Meet the New American Dream

Sammy Rhodes
Meet the New American Dream, Same as the Old American Dream: Thoughts after seeing Joy

Movies are more than entertainment, date night venues, or after (during) work escapes. At their best, they are something closer to lay theology or therapy even. A place to take in entire worldviews, sifting their varied messages through one's own grid, taking the parts worth saving, and leaving parts unwanted behind. 

So when my wife and I went to see the latest Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell joint, Joy, my mind was sifting, straining for gold; and gold that seemed so easily found after their first movie, Silver Linings Playbook, was harder this go around. Maybe it had something to do with running 20 minutes behind knowing we were going to miss the previews. The best preparation for marriage might be waiting alone in your car for 20 minutes before going anywhere. 

First, the parts worth saving. Jennifer Lawrence is amazing once the film settles down. It's easy to see why my wife can't decide whether she wants to be her or be friends with her. Lawrence seems more than comfortable in her own imperfect skin, and confident in her own flawed personality. She is like a more secular version of the Proverbs 31 woman. Take out the parts about wool and flax, add parts with wine and pour-over coffee. Actually you know what, keep the flax. Whole Foods sells flax seed, now that I think about it, so it must be good for you and cool too. In any case, the film is worth seeing for Jennifer Lawrence's performance alone. 

The part of the film I couldn't shake, though, was the message that seemed at least implicit, if not the point of the entire film. Put simply, life doesn't begin until we accomplish that one, shining moment that justifies our entire existence; that one thing, one accomplishment, which perfectly showcases either our giftedness, or our unique and significant contribution to the world. 

For Joy that moment was achieved by persistently pursuing and realizing her dream of inventing a product that changed the world. And she did, (spoiler alert) a new mop that changed the way kitchens are cleaned and became a bestseller on QVC. The movie is based on Joy Mangano, a real woman who not only invented The Miracle Mop, but went on to invent many household game-changers and is a tour de force in the home shopping network world. 

To be blunt, this is exactly the part that bothered me so much. What about those of us who never make anything close to a universally recognized unique and significant contribution to the world? What of those of us who spend our lives as nothing "more" than faithful employees who never rise to ownership level, parents whose children never make it to elite universities, church members whose Sunday School classes never grow beyond 15 people, friends who never become worthy of being name-dropped at a party? 

If the old American dream was about reaching a certain social and material level, then the new American dream is something different. It's just that, a dream. Following your dreams, the "dream" of being something or doing something special. The dream of being recognized for your unique and significant contribution. Something that brings the blue check mark of validation next to your name on Twitter. It's much less tangible, yet much more pervasive than the old American dream. 

Remember when Adrian asked Rocky why he was fighting? He famously said, "To prove I'm not a bum." It's interesting in the latest Rocky spin-off, Creed, when Rocky asks Apollo Creed's son, Adonis, why he's fighting, he says, "To prove I'm not a mistake." 

To prove I'm not a mistake. To prove that my life is worth something because I'm doing something the entire world can be in awe of, or at least cognizant of. Dean Martin sang, "You're nobody 'til somebody loves you." For millennials it's, "You're nobody 'til everybody loves you." Or at least respects you, notices you. So family is not enough. Community is not enough. A local place is not enough. There's an entire world waiting and within the reach of a couple of clicks. 

This past November we went to Rockford, Michigan to celebrate my wife's grandmother's 100th birthday. Saying she's an amazing woman doesn't do her justice. She was playing golf well into her late 80's, volunteering at a local nursing home into her late 90's, and still has her driver's license if she cared to take a spin at 100. We spent the whole weekend partying with her, which involved a lot of intense sitting. Starting to think parties get better for introverts the older you get. 

But the moment that stood out to me came on Sunday morning at her church where she has been a member for over 70yrs. For many of those years she taught swimming lessons to local school kids in the summer. As she was being interviewed, her pastor asked the congregation how many had been taught to swim by her. Over 50 people raised their hands in a crowd of 100. 

As I watched those hands go up, the thought that washed over me was a kind of prayer: Lord don't let my life be in vain. I'm looking for 50 retweets on Twitter. She was looking for a life well lived in the mundane. I often play the short game. She's been playing the long game for a hundred years. No one outside of Rockford, MI even knows it. 

John Updike once wrote about "giving the mundane its beautiful due." The preacher at the end of Ecclesiastes would agree, I think. There's nothing world-altering about changing a diaper, throwing together a meal in the crockpot, hitting respond on a work email, sharing a cup of cheap coffee with a friend, or teaching a group of rambunctious kids how to swim. 

And yet the mundane seems to be exactly the place in which our faith gets worked out and God's faithfulness quietly works itself in. A kingdom with a King who loves giving the mundane its beautiful due, and who glories in the smallness and hiddenness of things. 

What I learned from my 100 year old grandmother-in-law that weekend was something Joy couldn't teach me. Life isn't found in following big dreams. Life is found in not despising the day of small things. 

Sammy Rhodes (@sammyrhodes) is a campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of South Carolina. His forthcoming book is titled This is Awkward: How Life's Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection (Thomas Nelson, March 2016)