Like many people around the world, I recently watched and really enjoyed the movie Top Gun Maverick. In it, we see the main character, Maverick, experience what we might call a redemptive arc. He starts off as a villain of the story, in the sense that the son of his former partner, Goose, sees him as an enemy because of the past accident in which his father died and his own story of underachievement. I don’t want to completely ruin the movie for anyone who hasn’t yet watched it, which must be a small number of people given its success, but what we see through the movie is a redemptive arc centered around Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, and his partner’s son, Bradley Bradshaw. Some of the most successful blockbuster movies feature redemptive stories inspired by books, such as The Lord of the Rings series. Even other recent blockbusters like Spider-Man: No Way Home are filled with redemptive arcs for many of the characters.
We’re used to seeing redemptive arcs in movies, books, and other forms of story. As humans, our world revolves around stories, we enjoy listening to stories and telling stories; and stories form the cultural fabric of our societies. And in that sense, redemptive arcs are often used to show that while humans are fallible—we miss opportunities, take wrong paths, and more broadly just make mistakes—we also have the capacity to learn from our mistakes, internalize lessons, and change directions. We can correct our mistakes and make amends for our wrongs, which can be described as redemptive arcs in our own lives.
Redemptive arcs can be about individuals, groups of people, or even—as some religions teach—human souls as part of a redemptive arc with God, in the ultimate sense of redemption. A redemptive arc is inspiring, and at its best, it can also exemplify a cultural guidepost for entire generations and civilizations for which to strive.
The Redemptive Arc of the American story
The United States is uniquely positioned, from a historical perspective, to represent the ultimate redemptive arc when it comes to the story of a nation. The American Dream itself is a redemptive arc. It unifies us in our diversity and represents the journey of many people in pursuit of better, richer, and fuller lives.
The country was founded amid the grave injustice of slavery, and even though it wasn’t the main engine driving the founding of our nation, it represented a stain on the promise of equality for all. In that sense, it’s a story that starts with the negative act of our main character, the United States of America, but then, as the story goes on, events unfold to form part of a transformative redemptive arc.
The American Dream is not about American exceptionalism in any partisan way, or as an end state to be achieved with finality. The American Dream is about the promise of an America that can live up to its ideals, and it’s a promise to its citizens that they can pursue better, richer, and fuller lives regardless of where they started in life. It’s the journey and not the destination that characterizes the American Dream and motivates people to pursue it. And the journey itself is what many redemptive arc stories are all about. It is in the Declaration of Independence where the story that leads to our redemptive arc truly begins.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the words that most people associate with the founding document. They are similar to what nowadays we would associate with the American Dream: “richer, better, and fuller lives.” But the promise of all people created equal is what resonates more with our redemptive arc story; a story that begins with that promise, but that for a myriad of reasons (reasons that historians have better detailed explanations of) was a promise that did not fully take hold in the beginning of the nation’s history. Pardon me if I skip many important milestones and scenes from the story, but I would like to dive right in and jump to some main characters that can more fully exemplify the redemptive arc in our story.
An exemplary character in this story is Frederick Douglass, one of the most exceptional Americans in history. A slave that escaped the horrors of slavery and went on to become one of the most influential orators, abolitionists, but perhaps more importantly, a true American original. Douglass endured many of the injustices that characterized the fraught beginnings of our American story but was still hopeful that the American Dream would have its redemptive arc. He longed for America to live up to its promise of equality and said as much in many of his writings. In his autobiography, Douglass details what he had gone through as a slave and the conditions people lived through in that dark period in American history. He focuses on those aspects in his epic 1852 speech, “What to a slave is the fourth of July?” and details many of the inconsistencies and injustices in the American Dream story. However, he starts and ends his speech with hope:
. . . [N]otwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
Douglass appreciated the fact that the Constitution and the institutions of America could still, if truthfully interpreted, give way to a redemptive ending to the story. Around the same time as Douglass was writing and speaking, another character in the redemptive arc story of the United States was making an impression: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln led the country through a period of its history when many of the wrongs were starting to be addressed. In his Gettysburg Address he summarized the redemptive nature of the American Dream and the American people:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to that great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Through those words Lincoln continued to stress the journey that the American Dream and American ideals of equality represented. It furthered the continued redemptive narrative of the American Dream. One hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. also professed that his dream was of an America that would redeem itself to the point where the promises of the Declaration of Independence would be achieved for every citizen of the United States. In his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech he remarked:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, Black men as well as White men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
. . . So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
Since the times of Douglass, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. many milestones have been reached in that particular redemption story. We can include many other characters in the story such as Barack Obama, John Lewis, and Tim Scott who, in his latest book, so eloquently put forth the same idea of the redemptive arc. Can we say that the promise of equality and this specific redemptive arc has been 100% achieved? Some would say yes and many would say not yet, but the vast majority of people will not deny a great deal of progress in many respects and a clear redemptive arc despite some lingering challenges. And in that sense, this specific redemptive arc of the American Dream continues to move positively forward, and can be thought of as a unifying narrative across generations throughout the history of the country.
The State of the American Dream
What would the creator of the term “American Dream,” James Truslow Adams, think about the promise of that dream? Is the American Dream alive and well today? Is it an end state or a journey?
This is Adams’s definition:
[The American Dream] is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man and woman, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
In that definition we see more of a journey than a destination, more a pursuit than an end state. But what does the data say about the dynamic nature of the American Dream?
Recent research on the American Dream shows that many people believe the American Dream is alive and well; more than 80% of people say that they have either achieved the American Dream or are on their way to achieving it. That is a positive and hopeful sign. In the same survey, most people report that they have the same or more opportunities than their parents had and that their children will have more opportunities than them. In particular, when we analyze the results by race, Blacks are the group that is most positive about having more opportunities compared to their parents, and their kids having more opportunities than them. I believe that this is cause for celebration and one that represents at least further step in that redemptive arc of the American Dream.
In the same survey, freedom of choice and having a good family life were the most common aspects that people find essential to the American Dream. Those answers represent more of a journey than an end state. Freedom of choice on how to live and a good family life are dynamic and represent a journey in the human experience. Those aspects represent a “fuller life” in Adams’ definition, which, in the context of a country of 340 million people, could represent 340 million unique stories of redemption and aspiration.
When asked about becoming wealthy or owning a car or a home, people did not report those things being as essential to the American Dream as they did the other two. So, in that sense the more static, material, and end-state elements of the American Dream are not as relevant to our redemptive story.
There are numerous examples of redemptive arc stories and characters that can be thought of as part of the American story. I chose to highlight the specific story of slavery and race relations but there are many different story lines and characters that have formed their own redemptive arcs.The specific pursuit of a fuller life has many interpretations and represents countless stories across many different walks of life, industries, creative endeavors, and much more. That is the beauty of the American Dream, that it is a unifying narrative that can continuously inspire Americans to be hopeful, aspirational, and agentic.
The Redemptive Arc in Modern Times
Is the country redeemed and the story concluded? Maybe not yet, but momentous progress has been made, and maybe in the context of a nation, a redemptive arc is never fully achieved as there is always room for improvement—and even more so for a country as young as the United States, which is only turning 250 years old at the middle of this decade. Another reason we shouldn’t think that our arc is fully complete is that, as soon as we internalize a final victory we can become complacent. Rather, this amazing dream is still an ongoing experiment that we need to cherish, build on, and improve. And America is one of the few countries where we can do it, as the national ethos of the American Dream is precisely about aspiration, achievement, and progress.
Do our current politics take us there? Given the polarizing nature of our current politics the most likely answer is no. But the American project was never about politics; it was about the ideals of flourishing and freedom. And those are clearly the fundamental pillars of the American Dream. We got to where we are in spite of politics, not because of them, and we will do it again and continue improving.
The lack of trust in the American Dream and in some cases the valid criticisms of our ever-changing nature should not fuel an anti-American, anti-human, anti-progress agenda for the country. Instead, the promise of the American Dream should motivate us to be our best selves and continue to seek better, richer, and fuller lives. Rather than feeling discouraged, we should feel inspired and hopeful. The redemptive arc of the American Dream is a part of all of our stories, past and present, and into the future if we continue let those ideals be our guide.