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David Martin

What is your definition of the American Dream?

Growing up, I believed it held a fixed, universally appreciated, meaning. It went something like this: working hard to achieve a fulfilled life and then having the ability to look around one day and think, "Ah, now this is the American Dream."

That's it. Pretty simple.

Of course that desired result, a fulfilled life, is tied closely to a popular notion inherent to the American ethos. That anyone living in the United States has, regardless of the circumstances they were born into the world with, the chance to attain a life of their choosing.

But nothing more than that, a mere chance.

Also important to the American Dream concept is the idea that as members of one generation achieve their fulfilled life, whatever that might look like, they will have set the table for continued successes to be grasped by subsequent generations.

Looking at the example provided by my parents and grandparents, I've always held this version of the American Dream in high regard. In three short generations, my father's line went from Chattanooga foundry laboring (my grandfather) to the Ivy League (my sister).

I know I'm biased, but that's pretty impressive. Inspiring even.

Maybe your family has experienced something similar.

Today, each of my father's children is able to pursue the life of their choice because of the hard work my parents and their parents put into realizing the Dream. One's a college professor, one's a television reporter and another is a nurse. Then there's me, but hey, every family has a black sheep, right?

Recently, though, it has become apparent that my definition of the American Dream has some serious competition. To that point, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan (the 2017 Pulitzer winner in the commentary category) asked the question "What's become of the American Dream?" in her most recent weekly column.

To her, the Dream is "about aspiration and the possibility that, with dedication and focus, it could be fulfilled." Like Noonan, I worry that a sense of materialism is hijacking that definition. And I agree with her take on what the Dream isn't: It is "not about material things — houses, cars, a guarantee of future increase. That's the construction we put on it now. It's wrong."

How did that re-definition happen? Here's the anecdote she presented:

"I think part of the answer is: Grandpa. He'd sit on the front stoop in Levittown in the 1950s. A sunny day, the kids are tripping by, there's a tree in the yard and bikes on the street and a car in the front. He was born in Sicily or Donegal or Dubrovnik, he came here with one change of clothes tied in a cloth and slung on his back, he didn't even speak English, and now look — his grandkids with the bikes. 'This is the American Dream,' he says. And the kids, listening, looked around, saw the houses and the car, and thought: He means the American Dream is things. By inference, the healthier and more enduring the dream, the bigger the houses get, the more expensive the cars."

And since so many millions of people have shared success stories like that one, the proliferation of the American Dream as prosperity gospel has rapidly spread.

But Noonan goes on: "But that of course is not what Grandpa meant. He meant: I started with nothing and this place let me and mine rise. The American Dream was not only about materialism, but material things could be, and often were, its fruits."

It goes without saying (or it should, anyway) that the playing field has not always been level for everyone to reach their Dream. That's one of our nation's greatest historical flaws, and it can't be ignored.

But as conversations continue regarding the health of the American Dream and whether it's still attainable, it might be good to ask first: "Which definition are we talking about?"

Contact David Allen Martin at davidallenmartin423@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.

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