You know, I think we Americans got it all wrong.
Ever since I was a boy saying the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school, I was taught that America was the land of the free and home of the brave. I learned that freedom held the top rung on the ladder of American values and the reason that millions of Americans before me died in wars and cultural struggles (i.e., suffrage, civil rights) was to make sure that I and others could live as free people. When I put my hand over my heart and said the pledge, it meant something to me.
I took it for granted that my freedom was to be used for the pursuit of Happiness. After all, it's right there in the Declaration of Independence. As I got older, I realized that the genius of the Founding Fathers was not to tell us what Happiness (with a capital "H," as it is written in the Declaration) was. They left it up to you and me to figure it out what it meant for us as individuals.
As I grew older, I discovered that there were plenty of people who wanted to tell me what happiness was. They told me happiness was something called the American Dream, which amounted to getting a high-paying job, owning a home, driving a new car and being able to buy what I wanted. That's cool, because I wanted all those things, and it seemed like it was my duty to go out and live the dream.
But, apparently the original dream as it was wasn't good enough. Those peddling their slice of the dream told me that my house wasn't big enough, my car wasn't new enough and that I was too fat. As it turned out, it appeared that I wasn't dreaming big enough, or at least not big enough to satisfy the demands of their shareholders. So, the advertisers, bankers and politicians sold me a new dream of owning an ever-larger house, cooler cars, big flat-screen TV, a thinner waist, bigger muscles, thicker hair and my all-important 15 minutes of fame. My pursuit of happiness, they told me, would be incomplete without these things.
Oh, by the way, the new-and-improved American Dream required money - lots of it. And, they wrapped the bigger-is-better dream in the packaging of independence, or having the freedom to buy all those things they wanted to sell. Purchasing power fueled my pursuit of happiness. I got on the treadmill with hundreds of millions of others, just like you, to go out and make a lot of money (or just borrow it) to go acquire my happiness. The deal was sealed - Money was freedom and the more money I got, the more independent I would be.
Armed with this thought process I went into the world to make my fortune and build a nest egg, so that I could secure financial independence and finally declare myself free. You may have done the same thing. I rationalized that once I had achieved financial independence, then I would work on myself and do all the good things I had planned on, like building a school, or a hospital or providing educational scholarships to worthy youths. At the time, I didn't realize that I was deferring Happiness and making it contingent on accumulating wealth and getting all the things I felt I wanted to be happy.
Now, I know that if I wait until I am rich to be happy, I may live a very long and miserable life! And, if I base my happiness on things that can be lost, decay or otherwise fall apart, then my happiness will be temporary. We've all learned all too hard of a lesson that the pursuit of money alone does not create prosperity. In fact, money can never be freedom if I enslave myself to the ever-greater acquisition of it.
In my brief life span, I've lost enough money and time to know that even if I lose my things, or if my ideas are discredited, my beliefs turn out to be false, my friends turn against me, my feelings are rejected or my body fails...I am still here.
Spiritually strong people of all faiths say that the highest form of happiness is to lose all that is not me - the things that are not the image of God in which we were minted before we were born. Dying to self, becoming oneself, reaching at-one-ment all describe the process of no longer pursuing temporary happiness, but experiencing permanent joy. Such a state has been described as agape, ecstasy or nirvana. In other words, real happiness comes from living as a soul completely free from imprisoning myths and illusions.
The truth is we have everything we need, right now, today to start our journey to Happiness. If we decide we cannot be happy until we make our first million dollars or otherwise possess something, then we are only delaying our pursuit of real and eternal Happiness - the divine joy that comes from the recognition and experience of living as a child of God.
And here's the neat thing about it. You can start that pursuit today, no matter what your education, income level, family background, gender, nationality, tribe, religion, race or political affiliation.
The truth is:
- You do not need money to be free
- You do not need wealth to be generous
- You do not have to be loved to give it
- You do not need to be a priest, nun, pastor, imam, yogi or disciple to be holy
- You do not need to be pretty to be beautiful
That sounds great, doesn't it? But there goes reality again, getting in the way. Sometimes it is hard to square my knowledge of acting as an imperfect human against these lofty words. I, and especially my wife, know I am not exactly a model of divine behavior here on Earth.
At times, I am irritable, impatient and angry. As repair bills, college tuition and car payments stack up, I worry too much about money or not having enough of it. I judge others and question their motives, things that I have no control over, which only serves to frustrate me. My body aches more than it used to, which is a constant distraction. The distance between the plain old "here" and the divine "there" seems like light years. How can a child of God be so weak?
What keeps me going is that I still have a vision of being someone better than I am today, and the hope that I can still be that better man some day keeps me looking up. Americans don't quit, we don't give up on the important things. We persevere and persist to achieve great things. Difficulties, struggles and pain are evidence that we are trying. That was the American Way, as I was taught it. I was also taught that not every prideful selfish dream is worthy of the American Way, so I give myself the freedom to change my mind when I discover I am headed down the wrong path.
I am grateful for the opportunity to deal with my struggles, as petty as they might be to someone with real problems. Gratitude and humility are healing salves to my raw emotions, giving me time to put things in perspective and not get too down when I fail.
Empathy helps me see that others, like you, are on this path too. And, I can see how difficult it is for you as well. You probably see my faults more clearly than I do, so I try to be patient and listen. I try to be generous with my time and invest in your aspirations with encouragement to strive and continue your journey to the summit.
This is the story of Tom Worth in LIE MERCHANTS. This is also my story, and maybe it is yours too.
If patriotism is the pursuit of Happiness and the highest form of that pursuit is the achievement of divine joy, then the true patriot is the one who casts aside all illusions and strives to unfold the true self. For too many of us, the myth of money as freedom has become our prison and we are our own jailer. The good news is that like all illusions "money is freedom" will melt way harmlessly like an ice cube in the summer Sun of truth and knowledge. By coming to this realization, we may find that our first act of freedom comes from the will to simply push open the door to our cells and leave.
Then, free from our distractions, desires, limitations, ideology and ego, maybe we can sit down and cooperate to form a more perfect union for solving the daunting problems faced by our nation and humanity today.
I wish I knew more about the real American Dream when I was that kid holding my hand over my heart, standing next to my classmates, looking intently at the Stars and Stripes hanging from the wall. When I say that pledge now, it means so much more than it did then. I know other Americans had, been and are dying for that flag, and I try to live a life worthy of their sacrifice. I try to do that by pursuing Happiness in its highest form, by walking the path that comes from unfolding my divine nature, leading me back to our Father.
That is what Real Americans are all about.