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‘The American Dream Is A Lie’


This morning, I woke up in my hotel on Capitol Hill thinking about what the pastor told me last night about the suffering of the people in his congregation. So many incredibly bright, incredibly accomplished young men and women, in so much pain and confusion because they are doing everything the culture of this city, Washington DC, and the culture of achievement in which they were raised, tells them to do for success — and yet they are still lost to themselves, and don’t know why. They are, he said, sincere about wanting to be Good, but what their culture has told them constitutes Goodness, and a Meaningful Life, prevents them from reaching the true Good — because they’re afraid that would really mean failure.

And I’m thinking about a conversation I had late in the Little Way Of Ruthie Lemingprocess with Dr. Tim Lindsey, her St. Francisville physician. I don’t think this part made the final cut of the book, and I’m too rushed to get to the airport this morning to look through my hard copy. But here it is from the interview transcript I keep on my laptop:

Q: What do you think is the main lesson Ruthie’s life teaches us?

A: The American dream is a lie. This idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything — that’s very individualistic. Who’s that really about? Who is that serving? Who is that for? It’s for me. It’s a pursuit of happiness that doesn’t create happiness. There’s nothing with any substance at the end of that. So, if you work hard enough, are you going to defeat cancer? If you work hard enough, are you going to be happy with your job? If you work hard enough, and get a big bank account, does that create happiness? No!

On the contrary, humility — ‘do to the mercy that was shown to us,’ like Romans 1 and 2 show — that we can not be conformed to this world, but be redeemers of this world. We can live in a way that we understand what was done for us, and live in a way that’s not individulalistic. We can live like Philippians 2 and be humbled, just like our Savior was humbled, even unto death on a cross. And when you figure that out, that no, it’s not about pulling myself up by my bootstraps, and thinking that I can achieve anything if I work hard enough — it’s about understanding what our true condition is. We’re broken. We should be humbled by the fact that we can’t do this on our own, and we’re intended to be in relationships. We’re intended to be part of a community, a body, and not individualistic. And when we understand our true need for a Savior, we can then have the perspective of how we should live. And when we live not thinking of ourselves and our dreams, but the people around us, whether it be family or friends or co-workers or what have you, then we can be fulfilled. We can seek true happiness. And we can serve our Lord.

But any other pursuit that the American Dream lies to us about is empty. Because you can’t hook a U-Haul up to a hearse. Doesn’t Ruthie’s story tell us that? Yes! What does Ruthie Leming have that she can take with her into her glory? Nothing. Nothing in this material world. And the beauty is, she didn’t care about it. But what legacy can she leave? Not the fact that she was No. 3 on the Forbes list. What does that mean, eternally? But that she loved people. That she was loved. That she was consistent. That she was so dang consistent that it makes me embarrassed for the way that I live, in how I serve myself.

Her consistency was living in the moment. It was like she was saying, “I’m living in the moment so much that I’m going to show you, Bekah [Ruthie’s youngest daughter — RD], that I care so much about you, that I want you to know me and I want to have a relationship with you so much that I’m going to go, after I’ve thrown my guts up from chemo, to that birthday party with you. Who wants to go to an eight year old’s birthday party? I look at it like, “How many do we have this weekend, Laura?” For Ruthie, it was because she got to go be with Rebekah. Not because it was something to check off her list of things to do today; it was because she had the opportunity to go. That was the consistency that I saw, that even through chemotherapy, she did these things, because that’s the right thing to do. We have a ball game tonight; where else would we be? That’s what I see. So I’m like, “Why am I complaining about my schedule being too busy? Why am I complaining about my kids being too demanding? I ought to want to be even more involved with them.”

That was what Ruthie’s way has to say to us.

Read more about Dr. Tim in a blog entry I wrote from St. Francisville right after Ruthie died. It shows why Tim and his wife Laura had a lot to do with our decision to move back.

And, of course, read more about Ruthie’s little way here.

UPDATE: I was just thinking that if you wanted to have a vision of Ruthie’s idea of the American Dream, here it is, from the concert the people of St. Francisville threw in April 2010 to raise money for Ruthie’s medical bills. For my sister, life didn’t get any better than this.  The singer was David Morgan, Ruthie’s neighbor, who donated his time and talent to help Ruthie and her family. This was a concert for a dying woman, and … the joy:

UPDATE.2: Reader Bobby writes:

As a denizen of DC, I concur. I have made it to a point in my professional career that looks like success for all intents and purposes. And yet I stare out my window across the Potomac and dread the thought of starting another day in my “successful” life…with the faint hope that I can sneak out of the office by 9 pm.

Blue-collar folks may not have had fulfilling jobs. I know. I grew up in a blue-collar town. But they were done at 4 pm, and went home to their families. A number of my colleagues are fathers. Except for weekends, most haven’t eaten dinner with their children in months, if not years. There’s a reason why our elites are so cynical and jaded.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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