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The American Dream

imago dei

Politicians talk about it. Social scientists analyze it. Dean Gerald Wilson has a course about it. And everyone seems to want it.

Traditionally understood, the “American Dream” consists in our achieving a standard of living that is better than that of our parents. For immigrants, that often includes a freer political environment and more fluid social mobility. For others, that may mean a better paying job or more prestigious social position.

Whether America provides those opportunities is a political and economic question that I will not address. Rather, I am concerned—in community with every Duke student—with how we should conceive of the American Dream or, better, each person's own American Dream. What, ultimately, should we aspire to make of our lives?

The American Dream should consist in our realizing as fully as possible our intrinsic anthropology as the Imago Dei. In practical terms, that means fulfilling both our objective human nature and our subjective personal vocations.

Our objective dimension constitutes the nature that we share as human persons—as composites of body and soul. As such, we rightly aspire to satisfy our material needs—a reasonable level of subsistence, health care, education and recreation. But we also have spiritual needs, and those are deeper, more lasting and more central to our flourishing than our material needs. The rich person can be unhappy and the poor happy, from which we infer that happiness must come from something other than money alone. Serving the material dimension of our persons cannot satisfy us durably, as our bodies are dust, and unto dust they shall return. Our souls, meanwhile, will continue to exist forever.

In addition, we all have a subjective dimension that is particular to each person. Each of us—no matter our level of education, our race, gender or class, our physical or mental abilities—has a unique interior experience and unique talents and preferences, insecurities and idiosyncrasies. When we reflect upon that interior experience—what we enjoy, thrive on and do well—we begin to discern a subjective vocation specific to each of us as unrepeatable persons.

Our pursuit of the American Dream must flow from our objective and subjective dimensions. We should build its framework with the objective truths that structure our existence. Our flourishing and happiness are found in conforming our lives to those truths, which are expressed in natural law and the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, courage and prudence. As the old adage goes, “In virtue there is happiness, and in vice there is sadness.” And the corollary: Happiness is not something that is properly “pursued” in its own right but is rather the result of practicing objective virtue.

We then fill out the interior of that framework by considering our talents, desires and preferences. What are our personal vocations? With what values do we hope to ground our family lives? Do those values conform to the objective moral order, and will they assist us in uniting with our ultimate end? How will we contribute to a public moral culture that conduces to the common good?

After answering those larger questions, we can address the question most immediate to college students: what employment will be most enriching, even if not well paying? As Saint John Paul II emphasized in his marquee encyclical letter, “On Human Work,” work is a means of self-expression and self-development—work is for man, not man for work.

In that regard, money cannot be an end in itself but is only a means of meeting basic material needs and, after that, promoting good, moral and charitable ends. In fact, material success—the typical focus of the American Dream—can be a mixed blessing. Not only does material success fail to nourish our whole being, but it also can command excessive attention and produce addiction—we can become workaholics or ground our self-worth in power, prestige or nice things.

Like all addictions, seeking happiness solely or even primarily in material success will send us into a tailspin. Social science research provides evidence that middle-aged, white men—the group labeled as “most privileged” in America—are committing suicide at a higher rate than any other demographic in the United States. Privilege does not deliver happiness.

Many within our Duke community, from professors to coaches to facilities workers, have laudably chosen work that develops their whole persons. Within five years of graduating, many Duke students will make as much or more money than their professors who have held posts in the academy for years. That difference in income only increases when compared to that of coaches and facilities workers. Yet, day after day, many of these members of the Duke community are rewarded by productive engagements with colleagues and students that enrich and may even transform their lives and ours. Many are exemplars of persons who have discerned and pursued a vocational calling to the benefit of their communities, families and themselves.

We should use our brief and valuable time on this campus to begin to build a personal American Dream. Explore your objective and subjective dimensions, your talents and your spiritual yearnings. And, as we begin this spring semester—a semester filled with the stresses of internship recruiting for underclassmen and second-round job searches for seniors—we should affirm that the pursuit of happiness is not an exercise in maximizing the prestige or compensation of our job offers. Even more, we should resist comparing our offers and plans to those of others. Those are the errors of the materialistic, one-size-fits-all conception of the American Dream.

Rather, the American Dream should mirror the seamless, fully integrated, unique composite that is each human person. We should pursue our own, personal American Dream by embracing the objective moral order, discerning our unique subjective vocation and orienting our lives to our ultimate end—becoming as fully as possible the Imago Dei.

William Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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