“Ambition is necessary to accomplishment. Without an ambition to gain an end, nothing would be done. Without an ambition to excel others and to surpass one’s self there would be no superior merit. To win anything, we must have the ambition to do so.
Ambition is a good servant but a bad master. So long as we control our ambition, it is good, but if there is danger of our being ruled by it, then I would say in the words of Shakespeare, `Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.”
In case you haven’t read the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House on the Prairie” books seven times over, this is Laura’s high school essay on “Ambition”, found, I think, in These Happy Golden Years.
It came to mind last week when the kids and I went to the library. I have volunteered to read for a story time at the local library once a month, and this was the first month. Not too ambitious – just once a month. But the Summer Reading Program is getting started and Lulah signed up. Each child sets a goal for how many books they would like to read over the course of the summer…
“One hundred!” Lulah said immediately. She reconsidered quickly when she saw the surprised look on my face. We took the opportunity to do some quick calendar math and figured out how many books she would need to read each day to reach that goal. Scaling back to 80 seemed reasonable, but still quite ambitious. I’m proud of her ambition. It tells me something about who she is now.
Everyone has some kind of ambition. Some people have more than others, and that’s OK. We need all kinds of people to keep the world in working order. For some, the highest ambition may be just to love and be loved. Maybe a simple roof overhead and enough food is as far as some can imagine. Goodness knows there are heights to scale and depths to plummet. We try to define ourselves by these aspirations and accomplishments.
Where’s your personal jet? How large is your home? How many people do you employ? How many “friends” do you want on your Facebook page? How many shots of liquor can you hold? How many chickens do you want in your flock? How many acres of woodland or green pasture on your farm? What makes you want to strive?
Ambition comes in varieties as particular as fingerprints and eyebrows.
When we first moved into our homestead, nearly ten years ago now, we were fairly over-ambitious. On this little three and a half acres, we boarded a milk cow. Our neighbor was interested in a share of the milk, so we walked her over to greener pastures each day for grazing, then brought her and the calf home each night, to the little lot that we carved from the woods to hold them.
Our foray into growing for market was similar. For seven years we developed a small CSA operation. We maximized the space available to us, took care of it, and worked hard. The CSA paid off the very reasonable owner-financed loan we had going on our property. Then it provided for our family. But it also burned us out, and it was apparent that it would also burn our property out if we didn’t stop. Something had to give, and it was up to us to decide what it would be. The CSA has been consciously slowed to a trickle, but the garden is still huge.
We’ve learned a lot about sustainable ambitions in the last ten years. I don’t suspect we’ll stop learning.
My Fellow Man does not harbor any appetite for a mansion on the hill or fancy cars (though I’m sure he wouldn’t mind driving some fast machine that I don’t ever intend to afford). The energy that he was throwing into the market garden has not changed direction – it has only focused more keenly. This year we are trialing seven (yes, 7) varieties of field corn. That doesn’t count the 2 varieties of sweet corn and Flour corn planted in quantities for actual eating (or the 10-plus tomato varieties, 6 types of winter squash, and 4 different cucumbers). Those are just the trials – a bit here, and a bit there. He’s looking for what grows well, and what works for us in the kitchen. I guess it would be fair to say his ambitions have a lot to do with feeding his family, and making a good LIFE.
Nothing unusual there.
I’d wager that, ultimately, that’s what almost everyone is after. Jet planes, high-status jobs, and large houses are accessories that quickly become worthless in the face of a long-term illness or food shortage. That’s where sustainable ambitions come into it.
What good is material acquisition that robs us of natural resources which are key to our quality of life? What good is a beautiful acre of garden if you break your body and destroy the soil in the process of its creation? What are all of our ambitions really for? Laura, and Shakespeare, were right, I believe. We have to hold the reins of our own zeal, guarding ourselves from being whipped ahead by the longings that motivate us.
We have learned, time and again, that the health and liveliness of our family is dependent on the health and liveliness of the land, air, and water around us. When we adjust our ambitions to account for and serve the greater good, we’re less likely to hurt ourselves and our fellow creatures, and more likely to thrive and enjoy the ride. It’s a lesson I look forward to learning over and over.
So, be ambitious. Read eighty books this summer. Watch the corn pollen drop into the silks. Go toward your dreams, whatever they are – just make sure they don’t break you, or the rest of us, in the process. Let’s ride our ambitions, lightly, upward, like the wings of the angels that didn’t fall.