“(The American Dream is) that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
– James Truslow Adams, “The Epic of America” (1931)
Are you happy with your life? Before you answer that question, think for a moment about what constitutes this “life” you’re trying to evaluate. How do you know you’re alive? You’re breathing in and out. Your heart is pumping blood through your body. You can bend your fingers, chew, blink. You’re happy you can do those things. You’d rather do those things than not. You’d rather be alive than dead. So far so good.
You’ve established that you’re alive. Now, what do you spend your time doing? Right now you’re sitting in front of a computer monitor, reading these words, infinitely interested in what I have to say. You’re reading because you’re curious about these questions. Maybe you never think about them. Maybe you think too much about them, and you’re looking for some good, solid answers. Maybe you feel as if this whole “life” business has never really started, and you’re wondering what’s taking so long.
A lot of us get to feeling like that. To some people, life is a process of killing time until we’re no longer alive, waiting for life to begin. How will we know if life begins? Perhaps it’s when we’re confident in our own happiness. As soon as we are thoroughly and consistently happy with the way we’re killing time, we’ll feel alive. Until then, tick tock, tick tock.
There are moments when we feel time very precisely. It creeps up on us out of the shadows of thought and we freeze in our tracks under the weight of its presence. We ask ourselves what we’re doing here. Think about living to the age of 90, looking back on your life and believing that you wasted far too much of it. Can you envision yourself doing that? If you can, maybe it’s time for a change.
But what sort of change? What can you change about your life that will make you feel more alive? Maybe you should take a trip. Maybe you should visit another city or country – somewhere you’ve never been before and would like to see before you run out of time. It will make your life fuller. It will give you more experience of the world. It will generate new thoughts and memories of people, places and things, greatly needed if you’ve been spending far too much time in the same place over the last little while, since the last trip you took, when you were feeling the way you feel now.
Maybe you should do something entirely random. Maybe you should leave the house, go to the park and roll down a hill the way you did when you were five, just to get that old dizzy feeling back. You could go to the beach and build a sandcastle. You could base jump from a high cliff, or jump out of a plane. You could buy a can of spray paint and write nonsense on a bus stop bench. You’d probably find it humourous, but is the humour and exhilaration and childishness of these situations going to make you feel more alive? Maybe for a while. Maybe it won’t last.
You have responsibilities. You have a job. You have bills to pay. You have kids to raise. You have a mortgage and a broken car and a deadline. You’ll sink if you don’t swim. You miss enough payments or shifts and you’ll lose the nice house or apartment you started renting to feel more independent. You’ll have to move back in with your parents, out of the big city you’ve been calling home and back into the small southern Ontario suburbs. Maybe you’ll never leave that small pond again in spite of the big fish attitude you’ve been developing since you left home.
Will success make you feel alive? Is that what you’re striving for? What if you don’t get ahead? What if that promotion never comes? What if no one goes to that show you’re organizing? Maybe it’s enough to simply make the effort. At least then you’ll know you tried. Will trying make you feel alive? What if all the trying in the world doesn’t get you anywhere? What if it leaves you nowhere?
Are you happy in your career? Are you performing a regular task for the money you need that stimulates your interests? Is your heart in what you do on a near-daily basis, or are you working the job just to get by – to pay the bills, repair the car, decorate the house, educate the kids? Would you rather be writing and performing music instead of entering data into a computer to track the needs of customers? How did you get here? Where are you going? How much time do you have left to kill, staring at a screen, wondering where your soul has gone in all this?
A lot of questions. I haven’t got any answers. They’re questions I’ve been asking myself almost daily since I moved out of my parents’ house 11 years ago and started to think about what kind of adult I was going to be. I have a lot of ambition, but it’s handcuffed to fear. I want to be on a road to success, regardless of the success I achieve. I work a job that isn’t particularly stimulating. It pays well. I use the money to buy equipment so that I can write music. I use the money to buy movie tickets so that I can see a film and write a review for it. I work the job so that I can do all the things I wish I could do for a living but can’t because these are the things that most other people want to do – people just like me, who have a lot of ambition but no clear path. People who settle for the mundane when they should be making the most of their lives, in spite of where they were born or who they know or how rich their parents are. The fullest realization of innate capability.
Over the past couple of years I have worried about ridiculous things. I have worried that I won’t be able to get a high-paying job in Ottawa because I don’t speak French. I have worried that I will not be able to afford a place to live. I have worried that I will never be able to do what I want to do with my life, even though my idea of what I want to do changes every few months. I have worried that I will be mired in a career I don’t want in a city I don’t want to stay in just because it’s the safe thing to do right now. This is not how I want to spend my time.
How many of us actually realize our dreams? How many of us actually turn into the people we become? Perhaps John Steinbeck and Hunter S. Thompson and George Carlin were right. Maybe it is all a big joke. Maybe the realization of the American Dream is a fallacy, imprinted onto our consciousness as a means of not going crazy in the midst of over-population and competition. All the bucks to be made doing inspirational and creative jobs are being made by other people in a buck-making society that shits on art unless it’s profitable. Where do the failed actors, painters and musicians go? Are they all lying in a gutter on the North American west coast, looking up at the stars, wondering why the land just stops when it could stretch so much further?
Where do we find happiness? It’s relative. Do your best, but don’t suffer delusions of grandeur. Not everything is possible. Make the most of what is possible. Never be afraid to care about others and recognize when others are willing to care about you. Recognize that what we are spoon-fed by the media and advertisers is often too easily swallowed. Use anger effectively, but don’t be an enemy to moments of joy. Use both optimism and cynicism to better things, not destroy them. Be honest. Be intelligent. Figure out what you really want and find the path to it. Don’t take maps too seriously.
These are not big answers. These are not solutions. Perhaps these are credos to help me get by. Perhaps they’re all I’ll ever have. I’m a dreamer. I want to be happy. I want to feel alive. I want to spend my time wisely. I will not settle. I will not stay still. I will not won’t. I will.