26 February 2010

College, Coffee, and the "American Dream"

This piece is a societal critique. That being said, it is just as much about my own short-comings with the said situations as it is about society in general. Read as such.  

Earlier today I was standing in the hallway talking with my friend NB. Amongst other things, we started talking about her getting new tires on her car today and it costing more than $400. I mean really, $400!.. It’s crazy!

As is often the case, one thing leads to another and the next thing you know we were talking about how expensive life is in general. That topic led into a discussion of something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. …Just this afternoon in fact.

As I was out running errands I was noticing people, their clothing, and their cars. As I was watching them come and go I was contemplating how normal their lives seem. They presumably have a place to live, food to eat, other respectable clothes to wear, and as their surroundings suggested, a nice safe car to drive from here to there in.

Now, given NB and I’s conversation, the question in our minds was really (and honestly) -- How do they do it?

Here I am living on substantially less than $500 a month (believe it or not) and I feel like there is no possible way I will ever be able to have a ‘normal’ life anytime in the next 25 years. (And I’m really not exaggerating.. that’s how it looks right now.) Even while I was a teacher and making roughly $30/hr, there were still months I needed help from my family. By the time one pays for rent, utilities, health insurance, phone service, a credit card, a tithing, groceries, gas, car related expense, and student loans, the month’s check is essentially vanished. And this is without worrying about a car payment even!

I have such a hard time imagining how in the world families and those just getting started ever get ahead. Granted, I am a student currently and my financial situation reflects that, but even when I was in the working world, the situation would have been virtually the same. ..If my car would have died, there it would have remained; there was/is no plausible way in which I could have had it repaired or replaced.

As I watched all of these men and women get into their cars with their packages and such, I couldn’t help but feel that the normalcy they were living was an impossible destination to arrive at.

NB and I continued talking and in the process it came up that we feel in some ways that we have been “duped” by the American promise. We were told that if we graduate from High School and go away to college that we would end up with a good job and be better off than our counterparts who didn’t get an education. Now don’t get me wrong, I would NEVER change the fact that I made the choices I did, lived where I have, or received the education I’ve been blessed to receive. However, given what I now know, I do think that had I had the same knowledge, information, and experience during high school that I have now, I would have gone about things a bit differently.

Considering how hard we’ve recognized it is to, shall we say, “get going” in life, our student loans are one of the major factors that seem to be placing such a burden on our financial and practical existence. Once again, I will reemphasize the fact that we willingly signed off on them and in no way are we asking for a bail out. Rather, what I feel is worthy of comment and consideration is the story that has been sold to millions and millions of American young people. The idea that we can be whatever we want, make as much as we desire, and live this somewhat contrived “American Dream” just like many in the generation before us have. (I say the generation before us because the so-called American Dream really isn’t all that old.)


The pure fact of the matter is, despite what we’ve been told, the value of a 4-year college degree is scarcely worth more than a high school diploma was 25 years ago. The only seemingly valuable undergraduate degrees (in terms of their actual utility straightaway) are education, engineering, nursing, and perhaps accounting. Even the lauded business degree is one that has “flexibility” but no real direction or direct application. (I’m sure many of you will disagree with me on this, but this has been my experience.)

All of that to say, we’ve essentially been told that a college degree will pay for itself and that life will be better with one in hand. Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder about the validity of that. Yes, it will help to get some sort of job that stinks a little less than one would get without having one, but in the long run, if you haven’t been properly guided and navigated the waters of college finances well, it may not pay for itself for a really, REALLY long time.

…Just as there came the day that a high school diploma was no longer ‘sufficient,’ so too, I feel, is currently the day of the bachelors degree. As someone who has almost completed a master’s degree, I—if answering honestly—have to admit that I do not even feel that a masters degree is any longer enough to truly be competitive. Just as attorneys have told me not to go into law because the market is flooded with law graduates, so, too, is the case with bachelors degrees, soon to be masters degrees, and I venture to say in due course, even PhD’s.

At what point do we accept the fact that the reality we have been living in as Americans for the past 50 years really isn’t reality at all? As is reported in the thought-provoking book, Generation Me, a survey of teens conducted in 1999 said that they anticipated earning $75,000 a year by the time they were 30. The reality? The average income for a 30-year-old in 1999?.. A mere $27,000.

We (I) have been told all our lives that we are special, that we deserve more, and that we can literally do anything we want to with our lives. Is this really true? (My childhood hope of being an engineer was shattered the moment I realized I STUNK at calculus. No matter how bad I wanted it, I’m not sure I could have made it through Calc III. –I know you’re probably thinking that it’s not true..that if I would have truly wanted it that badly, that I would have done it. I get that thinking. This is what we’ve all grown up hearing. But is it really true?.. is it not possible that some people have gifts and abilities that suit them for certain areas yet consequently leave them bereft in others? We [I] have such a hard time accepting this idea.) Further, at what point does this kind of self-esteem crossover into a sense of entitlement and narcissism? Sooner or later we have to face reality, evaluate our abilities, and accept that perhaps God has something in store for us that looks different than what we had selfishly imagined.

Need we look at the rest of the world to see that America is living in unprecedented and might I add, unsustainable-in-the-long-run opulence? Take for instance an interview offered for the CBS Class of 2000 project where students Olivia Smith is quoted as saying, “I basically just want to grow up safe and luxurious and have lots of money.” Is luxury and money realistic life? I venture to say that our culture has embedded these two items not only as necessities, but as norms of American life. I am not immune to it either. I too buy $5 cups of coffee and am willing to spend $34 on one cosmetic product. Does this make it right or normal? No. I will say there is nothing wrong with spending your money as you wish, but I feel in my own case that I have grown accustomed to a way and manner of life that isn’t really consistent with the reality of life for some vast majority of our brothers and sisters around the world.

The fact of the matter is that according to the World Bank, 2.7 BILLION people around the world live on less than $2 a DAY! (Today alone I spent $19 on a pair of sunglasses and a coffee.) I say all of this to point to the fact that while almost 50% of the world is living in Poverty, I’m here living in my self-absorbed little world where I drop 5 bucks for a cup of coffee. A CUP OF COFFEE!

An Interesting Look at Poverty in America by County

Everyone has the right to spend their money the way they so desire, fair enough. My concern these days is that as Americans we have become so conditioned to an unrealistic “reality” that as a more realistic reality sets in we are overwhelmingly unprepared to face it. For several decades now the mantras of self-love have been piped into our psyches. We have been told (and believed) that we need to love ourselves in order to be happy, that in loving ourselves we do not need other people to make us happy. But, as Orthodoxy clearly teaches, it’s the exact opposite in fact. Human beings DO NEED other people to be happy –Being made in the Image of a Trinitarian and relational God, we too are built and created for relationships with other people! As Hugh Downs of 20/20 has said, “Could it be that self-esteem, real self-esteem, comes from esteeming other people and not thinking so much about yourself, to begin with?” Although it flies in the face of American culture, I have to say Hugh, I think you’re on to something.

If you’re still reading this at this point, thanks! I’ve covered a lot of ground and I suppose I want to wrap it all up here in saying:

The day to day struggle of life I started out talking about seems to be much closer to a realistic picture of life around the world than my $5 coffee forays. I pose the question, was the normalcy I saw today really normal at all? Why is it I presume that just because I live in America and have a college degree that I am any more entitled to a new car or reputable clothing than anyone else. Further, how is it I have been called to live in light of the gifts, talents, and privileges God has bestowed upon me? Have I let my own culture of narcissism get in the way of (or maybe better said, have I [we] allowed my own narcissism to en-wall my life behind the impenetrable fortresses of SUVs, suburban homes, Coach handbags, and cultural kitsch) to a degree that I've lost focus of those two most needful things: to authentically love God and love my neighbors?

I won't pretend that I can answer this question with No,  nor will I claim that I am exempt from the very behaviors and attitudes I condemn. However, I do feel that at the very least, the current economic crisis and changing landscape of the American Dream should be motivation for us [me] to evaluate our lives, how we define ourselves, and what our responsibility is to our fellow brothers and sisters down the street and around the world. I admit I have a long way to go. It feels nice to hear my family brag of my educational accomplishments, to invite people over to a Pottery Barn-esq apartment, and to spritz on Burberry Brit in the morning. (And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things.) My earnest prayer tonight is that I may not become too comfortable with the 'finer things in life' and build a false reality and sense of security upon them. Instead, my hope is that I will find contentment in what I have already been blessed with and that I will more earnestly seek to define my own life in relationships of love and self-sacrifice rather than in possession and pursuit of the things society has told me will bring my life fulfillment.

Lord, have mercy upon me!

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