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The American Dream and the Economic Myth

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Introduction: The American Dream as an Act of the Imagination

1. The Power of Myth

2. The Myths that Have Made Us

3. The Economic Myth

4. "The Pursuit of Happiness"

Conclusion: "A More Perfect Union"--Deepening the American Dream

Introduction: The American Dream as an Act of the Imagination

The American Dream . . . is a wish the heart makes in its pursuit of happiness.

"A dream is a wish your heart makes," my mother used to sing to me. I was reminded of this by a news story on NPR about a Tunisian immigrant who was waiting with his wife and baby son outside a New York office to bid on a taxi medallion.

"What are you hoping for?" the reporter asked the wife.

"The American dream, like everybody," she said.[1]

The husband, who worked twelve hours a day, six days a week as a taxi driver, added that he hoped his son would grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Listening to this story, I appreciated once again the brilliant insight of the founders who made such a crucial edit of Locke's original "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." Property is a thing. Happiness is an ideal, a story of the future created by the imagination. The American Dream, even when it takes material form, is a wish the heart makes in its pursuit of happiness. It is an act of the imagination made vivid by the life and liberty that allow us to pursue it with hope.

To deepen the American Dream is to engage the imagination--to create better stories of who we are and who we might become. But to create deeper stories requires us to look closely at the stories we already inhabit, both individually and collectively.

So this essay aims to look at the myths that have made us and the dominant myth that holds us now--the economic myth. It is the work of a poet to "dream otherwise," with heart and soul, as well as mind. The fervent wish my heart makes is that this little essay will help lead its readers deeper into the soul dimension of the American dream.

1. The Power of Myth

Americans live in a present that is shaped by their dream of the future.

So powerful is the dominant story of a people--the "myth"--that the first thing that some of the colonists did after fighting for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all men, who are, by their declaration, "created equal," was to ask George Washington to be King. We're lucky he refused, thus allowing the new myth of the enlightenment to take hold.

We're lucky because the key element of the American Dream is the primacy of the individual. Rights inhere in the individual, not in a sovereign or even the state. From that founding premise comes the emphasis on the individual's pursuit of happiness. The American Dream is not a dream by America or for America, but a dream of happiness to be defined by each individual American. It's a dream of the future that shapes the present. Put another way: Americans live in a present that is shaped by their individual dreams of the future.

Perhaps one day Americans will wake up to the enormous power the rich have to shape the playing field on which the American Dream might come true for the poor. But as long as poor immigrants rise to fame and fortune, the stories of even a few will shape the hopes of the many.

The power of stories to shape our reality is seldom acknowledged. Most of us simply don't understand the extent to which we're always embedded in a story. We're the storytelling animals. We even dream in stories. We are so occupied in telling stories to ourselves, however unconscious we are of the fact of doing so, that it's considered a spiritual discipline simply to stay present, in the moment.

Each of our lives is a collection of historical events and facts which we can do nothing to change. But these facts are embedded in the story we tell about ourselves. And the future is shaped not by the mere facts, but by this story--by what we tell ourselves these facts and events mean or how we develop the cause-effect plot sequence.

As a thought experiment, tell the story of your life as a hero story--that no matter what the obstacles, "I have overcome." Then try telling your story as a victim story--"I, who am innocent, have been made the way I am by what others have done to me. I am living proof of their treachery."[2] Then try a third approach--tell the story of your life as if life had a purpose, and as if that purpose is to learn how to love. Earth is the suffering planet, so the fable goes, on which the slow learners are placed to learn painfully what they can't seem to learn any other way.

As you tell these stories, you'll find that different facts come to the surface, depending on the plot. Each plot acts as a kind of magnet for "compatible facts." More to the point, different futures become possible depending on the story you're telling--not the facts, but the story.

If it's the story that makes the difference, then, why not simply tell good stories about yourself? If you're struggling to pay the bills, why not simply say, "I'm rich!" and trust that the world will conform to your story? Because if you follow the example of Voltaire's philosopher Pangloss in Candide, and proclaim, "Everything's for the best in this best of all possible worlds," some part of you will say to yourself, "Oh no it isn't!" If you say "I'm rich," and mean it literally, when you're not rich, the survival mechanism in you that evolved by looking for real tigers in the jungle and real food to bring to the campfire, will say, "Oh no you're not!" Effective counter-factual stories are easier to tell to others than to ourselves.

To some extent, the claim that the present is shaped by the story we're telling about the future is akin to the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy--that our expectations shape events. The difference between prophecy and storytelling, however, is that when you practice using different plots, you don't hold the story as a belief or a forecast, but as a fiction. Once we've moved from holding our stories of the future as unconscious beliefs to realizing that our stories are "made up," we're suddenly confronted with a vista of freedom that is breathtaking. When we see the extent to which we tell the world into being, we also see how responsible we are for creating a future that is different from the past.

For many years I've worked with teams in the United States and abroad to build futures scenarios--a set of mutually exclusive but equally plausible stories about the future. While often written for corporations, these scenarios are usually focused not on the future of the company or the industry, but on the global future--politics, economics, the environment, etc. What makes this form of planning different from the creation of forecasts is that scenarios do not claim to be predictions about what will happen in the future. They are simply two or three different and equally plausible stories or myths about the future, whose aim is to challenge the "mental maps" that leaders hold of their businesses and of the world in which they are operating. In addition, scenarios help managers become aware of the way the future is shaped by the stories we tell about it. Even the present is experienced as an aspect of the future into which we are living, for we notice and respond to those elements in the present that conform to our story about reality.

To create forecasts, we typically extrapolate the past into the future. But the one thing we know about the future is that it will not be like the past. Creating a plausible fiction about the future, which we hold in our minds as a fiction, allows us to think about the future without falling into a false sense of security that we know what it will be. Telling powerful stories about the future is a form of leadership, whether or not we occupy leadership roles in our professional lives.

To deepen the American Dream requires us to accept the responsibility of the freedom we have to tell a better story about who we are and who we might become. The first step in telling a better story, however, is to understand the large cultural stories--or myths--that have made us who we are.

2. The Myths that Have Made Us

"Myth" . . . is not a story that is untrue, but a cultural story that shapes what we experience as reality.

It may seem strange to talk about the "myths" that have made us. After all, we usually think of a myth as an old fiction, like the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, or we use the word "myth" when we're talking about a belief that isn't true. But another, more important, definition of "myth" is "a belief or a subject of belief whose truth is accepted uncritically."[3] This definition makes no claim about truth one way or another. The hero myth, for example, may be true, or it may not be. What makes it powerful is that we accept it as a matrix of meaning, as one way we explain what reality is and what is valuable. So a "myth", as I use it, is not a story that is untrue, but a cultural story that shapes what we experience as reality.

In the west, and especially in the United States, four myths have shaped us: the religious myth, the hero myth, the democratic / enlightenment myth, and the economic myth.[4] Each of these myths has a characteristic way of making sense of reality as well as a characteristic set of values and actors. And each is still influential--although only the economic myth is dominant now.

The Religious Myth

Historically, the religious myth was at the center of the faith communities that helped to provide the infrastructure of our democracy. The early writings from the colonies are steeped in Biblical analogies: Moses and the Promised Land, the people of the covenant, the city on a hill, the light unto the nations, and so on. The founders broke away from their lawful king by citing a higher authority: "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

The religious myth is still powerful in many individual lives. But the national community that arose out of sharing common ideals has vanished, and even individual communities are having a hard time achieving a sense of civic spirit. The surge of interest in "building community" attests to its breakdown. But it's not clear that a direct effort to "build community" will work in the absence of common ideals or values for which individuals are willing to sacrifice. Athenian citizens, for example, had to swear an oath to uphold "the ideals and sacred things of the city." The most common use of the word "sacred" in our public life is in relation to "cow." For the most part, we treat each other not as citizens but as consumers.

John Stuart Mill said something about happiness that applies to this notion of building community. He said that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct and the end of life; but he also said that this end--happiness--is only attained by not making it the direct end. The same can be said of community. Community is not a direct end, but arises as a kind of by-product when people are working for common ideals that are larger than themselves--such as "the ideals and sacred things of the city."

Like most myths, the religious myth has its dark side. It tends to foster an in-group mentality that can, at its worst, embody a logic that demonizes the other: if my god is better than your god, then I am better than you; and if I'm much better* than you, you may not even be fully human. Even those groups that came to the United States to escape religious persecution often persecuted dissenters within their own communities.

The religious myth can be recognized not simply by its external adherence to a religious creed, but by its emphasis on obedience to authority and on purity as a virtue, no matter what the creed. Within the religious myth, there can be no compromise--if God is thought to require a certain kind of behavior, that's it. From this perspective, some in the environmental movement are acting from within this myth when they accept no compromise in relation to competing goods--when they refuse to compromise on the purity of their purpose, instead seeing issues in terms of black and white and right and wrong.

The Hero Myth

The hero myth is our most compelling myth, the one we turn to for entertainment as well as inspiration. Until quite recently, we commonly referred to the United States as a "Christian nation," or a nation with a Judeo-Christian heritage. But we admire in individuals not caring but daring; not community spirit, but the solitary spirit of the cowboy. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." We applaud when the sensitive boy finally socks his opponent in the jaw. John Wayne would never turn the other cheek.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined the major aspects of the hero archetype. The hero is born of humble parents, or is of noble birth but raised by foster parents. Then comes a call to adventure, which the hero may try to avoid but eventually follows. Helpers along the way lead him to the point of the supreme trial, which may be followed by a journey across water, or a dark night of the soul. If the hero survives all these adventures, the return to the community carries with it a gift, a "boon"--whether in the form of relief from the dragon or, as in the case of a religious hero, a new religion.

Even politicians call on this archetype, telling us stories of their humble origins, their poor but proud parents, how they triumphed over adversity or a life-threatening challenge--war being a particularly popular challenge--and how they came back with a gift to give to us if we will only vote for them. Our leaders let us know they occasionally go to church so that we can feel assured that they acknowledge something as superior to themselves. But basically we are looking for heroes, not exemplars of our religious heritage.

If the hero myth is so compelling to us, why have we traditionally emphasized our religious myth, with its family values, as the basis of our public morality? "Sheer hypocrisy," some might say. But I think not. Our culture has often had a double standard for its governing myth: the winners played the hero game; women, minorities, and "inferiors" were expected to organize their lives around the myth of religion, to behave for the good of society.

This double standard does not differ so greatly from that of the ancient Greeks from whom we inherit our hero myth. The Greeks thought that only a few could be heroes. Women, slaves, "barbarians," and anyone else not a citizen of the city-state, were less than human because they were caught in the animal realm--the repetitious cycle of nature. Aristotle thought women and men couldn't be friends because to be friends, you had to be equals, and women, caught in necessity and repetition, were not equal to free men. You could tell no story about such lives. Of course, we believe now that each such life was a story and that the Greeks simply didn't know how to tell it. We're still learning how to tell our cultural story through the lens of ordinary men and women and not just through the biographies of great men.

Heroes were free citizens who chose to take the hard path of adventure and suffering. They were among the best, the "aristoi" (from which we derive the word "aristocrat"), and their lives were not mere repetitions for the sake of sustaining life, but made a linear story. Like Achilles, they were willing to give up their comfortable animal existence for a shorter life on earth, if necessary, in order to have ongoing fame in the history of their tribe.

But heroism exists only within a storytelling community.[5] Without storytelling, heroism becomes a cultural impossibility. When Achilles sulks in his tent at the beginning of the Iliad, it's not just that he's upset that his prize has been taken from him. He doesn't express any tender feelings for Briseis, the girl he has to give up to Agamemnon, who, in turn, has had to give up his prize, Chryseis, to the priest of Apollo to save his army from the plague. Briseis, Chryseis--they're almost interchangeable. What torments Achilles is not the loss of the individual girl-prize but the breakdown of the prize-giving system. What's the point of choosing a short heroic life over a long, happy life if the culture itself does not support the values of heroism?

When United States soldiers returned from Vietnam and complained about the lack of parades, they were not simply whining about being under-appreciated. Without the cultural context in which the self-sacrificing warrior is a hero, the sacrifice itself seems a waste, a cruel joke. Without the poets to tell the story of the hero, the soldier becomes a mere killer.

The Democratic / Scientific Myth

The third important myth that has shaped us is the democratic myth. It could also be called "the myth of enlightenment," since it arose during the 18th century, when reason became the unchallenged arbiter of reality, even being crowned in Notre Dame Cathedral during the French Revolution.

The democratic myth traditionally uses symbolism taken from the religious myth, but uses it allegorically (to suggest one thing in terms of another) rather than symbolically (to allude to a hidden or higher world). For example, the eye of God, or the all-seeing eye on the back of the dollar bill, does not evoke spiritual mysteries but serves to lend authority to the sentiments expressed in the Latin phrases--novus ordo seclorum ("a new order of the world") and annuit coeptis ("He smiled on our accomplishments"). The pyramid on the dollar bill, as Joseph Campbell points out, emphasizes one of the great strengths of the democratic myth: that truth can arise from any quarter, just as the top of the pyramid can be reached from any side. In the democratic myth, truth is a function of experimentation and reason, not a dictum handed down from the top of a religious hierarchy.

Like the religious myth, the democratic myth has its shadow side, as the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn discovered when he first came to the United States. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the loss of community and soul in a culture based on law. Because we tend to locate the good in the rational and objective rather than in the beautiful and subjective, and devalue sources of insight from the non-rational world, whenever we face difficulties in school financing, we almost always cut art and music first.

Such a society can weaken its "ethos"--what ties us together besides the laws we all have to live by. The contrast between ethos and law shows up in the apocryphal story about a group of Americans playing rugby with some English boys. At one point during the game, one of the Americans threw a forward pass to someone. The English players were appalled. "But," the Americans argued, "there's no rule against it." "That's right," the English players replied, "but it's just not done."

When reason is king, the ties to the transcendent loosen. We can see this indirectly in the move from religious symbolism to allegory in the design of the dollar bill. The world becomes human-centered rather than God-centered, and we look to the progress of technology to cure our ills in time.

Human-centered though it is, the enlightenment myth contains its own characteristic form of idealism in which we dream of a better society, set up according to reason--the laws of Nature and of Nature's God. But if reason is used not to follow the dream of a better society, but simply to attain earthly riches, the depth dimension of life begins to evaporate. Early in the Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe showed through his character Dr. Faustus what happens when the man of reason sells his soul for power in the material world. Faustus can do anything he wants, but in the process of fulfilling his desires, he loses a larger capacity of imagination. All his desires become trivial ones, such as playing practical jokes on the clergy.

Not only have we lost the illusion of the perfectibility of society, we have also lost communal faith in the existence of a Designer behind the design. A recent edition of Bartlett's Quotations offers us this from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."[6] The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that you could always tell what the dominant myth of a culture was by looking at its tallest buildings. In medieval times, the tallest buildings in any city were the cathedrals; later, princely palaces and government buildings dominated the landscape; now the tallest buildings are commercial, reflecting the economic myth within which we now live.

3. The Economic Myth

The economic myth is potentially the first truly global myth.

We live in an economic myth the way the fish swim in the sea--unconsciously. We appeal to "the bottom line" to win arguments; we see the history of the world as an economic history, not as the march of great men across a stage or as the working out of the plan of God; in the United States, we win elections by offering not "a covenant" with America (a term coming from our religious myth) but a "contract" with America.

The economic myth is not synonymous with capitalism, although varieties of capitalism are its hardiest expressions, from the classically laissez-faire American style to the social democratic varieties in western Europe to the socially authoritarian styles found in parts of Asia. Whatever form the economic myth takes, it displays three central characteristics:

1) Its medium is numbers and pictures.

One of the reasons the economic myth is potentially the first truly global myth is that it is not bounded by the traditional fences of language. The numbers representing GDP apply to every nation, and the lifestyle shown on television programs like "Sex and the City" can be seen on televisions all over the world. The fall of the former Soviet Union was a triumph not of democracy, but of capitalism and the economic myth--and the media that convey them: the numbers, which you cannot ignore; and the pictures, more powerful than thousands of words.

2) It is an egalitarian, not a hierarchical myth.

In its pure form, the economic myth is egalitarian in that anyone's dollar is as good as anyone else's dollar. Worth is based on net worth, not on the nobility of one's parents or the color of one's skin or one's gender or even what country one is from--all accidents of birth.

The economic myth is a horizontal, not a vertical myth. It counts rather than evaluates, locating value in the exchange function rather than in something "higher up" or absolute. In part, this leveling has been responsible for the saying I quoted earlier: that American culture knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The economic myth honors quantity over quality. Unlike the democratic myth, in which truth can arise from any quarter, in the economic myth, truth does arise from every quarter, through counting or polling. Power lies in the numbers.

3) Its ideal is growth.

The economic myth has at its base the ideal of growth: bigger--or more--is better. In addition, we tend to think of this growth as necessarily involving competition--although its aim is monopoly rather than simply "a good fight." Implicit in much of our language about growth is a kind of early Darwinian notion of natural selection: the strong survive and grow, while the weak are inevitably, naturally (and therefore, rightly) weeded out.

Like all myths, the economic myth allows for some possibilities--and not for others. If we do not understand the limitations of the economic myth, we will not be able to deal with the difficult challenges that face the global community. On the other hand, if we attempt to solve our social problems through recourse to the earlier myths, in which our social institutions are embedded, we will fail, because these earlier myths no longer have the power of the economic myth. We will also fail globally, because these earlier myths, unlike the economic myth, are western. While we can argue that the economic myth arose in the west, too, its basic premises--the broad characteristics that distinguish it from other myths--are being accepted worldwide, although not without struggle.

Threats Posed by the Economic Myth

Threat #1: Loss of the values embodied in our earlier myths.

The values embodied by the hero myth are distorted by the current economic myth in which they appear. For example, in the economic myth, we tell the hero story as a matter of good versus evil. But ancient stories often honored the opponent. Hector has traditionally been as honored as Achilles, even though he is on the losing side and is defeated after having run around Troy in sheer terror. The Romans even traced their ancestry back to the losing Trojans. We, on the other hand, tend to dress our heroes in white hats and their enemies in black. All evil is projected onto the enemy--who, by this black/white distinction, is no hero, So when the enemy dies, there is no poignancy, as there is at the death of the hero Hector by the hero Achilles.

Our hero myth is embedded in our operating myth, which is economic. That means that instead of heroes, we have celebrities. Celebrities are known for having more of what we already value--more money, more beauty, more power--rather than leading us to expand our values, as earlier heroes might have done.

For all its drawbacks, the hero myth offered an ideal of excellence and individual responsibility, which was especially inspiring to young people. But how can we extol individual responsibility in a world where we're just a number (SSN #429-30-1422) with the slight chance of fifteen minutes of fame on some talk show if we have a bizarre enough victim story to tell?

The crisis of the hero myth in our culture arises from many causes, including our lack of support for heroism in certain groups of people. Such "discarded" groups then form alternative gang cultures, ones in which heroic virtues of courage and self-sacrifice and disregard for their own lives becomes the stuff of street legend and graffiti.

It seems we don't know how to integrate these heroic impulses in our young men into the larger society and its values. Traditionally, this integration was done through war and the sports that echoed battle. While fathers can still play softball with their sons, sport has become big business, and even in high school, only the best usually get to play, limiting the opportunities for heroic deeds, no matter how local the stage . War, too, has become difficult to sustain as a heroic enterprise, partly because of its mechanization. Mechanization increases efficiency, but does little to highlight individual heroic deeds--or even individuals themselves. In recent wars, civilian casualties have been referred to as "collateral damage."

We don't know how to sustain heroic energy because we don't have a culture that honors it except in sports. The poet W.H. Auden remarked on this in his poem "The Shield of Achilles," which imagines Achilles' mother returning to heaven for new armor for her son, just as she does in the Iliad. But this time, when she looks at the shield, she sees not the integrated harmony of the community, which was displayed on the original shield of Achilles, but scenes from modern life, including one of a boy in a vacant lot throwing stones at a bird:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who'd never heard

Of any world where promises were kept

Or one could weep because another wept.

The shield of the hero displays the total, integrated life of the community. Without community there cannot be authentic individual heroism. We are wrong to think that heroism is a matter of will alone, of the individual cowboy riding into the town, cleaning out the bad guys, and leaving. Our problems are more difficult than that--and always have been. Without a community to sustain it, our hero myth is doomed to debasement. And traditionally, it is the religious myth that has offered us that vision of community.

The power of the religious myth gave us a reason to sacrifice in the present for the good of the whole and a better future. But in an economic myth what we give to the community--or to our homes and families--has no economic tag and therefore no way to be valued. Undervaluing service--whether reflected in our lack of support for full-time single mothers or the steady decline of teachers' salaries in relation to those of other professionals--will continue to have a debilitating effect on communities.

The democratic myth held up the ideal of "one nation under God with liberty and justice for all." In an economic myth, we observe that he who has the most money gets the best justice; and, as critical legal theory has taught us, law is essentially a conversation not about justice but about power.

Threat #2: Loss of the sense of a larger significance.

In addition to a loss of the values embodied in our earlier myths, there is a danger for the society dominated by the economic myth that its citizens can lose their sense of a larger significance--or even of significance on an individual level. The economic myth is the first large myth that is the story of a process rather than of a character in action. The Greeks had their founding stories of gods and heroes, and the Hebrew and Christian traditions had stories of God and His people and prophets. Even the democratic myth had the implicit sound of God's machinery, ticking away through time, just waiting to be discovered in the inevitable march of scientific and technological progress.

But the economic myth, like the natural world, doesn't have a plot. Some might say that such a random collection of ups and downs, like the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is hardly any story at all, simply a changing pattern along a trajectory of growth. And even that trajectory is "accidental," like everything else in the story. In this myth, humans are the victims of large forces over which they have no control--terrorism, or crime, or pollution, or guns, or global competition, or inflation. The aim of living is survival itself--or, depending on resources, a quality of life that is measured in terms of costs versus benefits. From the perspective of this myth, the Islamic fundamentalists, who are willing to die for their story, seem incomprehensible.

Threat #3: Loss of capacity for civic discourse.

Like the phrase "We the People," "civic discourse" seems a little old-fashioned. We report political news not in terms of the complexities of the issues and the historical background or how the common good might be furthered, but in terms of the power relationships of the personalities involved, as if politics were like a simple sporting event--who's winning and who's losing, or, to follow the little arrows in a popular news magazine, who's up and who's down.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman claims that in our culture, "all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business . . . ."[7]

In show business, sex and violence sell. So, too, in television news, the storyteller of our society. Under our economic myth, we make political decisions on the basis of the story we are being told in order to sell commercial products. We believe the violence we see and experience on television, not the statistics we read, so we perceive the world as much meaner and more violent than it really is--which is why we voted for more prisons in an era of declining crime.

In short, we cannot expect the economic myth that shapes our society to foster the ideals of individual responsibility that the hero myth embodied; or to encourage the ideals of community the religious myth promoted; or to emphasize the pursuit of a common good that the democratic myth supported. And yet these ideals of responsibility, community, and the common good are absolutely necessary for the health of the civic spirit.

Even so, we can't simply return to the old myths, no matter how many movements in their direction we try to beat the drums for. These myths don't hold up for us now. We don't want to look up to the chosen few as our heroes; we don't want to re-introduce the sense of division and intolerance that a ruling religious myth so often fosters; and we're rightly suspicious of the idea of one common good because we know how much suffering has been caused in our diverse society by insisting that our identity fits one mold. For example, we can no longer blindly tell our history from the point of view of Columbus. We don't have one story about who we are anymore, so how can we articulate a common good?

We have to begin by raising our awareness of the myth that we are in--how we are caught in it, and how it shapes us individually and as a nation. And then we must learn to tell better stories about who we are and who we might become. To deepen the American dream calls upon our minds and hearts--and also our imaginations.

4. "The Pursuit of Happiness"

Pursuing happiness, we learn love.

The quest to deepen the American Dream through the power of the imagination begins deep in the center of the economic myth--because that's where American culture is. The United States is currently the clearest embodiment of the economic myth not only because of its economic prowess but also because of its continuing link to the founding principle of "the pursuit of happiness."

To deepen the American dream we can imagine a story about the pursuit of happiness that neither ignores the economic myth nor fights against it, but uses its elements in a transformative way.

The desire for happiness is both a curse and a blessing--a curse because we're so often discontent, imagining happiness to be down the road rather than here and now; and a blessing because the pursuit of happiness turns out, in the end, to be a spiritual journey. "Divine discontent" leads us on a learning journey. Pursuing happiness, we learn love. At least, that's the possibility offered to us.

The Self-Help Society and Helpers Along the Way

A wonderfully magic characteristic of the pursuit of happiness is the discovery of helpers along the way. You could easily object to this claim, saying something like, "There may be help along the way--but only for some people. Those people get all the luck."

But luck often has a way of showing up in certain circumstances rather than others. For example, there is a recurring folktale motif that features three sons who are sent on a quest--to find a treasure, or rescue a princess, for example. When the first son is halfway down the road, he comes across a fox and says, "Get out of my way, fox, I'm on a quest!"

The second son, going down the same road, comes across the same fox and says, "Get out of my way, fox, I'm on a quest!"

The third son--whose name is always something like "Dumb Hans" or "Stupid Jack"--comes across the same fox and says, "Who are you? Can I help you?" The fox then, predictably, offers Dumb Hans the key to the castle, or a magic cloak, or crucial information that leads to a happy outcome.

This deep impulse towards generosity of spirit is an American virtue, perhaps developing in response to the hardships early settlers shared, where survival depended upon helping each other. Again and again, that impulse towards a common good is the door that unexpectedly opens to the fulfillment of individual dreams of happiness--even though the stories that emphasize individual success sometimes obscure this true source of happiness.

Such stories of the lone individual succeeding in the world are the familiar basis of the self-help book. If we took that popular genre and applied it to the folk tale of the three sons on a quest, we might have the following tale:

Once upon a time, after Dumb Hans has succeeded on the quest after his two brothers have failed, the oldest son buys a self-help book--"How to Succeed on the Quest." Halfway down the road, he comes across a horse. He rapidly thumbs through the book--"Hmm. There's a chapter here called 'Be sure to talk to foxes,' but nothing about horses." Then he shuts the book, looks up, and says, "Get out of my way, horse, I'm on a quest."

The second brother has bought the same book and, like his older brother, not finding anything to guide him in response to this new circumstance, reacts the same way.

Dumb Hans, as you can guess, greets the horse--and the horse has the key to the castle, the magic cloak, the crucial advice, etc.

The moral of the story is that help was on the road for all three brothers, but only the youngest brother found it--not because he followed a recipe of what to do, but because his way of being allowed the help to become apparent. There is no "to do" that elicits the helpers--only a way of being. The youngest brother is fully present to those he meets along the way.

In the economic myth, with its emphasis on efficiency and time management, the discipline of full presence is particularly challenging. From a spiritual perspective, love is always present. But to experience love requires us to step out of the hurry of measureable time--time as money--into a sense of slow time--time like honey, smooth and sweet. No wonder that the son who ignores the opportunity costs of slowing down is called "Dumb Hans" or "Stupid Jack."

"More" in the Economic Myth

In the Economic Myth, the aim is not goodness, as in the religious myth, or truth, as in the democratic myth, or excellence, as in the hero myth, but "more." Over time and with the help of advertising, Americans have been taught to believe that happiness depends on having "more" in the material world. And a corollary to aiming for more material goods is the drive towards perfection--the desire to have perfectly white or straight teeth, the perfect slim figure, the latest model appliance or car.

If happiness is pursued as "more" or "perfection," however, it will never be achieved. There is never enough; nothing is ever perfect. As wise observers have always taught us, the pursuit of happiness is most fruitful when it is experienced as the pursuit of wholeness--a journey that depends upon a recognition that even our flaws, or the shadow side of our selves, must be acknowledged and accepted as part of us (even as we attempt to improve). Our failures become part of the meaningfulness of life that gives it shape and individuality and that leads to understanding and treasures of the spirit.

There's an old folk tale of a man plowing who stumbles across an object--and when he stops and looks at it closely, it turns out to be a box of treasure. It's a common motif, characterized by the saying, "Where you stumble, there your treasure lies."

During the voyage of the Beagle, when it anchored off the coast of South America, Charles Darwin climbed a mountain in the Andes. There on the peak, he looked down at his shoes--maybe he stumbled; the account doesn't say--and next to his feet was a fossil seashell. Darwin realized that the seashell's journey--and therefore, the mountain's journey--from ocean floor to high peak must have taken a much longer time than the earth's age of 6,000 years, as theologians had computed, based on the Bible. Some looking has profound consequences. Where we stumble, there our treasure lies.

I once quoted this to someone who responded, "Is that like 'if you get a lemon, make lemonade'"? The answer is "No"--for several important reasons. In the folktale of the man who stumbles while he's plowing, for example, the first aspect of the story to notice is that the guy is going forward when he stumbles. In his moving ahead, in his walking, in his work, he stumbles. Then what does he do? He looks closely at what he's stumbled against. Now if he had responded the way most of us have been trained to do, he would have simply stood right back up, picked up his plow, and kept on going. But if we're not too eager to get right back to plowing the same furrow, we can use the stumble as an opportunity for deep seeing.

Let me summarize the process: move forward, stumble, look. If we're not moving forward, we won't stumble. If we don't stumble, we won't stop to look. If we look closely enough, we might find treasure.

This is a process that puts the emphasis not on willing, but on looking--not on making lemonade, but on really seeing the lemon. To look--to really look, with full consciousness, fully in the present--changes things. To practice seeing rather than acquiring places the "more" of the economic myth against an intangible--not more things, but more seeing or deeper experiencing of the things and events in our lives.

Those who find the current emphasis on "more" to be contributing to the ills of our current American society might object by saying, "Why put the emphasis on more--even if it's more experiences rather than more things? Why not try to fight directly against this emphasis on more?"

The answer to this call to arms against the materialist emphasis of 21st-century American culture is that it won't work. You can't fight the energy of a culture directly--you can only use the energy that's available and turn it into a new direction.

Here's a example of what it means to turn cultural energy: there was a time when Texans exercised their God-given right to throw beer cans out of their pick-up trucks. Then a brilliant ad campaign came along that used an aikido approach to littering--it simply demanded, "Don't mess with Texas." That slogan caught the energy of fierce independence and turned it into a defense of Texas--from littering! What had formerly been a kind of special effort from "good citizens"--carrying empty drink cans home--came to be expected from everyone. Picking up after oneself wasn't a form of "goodness"--it was just ordinary, decent human behavior. It didn't require an extraordinary act of will--it was just the reality of what everyone did because you simply "don't mess with Texas."

So while we can't fight the materialistic aspects of the Economic Myth directly, we can use the aikido approach to influence the direction of its energy. For example: the contemporary interest in ecology has led to a widespread recognition of the way that complex systems interact with each other to produce healthy environments. The same is true of complex economic systems--as with the natural environment, we are all interconnected. The introduction of a trade barrier for particular goods in one nation can affect the health of children in a nation across the globe when workers in that industry lose their livelihood--and then can't purchase goods from us, or help raise global economic prosperity. What seemed best for short-term self-interest has worked against long-term self interest.

The aikido move, in this case, would involve a simple shift in emphasis that would benefit the system as a whole while, at the same time, not requiring a frontal assault on one of the main energies of the Economic Myth--self interest. This shift--from short-term to long-term self interest--is simple, but not easy. It requires the telling of a new story that would be recognized within the old paradigm of self interest. But pursuing the happiness not only of one's own, "neighborhood" system but also of other, geographical remote systems would lead to the discovery that wise people learned long ago in relation to personal life--that the most efficient way to pursue happiness is to pursue the happiness of someone else. This observation, if acted on by a growing number of people, would help create enormous wealth in the happiness economy.

One of the founding theorists of capitalism, Adam Smith, argued that when every individual follows his own self-interest, the interest of the whole is also achieved--as by the movement of an "invisible hand." What has changed as a result of globalization is that "the whole" that is affected by the movement of individual parts is not just a national economy, but the global economy of vastly different cultures and levels of prosperity. Because we are all linked in an enormously complex global economy, the long-term self interest of the individual is allied to the self-interest of everyone on the planet. To illustrate with a simple example: because of jet travel and global trade, a small, local outbreak of bird flu in a remote corner of the globe--remote from a U.S.-centric point of view--threatens the health of a school child in Arkansas, as well as of everyone in the world.

The "more" achieved by emphasizing wholeness rather than perfection and of integrating the larger global system and a long-term perspective into the energy of our self-interested pursuits requires a lessening of our youthful narcissism as a culture. Americans sometimes appear to be looking at the world as if into a mirror--seeking our own reflection in the values and aspirations of other cultures. We feel we know what they want because we know what we would want in their place. President Johnson, in attempting to bring the Vietnam War to a conclusion, offered a generous array of improvement projects to the North Vietnamese--a large dam project, for example, and all kinds of aid for education and social welfare. He was frustrated by the apparent disregard of the North Vietnamese, who didn't seem to appreciate what these gifts from the American people could do for their economy.

It's an overstatement to say, as some have, that Americans know the price of everything and the value of nothing. But sometimes the pursuit of happiness, when it takes an economic form, can appear callous, "unevolved," and immature. Our culture sometimes seems to have the quality of a youthful hero, beginning on his journey, optimistic and brave, partly because optimism and bravery are attractive features of his character but also partly because he is ignorant of the trials and darkness that lie ahead on the journey. He is bound to stumble in time. And sometimes that stumbling results in a wound. So whether or not the wounded hero finds a material treasure when he stumbles, he does have the opportunity to deepen his empathy for all those less fortunate than he--all those who are also wounded. The hero who has been wounded on his journey comes back with a blessing or gift for society that arises even from those adventures that were failures.

Stumbling and wounds can contribute to our individuality; to our creativity; and to our compassion. The archetype of the wounded healer points to the blessing that some people can give to others because of what they have learned from their own painful experiences along the way.

This archetype also applies to a culture when it attempts to integrate an experience of failure rather than to ignore it. The United States is in a position of leadership in the global economic myth in part because that myth is so well exemplified in our culture, and we have been very successful within it; but its leadership also depends on the willingness of other nations to trust us. The good will that poured in from all over the world after 9/11 was elicited by sympathy for our wound--"We are all Americans." At that time, our strength and vision were accompanied by humility and gratitude, and a doorway to a shared vision of the future opened up that has never been as open since.

Seeing Self-Interest Anew in the Economic Myth

I discovered this rule when I attempted to answer a question that one of my students put to me many years ago: "Why doesn't Mother Teresa burn out? She helps people all day long, and she has a lot of responsibility and stress. So why doesn't she burn out?"

I couldn't answer that question immediately, so I began reading about Mother Teresa. One story seemed to offer a clue. Mother Teresa said that when she embraced a leper, she was embracing her Beloved, Jesus. This insight, of course, is linked to Jesus' story about the Last Judgment, when he says to the righteous, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

"And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."[8]

Thinking about Mother Teresa and this story, I was reminded of the way that saints always protest that they aren't especially good. Even Jesus responded to the ruler who called him "Good Master" by saying, "Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God."[9] When we hear these protests, we chalk it up to the saints' humility--just another evidence of their saintliness.

But what if Mother Teresa was telling the literal truth? What if she deeply felt the truth of Jesus' statement that to do good to another is to do good to him? We don't think we're especially saintly to feed and clothe our beloved. For the non-religious, the same point can be made by imagining how easy it is to desire to feed our own children. After all, they and we are "one." But what if we saw the interconnectedness of all humans that way--so that to feed them was to feed ourselves?

If we really saw this interconnectedness, we wouldn't have to will to be "good"--feeding them would just come naturally. In fact, if we think of "goodness" as involving a lack of self-interest, feeding the hungry wouldn't be "doing good" at all. It would simply be a natural response to the reality that "I and the other are one." So, when doing good becomes seeing that I and the other are one, goodness simply becomes natural and easy rather than difficult and willed.

Conclusion: "A More Perfect Union"--Deepening the American Dream

How well we tell this first truly global myth--the economic myth--will determine the future of the American Dream.

The challenge to the American dream is not just how we can fight the materialism and narcissism that seem to infect our culture--but how do we enter into it and see how it can be transformed from within?

Soon after the 2003 War in Iraq, I participated in a National Issues Forum deliberative dialogue in which the dialogue group was given four possible paths forward for "Americans' Role in the World":

1. International Order -- Using Our Power to Secure Peace

2. The Democratic Project -- Ensuring People's Rights

3. The Global Market Prescription -- Lifting All Boats

4. Preserving Our Global Future -- Facing the Hard Tasks

As I sat in the circle, it seemed clear to me that each of these options embodied one of the archetypal myths that have shaped us:

1. International Order--Hero Myth, with the U.S. using its power and acting unilaterally, if necessary, to make the world safe.

2. The Democratic Project -- Enlightenment Myth, with the U.S. working to strengthen democracy in other countries.

3. The Global Market Prescription -- Economic Myth, with the U.S. promoting global free trade.

4. Preserving Our Global Future -- Religious Myth, with the U.S. taking the lead as a kind of global charity worker to address famine and other issues

Throughout the discussion, the participants deliberated back and forth as to whether the global collaborative work to preserve the future was more sustainable than the democratic project, or whether, given the terrorist threat, we could realistically choose any option other than "International Order." No one put forth the idea that #3--The Global Market Prescription--was the least coercive and the path most suited to our time. For those of us who are idealists and who care about the social fabric and the social safety net, the "market" seems to belong to "the other side." It looks like the problem, not a doorway to the solution.

But if we are to deepen the American Dream, we must start where we are. We must explore the myth we're in for the possibilities it offers. The philosopher Herbert Spencer said that "Civilization is a progress from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity toward a definite, coherent heterogeneity."[10] We need a new myth that takes into account our diversity but that makes it coherent--that allows us to stick together in the name of a higher ideal and to work for a common good but at the same time to celebrate our individuality. We need a higher organization of our complexity. We need a new myth of who we are--and who we might be.

But how do we make a new myth? The first thing to understand about myths is that we can't simply make them. They arise out of what is there. We can't hold up a myth of community and wait for it to take hold. We have to work within our own myth, however impoverished it seems to us. To deepen the American Dream, we have to look at the opportunities offered by the economic myth within which we live.

Opportunities Offered by the Economic Myth

Opportunity #1: The economic myth supports a systems view of the world.

When everyone's business becomes everyone else's business, too, our interconnections have to be figured into our decision-making. It's ironic that some of the downsizing in corporations that has resulted in the loss of jobs is the consequence of a call for tighter operations from big investors--often workers' pension funds. More and more, we see the need to look at the environment as an interconnected system, to look at our families in terms of systems theory, to look at biological life itself as a complexity of interacting systems. We're all woven into the same net, and if we ever truly grasp the significance of this, our short-term them-vs.-us habit of formulating problems will have to change. From an economic perspective, the task of building the future must take everything into account. That means that we work not simply for an ideal of purity or perfection, but for wholeness. We work not for control, but for coherence of parts--for what might be called "harmony." We have not yet begun to understand, even at the level of the individual, what an ideal of wholeness might mean.

Opportunity #2: The economic myth allows everyone to play the game.

If we could truly see the interconnections of the global economy we could see that in the long term, our self-interest coincides with the health of the whole. In a xxxliberated economic myth, nations decrease in importance as mediating institutions just as multinational corporations and other financial institutions increase in importance. The long-term self-interest of economically oriented institutions does not necessarily coincide with the self-interest of individual nations, as Ruzaburo Kaku, CEO of Canon, points out: "Today there is only one entity whose effort to create stability in the world matches its self-interest. That entity is a corporation acting globally."[11]

The global economy is healthiest when more people are "winning" and thus forming wealthier markets for goods and services. Competition under the economic myth will always involve comparison--who's doing better than someone else. But it's not necessary that competition be organized like a sports event, with a winner and loser. We fall into that way of thinking because it's characteristic of our version of the hero myth, which insists on the kind of competition in which there is a clear winner--whether a runner or a nation. By definition, the rest of the competitors are losers. Thus, in a heroic myth, business is run as a race against competitors. In a maturing economic myth, business could be seen as part of an eco-system in which survival depends not just on heroic excellence or economic growth but also on innovation--finding new niches and connecting to the whole in new, value-added ways. We might call this an emerging ecological myth, based on the objective of health rather than growth.

In an economic myth, a business enterprise is more like an organism in an ecosystem than an engine in a factory. As Michael Rothschild and others have pointed out,[12] our metaphors of the economy as an engine have led us to imagine we can "tinker" with highly complex systems, ignoring the unintended consequences that occur as the result of interfering with vitally interconnected parts. If we thought of the economy as an ecosystem, we might require of ourselves an environmental impact statement any time we intervened.

If the emerging ecological myth has the potential of leading us to see the world more in terms of living organisms and less in terms of machines, we also have the possibility of appreciating all the subtle, interlinking lives that create the health of the whole. Teamwork can become both more efficient and more significant as our increasingly complex world requires a level of response and innovation beyond the capacity of any single team member.

Opportunity #3: The economic myth--if seen as a myth--allows for the continual re-creation of possibility.

The economic myth is a myth in the sense that it is a context for values organized around a supreme value, or "reality"--in this case, self-interest, whether "self" is defined as a solitary individual or a specific group, or, ultimately, human beings as a whole. But unlike the hero myth with stories of representative individuals, or the religious myth with its many stories of fall and redemption, or the myth of enlightenment, with its story of progress, the economic myth has no authoritative story. That means that instead of holding the story of who we are as a belief, we can hold it self-consciously as a fiction. We don't have to defend it against change. We can let it evolve as we tell it and live in the present that is created by the future we tell.

Holding the story of who we are as a fiction is a form of humility. I recently heard an astronomer say that we know only 4% of what is in the universe--75% of the universe is "dark energy," and 21% is "dark matter," and we don't know what either of those is. We do know that every physical process takes place in a sea of energy with wavelengths that are miles across. We are literally in touch with the universe--"quantum interconnectedness." The physicist David Bohm thought all things are so interconnected that the real question is, why do they look different?

If we could answer that question, we might see our economic interconnectedness as the material representation of Indra's net--that mythological image in which every node of the net has a multifaceted jewel, and every facet reflects all the other facets of all the other jewels. Imagine, then, if that net were the conduit not just of commerce and communication, but also of love.

The "economic myth" itself is a similar act of the imagination in that it is a metaphor--a way of thinking--that brings to light some hidden dimensions of the problems facing our society and the global community toward which we must move. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what is possible are extremely important. We need to tell better stories than we're telling now. For example, if we choose, we can declare this to be a time like that when our nation was founded, an amazing opportunity, right now, at this moment in history.

Thomas Paine expressed the feeling of possibility in his time, and some would say that Paine's expression of possibility, in his pamphlet Common Sense, was what made coherent the ideas that resulted in the American Revolution. His expression of possibility created the feeling that led to conviction and thus the possibility itself, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and, ultimately in a new form of government expressed in the Constitution. Thomas Paine declared, "We have it in our power to begin the world all over again. A situation similar to the present hath not appeared since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand."

In the case of the emerging ecological myth, the new world is not the United States, but that blue pearl of the earth as seen from space--the first view of the whole we have ever seen, an image now so familiar all over the globe that it has profoundly influenced our story about who we are, especially in relation to the environment. School children around the globe take daily measurements of air and water quality and send their numbers to centralized computers for scientific analysis. This picture and these numbers suggest a story about self-interest, the driving force of the economic myth, which is more complex and interconnected than any story we've ever told before as human beings. How well we tell the new story of reality that is emerging from the economic myth - an ecological myth of health as more important than growth - will determine the future of the American Dream.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.

[1] In a story by Margot Adler, Weekend Edition--Saturday, April 24, 2004.

[2] This is my friend Chuck Spezzano's way of wording the victim story.

[3] The Random House Dictionary, def. 3.

[4] Parts of this essay have appeared in different forms in two privately printed monographs, The Economic Myth (Center for International Business Education and Research, Graduate School of Business, University of Texas at Austin), 1995 and The American Dream and the Economic Myth, Essay #12 in the Fetzer Institute Series, "Deepening the American Dream" (Fetzer, 2007).

[5] For a brilliant exposition of the role of the community in the heroic culture of Greece, see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958).

[6] from Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (HarperCollins Basic Books, 1977; 1988), p. 154.

[7] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin, 1985), pp. 3-4.

[8] Mt. 35:34-40.

[9] Lk.18:18-19.


[11] quoted in Shell Group Global Scenarios, 1992-2020, public booklet, p. 9.

[12] See, for example, Rothschild's Bionomics: Economy As Ecosystem (NY: Holt, 1990).