“Oh, You’re a Philosophy Major? What’re You Going To Do With That?”: Thoughts on Day Jobs and the American Dream

I remember my first-grade teacher asking the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. “A firefighter!” “A nurse!” “A baseball player!” my hopeful classmates shouted. I forget how I responded, but I’m pretty sure it was something no less ambitious than walking on the moon.

But this is how we’re taught to think, right? We are special. We can be anything we want to be. We can change the world. From the time we learn the alphabet, we are trained to envision our successful future selves, and we go through the rest of grade school dreaming of becoming something great, something big, something important.

We grow up dreaming the American dream.

The American dream is an ideal woven deeply into the American subconscious. Our country was born out of the belief that with honesty and hard work, anyone can succeed; and, as our Declaration of Independence affirms, because all men are created equal, all men have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The recent presidential election has brought the American dream to the forefront of conversations in both the media and our everyday lives. The uniqueness and importance of this national ethos took center stage in many speeches and debates during the presidential campaigns. Earlier this year, in a speech at the University of Chicago, Mitt Romney said that the dream is “essential to the genius of America.” Six months before election day, NPR labeled President Obama “a living example of the American dream” as he praised the country for giving “opportunity to everybody,” for that’s “what the American dream was all about.”

An article in OpEdNews claimed that even the president’s re-election speech was “all about the American dream and the American myth.”

No doubt, the race to the White House was driven by a reclamation of an American ideal—an attempt to reawaken our American exceptionalism.

But in a struggling economy with high unemployment rates and a slumping stock market, many young Americans like myself are seriously concerned about our country’s economic future. The jobless ask, “Where’s the opportunity?” Distraught investors and business owners ask, “Where’s the pay off?” Low-income families ask, “Where’s the prosperity?” We’re wondering if the pillars of free market enterprise will crumble in the coming years or if the hard work and innovation that built our great nation will thrive and restore its economic powers. We’re wondering if we still live in a land where a first grader can grow up to become anything he wants to be.

Is the American dream dead?

Recently, the power and promise of the dream have been called into question. In just the past six months, critically-acclaimed books like Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s The Betrayal of the American Dream, Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream?, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream have reexamined the facticity and future of the idealistic expectations engrained in the American psyche.

A few years ago, in a specifically religious context, megachurch pastor David Platt, in his popular book Radical: Taking Back your Faith from the American Dream, questioned whether or not the pursuit of happiness is compatible with Christianity.

Indeed, the relationship between the American dream and Christian faith is a complicated one. After all, the capitalistic principles of risk and ambition that Platt critiques enabled him to publish and market his book, right? Would he have become such an influential shaper of Christian thought and culture without the very freedoms and opportunities that the American dream provides and promotes?

To be sure, the Western values of equality, opportunity, and freedom are good things, ideals I think anyone of my faith would defend. And I don’t know anyone who believes that working hard to ensure your family’s safety and well-being is amiss. To want comfort and stability is to be human, so we mustn’t think the dream’s offerings of success and security are evil in and of themselves. Indeed, like money, the American dream is amoral. As the apostle Paul rightly teaches, we must distinguish having wealth and worshiping it; money is not evil, but the love of it is. So, when selfish human beings idolize the pursuit of happiness as an end in itself, the dream becomes destructive.

A powerful illustration of this is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play that attacks a perversion of the American dream. This perversion idolizes status and material wealth but ultimately results in spiritual poverty. The play’s antihero Willy Loman, an exhausted and disgruntled traveling salesman, equates his identity and self-worth with material success, and thus his version of the dream is devoid of all transcendence. Ultimately, Willy’s obsession with the wrong kind of success destroys his relationships and sense of human dignity.

But does Willy fail or does he fall victim to false promises? The answer to this question, I think, is key to understanding the relationship between our Christian identity and the American dream.

One of Willy’s flaws is his lack of self-awareness. He does not have an accurate perspective of his limitations and talents. Throughout the play we learn that, despite Willy’s claims, he isn’t a good salesman. Instead, he’s better at working outside and building things with his hands. He’d be much more content living a modest life in the country than trying to “keep up with Joneses” in a crowded New York borough. But rather than finding purpose and personal fulfillment in fatherhood and manual labor, Willy seeks approval and success according to societal standards. Thus, at the age of sixty, working on commission and struggling to make ends meet, a delusional Willy kills himself because he’s lost all sense of who he really is.

Though it’s easy for us to criticize Willy for his misguided life goals, he does what most of us do.  Willy’s attempt to define himself by his achievements is similar to how we often find our identity and self-worth in our careers and fancy job titles. So our obsession with the American dream might really be an obsession with the concept of the occupation.

Up until the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation of the late sixteenth century, with the rise of capitalism and individualism, the act of “choosing” an occupation or career path was quite foreign. For centuries, human beings gave little or no thought to what they would be when they “grew up.” Frankly, they didn’t have a choice. The socio-economic structure of Europe and the Middle East was feudalism, a system made up of two classes: the lower class (the peasant farmers and tradesmen) and the upper class (nobility and landowners). Consequently, the son of a blacksmith became a blacksmith. The son of a nobleman became a nobleman.

I think looking at how people in past centuries viewed careers can help us reconsider the value we place on occupational pursuits today. These days, not all sons inherit the family business, so the career options seem endless.  In the first half of our lives we’re pressured into choosing the perfect job (preferably a practical and lucrative one), and the second half we’re pressured into pursuing that job. Between the two halves, our career—“what we do with our lives”—dictates our biggest decisions and plans. Where we live. Where we go to college. When and whom we marry. Next to our name, our occupation defines us.

We even see this modern phenomenon in everyday conversation. “Hello, Jane. Nice to meet you. So what do you do for a living?” “Oh, you’re getting your degree in Philosophy? That’s cool. What’re you going to do with that?” The “what do you do?” question comes up quite early on when meeting new people.  To make strangers more familiar to us, we characterize them first and foremost as the “thing they do”: if you teach, you’re a teacher, if you sell things, you’re a salesman, if you work at a bank, you’re a banker. And thus we unintentionally view a means of making a living as a means of making an identity.

Several years ago I was working at a summer camp in California. During orientation, the camp director talked about how the apostle Paul was a businessman; he worked in the tent-making industry, a very honorable and lucrative occupation in his nomadic culture. Today, we know Paul as the most influential Christian theologian who ever lived; he wrote nearly half of the New Testament. Following the traditional format of first-century letter writing, the camp director explained, Paul begins his letter to the church in Rome with a greeting, a short biographical introduction. Paul states his name, his title (a bond-servant), and his credentials (called by God). Paul mentions nothing about his occupational title—a tent manufacturer. Instead, he spends the remainder of his greeting outlining the good news of Jesus. So, by attaching his name to the message of Jesus, Paul equates his very identity to a proclamation of the Christian gospel.

Paul calls himself a bond-servant of Christ. He belongs to Jesus before anyone or anything else.

The camp director wanted the staff (counselors, lifeguards, custodians, cooks, etc.) to view their jobs the same way. He said to forget about titles. They don’t matter. He explained that regardless of our day jobs that summer, whether we were praying with kids or cleaning their toilets, our real mission was the same because we all belonged to the same employer—Jesus.

The difference between belonging to a profession and belonging to a person is a distinction we don’t often make. But I think that constantly remembering to whom (not to what) we belong can reshape the way we live. Understanding that we ultimately belong to a person and not a profession reminds us that the Christian life is relational. It’s about the people around us and who they are, not “what they do.” Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with associating ourselves with a particular occupation or discipline, but when we view our job title as the essence of who we are, we alienate ourselves not only from other people, but also from Jesus himself.

Like Willy Loman, we seek fulfillment and personal meaning in money and status rather than in being a faithful spouse or parent.

I hope that none of us look back on our lives and find that we’ve been consumed only in becoming that thing, that successful person we dreamed of as first graders. Because honestly, many of us will find that we spent our entire lives failing to become that thing. The dream didn’t come true.

This brings me back to my earlier question: Is the American dream dead?

Honestly, I’m not sure this is the right question to ask. Perhaps the question worth asking is why we’re so inclined to ask new acquaintances, “What do you do for a living?”

Sure, we need jobs to make money, buy food, and survive. But perhaps the real cause for our anxiety during times of unemployment and economic difficulty is not that our financial security is threatened, but that our very identity is. If a career goal or employment status defines us, then our self-worth stands or falls on our success in reaching that goal or status. If our employment doesn’t exist, we don’t exist.

The American dream is not evil. Human beings are.

The American dream has not failed. Human beings have.

We’ve failed to find our identity, purpose, and self-worth in something more than our day jobs. Perhaps a recession is a good thing if it points us to something beyond job security for our source of meaning and fulfillment.

Tension in Tolerance

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. — Jesus, Matthew 10:34

I had a very interesting discussion with one of my professors last week about the changing meaning of the word “tolerance.” We got on the topic by discussing Henry David Thoreau, a guy who in the early years of America went and lived in a cabin by a pond for a year, just to see what he could learn about how a person can live a full life. He wrote a book about it, titled Walden, that is currently included in most undergraduate American literature reading requirements.

Discussing Thoreau’s writings in my grad school class, my professor was astonished to find that most of our group wasn’t offended or annoyed by the book. She admitted that the longer she has taught, the more her undergraduate students seem to hate Thoreau, claiming that he is “pushing his ideas of how life should be lived” and “preaching” and “judgmental.” My professor was confused, she said, since my generation had no problems with Thoreau, but that each successive freshman class has gotten more and more rabid toward Walden. What was up?

I suggested it might have something to do with changing ideas of tolerance in the modern world. Tolerance used to mean that even if you didn’t live a certain lifestyle, you didn’t tell someone else that their lifestyle was somehow bad or less good than yours. In that generation, my generation, you could live your life however you wanted as long as you didn’t say it was best (of course, for Christians, this definition of tolerance poses problems, but I think you can figure them out on your own without a rabbit trail of an explanation). I suppose that is why we had no problem with Thoreau back then; to us, he was just another guy trying to find the best way to live his life, whether we thought he was going about it in the right way or not.

But recently, I said, tolerance has seemed to take on a slightly different meaning. The more the term is pushed, the more it seems to imply that even choosing a way of living, that picking a side, so to speak, automatically makes you intolerant. I suggested that this is what has happened with Thoreau: where my generation could read his ideas and reject or accept them, younger generations are offended just by the fact that he chose a direction. Just by living his life in a certain, deliberate way, Thoreau seems to offend the modern idea of tolerance. Indeed, my professor sardonically laughed, it seems that “every man for himself” has become “every man is everything,” meaning that the idea of “tolerance” is actually intolerant by enforcing a vision of neutrality.

Now, I was at first distressed by this increasingly anti-Christian cultural philosophy. (Everything is just getting worse! The whole kit and kaboodle is going to H-E-double hockey sticks!) But I remembered that somewhere Jesus might have said something about this, and I turned to Matthew.

Though I’d read it a million times over, I was surprised to find Jesus directly addressing my concerns not just in one verse, but in several. (But not in the way I wanted: “Hide! Run away! Darn them all to H-E-double hockey sticks!”) In fact, it seemed like Jesus actually knew that the world was going downhill and that we would be hated. That being disliked was a necessary result of our faith.

Most shocking, though, was what I read in chapter 10: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Okay, what?

We talk a lot about Jesus and peace, and I’m not saying I think that’s wrong. The hope of the gospel is that Jesus will come and reign again and cure us and the whole world of sin, destroying the very thing that has destroyed peace since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. But what Jesus is saying in Matthew about his ministry then and there, and the ministry of those who follow him until he returns again, is that it causes division, not peace. Strife, not resolution.

Again, what? And what does this mean for tolerance?

We live in a world that grows more and more antagonistic toward Christianity. Not just the existence of God, not just the morality we promote, not just our general political leanings or preachings or missions or worship or community. It is growing more antagonistic toward anyone who not only says that their beliefs are truth, are best, but also toward anyone who chooses a direction.

And when we choose Jesus, whether we like it or not, it means choosing a direction. We pick a side. We take the narrow way, instead of the wide one. We are different.

In a world where “tolerance” and “getting along” are the highest goals, what are we to do? The idea of making people mad makes us cringe (I’m a huge people-pleaser, so it makes me want to vomit), but we read these verses about how our beliefs might even separate families and we get confused. God, what do you want? Division? Or peace?

God of course loves peace. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to literally take a sword (paintball gun, mace, two-by-four, spray paint…) to people who don’t believe what we do. I think he is simply telling us the truth: when you chose a side, my side, there will be people who are on the other side who don’t like you. By choosing a direction, you will be going against the neutrality, the anti-confrontationalism, the passivity of the world.

Jesus didn’t bring peace when he came the first time. He brought a dividing line.

You see, the world thinks that peace will come if we all just water down our beliefs enough that really we won’t be different anymore and we can all just be friends. Just Jesus knows that we will only have peace when we all are united under one belief: our belief in him. But that won’t come until later. So for now, by choosing a direction, we’re going against the grain.

Should this get us down (oh, hooray, a whole life of people hating me!)? After reading Matthew, I was actually really encouraged to know, first of all, that none of this is a surprise to Jesus. But secondly, I think Jesus wants us to see how this is the way it was always meant to be and it gives us a great place from which to proclaim his name.

Indeed, most of his metaphors for us talk about standing out. We are salt and light, not dirt and twilight shadows. We were never meant to blend in. So as the world gets more “tolerant,” the more we stand out. Yes, this means we will catch more flac, but it also means more questions will be asked, more opportunities for conversations will come about, more light will shine in the increasing darkness.

Really, it makes our jobs easier. While before we had to preach loudly, explain how our religion is better than others, explain why Christianity is not disproved by science, now all we have to do is…choose. Choose a direction. Have an opinion. Commit yourself to God’s directions for living.

Follow Jesus, and the tension with tolerance will find you.

Scrambling Over the Obstacles

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work; there is now no smooth road into the future; but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

-D. H. Lawrence

Sometimes I wonder if our whole world suffers from a kind of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’re inundated with information about the kinds of events that occupy only our most horrific nightmares. My own knowledge of recent World History, and I would guess that of many of my generation, begins in earnest with the Holocaust, traveling quickly from there to the horrors of Vietnam and then hurtling into a litany of genocides, school shootings, terrorist attacks and natural disasters whose collective casualty count reaches numbers far beyond the comprehension of any but the mathematicians among us.

Jack Johnson asked why the newscasters don’t cry when they read about people who die. The only answer he could come up with was that the stories are just make-believe, like lullabies – you can’t believe everything you see.

I think he’s right – you can’t.

Not because the stories aren’t true, but because, at this point in history, you really can’t believe everything you see. It’s all very true and real, of course, but to believe it, to really understand and process it all, to let the reality of it sink into your soul, would break you.

So instead of believing the news, we punctuate story after story with the phrase, “in other news…” a phrase which, as Neil Postman has so eloquently pointed out in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, has become a trigger, allowing us to switch from one topic to another and then to another without connecting ourselves with any of them.

We know more than we ever have. In fact, I heard not long ago that collective human knowledge – the sum total of all that we know as a species – is now doubling approximately every five years.

But we believe very little. Believing costs us quite dearly these days.

And I think that’s why we’ve developed such a tenacious ability to know that things are true and not believe them. Because if we believe things – really believe them – then we know we’ll have to do something. Because believing – the actual submission of our minds to an idea – always results in action.

I find it interesting that, today more than ever, every belief system must find a way to deal with this problem. Some versions of Eastern Mysticism deny suffering, claiming that the world itself is an illusion, and that only by intentional dissociation can we escape it. If the world is simply an illusion and the only true “reality” is in our minds, then suffering loses its force. Evil is no longer a legitimate category.

Karma, on the other hand, claims that somewhere, somehow, all things will balance out. If we could ever achieve a truly broad view, then we would see that the universe is ultimately oriented toward evenness. Eventually, every evil will be counterbalanced with an equivalent good, and all things will finally be at rest. Striving will finally cease. Thus, the evil we see is only the counterweight of an equivalent good, a yin opposite its yang.

Islam and some ultra-fundamentalist or hyper-Calvinist strains of Christianity claim that God does as He chooses, and for us to question His purposes only evidences our finitude. God’s sovereignty is absolute – who are we to question Him?

And finally, naturalism, that is, the belief that no spiritual or supernatural world exists at all and that we can only know what nature and reason can teach us, claims that our desire for any different kind of world, our desire for justice, purpose, and meaning, is ultimately misplaced. Knowledge (which is limited strictly to scientific knowledge) can inform me of what is, but meaning is wholly constructed. I do not discover meaning; I create it.

I don’t intend to examine or evaluate these differing responses to our shared distress. To do so would take quite a thorough study. But I find it interesting that each falls short of giving any sort of justification for our shared hope. They cannot explain why our distress bothers us so deeply, nor can they explain our deep passion to fix it.

Maybe you noticed the similarity between all four of the responses to suffering above. All of them claim that nothing is actually wrong.

In my mind, the vigor of the biblical response to the problem of evil and suffering rests in large measure in the Bible’s unflinching commitment to the fact that the brokenness of our world, and the suffering we all experience as a result of that brokenness, never should have been. In the beginning, God had other plans for us.

Christianity asserts with violent force that the world is broken, and until we are able to see the brokenness, hope is impossible, for hope in a show built of smoke and mirrors is no hope at all. Such hope can only disappoint (see Rom. 5:1-5).

Kabayashi Issa was a Buddhist monk in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After losing two of his children still in their infancy, Issa wrote the following Haiku:

The world of dew –

A world of dew it is indeed,

And yet, and yet…

Issa held the first of the four views described above. He believed that the world is nothing more than dew – it will be here for a time, and soon it will be gone. All is dust and shadow.

But he could not convince his heart that this was true. And the transience of human existence gave him no solace in the wake of losing his children. He had a longing that I would almost call hope, but his beliefs could not justify that longing.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a famous atheist philosopher often credited with building the foundation for Nihilism, said this:

The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is… that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

But Nietzsche’s entire philosophical system funneled him to the conclusion that life was not worth living. His philosophy, despite the undeniable brilliance of his mind, could not justify his observation.

And again, we see Dylan Thomas, in his famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” urging us to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But why? Why fight death if life is only dust and dew? Why “burn and rave” if the good man, the wild man, and the grave man all end up in the same ground anyway?

Finally, we see the author of Ecclesiastes, having barred himself from appealing to the spiritual to explain the physical by committing to examine life “under the sun,” calling out that all things are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Yet he cannot avoid the truth that some find legitimate joy, vibrant hope, and tenacious meaning in this life. And seeing such joy, hope, and meaning causes him to punctuate his despair with glimpses of a broader perspective – a perspective that comes from “over the sun.”

Science may be able to tell us what happens to us when we suffer. Buddhism may be able to teach us to deny our suffering. Hinduism may convince us that our suffering will somehow be worthwhile in the end. And religious fatalism may justify our suffering by telling us that God wants us to suffer.

But none of them can explain why we still have joy.

None can tell us why even the weakest among us scramble over the obstacles when the sky falls down around us.

Our beliefs, whatever they are, must look the world in the face, in all its ugliness.

But they must also explain to us how we even know what “ugly” is.