Happiness, I Choose You! | Teen Ink

Happiness, I Choose You!

August 8, 2014
By Awqin SILVER, Ventura, California
Awqin SILVER, Ventura, California
9 articles 0 photos 4 comments

When I was little, I told my parents I wanted to be a doctor. Later I changed my mind to lawyer. Then I changed my mind to CEO. The one thing all these jobs have in common is a ridiculously high salary. I was an ambitious child, and I wanted to please my parents, who would, at every purchase, impart to my young and malleable mind the value of the dollar. Our family was not poor, but my parents grew up in communist China, where everyone had to eat crickets to stave off hunger, play with paper for entertainment, and wore the same clothes consecutively an unimaginable amount of times. Thus, every time I wanted something, whether it was a toy or a snack, my dad would give me a ten-minute lecture about how he never had such things when he was little or how wasting even the smallest bit of food was a sin. My parents taught me that the green bits of paper they guarded in their wallets were exceedingly valuable, and though I don’t think it was their intention, they instilled in me a tendency to hoard and to save every green-faced president. If money was so important, then I would make my parents proud by getting as rich as possible. That was my goal in life, and like my parents had taught me, I needed immerse myself in studying, go to a “good” college, and get a “good” job in order to attain this “good life” of wealth they’d painted for me. I was on my path to the American Dream.

My parents, like many Americans, were convinced of the existence of the “good life” – happiness, contentedness, fulfillment – in wealth. The American Dream is the manifestation of this conviction that the “good life” was found in wealth and that through great mental dedication and physical labor, anyone could attain it. In reality, the American Dream has nothing to do with the “good life.” The “good life,” true happiness and fulfillment, will not be attained in following the American Dream because the American Dream is an unending quest. Then again, completely and vehemently rejecting the American Dream definition of the “good life” will not bring one closer to it, because a complete rejection is unrealistic. Instead, the true good life comes in accepting life as it comes, without living for or against the American Dream.

The “good life” will not be attained in following the unending American Dream. In The Great Gatsby, a novel by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby is a prime example of a man seeking and failing to obtain the “good life” by following the American Dream. As a child born to common farmers, he is convinced of a greater destiny for himself – a “good life” which to him is the “universe of ineffable gaudiness” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 99) in New York, the world of roaring parties, exotic dresses, sparkling champagne, and shiny cars. His heart is in “constant, turbulent riot” (TGG, 99) with dreams of this wealth swirling through his nighttime fantasies. For him and the many other Americans throughout history that believed in the American Dream, the world of the wealthy is the “good life.” Gatsby gets rich selling alcohol during Prohibition, and in true fashion of the American Dream, he keeps trying to acquire more wealth. More deals, more business, more money. However, there is a limit to how much one can gain, and Gatsby is at that limit when he tries to complete his vision of the “good life” by acquiring Daisy, a married high-class woman in the book whose voice “is full of money” (TGG, 120). She is a symbol of the wealth he needs to obtain to truly have the “good life”; she is the epitome of his American Dream. However, she is unobtainable for him no matter how hard he tries to his money nest.

In a characteristic American attempt to continuously gain, Gatsby pursues Daisy. As a result, he is killed by no fault but his own. He fails his quest. Gatsby always wants more: wealth, then Daisy, then the pure virgin Daisy of his naïve dreams who never loves anyone but him. The “good life” he believes in is out of reach for Gatsby because the path to it is unending; it always leaves him desiring more. Would he have been satisfied if he’d gotten Daisy? No, he even begins to see her faults when he is with her: the quiet security that is exclusive to her and her husband, her daughter, and her change from young idealistic girl to rich bored woman. Gatsby would always have been unsatisfied with the things he had. Because the quest of the American Dream leads to a spiral of ever-escalating desire that is far from happiness and satisfaction, it is impossible to find the “good life” by pursuing the American Dream.

Neither will the “good life” be obtained by completely and vehemently rejecting the American Dream. Henry David Thoreau, one of the leaders and radicals of the Transcendentalist movement, tried to do exactly this. He rebelled against the materialism and attachment to money that is the American Dream. In Walden, a collection of Thoreau’s essays, he asserts that men toiling for money have “no time to be anything but a machine,” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 3) that they are “imprisoned rather than housed” in the houses we work for (Walden, 21), and that “the cost of a thing is the amount of… life… to be exchanged for it” (Walden, 19). To Thoreau, material wealth only weighs down human beings, shackling their free spirits to physical possessions. Thoreau condemns the American materialism which was thought of by a majority to be the good life. There must be something better, something further, something deeper – something more fulfilling than the emptiness of unspiritual and thoughtless materialism.

Thoreau searched for a different definition of the “good life” by directly opposing the ideals of the American Dream. His “good life” was one unrestricted by hard labor, without formal education, and without societal constraints – one in which man was free to wander the natural world and fly in his spirit – all in near poverty. He was convinced that the “good life” lay outside of civilized America. He wanted to return to nature, throw away money and furniture, and break the shackles of societal obligations. Thoreau’s vehement rejection of the American Dream, however, was unsustainable at its root. American urbanization was increasing rapidly with industrialism, and the practicality of industrialism could not be overridden by the writings of a single man and his tiny philosophical movement. A return to the natural world was not feasible because the majority of humans would never disown their staunch trust in the value and necessity of money. They would never cease following money, and from the 1800s to the present day, money has been concentrated in the great cities of the nation.

Integral parts of the American Dream, like money, have become necessary for survival in the American nation, which is why it is impossible to completely reject it. Completely rejecting the mainstream American Dream is unsustainable. People cannot avoid the societal “shackle” of buying things. Land doesn’t simply belong to the person squatting on it; it must be bought. Food doesn’t grow on pavement by the miracle of God’s hand; it must be bought. Clothing doesn’t simply appear on the body in one’s sleep; it must be bought. A life as a hermit in the woods cannot last more than a generation, and even Thoreau’s “good life” in his box in the woods (which belonged to his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) lasted only two years. Thoreau failed to attain the “good life” because his idealistic rebellion could not last in the face of reality and necessity. The “good life” cannot be found in completely abandoning every idea of the American Dream and American society because doing so is simply not realistic. Rather than rejecting the American Dream, one must ignore it to obtain “the good life.”

The true “good life” lies in accepting life as it comes: by living independently of the American Dream but also without rejecting every feature of it. In My Antonia, by Willa Cather, Antonia Shimerda does just this. Antonia knows she can follow the American Dream of wealth like Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball by working hard to leave her town, by taking risks, and by marrying high she can be wealthy and succeed in the American Dream. However, her future socioeconomic situation is far from her mind as she dances the nights away in the little town of Black Hawk. Unlike Lena, she doesn’t despise poverty. Unlike Tiny, she is not ambitious. She could care less about those Americans and their dreams of wealth, and she is perfectly happy without it.

Antonia doesn’t reject completely all aspects of the American Dream. She works hard, struggling through bad harvests and hard winters to support her husband and her children. She wants her children to be able to survive in the world, so she sends them to school. The value of money is something she knows well, having been poor her entire life. She never rejects the things she needs, and she never runs towards faraway dreams. In the last chapter, “Cuzak’s Boys,” the reader is presented neither with a woman pining away for the wealth of the city, nor with a woman vehemently rejecting the need for money and material items, but with a woman happy, content, and fulfilled simply living, breathing, and doing. Antonia is a woman whose heart joyously beats for her children, her husband, and her home, not for silk and gold and castles, and not for the purported freedom of an isolated life of poverty. At the end of the book, Jim Burden, the narrator, says of Antonia, “I know of so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded. Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life” (Willa Cather, My Antonia, 216). Antonia lives more vibrantly than Gatsby, who never achieves his goal and more vibrantly than Thoreau, who writes about his “good life” of only two years. She attains the “good life” in accepting her situation as it is and working with it, not against. She is neither following nor rejecting the American Dream, and as a result, she is not on a journey to find happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. She is already there.

I’ve changed a lot from when I was little. I’ve realized that following the American Dream won’t necessarily me to the “good life,” and even my definition of the “good life” has changed from owning so much wealth I can do anything to just doing what I love and enjoying it in the moment. I’ve realized the ephemerality of money and the pointlessness of endless gain, but I’m also realistic about the things I must do to survive in this world. I don’t plan on exactly following Antonia’s footsteps by moving to the prairie, having a horde of kids, and growing a bunch of plants, but I do want to try to live life as she does. Pursuing the happiness I perceive will come in the future, the happiness many believe will come when they’re well off in the world, would make me impatient. Though I might never be wealthy and I might never be “free” from society, I’ll take life as it comes because dwelling on impossibilities would only make me incurably hungry and thirsty like King Tantalus of Greek mythology. I don’t want to be swept up in the American Dream, but there is still that deeply rooted desire in me to be wealthy. I just need to remember and truly understand that happiness, the “good life,” is a choice that has absolutely nothing to do with the wealth of the American Dream.

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