Final Thoughts from Navy Chaplain School: Defining the “American Dream”

“I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.” 

This past weekend, I came across this article in USA Today.  The writers did a little “informal” research to quantify just how much it costs to fund the “American Dream” – a lifestyle that apparently, every American is aspiring to.

I’ll let you check the article out to figure out what that final figure is, and what categories and descriptors they used to define the American Dream.  Their method is subjective at best, and if you take it for what it is, it’s a well-intentioned attempt to raise discussion about the points they’re trying to make.  But here’s what really interests me: They define the American Dream in terms of a financial number, a measure of wealth, and in material terms.  Based on what they’ve got down, the bottom line is that well, my wife and I aren’t living the American Dream.  Not even close.

But I guess the thing is, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.  Sure, I’d love to make more money (who doesn’t?) but the fact of the matter is, when my wife and I look at things, I think we’re doing pretty well.  And, if we were to decide to have a kid tomorrow, we’d still be ok.  Not only our present, but our future as well.  Yeah, we’re doing pretty good for the most part.

As I think about it more, I have to challenge the terms and categories they use to define what the “American Dream” is as a whole.  If it’s caught up in a quantity of money, defined by the material things we deem as unequivocally necessary for life but really aren’t, then we’re likely missing the mark completely.

If I were to define it, I’d say the American Dream is the opportunity to pursue the things that are life-giving to me, and being free to do so.  That definition of what is “life-giving” certainly differs for everyone; I know for me it’s informed by my religious faith, among other things.  I do think there are two overarching takeaways from this definition of “life-giving” though: one, a lot of us are able – and are – living it.  Two, it challenges us to be self-critical of the definitions and standards that are imposed on us and invites us to define our own standards for our lives.

On July 1st, Vice Admiral (VADM) Michelle Howard was promoted to Admiral (ADM) Howard – putting on a 4th star – and to the position of Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), the 2nd highest-ranking person in the Navy.  Here’s the thing: ADM Howard is the first female to become a 4-star admiral in the Navy, and is the first female and African-American to be appointed VCNO.

You think this isn’t significant?  Consider this: when ADM Howard called the uniform shop to get female shoulder boards with 4 stars on them for her promotion ceremony, the uniform shop workers replied, “We don’t have them….because we don’t make them.”  (They special ordered and made a set for her in time for her promotion ceremony!)

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said this about her promotion: “She is also a great example of how much we as a nation and a Navy lose if we put artificial barriers in, if we don’t judge people based on their ability, based on their capability. I hope I have always been passionate about that, but I know the intensity has increased since I am the father of three daughters, and I refuse to believe that there are any ceilings for them, glass or otherwise. That they can get to wherever their abilities can take them. And with that, they and countless others in the Navy now have a wonderful role model in Michelle Howard.”

Just in case you’re wondering if she’s undeserving, I’ll mention that ADM Howard was the Commander of Task Force 151 that conducted anti-piracy operations off of Africa…and was the person responsible for the rescue of the Maersk Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips.

I think ADM Howard’s story is one of opportunity – what will you do when presented with it?  

This past weekend, I got to travel with my wife to Charleston, SC for weekend liberty.  Charleston is a special place for me – it’s where my Navy career officially started at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command. I think about that opportunity and all it led to… difficult as it was, as much as I sometimes sacrificed, it afforded me to do something that shaped me as a person in so many good ways, and continues affect my life in the future.  (You’d be amazed at all the strange looks I get when people hear this pastor operated submarines and nuclear reactors in a previous line of work!)  It was life-giving, and continues to be so.

This brings me to my 2nd point: what exactly does it mean to life a life that’s “life-giving?”  While I was in Charleston, I was also able to visit and reconnect with some people I got to know during my time at Nuclear Power School almost 13 years ago.  I haven’t seen them in about 10 years….but the relationships continued this weekend as if we hadn’t missed a beat.  I think a lot about why that is and the simple fact is, despite the relatively short time I spent there, I invested in these folks, and they invested in me.  The relationships were lasting.  These are people who consider me their “son;” who I consider like “siblings” and “parents.”

And for me, the ability to have those types of relationships, and to have the freedom to reconnect with them, that is the American Dream.  No amount of money or material wealth could ever replace these people and the impact they’ve had on my life, and the impact they’ll continue to have.  It’s the quality of relationships such as these and so many others that define what the American Dream is to me.  I’m living it.  Of course, that means I have to make choices…..choosing things that afford me the opportunity to pursue those things that are life-giving in a lasting, enduring way.  It forces me to distinguish between needs and wants.

Before you write me off as sounding cliché, let me say this: I think if we pursue things that are really wants in life, it leads to an attitude of self-entitlement and scarcity.  I never have enough money.  I never have a big enough house or nice enough car.  I never have enough saved to retire early or to send my kids to that top private college.  I “need” (but really want) those things…..and honestly, I’m entitled to them.

If we ask ourselves what we actually need, it pushes us to live modestly, and to consider the needs of others in that decision-making process.  If I choose this or that, how does that affect those around me now and in the future? If I take out a mortgage on that extravagant house on the beach (which my wife and I are always “dreaming” about) how will that affect what we save for the future?  If we want to invest in those life-giving relationships, what do we have to “give up” to do that?  How do we live in a way that doesn’t waste, and leaves the world a better place for our kids?

So there ya go….my final thoughts from Navy Chaplaincy School as a finish the final two days of training.  The “American Dream” – what is life-giving today, tomorrow, and years from now, and choosing to invest in that now, and live into that for days to come.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and all the best in living the “American Dream” in your own ways….



1 Comment

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One response to “Final Thoughts from Navy Chaplain School: Defining the “American Dream”

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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