I think that I coped with my terror at the idea of Mitt Romney winning by thinking about what I’d write here…some kind of fire and thunder and call to action.
And yet, in the wake of the election, I realize that that is still what we may might need. For many progressive folks, you may be excited that “your guy” won, and content to sit back for a bit. My guilty admission is that I voted out of a mixture of fear and hope. I knew a 3rd party candidate couldn’t win and feared that Romney would. I voted for President Obama because he was at least for some of the things I’m for. However–call me a blind optimist, but I believe in what the President said in his victory speech. Or more importantly, I believe that he believes…and that he wants to build a healthier, stronger, more tolerant nation.
I’m not saying that President Obama hasn’t made mistakes, and I don’t think he’ll ever go far enough to really heal the problems of our political structure, our ecological failings, or many other areas. But that’s where we come in. One of the things I’ve always liked about Obama’s message is that he invites our participation. He encourages people to make things happen through our own actions. He may not like it when that action stands in opposition to something he supports. But I think the message is important:
Only together can we do this.
Each one of us is the hero of our own story. And each one of us has the capacity to be more than we are, to be a part of bringing about the changes that will build better lives for all of us. But, I think that accepting that we have the power to make changes in the world means accepting a lot of responsibility. It means acknowledging our flaws and how we get in our own way, and it means, for some people, actually being willing to acknowledge what we want in our lives. It means putting a name to our dream. It means that we have to actually walk our talk–put action to our words–which is the core of activism.
I think that one of the challenges we face at this time is that we need a new American Dream. I’m a big believer in the power of story. Our myths tell us who we should be. And over many years, the American Dream has changed. My mom said she thought the American Dream was owning your own home and a fancy new car. But what I see on TV, in movies, and in magazines, is what I’d call a setup for failure. It sets up the idea that, you are somehow failing as a person if you’re not buff and muscly or skinny like a supermodel, if you’re not able to afford fancy clothes and jewelry, if you don’t make it as a musician or if you don’t climb to the top of the heap with the big fancy house and people who wash your clothes for you.
I don’t genuinely believe that every American wants to be in lifestyles of the rich and famous…but there’s also a sense of failure if we don’t achieve what we think we should. And this plays out on a spectrum.
I see a lot of people who see the portrayal of those at the top of the heap–the 1%–and they feel like they are so far away from that, they just bury their heads in trying to pay rent and putting food on the table. I see a lot of folks who can’t even articulate how they might like something more in their lives; they can talk about wanting a better apartment or a nice car, but they either don’t dream of anything more in their life than squeaking by, or, they won’t admit they dream of more. These are the folks who find themselves putting up with worse and worse jobs, or even just employers with bad attitudes, and they feel there’s no way out, nothing better for them.
The other end of the spectrum is people who feel they should have more, that they are entitled to more. These are folks that have gone beyond being just ambitious or visionary; they are willing to claw their way up the heap to become the top 1%, and they don’t care who they have to step on, or what lies they have to tell, or what crap they have to sell you, to get ahead. And when they are frustrated that they haven’t achieved what they feel they deserve, they take it out on those beneath them. I’m talking about the folks who are arrogant and rude to cashiers, waitresses, or their own employees who somehow think they are better because they are being served, because they are in charge.
I’m oversimplifying a complicated social spectrum and there’s a lot of places in between, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at–that this portrayal of what “success” is, is not realistic. And it’s not good for most of us, much less sustainable. Are you in the overwhelmed/given up hope category? The world’s problems are just too much? Or perhaps you are just hanging on financially, or not hanging on, and you don’t feel you can do anything to make this a better world while you’re in that position.
Or maybe you are ambitious, you have a vision for what you want. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, is it a vision that’s useful to those around you? If you want to get a promotion or own your own company, is part of your vision how you will be kind to your employees and share in profits? If you hold a vision of owning your own home, is environmental sustainability part of your plan? I know people who are constantly obsessed with their house, how their house isn’t “good enough.” Good enough for who? I’d ask who is judging these folks and the quality of their furniture, but the truth is, we are. Most people are judging each other, because most of us get trapped in that idea of what success ‘should” look like.
I think the American Dream has gotten mired in a complex web of poor self esteem and perceived judgement. If I don’t have a new car, people will think less of me. If I don’t have a nice house, if I’m not in charge at work, if I don’t have a lot of money, or whatever I’ve identified as “successful,” then I’m a failure.
I see a lot of people working at jobs that they hate. They’re stuck there because of finances, and feel there’s no way to get something that pays better, much less something that they genuinely enjoy. Deep down, I think we all desire to live a life of meaning. However, instead of reaching for that, what we often reach for is what we are told will make us happy–the gas guzzling car, the expensive vacation, or even smaller things like better Pagan jewelry. If you’re unhappy in your life, that requires you to look at what you want, and it might require redefining what success is for you.
Once upon a time…I wanted to be a Creative Director at an agency, maybe become a famous designer and artist and open up my own agency. I used to plan out my dream fancy loft apartment or X-Men style mansion with my friend over Raspberry wine, or plan excessively overpriced events like doing a masquerade ball where I could hire Dead Can Dance and Loreena McKennitt. I wanted to do good things in the world too, but I don’t know that I really knew how to do that.
When I worked as a senior designer for a large corporation, I realized that I was just helping companies make money by exploiting people, selling them lines of credit that they couldn’t afford to pay off. All I was doing was helping big corporations make more money by getting people to buy crap they didn’t need. When I got laid off, I spent some time living out in the woods in a wood-heated cabin with no bathroom. Amazing how that will change your perspective on what you “need.”
Living without what many people would call basic necessities, without health insurance, below the poverty line, I was happier than when I had the six figure job and the nice suit. ” I had been well on my way to some of the basics of the American Dream; ten years at a job like that, and I could have bought a house, and all that.
But, what is success? I think that’s what being a Hero is. Recognizing that what the media tells you, and movies and magazines and television–that isn’t *your* success, it’s a story that’s being pushed on you that doesn’t have to define you. When you see it on TV, it gets programmed into you that ah, those people, they are successful. They have X, Y, and Z. But being the hero is asking the soul-searching question, what is success for you? What is living a life of meaning? What would make you really happy? After your basic needs are taken care of–you have enough to eat, a place to live…what would make your soul really sing? Perhaps this is work you want to do; for me, it’s writing, painting, teaching, and crafting rituals. For others, it could be becoming a midwife, a teacher, raising a family, being a scientist, serving as an EMT. Perhaps your passion is social justice or environmental justice, or perhaps you dream of GLBTQ-friendly world. How are you a part of making those things happen? What is the work you want to do? And what does it look like and feel like for you to be happy, fulfilled, enjoying each day? Does it have anything to do with what we’re told success in the American Dream is?
We can’t all be the 1%, and honestly, most of the folks at the top of the heap got there by getting people like you to buy crap they don’t need. What we can do is begin to work together to build success on a ground-up level.
I can’t tell you what your success should look like. And I don’t have a myth or a story for what collective happiness looks like; the stories we are raised on as a culture include Disney Princesses and American Idol, where one person is special/wins and everyone else loses. I can say that I think we need to make it “cool” to recycle, to re-use, to buy used, to patch our old clothing and to fix things instead of throwing things out to get something new and shiny. We need to make it “cool” to live communally and share resources, share washing machines, to dry clothes on the line instead of using one of the biggest household energy hogs, the dryer. We need to make it “cool” to take a pay cut to live a dream. And we need to make it “cool” to grow your own food, or for people of any gender to stay home and take care of the household.
If you find yourself in the category of feeling things are hopeless, like you’re going to be stuck where you are forever, I ask-what do you want? Not what stuff you want, but what do you really want out of your life? How do you want to live a life of meaning?
And if you find yourself reaching and striving for something better, I ask you, have you really defined what that thing is you’re reaching for? And what’s in your way? How can you get past that? Or do you need help figuring out a way through? What if we could collectively help each other problem solve through the blocks instead of helping keep those barriers up?
Whomever is in office as President, if you want change, you’re going to have to make it from the ground up. For me, legislation is the tip of the iceberg–beneath it is cultural change, redefining what we want, what our American Dream is, what is sustainable for us ecologically and economically and communally. We need a new story. We need a new American Dream that we each can participate in, not one that exemplifies an unsustainable eternal-growth, limitless-consumption model that pits us against each other to scrabble and fight in our climb to an unachievable top of the heap.
Being the Hero means taking action to move forward. It means giving up some creature comforts. In the Grail Quest, the Knight quests through the Wasteland to find the Grail, to learn its mystery and bring back its healing waters to heal the dry Wasteland. Ultimately, being the hero means changing yourself into the person who can make that journey, becoming your best self, learning who you are at the core.
My mom taught me that nothing limits us; my mentors taught me that only we limit ourselves. I believe that, no matter how hard it gets, we each can become whatever we would like to become, if we work hard enough, if we keep at it.
I believe in all of us, I believe in our big dreams, and I believe in You.
Who are you? And what does your soul truly want? How can you make that happen? And how can we help each other to make those dreams come into being together? Blessed Be the Dream.
Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.