When did the “dream” become a metaphor for ambition? When did dreaming become an entitlement to success for aspiring American Idols? The one thing besides “hard work” necessary for achieving fame and fortune, as we are frequently assured by celebrities?
Once upon a time, a dream was in the realm of the imagination, a fancy, something unobtainable. “Lips that once were mine/Tender eyes that shine/They will light my way tonight/I’ll see you in my dreams.” 1
A dream was something desperately desired: “Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly.” 2
It was a consolation prize: “I need you so, that I could die/I love you so and that is why/Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream.” 3
Or a noble attitude in a struggle against overwhelming odds: “To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go.” 4
Martin Luther King, Jr. used his dream to imbue African American aspirations with a Biblical loftiness and inevitability: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Somewhere along the way it morphed into willful delusion: “If you dream, then you can do anything/If you dream, you’re halfway to destiny/If you dream, dream the impossible/If you dream, ’cause a dream’s unstoppable.” 5
And our preference for dreams over reality doesn’t end with pop songs. When a quarter of our electorate believes Obama is a Kenyan socialist dictator, or that 9/11 was an inside job, our society is long way toward putting itself to sleep. Our financial system nearly collapsed because it placed bets on mortgages of fictional value. Even our philosophy and cosmology entertain delusion delusions: reality is a construct; we live in one alternate universe among an infinite multiverse. There is a systemic problem.
We can trace the genesis of our national somnambulance to James Truslow Adams and his 1931 coining of the term “the American dream.” But Adams’s dream is a societal ideal not an individual birthright. Somehow, his notion that one is not a prisoner of birth or circumstance has transmogrified into the valuing of the imaginary and the illusory over the real and the practical.
What’s become of our lauded American pragmatism? Wake up!
1“I’ll See You in My Dreams” by Gus Kahn & Isham Jones
2 “Out of My Dreams” by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, III
3 “All I Have to Do is Dream” by Felice & Boudleaux Bryant
4“To Dream the Impossible Dream” Joe Darion & Mitch Leigh
5 “If You Dream” by J. Valentine, Harvey Mason, Jerry Franklin, Joseph Bereal Jr., Robert Newt, Kristina Stevens, Dureel Babbs & Thai Jones