We’ve all seen the words, heard the patriotic-infused reference and have a vague common understanding of the thing we call “The American Dream.”

But with everything going on during these turbulent and chaotic times, is the dream itself still a unifying ethos representing a commonly shared, noble pursuit?

Or has it been replaced by a societal operating system rooted in personal self-interest and reckless narcissism, currently mastered and promoted on the highest stage by the scam artist known as Mr. Orange-Face? (“I’m so rich … I build big buildings … I’m always right and anyone who disagrees with me is a jerk.”)

While the spirit and hopeful promise of the American Dream was embodied in our Declaration of Independence, the term was popularized in literary structure by James Truslow Adams in his book “The Epic of America” in 1931:

“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Those words and the underlying meaning have provided the soundtrack to America’s song of democratic prosperity and opportunity for almost a century. People from all over the world have flocked to our shores (my grandparents included) – attracted by an ever-burning beacon of hope, brought to physical form by the tall lady standing in New York’s harbor.

Among hundreds of other countries and billions of people, there was never a Russian Dream, German Dream, Canadian Dream or any other “dream” associated with people or place.

Our promise – a full menu of human rights for all, an absolute respect and defense of human dignity, a level playing field of economic opportunity –is embedded within our Constitution, and more importantly, in our DNA as Americans.

But for reasons that go way beyond the limits of a newspaper column and the understanding of this columnist, it appears as though many of us no longer believe in the dream or the promise. The pitchforks of discontent are shaking more vigorously each day as our collective faith in government, institutions and our leaders is almost fully depleted – leaving in the vacuum the destructive toxicity of anger, apathy, and a wide range of reckless acts and actions connected to lost hope. (See Donald Drumpf.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges touched upon this theme in his book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt:”

“The vaunted American dream, the idea that life will get better, that progress is inevitable if we obey the rules and work hard, that material prosperity is assured, has been replaced by a hard and bitter truth. The American dream, we now know, is a lie. We will all be sacrificed. The virus of corporate abuse – the perverted belief that only corporate profit matters – has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our libraries, and plague our communities with foreclosures and unemployment.”

It all feels so helpless. But, it isn’t. Change can happen.

You might ask, “But what can I do to change things, I’m just one person here in Maine?” To that I say, go out to your backyard and study an ant hill for a minute.

As a starting point, here are some random civil and civic things to do:

• Invest in a wide range of information and perspective – not just “opinion” that matches your own. If you normally watch Fox News as a staple of your political diet, spend an hour this week watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Likewise, watch an hour of Bill O’Reilly on Fox News if your leanings are liberal.

• Spend an hour online visiting your local municipality’s website and root around the various sections to learn how your town or city really functions and about your community leaders. Do the same with our Maine Legislature websites, and while you’re at it, visit your county website to learn what role county government plays.

• Sometime in the next month, visit your town or city hall, and spend some time there talking with staff about whatever issues or events are happening in your community. These folks are generally great and enthusiastic resources for detailed information on all areas of your community. Bring your kids, too. It’s never too early to learn about community involvement.

• Do you know where your local police and fire departments are based? If not, find out. Then, sometime soon, bake a sheet of cookies or a pan of brownies and bring them by during the day with your own message of gratitude. These men and women serve our communities daily, often put their lives on the line for us, and are too often taken for granted. Public safety workers are hurting now as a group, and they deserve our active support and respect.

Finally, we should all feel lucky and privileged to live in such a special place. I’ve visited all 50 states and more than 40 countries and there is nowhere I’d rather call home.

Here in Maine, in the U.S. and around the world, there are many serious challenges that feel particularly daunting these days. It’s up to each of us to make the choice of generating light around ourselves and others, or to surrender to the darkness.

I choose my grandparents’ dream, the promise of respect for all and the light of hope shining upon a better tomorrow.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.

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