In Pursuit of the American Idea... and a Haiku

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Atlantic Monthly has published a special issue with over three-dozen writers contributing short essays on "the future of the American idea" (and the challenges to it).

Among those contributing to the issue: John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Justice Stephen Breyer, Cornel West, Nancy Pelosi, and, side by side, End Times author Tim LaHaye and atheist author Sam Harris.

And they are throwing a big party in New York tonight (a thousand people is big, right?). As part of the festivities, they've asked a few of us to say briefly weigh in on various aspects of the topic.

For reasons that are still unclear -- sadism, perverse sense of humor, the pleasure of hearing a Greek talking like the blind monk on Kung Fu -- they have asked me to offer up my take in the form of a haiku.

After an email exchange (Haiku? Me? Are you sure?), I said yes and have come up with a collection of 17-syllable impressionistic reflections (5/7/5) on the American idea. Here they are. Let me know which one you like best in the comments section -- or suggest one of your own.

Founding Father George
Famously could not tell lies
George Bush: not so much

Founding Alchemists
Spinning societal gold
From dreams of freedom

Grand experiment
Effervescent promises
Happiness pursued

Our Founding Fathers
Said to pursue Happiness
We seek latest buzz

American Idea
Unlimited Promises
In need of repair

American Idea
A fizzy mix of freedom
Are we the hiccup?

And here is my essay:

Pursuit of Happiness

Watching the news in our celebrity-choked culture, it's easy to feel that the grand experiment envisioned by our Founding Alchemists -- turning a fizzy mix of freedom and responsibility into societal gold -- has spun wildly out of control. The promise of unlimited opportunity has given way to rampant narcissism and misplaced perfectionism (and the disappointed self-loathing that inevitably follows the search for a flawless self).

But isn't this the logical result of the path the Framers set us on? After all, from the beginning, America has been dedicated to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," hasn't it? So why not lust after fame and Botoxed beauty and hedge fund riches and size 0 jeans? Thomas Jefferson told us to, damn it! Only he didn't. The signers of the Declaration of Independence assumed that some truths did not have to be proved -- that some truths were, to borrow a phrase, self-evident. It was self-evident, for example, that the happiness to be pursued was not the blissed-out buzz induced by drugs or shopping sprees. It was the happiness of the Book of Proverbs: "Happy is he that has mercy on the poor." It was the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good.

Happiness today has been reduced to instant gratification. We search for "happy hours" that leave us stumbling through life; we devour "Happy Meals" that barely nourish the body; we believe the ads that tell us that there is a pill for every ill, and that happiness is
Just a tablet away.

But there is good news. All around the country, individuals are choosing to redefine the pursuit of happiness in ways much closer to the original American idea. More young people are volunteering than ever before, and more and more people, young and old, are including service to others in their busy lives. There are, of course, days when the travails of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris dominate the news, but the American idea, embedded deep in our cultural DNA, is inspiring us to pursue a much less shallow happiness.

Don't forget to vote for the haiku you prefer -- or to post one of your own.