Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday's Musings: Ambition

Greer, AZ 2010, all rights reserved

In the last few weeks, I've been reading Ecclesiastes as well as Lewis, and I just finished chapter four the other day. I never ceased to be amazed at how relevant this book remains; chapter four opens with:
“Again I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power and their victims are helpless” (1). 
     It’s that time of the year in my classes when we’re studying the capitalist world system and the havoc wrought by free trade agreements, subsidies, and wage undercutting. We’ve watched interviews with migrants so desperate to get to the US where there is at least some economic opportunity for them to better the lives of their families that they are willing to risk injury, rape, or death again and again. We’ve traced how some have profited massively off of others’ exploitation, while the exploited remain trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, pain, and hopelessness. Oppression is everywhere still.
     And it begs the question of how I, living in the wealthiest nation on earth, can do anything to help, to change something, to ease the oppression, when it is built into the entire system in which I live that is so much larger than any individual. Should I strive to be successful if I know that my success is possible only because of someone else’s exploitation?
Another point is added: “Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless- like chasing the wind” (4). Ambition motivated by envy does seem very meaningless and unfulfilling. but what about ambition itself?
    I’ve never considered myself an incredibly ambitious person. I’m not very motivated by money- it’d be nice to be rich but that’s never really been my goal. There’s things I would love to do, but I didn’t pick the career path I’ve chosen for the salary I’ll get (in fact, it’s quite the opposite). Power isn’t the point either; the last thing I really want is to become some high politician. So this seems to preclude me from the ambitious category, at least in my mind.
     But I do want to be significant, to be remembered for something. I want to write a groundbreaking paper, to cause some sort of social change, to draw attention to something that matters. And this, I do think is ambition. And there’s another form of ambition at work in me. According to a friend (and I think she’s quite spot-on), I am highly motivated by ideals. I tend to be a martyr-type. I’d love to sacrifice my life, my work, my happiness for some greater good and be remembered for that. That’s what would make it all worth it. Sometimes the cause has to do with ministry and furthering the Kingdom. Sometimes it’s Chechnya or child soldiers or the rights of women. But I want to be remembered as driven, as passionate, as tenacious, as a crusader for the oppressed, as someone willing to sacrifice for something greater than themselves.
     This ambition is far from bad. I like to think that it will drive me to do great things, for the people around me, for people far away, for people created in the image of God who are suffering from injustice and oppression. I like to think that it will help to further the Kingdom, to bring hope to the hopeless and relief to the suffering. But over the last few months, I think I’ve learned a few things, namely that unchecked ambition, no matter how worthy of actions the ambition propels us to, is meaningless, as Solomon would say. It misses the point. Give in to it fully, and it will steal from us the abundant life that God wishes to give.
“I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, ‘Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?’ It is all so meaningless and depressing.
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken” (7-12).
    I know this passage is often read at weddings, but that’s not what I’m talking about here and I don’t think that’s exactly what Solomon’s talking about either. I think the point is companionship, community, and conviviality. The point is that ambition, when run amok, isolates us. If we throw all our energy into our work, into achieving that goal, into achieving our idea of success, we will alienate ourselves from everyone around us. And that alienation will prevent us from experiencing all the joys that God want to give to us, that best-possible life that he has for us. We were not created to live life alone; we were created to live with others, beside others. God, in his full character, is best reflected in our relationships with others. Jesus’ command to us was to love others and to love God (which we do by loving others). If I let my ambition, however good or holy it seems, go unchecked, I will not be living out that command at all.
     See, as much as I might think that I am loving people by serving the oppressed, by fighting for their cause, by working for them (and yes, I do think I am loving them in some way), that is not enough. It’s easy to love an idea or a group or a person you’ve never met. It’s much harder to love those whom you see day-in and day-out, those you see at their worst and best, those who see you at your worst and best. It’s much harder to have real relationships, to knock down the walls that you’ve built up for your own self-protection and let people see the sides of you that bring you shame, to love others despite their imperfections and tendencies to accidentally (or even purposefully) cause pain. The greater good, the oppressed far away, the picture of a starving child in Somalia is much easier, much safer, to love.
I am not saying that loving these is bad; it is completely necessary. We must give voices to the voiceless and work tirelessly for the cause of the oppressed. But to let that preclude us from the call to relationship that God places in all of our lives is to miss out on the entire point of life God is calling us to. And I have been so guilty of this.
     My plan for a good chunk of the last few years has been to devote my life to some sort of social justice, to preventing ethnic conflict, to helping rebuild war-torn nations and bring relief to devastated people. And this cause is good. I believe it is part of my call. But my plan for this looked like me, alone, traveling and working and wholeheartedly pursuing this goal at the cost of maintaining relationships. I planned to run solo through foreign nations and war zones as some sort of lone crusader in the cause of true justice. And this was not good.
     God, instead, has been slowly challenging my ambition, or better put, my control of my ambition. He has been chipping away at it with the quiet but persistent message that I was not created to run through my life alone. I was created to live in community, with others in real relationships. He has revealed the motives behind my often unchecked ambition: the fear of truly loving, of letting anyone close enough to hurt me, the unwillingness to trust anyone enough to really invest in them. This summer, I was given the opportunity to run around a foreign country alone, to start pursuing my goal, my dream. And I was finally able to see my ‘plan’ for what it was: empty, lonely, miserable, and meaningless. Completely isolated, without any sort of true relationship with others, I am frighteningly far from that which God created me to be. Ambition unchecked is an exercise in futility.
     Now I have to stop chasing the wind and turn back to the One who has held a plan for me from the beginning, to give up my blind ambition and surrender to that to which he has called me. My passions, my dreams, my ambitions are still to help the hopeless and oppressed. But I’m more open to pursuing them in unexpected ways, way that don’t fit with the grand martyr-like ‘plan’ I once held. Ambition, godly ambition, meaningful ambition, must be checked and balanced like all else in life by that which God has commanded us to do: love each other. This comes above all else and before all else.
     So I will not be running around the world alone fighting for what is right and good. It’s a nice ideal for a storybook, but not for truly living life. I still want to combat the evil and ugliness that comes with ethnic conflict, but the pursuit of this will not come at the expense of the relationships that God has placed in my life, at the expense of loving those around me. I don’t quire know what this will look like, but I can have perfect faith in one thing: that God, who controls all things, will continue to provide for me, step-by-step, and he will not let me go. And following him will lead to things much better than I could ever have possibly planned for.

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