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[Chalice] American Dreams [Chalice]
and the Workplace Blues

Presented March 18, 2001, by Sharon Buzzard

From the earliest writing in American literature we can see that our country has always had two ideas of itself. The early explorers traveled and wrote largely at the sponsorship of a patron whose goal was financial gain--the search for salable goods or land which could turn a profit. These explorers' writings contain what seems to be formula paragraphs which describe the beauty and bounty of the new world. The forests, the types of stone, the climate all offered enticing prospects for those who saw the new world as an economic possibility. In these letters, the natives are happy and welcoming and all in all they read something like a real estate brochure enticing prospects to a new and untouched land where riches abound for the industrious.

The other pole of thinking was of course a more spiritual one--the colonists who came in search of religious freedom felt they were founding a new version of Eden. They fled religious persecution and believed that in the new country would be their chance to start anew, to build a community based on their ideals and values; in order to create their "New Caanan," they needed a strong work ethic, the kind of rigor and discipline that is still at the heart of what we believe it takes to succeed. Their idea of prosperity, however, was never meant to be a worldly one. The world they lived in was to them filled with "wild beasts and wild men;" their industry was turned towards achieving spiritual success and their language often reflects it, as in Anne Bradstreet's famous line in her poem "Upon the Burning of Her House" where she says, "My hope and treasure lies above." Despite the loss of her household goods, Bradstreet reminds herself and the readers of her poem that the things of this world are not what is important. The American Dream for some of the earliest Americans was a dream of what is primarily intangible--freedom, tolerance, a chance to live and work towards creating an ideal.

I expect we all know which of these two ideas became predominant. By the time Ben Franklin wrote his famous autobiography we can hear in his language a much more pragmatic idea of living. Many of those values which were sure to get a person to heaven were now also thought to be just as useful in earning money and certainly the rewards were more immediate. Franklin's autobiography is a virtual textbook for secular success. He tells us of his conscious plans for the making of a self which would have commercial appeal. Even his moral/spiritual side becomes a part of his invention when he aims to "imitate Jesus and Socrates." Franklin's review of his life, his steps to his success, from his early days as a printer, to his founding of the first public libraries, to the founding of the University of Pennsylvania, and finally to his place in our history books as one of our founding fathers, are all given a fairly breezy review. The interesting thing about Franklin's autobiography is that while he acknowledges making mistakes, being a printer he calls them his "errata," we never see any particular self doubt in his voice. His is the record of someone who has succeeded on the terms of this world and his suggestion is that anyone can do it. Working with today's college students, I believe that many of them are following a model like Franklin's. They come to school first of all with a career in mind and are on the path to achieving it. Even at liberal arts schools like Quincy University and Culver, over half of the students are there for degrees in business which will give them the jobs they need to acquire the wealth that is their handle on the American Dream.

Despite the fact that material wealth and success in this world had become the clear winner as early as the 1780s, what is interesting to me is, after Franklin, how many of our most famous writers even in the 20th century continued to grapple with the loss of the idealism in The American Dream. Often this conflict is made explicit and today I'll just mention two of the most famous ones. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, and the tragic Willie Loman from Death of A Salesman.

Jay Gatsby is a character who has fallen in love with a Dream. He has not seen his beloved Daisy in several years, but in her place he has created a version of Daisy which does not exist; he has created a more noble and romantic woman and he has also created a new self to match the one that he thinks Daisy would be drawn to, a man who is considerably richer than the unpedigried Jay Gatz that Daisy initially knew. In the book, the fact that Gatsby's idea of Daisy is just that, an idea, is represented by a green light which Gatsby can see across the bay from where he lives. Gatsby knows this is the light at the end of Daisy's dock and as through the years he has gazed at it and indulged himself in the creation of an ideal Daisy which can never match reality. When the fairly sordid events of the novel unfold, Gatsby's dreams are shattered--as Nick Carraway, the narrator, tells us of Gatsby's refusal to face the facts of Daisy and Tom's reality, "only the hard bright dream fought on." The Daisy that Gatsby finally has a chance to meet is nothing like the one he has dreamed of and Gatsby himself becomes in the novel one of those American characters who has once again made the mistake of substituting false gods for true ones--like those people who have every known appliance and entertainment object in their homes and yet awake one day to see that they are not happy and that the substance of life has somehow escaped them. The thing that makes Gatsby so appealing is that his mistake is one that we all make or have made. When Fitzgerald ends his novel with these beautiful lines, he is linking Gatsby's dreams with those of the first Americans. Nick Carroway says:

"As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

The sailors first look at the new world offered for the first time a vision which in reality rivaled the imagination. Few of us get a chance to see what we believe is so beautiful it can only exist in a dream. Since then, suggests Fitzgerald, being dreamers at heart, we all have it in us to make Gatsby's mistake by pinning our happiness on substitutions for the real thing.

Probably the most painful illustration of the conflicts inherent in American Dreamers is in Arthur Miller's Willie Loman. Willie has given his life to his job and has reached a stage when he is no longer productive. Miller is careful to extend the economic metaphors in the play, having Willie resist the idea that his life is "ringing up to zero" and that his beloved son Biff is "a dime a dozen." In Willie's economy he is his job and his job is as a salesman. When his bottom line doesn't show a profit, he loses his worth, yet he refuses to surrender to the new system which has him a mere cog in the business. He believes in personality, in being well liked, in personal attractiveness, so mostly what Willie has been selling is himself, or his idea of himself. He is highly resistant to Biff's version of reality which has Willie nothing but a used up and disposable salesman. In the play's climactic scene, Biff screams at Willie--"When are you going to take that phony dream and burn it?" Willie, of course, never does. He goes to his death believing that his life- insurance money is going to be the stake that Biff needs to turn his life around. In Willie's economy, his job is his life; when his job fails, he has nothing to hold on to; he barely knows who he is outside of his economic productivity; and when he dies he says he wants to die the "death of a salesman."

I particularly wanted to talk about Willie this morning because he will allow me to get closer to what I think is our own experience with the conflicts sketched in above. It was never my intention to focus on the material nature of our culture, on how marketing has taken over every holiday, on the catalogs full of what can only be called "stuff" that arrive at our house, sometimes six at a time. We live in a highly commercial world; coming to our own terms with it is something I suspect most of us have already done and perhaps it is subject for another talk.

Rather I wanted to get into the more personal experience of the conflict I outlined in the beginning. Many of us devote much of our lives to our jobs; when you spend 40 or more hours in a workplace it becomes a second home to you and for many, the people you work with are a second family. Many of us are highly identified with our professions--being a doctor or lawyer or teacher or scholar is something we have worked long for and we have in us all the idealism that any of those callings suggest. We carry that strain in us that the some of the early settlers did--we want to help to create a better world through our work. Most of us, like Willie Loman, resist being de-personalized, resist the idea that there is something purely economic about what we are being paid to do and so we have invested our workplaces with a kind of idealism which lifts us above pure capitalism. Our version of the dream is that we are something more, that we are doing something more human than helping someone else earn a profit.

Our loss of innocence comes when we hit the wall or when we see our friends hit the wall that shatters our dream, our ideal version of how we spend our lives. We have a language which pretties up the situation at one level -- people are "outsourced" or "downsized" or "reorganized.'" Inside it all, however, is someone like Willie Lohman or like us perhaps, people who thought they were more, thought their job was more, believed the idealized view of the world of work.

It is possible that I am wrong about this. I know that for example, if I told some of my students about this feeling of loss that many of our generation knows about, or particularly our parents' generation knows about, they'd deny any awareness of it at all. They are people who have grown up in the world of outsourcing and downsizing and they see themselves as commodities to be offered up to the highest bidder. They think they will change jobs frequently and they intend to keep alert to every better prospect that comes along. They know they are of the "survivor" generation and could easily be voted off the island at any time so the strategy is to keep ahead of the game. These students, however, largely have nor yet had their career job and it is easy to feel wise before you start the game. They have not yet married, settled into a community, started a family and so they don't know that relocating isn't always easy--we all remember when we could get all we owned into a car. Others I know would say that institutional loyalty is not what they are about. They understand themselves as what one writer I recently read called "contingent workers," people who will never be on a company payroll long, people who manage their own benefits, people who will largely be marketing themselves to the highest bidder all their work lives. Understanding full well the fickle nature of the current corporate world, they are what I could call the "postmodern" employee and some might say that they are ideal for the "post modern" employer where, as with Willie Lohman, loyalty and devotion are something like a liability.

Those people who can live on tiptoe where their work is concerned are perhaps a shrewder bunch of people, but I believe that they are fewer. Every one of us has I am sure had an experience which has made us a wiser and perhaps a more bitter person where jobs are concerned. During that time we no doubt swore that never again would we be played for the ninny that we then felt ourselves to be. The trouble is that it takes some effort to sustain this kind of sourness, and sooner or later we have lapsed back into a faith where we believe that this time it will be different. That we can live with our ideals in this place, that we won't see them smashed. When the loss of innocence comes, it can hit hard. Someone passed over for a well-deserved and much hoped for promotion. Someone more qualified, but passed over in the hiring search. Someone who, in doing a job, crossed wires with the boss. Someone who has been chewed up by the internal politics that becomes a part of the workplace. Sort of like the blues I mention in my title -- theme and variation, but the tune's the same.

I suppose everyone here knows that I teach at Quincy University and it offers me the chance for just one personal example. Much is said there about our Franciscan heritage; we have a statue of St. Francis on our new plaza, San Damiano Crosses on the walls of the classrooms, and much is said about the mission of the university, about how our programs square with the "Franciscan heritage." If you have read the paper you know that we are supposed to be on our way to becoming the Franciscan University in America. Some of the people who work there have been there 30 or more years and have quite literally given their working lives to Quincy University. They are devoted to their work in every sense of that word. Recently, however, the language of consumerism has crept into these Franciscan halls. Our students are our customers; awards are given to employees who display "customer service;" desks in some of the main offices have customer service cards which can be filled out and dropped into the nearest survey box. The mission of the university says "we respect each person with dignity, value, and worth." but I believe we are supposed to resist, as Willie Lohman did, thinking that worth and value equals dollar signs. And I am sure that St. Francis would agree.

And so, another bit of that dream bites the dust. The movie The Big Chill tells the story of a group of former 60's types who have left the idealism of their youth and become the very things they resisted so. The guy who was an athlete, a runner, now owns a sports shoe corporation, etc. Perhaps this is the lesson inside all of what I have said today--that idealism is a youthful pursuit, that when we get wiser, we'll know that jobs are what life is about and that lots of people work one that doesn't fill their spirit. You have payments to make and kids to support and the job lets you do this. Just punching the clock, collecting that paycheck is one way of raging against the machine. Its a silent rage, and often I think a destructive one, but it keeps you from feeling the disillusion daily.

I could go on with stories about life inside the workplace but I won't. You all have your own stories and you know the feelings. I know that at this point I am probably expected to turn to a solution, show you a Unitarian way out of feeling that loss of innocence. I know that if I did want to turn philosophical, to cheer you up, I could turn to Thoreau, for example, who wrote long ago about keeping a grip on the self, on being an expert in what he called "home cosmography," on knowing that the real essence of life isn't connected to things in our world. Thoreau wasn't necessarily against work, but he was against work that didn't do the spirit good. In one of Thoreau's essays called "Life Without Principle" he speaks directly about the world of work and commerce. In the essay's title he make a pun on the idea of principle--an economic idea or a moral one. He tells me "This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle. It interrupts my dreams. There is no Sabbath. It is nothing but work, work, work. " Or this "Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for a love of it." He writes in Walden about our "mean and sneaking lives," the "lives of quiet desperation" that our employers sometimes make for us or help us make for ourselves. I could turn to him to be cheered up and to cheer you up: He believes I should live in infinite expectation of the dawn, that I have the ability to elevate my life by conscious endeavor, that I should not practice resignation, but should "put to rout all that is not life," that I should "advance confidently in the direction of my dreams." . . . You can see then how quickly I am lured back into those dreams where living truly and working are not antithetical.

In Walden Thoreau tells us that each morning he took what had to be a brisk 6:00 a.m. dip in his pond as part of his spiritual exercise, to remind himself to live consciously, to be awake to each day. The idea was that he would develop a habit of mind which came automatically to him, the dip in the cold, often icy pond wouldn't be necessary anymore; he would carry his experiment in living with him back into the more commercial world where it would meet its true test. What I am afraid to say is that some of us have had a dip in a cold icy pond of our own sorts--we, like Willie Lohman and like Jay Gatsby, have run headlong into the place where dream meets reality or we know people who have. What can we do? Hand the person a towel---if you haven't thrown your's in already. Shrug and say, "that happens" ? Develop a habit of living that prepares you for it to happen again?

Like any good Unitarian, I can end with lots more questions than I have answered? One of our seven principles is "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." How do we work day by day towards that principle in our own lives, and especially in the life of the workplace? How do we work to support an ethical workplace? What do we do when we suspect ours isn't? When things are beyond our control, how do we work with those who have been damaged to show our care and concern? The workplace may have its blues, but I think it has to have a place for dreamers like me.

©;2001, Sharon Buzzard.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Buzzard, Sharon. 2001. American Dreams and the Workplace Blues, (accessed July 13, 2020).

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