America the Beautiful: Reconsidering the American Dream

Every so often I hear a song that I have heard countless times before only to suddenly realize that the familiar words have new meaning. It happened the other day at church. The celebration was winding down for the upcoming July 4th holiday.  Mass closed with America the Beautiful as my children squirmed restlessly in their typical late-service way.  Later that evening when it was quieter, I pulled up the full lyrics to see just what had struck me in a novel way.

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

The opening lines are familiar to most Americans. What seems most noteworthy, though, is that the song begins with a deep ode of gratitude for all our gifts.  It echoes the sense that we are imminently blessed with great beauty and wonder.  Its placement in the song seems to remind us, and our children, that before we ask for anything, we must first be grateful.

The concept of thankfulness and appreciation in children can be a challenging one. By their nature, they are egocentric, often focusing on their immediate desires and needs.  But we do know that even at a very young age, when language is just emerging, they can be taught to be thankful and considerate of another person’s plight.  In regards to gratitude, we live in an interesting time.  Most of our kids have access to more than ever before whether it be through technology or opportunities.  We often attempt to cultivate their interests and hobbies in hopes they will emerge as a driving, positive influence in their life (see the article Cultivating Their Future).  Similarly, the research on narcissism has uncovered some striking trends.  A number of studies have indicated that college students in the last three decades tend to increasingly endorse narcissistic traits to a greater degree than in previous eras.  The authors of the meta-analysis, Egos Inflating Over Time published in the Journal of Personality (2008) noted that “Students today have markedly higher and more unrealistic expectations of educational attainment and success.”  They expressed concern that college students’ narcissism today approached that which is typically is seen in celebrities.  Simultaneously, our student’s educational rank has dropped dramatically over the past thirty years in comparison to other countries.  But the confidence they have in their abilities continues to rank number one. Our children are special.  But it appears that they may have overestimated just how special they are and forgot how grateful they should be.

 O beautiful for pilgrim feet Whose stern impassioned stress A thoroughfare of freedom beat Across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!

By now, you may have heard me talk about the undeniable research regarding self-control (see article on this topic).  Other than intelligence and socioeconomic status, there is no more reliable predictor for almost every imaginable outcome as an adult. But fortunately, we can improve our children’s self-control, which will have long-lasting positive implications for their future. We can teach them how to wait (even for few minutes) for something they want or to take small steps to work through a frustrating situation.  It also remains the most amenable factor to change.  So as the song moves on, I could not help but notice that beyond gratitude, it seemed there was a clear focus on self-improvement through self-restraint. The stanza ended with what most of us intuitively know.  True liberty comes with submission to authority, whether it be regarding our health, our faith, or our families.  A lack of this for our children certainly has detrimental consequences.

It dawned on me that the author, Ms. Katherine Lee Bates, might be on to something. So far, self-improvement was only superseded by gratitude.  No wealth or power or security had been requested.  And then I hit stanza three.

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved And mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine Till all success be nobleness And every gain divine!

I should have known. Once again, worldly demands were not the focus.  This time, it began with memorial to selflessness and sacrifice and ended with plea for integrity and faith.

I thought a lot about this over the next few days as I saw my children steeped in activities and took stock of all the resources available to them. I found myself concerned that my kids were experiencing a world that came too easy and was too much about them.  I worried that this would leave them expecting the same as adults, all the while forgetting that the greatest rewards require much toil and come only when surrounded by the happiness of others you love. The messages of the song were certainly not the American Dream plastered on the billboards I passed by or advertised on TV.  It seemed to go much deeper into a world of meaning and immortality. Gratitude, self-improvement, selflessness, sacrifice, integrity and faith. I knew they were critical.  But it seems they may have gotten lost in the American shuffle towards achievement, stardom, and self-gratification.

Maybe I need to start listening to those classics a little more closely.

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