The Myth of the American Dream:
Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety and Power
Reviewed by Cara Meredith
“Heading to Target. Need anything?”
I stared at the screen for a second before replying. My neighbor’s text wasn’t about us actually needing anything in the moment, but it was about neighbors being neighbors. It was about the two of us (and the gaggle of other folks also on the group text) really, actually seeing each other, doing and being who we should have been to one another all along.
For some of us, myself included, it took a pandemic to realize that being a good neighbor isn’t merely a matter of choice but an imperative of survival. For others of us, this realization is woven into the DNA of our existence: whether lived or learned, ruminations of privilege and power exist alongside a deep knowing of humanity and of how unjust systems impact our most vulnerable neighbors. There are also those folks, like author D.L. Mayfield, who emanate a both/and type of lived and learned experience. Just as she, a white, cisgender woman, lives with her family alongside poor and marginalized immigrant communities in Portland, Oregon, she recognizes the privilege and power that has always been hers. As such, her newest release, The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety and Power is a haunting and holy collection of essays that begs readers to see, serve and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Early on, Mayfield extends an invitation to notice: “This is a book about paying attention. It’s about being fully alive, not just to the glories of electric green moss stubbornly growing between the cracks of pavement but to the systems and structures and policies that dull our imaginations for a world that truly has hope and good news and beauty for everyone” (7). I think about how wildly each of our realities has changed in such a short amount of time: whether big or small, it’s easy for me to see these surface-level obstructions – or one version of what Mayfield might call the electric green moss poking through the pavement, begging me pay attention – because it’s closest to me. Yet something more exists: once I begin to see past the cracks in the pavement to the bigger systems, structures and policies, I can’t not see how these bigger systems, structures and policies benefit some but not all.
As Mayfield writes, “…if a system works for you but not for everyone, then how can we continue to view that system as just? Once we begin to understand that we have benefitted from the same system that has crushed others, how can any follower of Christ accept this reality as part of God’s plan?” (163). After all, it’s nearly impossible to ignore unjust systems when nearly 7 million Americans file for unemployment benefits in a single week; when the effects of a worldwide pandemic disproportionately affect Black and brown lives; and when Uncle Sam leads the world in the total number of deaths due to the Coronavirus. Suddenly, the American dream doesn’t seem so bright and shiny anymore, which is perhaps, the entire point of Mayfield’s essay collection: the values of American ideology – “an ideology that needs to subsume, to consume, to silence in order to thrive” (145) – are of no use anymore (nor were they ever in the first place). So, what does it then mean to rewrite who we are in relation to God and to each other? And what does it mean to hold onto hope, when hope feels all but lost?
Perhaps we start by listening to the poets and prophets among us, to the ones that hold up signs, begging the rest of us to see and long for another world (158). Perhaps we start with Mayfield herself, leaning into haunting words penned years before thoughts of a pandemic:
“I have little imagination for what life in exile could truly look like, I have little vision for a world in which faith flourishes even as church buildings crumble into disuse, or condos, or coffee shops. But I do know this: the world is changing, and we don’t have to be afraid. We just might have to start looking elsewhere for where to go forward. We just might have to start learning to pray and sing and live in exile from those we have barred from entry for far too long” (140).
Though Mayfield writes of the immigrant communities she lives, works and serves alongside, her words speak a kind of prophesy over readers: in the bewilderment of grievous news cycles and six-foot swaths of distance, when foreclosure signs pop up by the hour and local businesses board up by the day, although the world doesn’t look like it did the day before, we don’t have to be afraid. Instead, we stake claim to the God who sees. With nods to theologian Willie Jennings, we also then rid ourselves of “…a diseased imagination, one centered in the privileged making sense of their place in the world and the suffering they exact from others” (150). We confront a world that has been kind to some of us but not to all of us, a world that has esteemed values of affluence, safety, autonomy and power above anything else. To this point, Mayfield speaks her truest reality, as a white, cisgender, Christian woman. Through this lens she views the world, including the privilege that has always been hers under the umbrella of white supremacy. Here, she recognizes how individualism grew in her a classic savior complex (65), while also realizing that the more she “…came into contact with people who didn’t grow up exactly like me, the more the lenses of my Christian worldview began to become visible” (152). And by deeply knowing herself (and the effects of her own propensity toward the myths of the American dream), she gifts the reader with an invitation to do the same.
But what of hope? As a writer, I’ve been trained to employ somewhat of a sandwich method when it comes to writing book reviews: for every three positive points, I insert one bit of criticism, even if I completely loved the book. I error on the side of optimism, the hope-monger within me eager to celebrate and honor the hard work it takes to write a book – which is why I chuckle when I think about the Post-It note I wrote a couple of days after finishing Mayfield’s book: “Have you not a bit of hope?” I felt desperate for a sliver of hope, the grief of the pandemic having taken up residence in my house. All I wanted was a teaspoon of sunshine manna in my privileged, wandering desert, but what I got was a haunting and necessary dose of reality – of the privilege that has always been mine when I benefit from broken fragments of the American dream.
The irony, of course, is that her book is absolutely a book of hope, even if some of us have to practice noticing a new kind of hope, all over again. Because when hope is reimagined in a level playing field and in a God “…who bestows good gifts freely and infuses what could become a hierarchical relationship with mutuality” (52), then hope itself becomes a bit rawer and more beautiful than it was the day before.
Just as this review comes to a close, another text comes in from my neighbor – and again, I stop and pause, grateful not only for neighbors being neighbors, but for how D.L. Mayfield’s words ring in my ears. While she certainly didn’t plan to release a book in the middle of a pandemic, I can’t help but see how her message of learning to disentangle ourselves from the myth of the American dream, so we might love others and love God more, means more now than ever before.