[In Syndication as: The New ‘Why’ That Will Restore America to Greatness] This country is going through an identity crisis. Perhaps, the whole world is.
This isn’t the identity crisis of gender, race, or sexuality that is currently breaking wide open as we mature into the awareness that nature offers abundant variety. This is an existential crisis of what we as a people collectively value—the meaning and purpose behind our lives that propels us toward an unknown future.
According to famous developmental theorist and psychologist, Erik Erikson (1902-1994), it’s a strong sense of identity that equips us to face what lies ahead with certainty and confidence. Let’s revisit American history to see how our whys have transformed over the years.
The original thirteen British colonies that made up the first states of a new nation fled England to escape European religious persecution—our first why. The signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1787 codified our political why. We were a fully empowered fledgling republic.
One of the difficulties that plagued our young country was financial. But, wise and skillful founding fathers, along with the grit of hard labor, voluntary and forced, began constructing a strong foundation that would come to underpin our nation’s success story.
Nationalism exploded after the War of 1812. We then busily focused on economic growth. Building the country and territorial expansion became our next why as we became the world’s leading agricultural nation.
Social reform turned our attention to the betterment of the quality of American life and the abolishment of slavery. The end of Civil War led a deeply wounded nation to seek to reconstruct a unifying why once more.
Industrial growth took our nation into the 20th century. Banking and corporate monopoly boom/bust cycles led to the Great Depression. Calls to end corruption, and for economic, political, and social reform grew louder. Our new why became the demand for opportunity, worker protections, and the reduction of poverty.
A global powerhouse post two world wars, America experienced an economic boon that spread wealth to more Americans than ever before. While our global why was the containment of communism, our domestic why became the pursuit of the American Dream.
The American Dream
The American Dream was first defined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
The ethos mirrors the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that, “all men are created equal” with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Upward mobility the heart and soul of the American Dream, equality naturally reemerged as a perilous wound now festering upon our nation’s soul.
Opportunity. Equality. Personal fulfillment. Or, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What has happened to the American Dream? Why has it failed us, or perhaps, have we failed it?
The perversion of the American Dream began with marketers redefining it to narrowly mean happiness, success, and human value are determined by one’s ability to consume. This message has been pumped into our cultural psyche by the media long enough that materialism became this nation’s last why—the spread of freedom our global why.
Though conservation and sustainability are gaining traction, societal structural limitations leave most of us with minimal ability to make significant contributions toward reflecting these emerging values. Collectively, we have just begun to recognize the need to change our current trajectory.
America Needs a New Why
America’s narrative isn’t just an economic one. The impetus behind this country was and continues to be the human spirit that desires to realize true freedom and express creative potential so that we not only survive, but thrive.
Many have already realized that materialism alone is not meaningful enough to sustain oneself, a nation, or even the human species. According to Erikson’s psychosocial theory, those left with an unresolved identity crisis and in a state of confusion may go on to seek a negative identity.
As identity crisis arises out of the teen years into adulthood, an increasing string of why-less youth are turning private pain into public violence. Withdrawing from mainstream society and looking for someone to blame, directionless individuals may also seek out social groups experiencing the same confusion, rather than going within or asking for help to find a new why.
Adding fuel to the fire, the same corrupt conditions that have existed for millennia inhibiting equality and opportunity are still in place though greatly improved in some areas of the world more than others. Our social, political, and economic constructs have hit their own walls of limitation. Resultant instability has humans continuously picking up the pieces of our lives.
Our New Why: Each Other
Fidelity (identity vs. role confusion) is the fifth stage of Erickson’s eight stages of human development ending in late adulthood. It’s time for humanity to evolve beyond our adolescent behavior and move into the next stage of growth: Love (intimacy vs. isolation).
Essentially, we must realize that we are one interconnected and interdependent family. If this is true, the only meaningful endeavor is to be in service to one another in one or more of an infinite number of ways that you would enjoy. If our species is to survive, our why must reflect this, therefore ending our existential crisis.
The Millennials, ages 18-33, are the first to recognize this. Millennial Impact Project data lists Gen Y as the first generation with a quantifiable desire to “do good” via involvement in social causes. Service to self is limited. We must ultimately end exclusivity that is a blight upon humanity.
What counteracts negative identification is a strong sense of community. Let us begin to heal today. Be the change you wish to see. Join with those already living and celebrating their new why. Not just for America, but for the world.