|and while he saws, 2X4’s|
trims lengths of 2X10’s on table saw,
inside his veins another world
in full color etches
a blue sky on his bones
|– Jose Santiago Baca|
So this is America, the land of opportunity, a place where anyone can earn a decent living if they only work hard and don’t give up.
This is the Amerimyth, a fantasy from our adolescent, post-revolutionary period. In clinging to our national mythology we stifle our ability to grow as a country, but in letting go of our outdated dreams we also lose part of what it means to be American. For a country that has a muddled definition of national identity at best, a decision of this magnitude is not one that we can afford to make in haste or without forethought. If we lose our identity as a nation we also lose a bit of our individual selves, and we become powerless to explain to outsiders just what it means to be American.
In America we have a different view of work than in other countries. Perhaps it is because of our westward expansion and our daily exposure to the harsh realities of nature that lead us to see work as less of an art and more of a necessity. Work can best be described as the common man’s art. Like the artist, the worker puts something of himself into everything he does on the job. Like the artist, the worker secretly hopes that she can make a lasting impact on someone’s life or leave her mark on the world with what she’s done. In a country of shopping malls and fast food joints, where speed and low prices take priority over workmanship and pride in one’s work, its no surprise that Americans have lost touch with the artistic side of work.
We Americans trudge through jobs we hate because we have to pay the bills. It seems ridiculous to think of a short order cook as having pride in flipping burgers in a greasy café somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but here, in America, we at least have the ability to move up the social ladder if we just work hard.
Or do we?
The myth of American social mobility came from the large expanse of that never-never land called the West. Because there was too much land for the small number of nobility who landed on Plymouth Rock to exert control over they could afford to elevate some of the commoners into the status of the elite. Now, every man could become the lord of the manner with his farm as castle, his crop as his treasury and his family as his subjects. The American dream was born. With the closing of the frontier in 1890 the large expanse of land was gone, and that could only mean that the freedom which had grown from this land’s existence would begin to be stifled, ultimately extinguished.
The spirit of America rests on a foundation of broken dreams, promises, and people who have staked all they had in life on the possibility that the rumors of the good life just might be true. Ironically this hardship has made us the people we are. We are tough, independent, wise to a con when we hear one (for the most part), trusting in God for providence, good neighbors, and tenaciously hard workers. And because of the existence of the Amerimyth we are a hopeful, optimistic people. This is the legacy of our mythology, both the good and the evil. Like all myths it is a combination of both truth and the dreams of the people who helped to create it, and in losing these, our myths, we lose ourselves and our dreams. The death of dreams, in my opinion, is far worse than the existence of the lies that these dreams helped to create. Our unique view of work helps us to go forward, day to day, toiling away at jobs we hate in hopes of the realization of our American dreams.