Henry Ward Beecher, the 19th century preacher and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe once said:
A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.
When I finished my MFA program some years ago, I intended to rain my poetry on publishers everywhere. I wouldn’t be denied. After the first rejection, however, my ambition wilted. After the second, it turned brown. The third crumbled my ambition, and the fourth swept it away in a spinning eddy. I watched it go.
Had I seen my work as capital A Art, an idea higher than myself, I might have persisted thinking the world needed my words. But I took bad news personally, as something aimed at me, not Art. I thought, “Maybe my disappointment signals I’m writing for the wrong reasons. It’s about me, not the writing.”
Classmates who could separate their egos from their work either moved on or hung around long enough to succeed. My sense of purpose just became increasingly absurd. I began to think I might just as well aspire to achieve the most lifelike moo-sound or to swim the English channel in a flour sack.
Before I started blogging, I’d almost stopped writing altogether.
Early in Macbeth, as Lady Macbeth contemplates killing King Duncan, she says her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” She also says:
…Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it
The “nearest way” to the crown is stabbing the king as he sleeps, and it’s clear you can’t do that if you have “the milk of human kindness.” You need a side of “illness” with that milk.
Like Mr. Macbeth, my ambition isn’t absent, though someone might faint praise me in exactly the same way—I’m not without ambition. I don’t want to kill any kings but sometimes fantasize about being great. It might be okay. I’m just not sure how much I’m willing to do to be “great” or how I’d know when I got there.
Perhaps the real line Macbeth crosses isn’t between kindness and cruelty but between Scotland and himself. As long as he could convince himself he was killing for the king, he did not think of killing the king. His worst discovery may have been that, while he was off soldiering for Scotland, he was killing for himself all along, that he could only kill for himself.
I accept the ambitions attributed to the greater good by institutions of which I’m a part. I’m a dutiful soldier. If the school aspires to something, so do I: get papers back in three days or write a unique grade report for every student or accommodate every subtle learning difference with an infinitely varied approach to instruction. I’ll do my best.
My students ought to thrive and to do so they need dedicated, thoughtful, and diligent teachers. These educational ambitions arise from loftier ideals and usually make obvious sense. However, if I’m being honest, I find more satisfaction in a bad painting than in a set of papers punctually returned. Is it selfish to place personal goals before higher purposes?
How much of my professional ambition is truly rooted in desire? I know I can’t accept every institutional goal given me, hearing “hold this” until I finally have no hands, arms, shoulders, back, or any other part of my anatomy unoccupied. Eventually, I’ll want to please myself.
I have no murderous motives, but I am not without ambition, and neither my desire nor my discomfort with desire can be quieted entirely. I don’t want to be an egotist, but inevitably I am. I want what I really want.