Revisiting India’s Fascination with the American Dream

I found the good life but it was not in the American dream. When I was two years old, my parents left the land they loved so that my sister and I could have opportunities they did not have. We reaped the rewards of their courage and never knew the ache of hunger they felt as children. For that alone, I am deeply grateful for their decision and would not have wished for anything different. But as a pastor in New York City I find myself cautioning people against the promises that brought my parents here.

Today Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the United States, according to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with more than 4 million Indian-origin residents in the country, and many of them arrive with the American dream in mind.

These days the American dream represents many things. To some it is the promise that we can accomplish anything we want with grit and determination. Others hear a promise that our circumstances are no hindrance to the comfort, security, and power that we hope will be ours.

The common thread in nearly all the various definitions is the lie that we are illimitable—that achieving the dream of more comfort, security, and power will lead us to the good life.

To be sure, comfort, security, and power are morally neutral. Our hope in them and ungodly use of them is what prevents us from experiencing the life that God defines as good.

But many of us cannot see how this applies to us. We do not consider them real temptations to overcome. We never imagine that the most formidable foe in our spiritual lives can be the things that make us feel invincible—the things that dull our senses to our need for God.

We never imagine that the most formidable foe in our spiritual lives can be the things that make us feel invincible—the things that dull our senses to our need for God

These things can hinder us from experiencing the poverty of spirit and dependence on God that Jesus said was vital to blessedness—the good life.

Facing Our Temptations with Jesus

Jesus was no stranger to these temptations. Before the whispers of comfort, security, and power ever reached our ears, they were whispered into his ears. The Gospels record a time when Satan tried to deceive Jesus in the wilderness.

When Jesus was famished from fasting, Satan tempted him with comfort:

“Turn these stones into bread”

with security:

“Throw yourself down for God will protect you”

and with power:

“I will give you the kingdoms of this world if you worship me.”

In each temptation Jesus knew the truth—there is more to life than the comfort of bread. We live by the words of God. He knew God did not need to be tested in order to be trusted for security—his word is enough. And he knew idolatry is not a price worth paying in the quest for power.

When we realise we have an advocate who was tempted in every way just as we are except without sin, we may be disarmed long enough to admit that if Jesus was tempted with the promise of these things, perhaps we are too. We may realise with Jesus, we can face our temptations, see past their empty promises, and discover the ultimate comfort, security, and power that is found through dependence on God.

The Joy in the Rising

At this point you may wonder if I have minimised the crisis that many immigrants face, as if their desire to leave pain, insecurity, and vulnerability is an illegitimate one.

It is not.

I have the honour of pastoring immigrants seeking asylum as refugees in the United States. I have learned much from their courage, sacrifice, and resilience. I have also observed their greatest joy was not the acquisition of more comfort, security, and power but in possessing Jesus Christ.

But immigrants who chase the American dream as a quest for joy ultimately chase the wind. The moments of bliss they experience is a mist that vanishes. They do not find joy in achieving their dreams, but in the rising.

New York Times best-selling author and social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, calls this the adaptive principle. Simply put, our baseline level of happiness adapts to our circumstances. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he cites studies that reveal how lottery winners, despite their newfound fortune and paraplegics despite their misfortune, adapted to their new circumstances. Any subsequent happiness they experienced was only in the improvement of their new position.

“The lottery winner buys a new house and a new car, quits her boring job, and eats better food. She gets a kick out of the contrast with her former life, but within a few months the contrast blurs and the pleasure fades. The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels. The winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life. The winner takes them for granted and has no way to rise any further,” he writes.

Furthermore, he says, “At the other extreme, the quadriplegic takes a huge happiness loss up front. He thinks his life is over, and it hurts to give up everything he once hoped for. But like the lottery winner, his mind is sensitive more to changes than to absolute levels, so after a few months he has begun adapting to his new situation and is setting more modest goals. He discovers that physical therapy can expand his abilities. He has nowhere to go but up, and each step gives him…pleasure. . . .”

We do not have to win the lottery or break our necks to understand this principle. Even those of us who post on social media know what it is like to get a surprising number of likes on a post, only to witness that number become the new baseline for our self-esteem. Anything beneath that feels as if we are being forgotten and anything more feels like adulation.

Therefore, it is not surprising that immigrants who move to the United States on a quest for more comfort, security, and power discover that it is never enough. They need ever more comfort, security, and power in order to experience the joy of rising. It is chasing the wind.

Finding the Good Life

Jesus shows us it is possible to experience the good life—a blessedness that does not depend on our circumstances, but on faith in God and his promises. In fact, we can learn the secret of being content in every circumstance—when we are brought low or abound, whether we are well-fed or hungry, in abundance or in need. Indeed, we can endure all things through Christ who gives us strength (Phil. 4:11-13).

Is there any greater comfort than his love for us, any greater security than his eye upon us, or any greater power than his Spirit who lives within us? In this way we need not travel to distant lands—whether to India or the United States—to find the good life. In Christ, it is already here.