In her new book The Myth of the American Dream, Collegeville Institute alumna D.L. Mayfield interrogates the common values of affluence, autonomy, safety, and power in the United States. She asks: are these values compatible with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves?
The following adapted excerpt is from chapter eight, “Liberty,” which is in the section on autonomy. Reproduced by permission.
Autonomy is the right to act, speak, live, or govern as you want without restraint. It is independence. For those who have been imprisoned, it makes sense that freedom is something to long for. It makes sense that Jesus came to proclaim liberty to people who had very little control over their lives, who often lived without knowing where their next meal would come from, their lives governed by the whims of a tiny minority of wealthy and powerful rulers.
But what does it mean when those who are already free start to idolize liberty? It can become a weapon to keep other people down. For those of us who grew up with food in our bellies and a roof overhead and in a place where our skin color and theologies and names fit the norm, what does it mean to long for a world where we are independent? I’ve discovered how much I resist having my own selfish desires restrained by the needs and stories of others, especially those for whom the American Dream is only a myth.
My husband likes to say that we need the church to be our recovery group; we need it to be a place where we can share how tempted we are by the values of our world: upward mobility, progress, success, programs, achievements, individuality. I am drawn to these values because I want something to hold in my hand, something I can shove up to the sky and prove to God that I have done something, that I have made a difference, or that I have done well with what I was given. With my own clenched fingers I have saved the world. But the truth is, in this mindset I grow ever more lonely and ever more isolated, both railing against the American Dream and unable to listen to those who have always been creating paths of resistance to the dehumanization of others within the myth we all reside in.
But the truth is, in this mindset I grow ever more lonely and ever more isolated.
My story would have continued on the lonely path of the free if I hadn’t been jolted out of complacency by my neighbors, flesh-and-blood people who ministered to me, taught me, embraced me, confronted me, challenged me, ignored me, and even hated me. My neighbors saved me from myself and from a culture that taught me that at age nineteen I had all the right answers to the mysterious, consuming, burning love of God. They restrained me. Their love allowed me to take small, scared steps into a world that is more broken than I could possibly believe and a faith in the God who will redeem us all. I am and continue to be liberated from my role as the captor with intentions of gold. And God has used my neighbors to pierce through the value of autonomy in my own life.
I am now several years into a friendship with a neighbor, Maryan, who lives across the courtyard from me. She treats me like a younger sister. Recently she noticed the new-to-us car my husband had purchased, a tiny little shiny vehicle with good gas mileage and a cheap price tag. My husband was so proud of this car, a sign of frugality. But Maryan saw it differently. She had multiple children and no driver’s license. Going to the grocery store for her was an immense undertaking, especially since we live in what is technically a food desert. Ever since she left her home country she had been denied the simple pleasure of grocery shopping, of touching the food with her own hands. Her husband got together with the other men and shopped once a week, using the long lists she wrote as a guide for what the family would eat.
Maryan took one look at our little car and said, “What, did you not think of us when you bought this car?” My heart sank within me, desperate to explain myself, our decision to purchase something that was cheap and reliable and that suited our small family’s needs. Maryan shook her head. “For someone with a big heart,” she said, “you sure do like small cars.” We laughed together, but her honesty was a gift that cut several ways. She was pointing out that we come from different cultures, with different values. My first impulse is usually to take care of myself first. I do not view Maryan’s troubles as my own, as my responsibility in the way that families care for one another. I do not buy my food or my clothes or my cars in a way that connects me to the “inescapable network of mutuality.” I am lonely in my small car, saving on my gas bill, isolated as I hurtle down the streets to take care of my own personal errands. But friends who cook me good meals and tell the truth about their reality and mine help burst the bubble of my own making, time and time again.
Maryan took one look at our little car and said, “What, did you not think of us when you bought this car?”
I think about this as I eat yet another meal prepared for me by Maryan, as I watch her serve me and then prepare to share her bounty with another family. In apartments like hers, I have slowly watched my values change. It hasn’t been instant, as much as I would like it to be. And in many ways it still stings. We are never as autonomous as we would like to believe; someone usually pays for our freedoms, as so many have been trying to tell us. And the only way those of us obsessed with freedom can learn a new way of living depends on taking the time to become connected to the real teachers, our neighbors: the ones who feed us from the deep wells of their own experience. The ones who have the keys to truly liberating us all.