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The Longstanding Impact of Words Spoken by a Patchouli-Wearing Hippie

December 16, 2008

Almost two years ago, I found myself in a great place of depression rooting in a broken heart towards the actions of people around me. I was hurt by the fact that people frowned on me for working at Starbucks as a Shift Lead, rather than going to college like every other normal nineteen-year-old boy out there. I shared this with one of my best friends, Josh, a former schoolmate who was struggling with similar issues in his own family. Josh is bohemian and transient—a wandering spirit, of sorts, by nature. Josh wears patchouli oil. His dad is not that kind of guy, and was disappointed in Josh for wanting to move to Portland and learn about life rather than attending a university. We empathized with one another. We talked a lot about what people call the “American Dream” then. You know what I mean…

A wife
A daughter
A son
A white picket fence
(A mortgage?)
A dog
2 cars…

…the list can go on.

I remember telling Josh that I felt like there was more to life than that, more to existence than orienting all my resources and talents around trying to achieve this one goal, the one that everyone in our society says is most important, this All-American Dream. I felt like I was meant to do more with my time. I remember telling Josh that I felt like this mentality was a lie.

It was in response to those ideas that Josh said something I will never forget:

“Catlin, I think the American Dream is attempting to build home here, when we were never meant to have it!”

That idea is an uncomfortable one to digest. It’s uncomfortable for me, even as I write this.

That time has passed, I’m still with Starbucks, and have since been promoted to a management position. I make more money now than I did when I had that conversation with Josh, and, unfortunately, I can look back and say that with my increased income I’ve only further invested my resources in obtaining my own comfortable rendition of the American Dream. I drive a decently nice car, I have an iPhone, I wear nice clothes, I have a bedroom decorated with pieces from Urban Outfitters—these things are my way of helping paint other people’s perception of me. Over the course of the last month, these matters have weighed heavy on my heart once again, and I’ve found myself acutely aware of the truth that this is all a lie. Let me stop here for a second and clarify that I do not think any of these things, in and of themselves, is bad. I do not frown upon the successful, I do not think having a family and a comfortable lifestyle are necessarily bad things—but I do think there is more to life than all of this. I think there is more worth giving ourselves to than this.


Because the American Dream is a selfish one. It has the ability to crush “the weak” in order to be “the strong”.

But what if we were never meant to be strong in and of ourselves?

The American Dream is not the root of all evil; however, it is reflective of a condition in the heart of humanity as a whole, and it is shown prominently in our society.

As one who has invested his livelihood in this dream, I will say that, at least in my experience with it, this whole thing is a vicious self-perpetuating cycle. The more you have, the more you need to invest in maintaing those things. The nicer the car I drive, the more I’ll need to invest in car payments. The cooler I am, the more money I need to pay in keeping up with the latest trends—and staying cool.

Being “cutting edge” is expensive.

All the while, I’m forgetting that real life is going on outside of the hip world I am building for myself—people are hurting, the economy is receding, hearts are broken. Teenagers feel alone and kill themselves, fathers lose jobs and struggle to support their families, lovers hurt one another, and people feel alone.

What about them? Because, really, I think if we’re all being honest with ourselves, we know what those places are like. We may be in those places ourselves. We know what it’s like to hurt, we know what it’s like to feel alone. We all long to be truly known and understood by the people around us. We long to be accepted. I do. I’m a weak person, and as unique as I try to make myself out to be, I need something outside of myself to give me a sense of worth. That is the human condition. The American Dream is immobilizing in many ways—it has the ability to deceive us into thinking that life is entirely about ourselves, it has a propensity to throw a blanket over other people’s aching hearts, and the condition it reflects can ensnare us into thinking life is entirely and completely about ourselves and that other people don’t matter.

But what if they do? Have you ever felt alone, in anything, ever? Have you, being in that place, then read something, or talked to someone, or listened to some song that in some way helped you know you weren’t as isolated as you thought? People need to know they’re not alone, because I truly believe they were never meant to be. I don’t think I was ever intended to forget that place—that loneliness, that emptiness. If I adhere to the American Dream as ultimate truth, and forget that I am part of a weak race, a broken humanity, I can never relate to them in a way that makes a difference. This, I think, is what we call compassion—hurting with the hurting, understanding pain because we’ve felt it—and often feel it. In some strange way I think this is what it is to be human: not to be strong, but to know weakness.

What if more people…
a whole community…
a country…
denounced the mentality that the American Dream is Ultimate Reality
and really moved
really took action?

What if they moved on behalf of people who couldn’t move for themselves? 
What if we hurt with them?

What if we stepped outside of our social circles and used our resources for more than our own gain?

What if we loved people, really loved them, 
without sex, and without agenda?

What if we really had compassion because we understood the brokenness of our condition? 
The impact of that change would be great. 
It could start a movement. 
It could change the world.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2008 4:41 pm

    I am a 53 year old woman artist and art teacher who has a family, graduated college, got married, had 3 sons, did not buy into being hip, has had my share of sadness, disappointment, challenge, lonliness and thoughts of disappearing when things have gotten bad.

    What I have learned through my years of living, not the American Dream, but just plain living is simple.

    I love my art, my family, and nature. I believe in surrender and acceptance generally, but know that there are times I must stand strong.

    As I grow I see how life and art have taught me about my world, my existence.

    On the outside I may look as though I have lived the American dream but that label means nothing to me.

    My day to day struggles, those of my family, friends, the people I meet while teaching, and the lessons learned through painting and sculpting, those are the telling times.

    I have never been big on labeling ideologies, it never make sense to me.

    I just live the best way I know how and try to be a good person and do on to others, you know, “the golden rule”.


  2. jeff permalink
    December 22, 2008 7:18 am

    I loved what you wrote. Lorelle is right. We should all live and treat others as we would want to be treated. It is so simple. Imagine never being cutoff or prevented from merging into a lane ever again, because that driver followed the G.R. A small start, but it would balloon.
    Remember after 9-11, at a 4way stop, everyone was so polite, and almost insisted that you proceed first.

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