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The Myth of the ‘American Dream Syndrome’

The endless, uncontrolled pursuit of material possessions can choke the life out of your marriage.

By Dennis and Barbara Rainey

I want to let you in on a little secret. Whether you know it or not, your marriage is susceptible to the “American Dream Syndrome.” Through an endless parade of messages in this media-driven culture, you and I are sold the notion that we can have it all … and what’s more we deserve to have it all!

The unwritten motto of the American Dream Syndrome is this: The more stuff you have, the better off you are.

As Barbara and I know, it’s easy to be seduced away from our real calling, the Kingdom of God. We are tempted to embrace the American Dream instead: to own the big house, to drive the cool cars, to send the kids to the right schools, to have the right club memberships, to take the extended cruise, to have all of the latest “stuff.”

Contentment, like a flawless diamond, is a valuable and scarce commodity. Talk to ten people at random and you will be hard-pressed to find even one or two who are truly content.

After all, advertisers parade a colorful host of gadgets, toys, cars, and home furnishings, as well as every imaginable convenience, before our wide-open eyes on our widescreen TVs. What’s the goal?

To make us discontent with what we have.

To infect us with a desire to acquire.

You can’t have it all

And don’t underestimate the role of peer pressure in the spread of the American Dream Syndrome. The lifestyle choices we see made by our families, friends, and neighbors can put us in a never-ending race to catch up with the proverbial Joneses.

Contrary to what you might be tricked into believing by the pop culture, you can’t have it all—whether material possessions, personal activities, or life achievements. God simply did not design us with the capacity to do, or to have, everything. Further, the pressure created by the endless pursuit of stuff, or by engaging in endless activity, brings out the worst in us.

We know. We’ve been there.

If the walls in our house could talk, they’d have story after story to tell in which Barbara and I wrestled with the temptation to give in to the American Dream Syndrome. Sometimes it was Barbara. More often it was my own drive to do more, buy more, and accumulate more.

Years ago, for example, we lived in an older part of town. Many of the people we went to church with enjoyed living in newer subdivisions. Those upscale neighborhoods sure caught our eyes. I can assure you that had we not exercised restraint, we could have easily put the welfare of our family and marriage at risk.

Over the years, we’ve identified three myths of the American Dream Syndrome:

· Myth #1: Getting stuff will make me happy.

· Myth #2: Having lots of stuff is a sign of personal significance.

· Myth #3: The guy with the most toys wins.

These three myths are primarily related to the acquisition of material things. The same American Dream Syndrome, however, also pressures us into striving after acceptance, status, and the admiration of peers. None of these pursuits have anything to do with our calling to participate in God’s Kingdom.

But for now, let’s focus in on the cornerstone of the American Dream Syndrome: the pursuit of possessions. Why? Because the endless, uncontrolled pursuit of stuff is choking the life out of our marriages.

Let’s take these myths on one by one.

Myth #1: Getting stuff will make me happy.

I was struck by something actor Brad Pitt said in an interview several years ago: “Whether you want to listen to me or not—I’m the guy who’s got everything. I know. But I’m telling you, once you get everything, then you’re just left with yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It doesn’t help you sleep any better, and you don’t wake up any better because of it.”

Pitt continued: “Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us—the car, the condo, our versions of success—but if that’s the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more isolation and desperation and loneliness?”