It was a long time ago now, but I clearly remember the day one of my seminary professors came into the classroom, put his lecture notes and books down on the lectern with a thud, scanned the room with an intense and serious look on his face, and asked: “How many of you are ambitious?” and then waited for those of us who would admit to such a thing to raise our hands. None of us did, of course. After all, we were in seminary and whatever else we knew or didn’t know about ministry, we had sense enough to know this much: if we were ambitious we had to hide it under a veneer of modesty and humility. We all sat on our hands while our teacher continued to stare intently at us. Then, he said: “You are all lying. If you are alive and breathing, you are ambitious for something. Ambition, by itself, can be good, or it can be bad; it all depends on what or whom you are ambitious for.”
Obviously, it was one of those moments of truth I’ve never forgotten. All these years later, his voice is still a part of my conscience: “Be honest with yourself, Guy; you are ambitious. But are you ambitions for the right things?” Along with his voice, surprisingly enough, is the voice of actress Lily Tomlin’s, who once admitted: “I always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific.” We all have ambition. We all want to do something, to be somebody. But, specifically, what and who?
Our word ambition has interesting origins. It comes from the Latin word ambio, and had its first home in the world of Roman politics. Candidates for office walked—ambled—their way toward Rome, campaigning for the support of voters. At its core, then, ambition is the drive toward position, influence, and power. More broadly, it is the boldness to take risks for the sake of a purpose, the will to work toward achievement, the energy to pursue a goal, and the tenacity to push through obstacles.
The ingredients of ambition—drive, boldness, will-power, energy and tenacity—serve Donald Trump in his deal-making, celebrity-seeking, and money-accumulating. They also serve an inner-city teacher in her attempts to convince young people that she cares for them even if many of the other adults in their lives don’t, to cut through bureaucratic red-tape so that her students have books, supplies, and a decent lunch, and to resist the cynicism which threatens her commitment. Ambition—like intelligence and talent—can be competitive or cooperative, selfish or altruistic, ethical or unethical. The issue is not ambition; it is where we place it, where it takes us, how we use it, and what it does to us.
In his chilling novel, The Devil’s Own Work, Alan Judd tells the tale of a prominent author who got his talent from a shadowy transaction with an unseen but tyrannical muse. “Edward had every success an ambitious man could wish; it was the cost that got him. Of course, when he purchased that particular ticket, he had no idea—which of us could have?—of what compound interest can mean over a lifetime” (p. 3). What does the object of your ambition cost you? Are your dreams driving you into a nightmarish existence? What are you giving in exchange for your achievement, your success, your image? Is your level of consumption consuming your spirit? Is your lifestyle costing you your life?
The remarkable Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once said: “If you want to identify me [to know who I am], ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” (in My Argument with the Gestapo. NY: W. W. Norton, 1975, pp. 160-161). So, what are we living for? The truth is in the details. What does an honest look at them—how we spend our time, our money, our attention and our energy—tell us about our ambitions, about the kinds of people we want to be, and about the purposes for which we are spending our lives?