I was raised in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when there were two competing realities in America. The dominant reality was the so-called American Dream with it’s 9-5 jobs and nuclear families and picket fences. When you had a driveway with a car in it and a television in the living room, you had arrived. This Rockwellian image of the quintessential American life endures even now in many families and communities. The number of cars and TVs may have changed, but the ideas associated with that life remain. The other reality, the Counterculture Movement, introduced many lasting innovations in thought and instilled a global awareness in the earth and caring for her precious resources. The Hippie Movement was disparagingly characterized by many as a drug-addled, self-indulgent, deviant crusade. Yet out of that so-called deviancy came the modern-day environmental movement and a generation of young people who are open-minded, globally aware, and unafraid to follow their dreams outside the confines of the suburbs. The hippies didn’t die, after all. Most integrated into society and raised those open-minded children who are leading the way in environmental, human rights, and global fellowship initiatives today.
I was not a Hippie. I was just a bit too young. But I paid attention. The draw of the American Dream took me in a decidedly anti-Hippie direction that resulted in a 22-year military career followed by another career in gourmet retail. Over the course of these last years I have been undergoing a major transformation. Many people leave the military after a career and struggle with integration into mainstream society, and I was no exception. As much as I was angry with the Army for many of my experiences therein, I wasn’t sure how to deal with the uncertainty of life on the outside. I managed to put on a convincing façade and do the things expected of a boss and a manager, but all the while I was transforming into someone who no longer revered material wealth or personal success, preferring instead to contribute to the welfare of all human beings. I have been slowly divesting myself of excess possessions by selling them, donating them or giving them away and am pursuing a new path as a humanist. I eat organic, locally-grown foods and seek health remedies through natural sources first, reserving the tools of western medicine for a last resort. In short, I have become a latent Hippie.
I am fifty-two years old. At my age, many people are approaching the apex of their careers and are planning their 60-something retirement in earnest. Perhaps they are making the last of their mortgage payments or deciding to sell their homes and downsize to a condo on a beach somewhere upon retirement. Many others are trying to arrange their lives in such a way that they can survive on their Social Security – their only retirement income – and work part-time at a job that they enjoy. I am in the latter category, but I can’t imagine thinking about retirement because I won’t have enough money to travel so what would I do, sit around all day? Plus, even travelling would gorw boring if there were no purpose to it. I tried that and I lasted exactly 10 days at doing nothing. No, I need to do something meaningful to help others and contribute to the good of my community. So while others are planning to ride off into the sunset, I am starting over. Again.
The reality is that, barring any unforeseen illness or accident, I’ve got 30+ years left on this planet and I need something interesting and purposeful to do. I did the military thing and, despite difficulties, am proud of my service. I’ve done the private-sector for-profit retail thing and, even in the gourmet kitchen sector of the market replete with delicious food and fun cooking classes, found it to be a less than fulfilling experience for me. Someone needs to sell stuff to people with lots of disposable income, but it’s not me. Along the way I dabbled in professional staffing and proposal-writing and being a personal chef. It’s been interesting to say the least, but I’ve exhausted these topics in my book of life and it’s time to move on, and move on I have.
Completing a college education that was on hold for 25 years has been an amazing and invigorating experience. I am the first in my family to have the privilege of a college education. Yes, it is a privilege, and is increasingly so for many poor and low-income people. I remember my view of school when I was trying to take college classes all those years ago while in the military and I saw it as a chore. School was something I was doing to check a block that would facilitate career advancement. There is nothing wrong with pursuing an education for upward mobility, but looking back, I think my lack of any other reason for pursuing an education may have been a problem. As it turns out, the opportunity soon evaporated and my education was stalled, presumably forever. When I realized that it was time for me to move on again, and having become a hippie of sorts along the way, I embraced my opportunity to return to school and it has been amazing. It turns out that I love learning and that my mind and heart are being opened to historical realities of which I was unaware and to the endless injustices in our society. Oh sure, I knew a lot of this stuff abstractly, but I didn’t understand it nor give it much thought. Now I am giving it considerable thought and that has cracked my heart wide open and transformed me from a social conservative who thought that people could achieve anything they wanted if they just worked hard enough (despite circumstances in my own life that indicated otherwise), to a bleeding-heart pinko liberal who realizes that there are many forces beyond self-will that determine a person’s circumstances. My mind has been revitalized and I am thoroughly enjoying this amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and reinvent myself yet again. I was recently accepted to a notable private law school. So when I am 55 years old, I will begin yet another career, this time in direct service to people who need, but cannot afford, competent legal representation.
This is my new normal. I am a 52-year-old college senior with three part-time jobs. I put all my years in the gourmet sector to work for me and my starving-student budget by making nearly every meal I eat at home from clean, healthy, minimally processed food because I learned just how contaminated our food supply really is and I have largely opted out. I rarely eat at restaurants and I shop for groceries at local farms and at my nearby co-op and natural foods stores. I continue to minimize my life, parting with things that do not serve a purpose or bring me joy. I am learning new things every day and hope to continue learning until I die. I am allowing myself to be continually changed by what I learn, to take it all in and evolve. I always thought I would be paying off a mortgage and planning my retirement right about now, but that was someone else’s dream.
The 1970’s-style American Dream exists for very few people these days. Most of us are having to create a comfortable existence out of uncomfortable circumstances. Some people still have that 70’s-esque career with regular hours, good pay, and benefits enough to sustain their households. Most of us have two or three jobs or even more and are piecing together a living with the help of housemates that may or may not be relatives. Multiple jobs at all hours of the day is the new normal for many of us. Benefits today often amount to discounts for buying your employer’s products or services and nothing more. For the last six months, I have had three steady part-time jobs and three others that came and went. This juggling and job hopping is the new normal for many of us. If you, too, are job juggling and sweating the rent, you are not alone. If we are going to be poor anyhow, why not at least do something to earn money that brings you some measure of joy and fulfillment?
If you are 50- or 60-something and contemplating a new career, I say educate yourself and go for it. What else do you have to do with the rest of your life? If you are 20-something and have a chance to join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, I encourage you to do it. Go, see, travel, do. Learn. If you are 30- or 40-something and feel stuck in a dead-end job (or two), decide what you’d like to do instead and jump in with both feet. You have nothing to lose but that heavy blanket of unhappiness you are wearing. Do not become a slave to your stuff or to someone else’s dream for you. I’ve been there and I can tell you that you aren’t missing anything by traveling light in this world. You will see more of it than those who are bogged down by stuff and imagined obligations. My dream is to listen to people on the worst days of their lives, to believe them when others don’t, and to encourage them to persevere. Yes, of course, this latent hippie wants justice. But mostly I want to offer encouragement. I have found much happiness and peace in offering others the support I have always craved. Now that I practice encouraging others, it comes back to me a thousand-fold every time.
The end-game of the so-called American Dream is dying with the most stuff. What’s your end-game?