An American Success Story?

I spent the weekend in (rainy) Northern California, invited to speak by the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC) on the topic “Beyond Tiger Parenting: How Missional Moms and Dads Create Truly ‘Successful’ Families.” The raindrops did not deter people from attending, thankfully, so we had a wonderful time of thinking together through the challenges of parenting in today’s culture. We especially took time to examine the success narrative that so many of us adopt without even realizing it–that the only right way to raise kids is to get a great job and live in a safe neighborhood with top-notch schools, then encourage your kids to be involved in every activity under the sun so they can get into a great college and get a lucrative job, thereby enabling the entire cycle to self-perpetuate.

But is this what “success” is really all about? Achieving “the American Dream” which is typically defined by the accumulation of the right amount of material possessions coupled with the proper level of prestige and fame?

I told a story at the ISAAC event to help illustrate what can happen when you live for the American Dream. The story is actually that of my father, who came to America in the 1960s with little more than the $100 in his pocket. He was on a student visa to study economics and ultimately earned his Ph.D. from Washington State University. Along the way, he met and married my mom, became a U.S. citizen, then received a job offer from the federal government, where he worked in the Dept. of Agriculture as a researcher until he retired after nearly 30 years of service.

Meanwhile, my mom had run a number of small businesses, and the combination of their two incomes meant that they could afford to buy a house in a middle-class neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland (well-resourced community, excellent schools). After two decades, they had saved and earned enough to buy their dream house in Potomac, Maryland (see photo), land of lawyers, doctors, senators and former basketball stars (Patrick Ewing of Georgetown University/NY Knicks fame lived down the street). They were able to sell that dream house for double what they paid for it at the height of the housing bubble, then used that money to buy their retirement house in Orange County, CA, paid in full. They currently reside there, playing golf four times a week at their country club and living a restful life in contrast to decades of hard and even at times, backbreaking work.

I think most people would think of my parents as being an example of an American success story. The great irony is that if you ask my dad what he thinks about what he has accomplished in his life, he will tell you that he feels as though he is far from successful.

I used to never understand his perspective. I’d say, “Dad, you live in a nearly million dollar piece of property in Orange County. Especially considering where you started, how on earth can you think of yourself as not being successful?”

But now, as I think about the intersection of his assessment with his pursuit of the American Dream, I can see his reasoning better. He thinksthat he is not successful because he hasn’t made as much money as other people, or he hasn’t achieved as many accolades as other people, or done anything that others would call extraordinary. Never mind that this man is a North Korean refugee who fled the country at age 13, was separated from his mother during the chaos of that time and never saw her again, and came to this country with nothing but hopes for the future and the $100 in his pocket. In his mind, he has not done enough.

When the American Dream is your life’s driving force, you will always end up feeling unfulfilled. There will always be someone who earns more, does more, is more talented, or wins more awards and prizes. There are other stories to embrace in one’s life than the same “pursuit of happiness” that drives the lives of most Americans. On one hand, I’m grateful for the pull of that Dream, otherwise my dad would never have come to the U.S., and my life would look completely different. But on the other hand, I wish he could be free from the fallacy that there is only a certain way to think about success. In my mind, he is a success. And not because he lives in an expensive house in the O.C.

How many of us think of success as defined in culturally-driven ways? What are the ways in which you strive to live out a different “success narrative” in your family? I’d love to hear your thoughts as always!

16 Comments on “An American Success Story?

  1. Hi Helen, I think that perhaps the ‘original’ American Dream your father started out with was more noble and simplistic than the American Dream of today. I think the boundaries and ideals got shifted and complicated by a post-modern, secular worldview that for the most part has lost its Biblical faith.

    Being an immigrant to North America myself I constantly feel exhausted by the materialism and lack of simplicity here in this consumer driven society…. one person’s dream can so easily become another’s nightmare, right?

    Many blessings!

  2. Great thoughts Helen. Challenging the very things that we center our lives on, of course the danger of pursuing “success” is that most of it is good stuff (job, education, vacations, sports, etc…). Thanks for causing us to think deeply about the way we are living and what it is that we are chasing!

  3. I think back to Nikki’s response at Synergy. The great problem facing the American church is materialism. The “American Dream” has tip-toed in to all of our hearts and has inflitrated the church in such ways that we are self absorbent, tight fisted, and therefore, ineffective to give and serve in ways that would be pleasing to our Lord. Sounds to me like you have another book brewing inside of you.”

  4. Like Natasha, I have been challenged by Synergy. We truly have been infiltrated to the core of our beliefs with a notion that more is truly what is to be pursued. Far greater is the giving of our lives for others, far more sacrificial and far less recognized. I wonder if it is so we can be glorified by what we have that we pursue such things?

  5. Natasha and Lori, thanks for the reminders of the messages we heard at Synergy! I had not even recalled Nikki’s point so thanks for bringing it up, Natasha. I am feeling increasingly convicted on these ideas about what it means to give and live sacrificially. I am feeling more and more the reality that my days on earth are numbered–as all of ours are–and that I want them to count for something more than myself. Good points, both of you! I really appreciate your participating in the discussion!

  6. I’ve recently been thinking about how “successful” we view people. Within myself, particularly within the Christian world, I don’t feel very successful at all. I think the Christian marketing machine leads to me feeling insignificant. We pastor a small church, have not published books or released CD’s, so to some we are viewed as unsuccessful. Years back, my husband was talking with someone who was (and still is) the CEO of a large Christian worship recording company. He said that someone could write the worlds best worship song, but if they didn’t look the part, or more importantly, be part of the right church (I.E. A well known church) then that song will never be picked up by a large label like his own. It all comes down to how much money something will make!

    Materialism and big dreaming, like the American dream, is very present within Christianity. It’s so hard not to get sucked in and feel like you are not achieving because you are not “someone”. I’ve been reminding myself that what God views as successful is very different to how the world, more so the western world, views it.”

  7. This sort of goes along with what we have been discussing this in our adult Sunday school class. What the world defines as success, is not really what God defines as success. Our “treasures” are to be stored up in Heaven, not on earth. Yet somehow, this idea has been reversed and the “American Dream” mentality has slipped in and taken over the Christian community. I know my family and I are guilty of this and struggle with this on a daily basis. We are bombarded with materialism, status quo, and ‘keeping up with the Jones”. With God’s help and simply acting upon what the BIble already calls us to do, we CAN overcome…and to God alone be all the glory. Thank you for sharing your thoughts :)

  8. Loving this discussion! Pauline, we are having a “Treasure Principle” discussion here:

    Randy Alcorn’s “The Treasure Principle” is a very small, cheap, and simple book that gives us a biblical look to approach these challenges. I highly recommend the read to all.

    Blessings, Natasha”

  9. Pingback: #RacialRec: Voice # 3: Asian American ~ Helen Lee «

  10. Jana–yes, I think you are right; at first, my parents’ desires to immigrate to the U.S. were based on their deep wish that they and their children could have a better life than what they were experiencing at the time in Korea. But once they came here, I think it was difficult to avoid the cultural forces pushing them to define “success” in particular ways. To this day, as much as my parents love me, at the same time I know they do not see me as “successful” as my brother, who works in the finance world and earns more than I likely ever will! I feel like I am on a journey through which God is helping me release my own perspectives on this question of what success looks like…and it’s been very freeing so far. =) Thanks for your comment!”

  11. Thanks, Michael; personally, I am struggling with how to encourage fellow suburbanites on what it means to pursue God’s narrative of success, and how living in well-resourced communities (such as the one I currently reside in!) fits into His story, which seems to be about the exact opposite values: making sacrificial decisions, decreasing so He can increase, giving/selling what we have to pursue Him with all we are. Increasingly, the longer I live in this community, the harder it is to reconcile with God’s success narrative. I’m wrestling with what all this means for us! I sense we will have more discussions along these lines in the future, either on the website or here! Thanks for visiting!

  12. Lyn, I think you have hit the nose on the head by what you said: “what God views as successful is very different to how the world, more so the western world, views it.” How right you are! We need to start celebrating stories of faithfulness in the church, and not only stories of success as defined here in the U.S.–big numbers, whether that means church size or book sales or any other measure of “success” we tend to use here! We need more heroes of the faith to be our role models for the ways in which they sacrifice and die to themselves every day, versus paying all our attention to the “big names” in Christianity. Not that those big-name leaders can’t teach us things–of course they can–but their ministry is no more significant in the eyes of God than what you and your husband is doing at your church. Thanks so much for sharing here!”

  13. Lyn, you and your husband only need to attract that one visitor: Jesus Christ.

    But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)

    Everyone is poor in God’s eyes, for no one is rich enough to buy salvation and eternal life.(See Acts 8:19-24) The only accepted currency in heaven are the blood of Jesus and persistent faith in Him. Of course, faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ. This faith, thus can only come through prayer and much waiting on God.

    Let’s see how God honor these “unsuccessful” people in the best selling book, the Holy Bible:

    -the poor widow who took care of Elijah

    -the poor widow who offered 2 small coins to God

    -the woman who had spent all she had on doctors to stop her bleeding

    -the woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped His feet with her hair

    -the disciples of Jesus who spread the Gospel to all the world

    Regardless of the size, I will only consider a church, a house of God, to be successful if God can be found there. The latest revelation to me is this:

    Psm 127:1 Unless Yahweh builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless Yahweh watches over the city, the watchman guards it in vain.

    Will God not fix everything if He shows up in His House of Prayer?

    May God be our glory. May God be with us.”

  14. What a beautiful comment, Henry! And I think you are absolutely right, God is not interested in the measures that we are often interested in; the biblical narrative is full of the ways in which he worked through the most unlikely of people to achieve his purposes. If anything, the more “unsuccessful” the person seemed, the easier it was to attribute the result to the Lord’s hand! Jesus himself was unconcerned with the size of his ministry and focused on a handful of men, a strategy that today might be considered ludicrous but ultimately changed the world. May we continue to fix our eyes upon Jesus and ask him to shape our vision for what to pursue and how to pursue it. Thanks for participating in the discussion!”

  15. Believe me, Pauline, I struggle too! I think we all do–but the fact that we recognize this temptation exists makes it easier to resist it. But you make a great point, we need the Spirit of the Lord to watch over, sustain and help us as we navigate these tricky waters. And I think it helps to find people with the same sort of sensitivity to these cultural forces, to keep us accountable as we journey through life together. I appreciate your input!

  16. Great suggestion, Natasha! I have heard of that book and need to read it! Thanks for the reminder!

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