“How can I tell Bob that my happiness streams from having wrenched a piece out of my life, a piece of hurt and beauty, and transformed it to typewritten words on paper? How can he know I am justifying my life, my keen emotion, my feeling, by turning it into print.”
– Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
For the last several months, I have been feeling very uncertain about my relationship to ambition. Although I continue to refer to myself as an ‘ambitious’ type of person (and I find that I’m attracted to people who share that same quality), this isn’t something I actually like about myself. My ambition – this insatiable desire I have to be a successful and influential person – is a drive that scares me. I wonder what lies underneath.
You see, I once spent every Sunday evening organizing my coming weeks into a spread sheet (I did this for almost 4 years). I’d write down every task I wanted to complete and then fall asleep exhausted the proceeding nights as I tried (and failed) to do it all. I missed meals. Was desirous for any and all updates. I’m afraid that some of my more intense behavioural traits could cause me to engage in these patterns of behaviour again. I mean, I already do occasionally.
I dropped everything last year to get away from this. I was tired. Mentally, physically, spiritually… I was exhausted.
And finally in the last few months of 2016 I had space — more space than I knew what to do with. So I de-activated my personal Facebook account in January, and created more space. A week ago, I finally did the same with my Instagram account; a couple of days ago, with my Twitter account.
I did this from a place of love. I wanted to experience my friends, loved ones (and myself) outside of an industry which aims to monetize not just our curiosity for one another’s private lives, but also our reminiscent desire for popularity. In the same way that the prospect of a new relationship can excite us with fantasies of lift – our selves soaring out of and above our own monotony – social media has always felt heavy to me, with only a promise of lightness.
Despite this internal disagreement, every ‘success story’ I still encounter brings with it a blaring suggestion of potential: if I really committed myself to the social media game –invested in a good camera, studied the trends — I could do well at it too.
All it takes is one viral view to change your life.
But it’s been in those moments (years) when I’ve been financially struggling – those months I just barely got by, or relied on credit to get me by — that I’ve lusted after this and other types of success with the most fervour. Social media can feel empowering. Some arguments that I’ve given in its defence: it’s teaching me how to express and then stand by my opinions, it’s teaching me to believe in my own beauty, and so photograph myself in that way, it’s connecting me to people I might not have met otherwise.
These are all potentially legitimate strengths…
but social media is also extremely addictive.
This is a tool we’ve been told is necessary for any entrepreneur or artist, and yet it alters the way we think, and is deliberately designed in a way that negatively impacts our mental health. Does this make anyone else feel uncomfortable?
Rather than spending my time building a following, I’d like to spend it getting better at what I do. I don’t want to be continually distracted from my desire to get better at what I love to do.
Most of these online profiles are incredibly invasive. They might occasionally connect me with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, but they also alter the way I behave in the world outside of them. Perhaps not everyone feels this way, but for me… these online worlds make me feel less nuanced. Something about them makes it easy for me to forget that I don’t have to reach very far to touch my own arm, and that the proceeding warmth and tingle feels really good.
What I want right now is to feel.
The space I have been creating in my life, allows for this… but it is scary. For amongst the many sensations that I have been feeling, anticipation and lack are two which have been painful.
Anticipation propels me into a fantasy where ‘now’ is only a space to endure, and where the internal drone of ‘move quicker’ blankets my eyes with white noise. This static, makes it difficult for me to not only feel the moments which lead to arrival, but also to fully experience the moments I’ve ‘arrived.’
And where do I most want to be?
Sitting across from someone I care about, or who I haven’t seen in a long time. On stage, sharing my poetry. In the middle of an engaging and thought-provoking discussion. Holding the hand of someone who’s touch makes my heart throb. Concurrently, I anticipate new beginnings and the next beat of my familiar life.
Through this, I’ve found that anticipation nearly always exists with the supposition that there are moments which must surpass others. That this sort of hierarchy is the best source of motivation to ensure that we keep going.
Which is why I’m an ambitious person, I guess. I want to be one of the ones who gets to experience the good bits of life, daily. I’m ambitious, because I want to live a fulfilling life.
Is this a bad thing?
“Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
When I write these reflections, I always look up the definition of the key words I’m working with. The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines ambition like this:
“desire and determination to achieve success.”
And it defines success like this:
“the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”
“the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.”
And finally it defines purpose like this:
“the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”
In this context (and this is how I’ve learned to use these words) ambition means to be fuelled by a desire to achieve fame, wealth and social status — something we should all want, and that we will get if we’re brave and go after our dreams. This is the reason we exist.
In other words, my desire for success is a sign post of my worth, and without either this success or my desire for it, my existence is meaningless.
But why is being the topic of conversation between two (or a room, country, world full of) people I’ve never met something I must, necessarily, be striving for?
To say that wealth and this form of success is available to anyone who works hard kind of feels similar to telling a woman that she was raped because of what she was wearing. I recognize that this is an extreme example, but with a social norm that consists of egregious debt (by design) and poverty, and a social climate that is violent and steaming with hatred, these statements make our safety and basic well being our sole responsibility. We’re each put into a position where we must prove our worth before our lives can be acknowledged as valuable and worth protecting.
We’re told that our beliefs about ourselves are the problem… we just need to learn how to see ourselves as successful people. ‘Self help’ books always lead there: Success. Success. Success.
We don’t challenge this suggestion, because it does make sense. Of course we should want our lives to matter, and of course we should be motivated to make our time here meaningful.
But the definition of success has changed.
The archaic definition of success is this:
“the good or bad outcome of an undertaking.”
This is a daily measure. This is showing up and trying your best. This is working to make your best even better as time goes on. This isn’t: bide your time, work hard, and eventually something big will happen and your life will change, and you will finally be worth something.
Those same self-help books tell us over and over again that our thoughts are powerful. I actually believe this… but shouldn’t we then question what we’re being told to use those powerful thoughts for?
THE OTHER SIDE
Once on the other side of
air carefully, for it is
not your breath
you move through, but the
earth’s, each turn you make
and every word a change
in life or lives ;
therefore to caution add
one clear intent
that nothing may be
random or disordered
and send your mind out
on that quiet journey
holding the vision in you
like a flame.
– Robin Skelton, Words for Witches
I believe my ambition (using the current definitions of the words I shared above) is nourished in the realm of fantasy.
In its landscape, I’m more likely to make decisions which prioritize anticipation-dulling entertainment, and less likely to make ones which prioritize my health and wellbeing. I believe that this fantasy causes me to neglect what needs my attention now.
And I’m not just talking about our planet. I’m also talking about my life.
Which is brief. Which will only ever happen once. And ‘once’ is not a blanket statement for my entire life. Once, is today.
I don’t want to spend my life waiting and working feverishly towards the achievement of a word whose present definition diminishes all the life that stands in its periphery. I don’t want to stand in its periphery. I don’t want to be ambitious if the loss of myself is what the manifestation of this word entails.
I don’t like that I identify with the word ‘ambitious’ only because I’d like to feel that my life matters, even if the only people that ‘know who I am’ are the ones who make me laugh over breakfast, who smile when I twist a balloon into a butterfly for them, and who listen over tea as I read them my favourite poems.
There are many ways I can use this life, but I’d like to learn how to experience it instead.
I’ll leave you with this:
Sure of my life and my death, I observe the ambitious and would like to understand them.
Their day is greedy as a lariat in the air.
Their night is a rest from the rage within steel, quick to attack.
They speak of humanity.
My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty.
They speak of homeland.
My homeland is the rhythm of a guitar, a few portraits, an old sword,
the willow grove’s visible prayer as evening falls
Time is living me.
– Jorge Luis Borges, from Boast of Quietness
Some resources you might find interesting:
Featured artwork by Eva Lewarne:
Eva Lewarne was born in Poland and came to Canada after completing high school. In Canada she attended U of T, then OCAD, majoring in Fine Art. Her last body of work Enigma and Illusion are influenced by her many years of meditation practice in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
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