The Cracker Barrel: Rethinking the American dream

Musings from Pequot Lakes resident Craig Nagel about the need to work together

Photo illustration / Shutterstock, Inc.

For the past several decades, we Americans have stressed the importance of personal freedom and in the process paid less and less attention to the value of working together.

Central to this way of thinking is the concept of the “self-made man.” According to this notion, financial and social success come to those who dedicate themselves to being winners, while those who don’t are simply losers.

Read more of 'The Cracker Barrel'

Through the years, the process of getting ahead became known as “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” a strangely absurd idea that true success required only your own energy and effort, without help from your family, friends, the government or anyone else around you.

Impossible as the image of overcoming gravity by lifting yourself up by your footwear might seem, over time it’s become a phrase that millions of people take seriously, and has come for many to serve as the basis of the American dream, and underlies our emphasis on individualism.

While it’s clear that there are differences among us, with some having more energy or intelligence or focus than others, and while it’s undeniable that some people have challenges that others don’t, most of us manage to be self-supporting.


But to think that any of us has attained great success purely as a result of our individual efforts is ridiculous.

We humans are, by nature, social creatures. Unlike many other species, we do not come fully equipped at birth. It takes a newborn human several years to grow capable of surviving on its own.

Look back at your own life and think of all the help you had growing up. Parents, teachers, pastors, priests, coaches, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and cousins and grandparents, neighbors, friends — the list goes on and on.

Others taught you how to walk and talk and (hopefully) to say “please” and “thank you.” Others helped you understand how you fit into the world and how to get along.

They showed you how to read or play the saxophone or bake a cake or drive a tractor or do a hundred other things, and praised you when you did well and scolded you when you didn’t.

To imagine that you attained maturity and success all on your own is not only enormously inaccurate, but also insulting to the countless number of people who helped you along the way.

The bottom line of all this is that we get by with the help of one another. The ability to cooperate and work together is central to our success as individuals and to our well-being as a nation.

It seems to me that we need to rethink the American dream and in the process try to figure out ways to regain a shared sense of purpose. The fact that we each have our own opinions about what matters should not keep us from discussing those opinions and trying to find points of agreement.


Those men and women in the public spotlight, whether politicians or business owners or entertainers or whatever, do us real harm by stressing our differences and fanning the flames of distrust and division and outright hatred.

The notion of breaking the bonds that hold us together is a sinister one — one that those who have gone before us firmly rejected.

Life is forever presenting us with new problems and new opportunities, and how we react to them determines the nature and quality of our lives.

As we struggle to define and hammer out the newest details of the great American dream, I pray we will remember the wisdom of an ancient warning, first spoken some 2,600 years ago and quoted by John Dickinson, one of our founding fathers: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

Craig Nagel color.jpg
Craig Nagel, Columnist

Opinion by Craig Nagel
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads
Members Only