too embarrassing.  And it makes me too angry.

There is a woman I’ve known a long time who lives in my head and who holds me in such contempt—there must be something wrong with me if I’m poor.  After all, she is a nurse who married a hard-working man who gave her everything financially.  What’s wrong with me that I couldn’t do that?  She mocks me at every turn. Not just in my head, but literally.  I had to defriend her on Facebook because she made nasty open comments about me—about how anyone can have a Master’s degree and still not find a job?!  You could hear her lip curling.  Stupid, hateful bitch.  (She also grew up wealthy, had college paid for, and has never had to struggle for anything in her life.)

And no matter how much I tell myself that people like her are the problem with the world—a world that seems to lack compassion, understanding, or anything remotely resembling social justice—no matter how many times I say it or write it or think it, I can still be made to feel small and ashamed by just being broke-just by being me.  She lives like a hideous specter in my mind and in the world—in the faces and personas of every human who thrives on the backs of the poor and then condemns them for their condition.  She has become a symbolic representation of all the economic injustice in the world.

I often feel like the little boy in the story who recognizes that the Emperor is naked.  And has the nerve to say so.  What the story doesn’t tell is how that boy afterward is ostracized, categorized, labeled, rejected, disliked, mocked and/or treated for mental illness for not agreeing with the powers-that-be and the sheep-who-follow.  

Is it possible to love your country and hate your culture?  Because I do.  They say you can judge what a culture values most by the size of the buildings they produce.  The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids—although despite all the speculation, nobody really knows what that represents.  (I think it had something to do with the spiritual alignment of the universe.)  The Romans built the Coliseum; Middle Ages Europe built cathedrals.  We build shopping malls, business buildings and banks. Our core cultural value is the accumulation of wealth at any cost. It’s disgusting.

Now the question becomes, “Is it possible to be financially successful in a system that one holds fundamentally disgusting?”  How can I embrace prosperity in my culture without selling out my values?  How can I embrace prosperity without hating myself for being wealthy?

I think I could if I could find a community that supports the success of people in all income levels.  Where the poor aren’t punished simply for their poverty.  Where people are valued for their talent, their kindness or innovation, their compassion for their neighbors.  If I could find a place like that I believe I could embrace prosperity.  

For me, prosperity isn’t unlimited riches.  It is an income that is both adequate and a little more.  It is enough income to live in a decent and spacious house, to have enough to eat and nice quality clothing.  It is enough to indulge my love of antiques and art, to express my creativity through painting and writing and taking classes.  It is enough to travel as I please—not necessarily in luxury (nobody really needs a $500 a night hotel room!) but in relative comfort.  It is the income level that everyone deserves.  The income level where people can be happy and spend time having fun with their families, where folks can travel and learn and share and celebrate.  And I don’t just want this for myself--although I desperately want this for myself!—I want it for everyone.  

I watched a documentary this morning on PBS that enraged, saddened and depressed me.  It was called “My Brooklyn” and it was about the “development” of downtown Brooklyn and how the powers-that-be had unilaterally decided that the working class neighborhood of the area had to go, and made and implemented a plan to both oust the existing community members and develop the remaining space into upscale (read ultra-wealthy) commercial and residential space.  Small business were given 30 days’ notice to vacate.  People were pushed out of their affordable housing with no compensation.  The people of this neighborhood (and a million other neighborhoods like it) had their entire lives stripped away from them—their homes, their businesses, their friends and community—without so much as an “I’m sorry” from the wealthy, white, male developers who gained grotesque profits at their expense.  And the smarmy politicians who glibly joked about how much revenue this would generate and how the existing culture of small business, ethnic businesses, and foot traffic wasn’t a truly substantial asset to the City.  Its presence, in fact, was labeled as distasteful and lower-class.

It is my thought that much of what looks like racism in this country (and indeed may also be racism) is in reality a virulent form of classism.  We vilify the poor.  They wouldn’t be poor, after all, if they just followed the rules and worked hard.  Which could not be further from the truth.  Because the vast majority of the poor and working-class Americans do play by the rules, they buy into the idea of the American dream and strive for it, until they are outlawed simply for the fact that they fall below a certain income level.  Racism is perhaps one factor, but ask any poor white person—especially a woman—if they feel any sense of social justice, any kind of “equal” opportunity.  

And like them, I was promised the American dream, only to have it stripped away or to be denied access to it in the first place because of my “inferior” position in the economic hierarchy.  And I’m angry.  And I can’t be the only one.  I still want my American dream.

Everyone should read at least the first few pages of this: 

And if you think I’m just whining, please consider the facts here:

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