“You live in America, Valeria! You should be so happy to go back home!”
Giuseppe said in disbelief, when I expressed disappointment about going back to the drear of Detroit.
“Leaving this beautiful place is always hard,” I responded.
“But you’re going to America!” he shouted. “The land of opportunity! Big buildings, Broadway Theater, Disney World, Madonna and Michael Jackson! Everything—and everyone—is in America!”
My cousin put his hands on my shoulders and shook me, as if to wake me from a delirious dream.
Only when the sadness in my eyes was obvious and real, did the stars that danced in the blacks of his iris begin to fade. The sparks of excitement were quickly replaced with a brush of softness that held my gaze. We hugged and an ache pooled at my center, squeezing my eyes shut, hard, to force the tears away, if only I could take him and show my America, I thought.
Practically all the kids my age living in Sicily had a love affair with Amerrrica. If you were a Sicilian in the 1980s, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, you spent time listening to American music, watching American movies and daydreaming about visiting America.
If you were an American relative, visiting for the summer months, you were expected to have the answers to their long list of questions, while translating the lyrics of “Like a Virgin” (all of which they had long before memorized).
Even though I never shared their excitement about my home, their passion helped fuel my pride. Living in a place so many admired made me, by extension, admirable. For an impressionable teen, that was beyond cool. I relished their attention and flaunted my Americanism; “Yes, I’m American, feel free to envy me.”
But this high and mighty attitude came at a price.
Somewhere in my young and uninformed mind lurked the dampness of guilt; I felt like an imposter, trying to hold onto something real when everything was flaking into unworthy dust.
Part of me wanted to yell: “Don’t you see how great your life is here—the affection, love, connections, the natural beauty, the ancient history? These are things that don’t exist in my Detroit City neighborhood—yet these are the things of value —not tall buildings, big cars or roller coasters. Why waste time envying me when I envy you?”
The appreciation for the simple pleasures in life can be an anchor to one’s humanity.
Sicily is a place layered in years of (Mafia) corruption, where people learned that only beauty could be trusted. Artistic excellence was imperishable. Rocky cliffs and red-lit seas could only be intimidating in its beauty and was never itself intimidated, could not be bargained down, nor bribed. And a home cooked meal with family and friends was the only real currency; their world of disorder and corruption birthed a people who valued what mattered.
Still, the enticing lure of the “American Dream” was a healthy distraction at the time.
Free-will and the freedom to pursue your passions are attractive propositions—especially when they can offer a comfortable way to financially support yourself and your family.
“The American Dream: A set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.”
Things have changed since my high school summers in Italy.
The definition of the ‘American Dream’ has been tainted; the dream of freedom and opportunity has been replaced with capitalistic ‘American Greed.’
Its slime and filth has leaked and spread to include the rest of the industrialized world—other countries have caught on and they too have fallen victim to wanting more than they need.
We have arrived at the pinnacle of consumption. Our nation’s wealth gap gives evidence to our economic and moral dilemma. When the top ten percent possess eighty percent of all financial assets and the bottom ninety percent hold only twenty percent of all financial wealth, there is both a dis-ease and a disease festering.
People in aboriginal or indigenous cultures have a term for having more than you need—they call it mental illness. The human body has a name for it as well, we call it cancer.
It’s time we find a cure.
Our model for the way things work is going up in smoke. The relation between stuff and happiness has been debunked. Haven’t we all been hit over the head, time and time again with the memo?
Yet, the belief remains that if a little makes us happy, then more will makes us happier…and even more than that will makes us the happiest. We hold tight to this ideal with white knuckles despite knowing it’s been overturned.
Money can’t buy happiness—this is something we understand, conceptually.
Can we admit that competition is the source of our greed and greed is the source of unhappiness?
We take for granted that our life’s journey is meant to be a struggle. With each encounter, some sort of battle has to be fought—a co-worker who seeks our promotion, the salesman who overcharged us, the student who ruined the bell curve and even the friend who shares a different opinion than us.
This idea that it’s us against the world originates from our belief that this self we call “I” is separate.
Each individual is a unique being that lives apart from everything else. Our own, self-contained drama, that only affects us while everything else is entirely on its own. The land we live on, the air we breathe, another’s misfortune—everything else is disconnected from us. Our lives begin with the union of two and end painfully alone.
One, isolated, final heart beat.
Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest (he spoke much more about cooperation in his book: On The Origin of Species but that hardly gets noticed) has been exploited; using it as an excuse to ignore our inner wisdom and instead feed the emptiness of our egos. “Resources are limited, there’s not enough out there, others may be fitter, I need to have it before they get it” has been our mantra.
High self-worth is synonymous with being the best and having the most.
What if we really have it all wrong?
What if nothing is separate and instead, every single thing is interconnected, in a web of collective consciousness?
What if competitive individualism isn’t our natural instinct and survival of the fittest doesn’t relate to fighting, pushing and stomping our way to the top?
Crushing the people who aren’t as strong may not be the solution.
Perhaps cooperation isn’t just hippie or progressive slang, an occupy movement aiming for a revolution—perhaps there’s the extraordinary possibility that cooperation is at the core of our DNA.
The latest scientific research has given way to what spiritual gurus have been saying since the beginning civilization: all life exists in dynamic relation to one another. We aren’t just random atoms jostling together in empty space, directionless and separate.
Lynne McTaggart, author of The Intention Experiment states: “All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection,and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment. Rather than a cluster of individual, self-contained atoms and molecules, objects and living beings are now more properly understood as dynamic and pretean processes, in which parts of one thing and parts of another continuously trade places.”
In the movie I Am, Thom Haartman states: “What [scientists] found was that democracy was being played out literally every day by…animals.” He recalls his own experiences of going scuba diving and seeing schools of fish dart around as a collective group and also remembers watching flocks of birds in his backyard fly together and change directions suddenly while still remaining together.
This reasoning taps our soul and stirs our core.
Our soul vibrates with this understanding, because it resonates with absolute truth. On a personal level, we feel good when we cooperate, help others, become conduits of other people’s happiness and connect with the world around us. We feel pain when someone suffers, we smile with the laugh of a child and when we’re hit with the reality that starvation is still painfully real (while individuals own houses the size of small towns) it stings…deeply.
“The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that it would take $44 billion a year to put an end to world hunger. Does it sound like a lot of money? Governments say it does, as they do not have so much money and it is a utopia to think they can ever get such an amount. However, governments do not say that in 2007, the expenditure in arms was more than 30 times greater ($1,340 billion), just to set an example. Or, that $44 billion is more or less the budget of Beijing-based Olympic Games of 2008. The only thing necessary to end world hunger is just politicians’ willpower.”
Or, the will of the people.
There was a time when we called for the passage of the nineteenth amendment, demanding women’s right to vote (1920).
We fought, relentlessly, to outlaw racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s; less than fifty years ago black people were considered “less than” their fellow humans with lighter skin.
Today, a black man holds the highest office in the world.
Change is possible…evolution is ongoing.
My American Dream is redefined: I dream of an America that leads with civic faith—a faith in the goodness and unity of its people. Where we collaborate for the prosperity of mankind, extending beyond our borders and reaching into the provinces of the most needy. Where success isn’t defined by monetary gain but rather self-worth, compassion and our ability to help our neighbors. This America places cooperation above competition. A sane America, that takes only what it needs and encourages the entire world to thrive.
I imagine a day when I walk, arm-n-arm with cousin Giuseppe down Broadway—looking up at New York City’s Time Square, remembering what that center once stood for.
We smile, with pride, thinking of the journey we all took to become citizens of one humanity.
I am because we are.
(On a lighter note, take a look at George Carlin’s take on stuff):