Ambition

29 01 2015

I’ve been thinking a while about the concept of ambition.  Like most children from a privileged upbringing, I was told to dream big, to work hard, to achieve success…to be ambitious.  These were and are good things.  I was fortunately born with the type of intelligence that does well in standardized testing, and (after a stint in a program for gifted children) the kind that also fit in well with the educational style of the 1960s and 70s.  I did well.  I was rewarded for it.  I achieved good grades in high school, got into the college I wanted to attend, and was paid to go to graduate school.

All along was the idea that wherever you are, you need to push to be in a better place.  Where you are is good?  The next place could be better, with more money, more power, more, more, more.  Your relationship seems pretty great?  Are you sure?  It could be better – more sexy, more intimate, more, more, more.  Your child is well-adjusted?  Are you sure he has enough to do? Is her environment rich enough?  Have you done everything you can to encourage the growth of those early neurons?  Don’t you think you could be doing more?

I did well.  I was successful.  Decent job, good marriage, a demanding-but-otherwise-awesome son.  I made myself crazy listening to the voices telling me that none of those things were enough.  I pulled free of some of it – for instance, the Baby Weight Gaining competition that happens when you have a baby close in age to another woman’s.  “Oh, your baby gained a pound in the week after birth?  That’s great… my baby gained TEN.”  Followed by more information than you want to hear about the richness of your competitor’s breast milk, along with a self-congratulatory breast pat.  That one has “Get out while you can” stamped all over it, and I did.  Fast.

Other things I didn’t let go of, so much as have them pulled away.  My decent marriage ended with my husband’s death.  Which of course, after a period of grief, starts the push cycle again.  Are you seeing anyone? Have you been dating?  Are there any “good prospects”?

Then I was laid off from my decent job.

A lot of things came to a screeching halt right there.  The first thing I noticed, when the shock wore off, was a sense of relief.  I took some time to simply breathe, and rest, and consider what had happened.  A little while later I got a contract position… and there it was again: Will this turn into a full-time position?  You really want that, right?  Because that would be better.  You should want more than contracting.

The breathing and resting paid off.  I wasn’t in a full-time position, and realized that I didn’t actually want to be in that position full-time, because hello, corporate crazy.  My time was my own.  I could set that job down and walk away.  Sure, they could let me go at any time – and I could also let them go at any time.  It felt balanced in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  I finished that contract and moved into another one – for less money. (Shouldn’t you be making more?  You used to make a lot more than that.) Less money was more than balanced by working with people that I knew and loved.

I get it, truly.  There’s a time in your life when you are trying to build and achieve.  You’re making a family, or building a career, or studying deeply for a long time, or planning for retirement.  But I’ve come to think that we should always question what it is we are after.  Is it just more?  The bigger house, the fancy job title, the luxury car, all the activities for your children… what are they for?  It’s like we’ve misunderstood the “dream big” part of what our parents tried to teach us.

What do you actually dream of?  Do you dream of that next big goal?  Or do you dream of a time when it’s behind you, when you can stop pushing so hard to get to it?  We can make that time happen.  There should be a point where we can look at our lives and say, these things are good.  To stop adding the word “but” to every single beautiful thing we say about our lives.  Instead: I love my husband.  I have an amazing child.  I like my job.  My house is comfortable.  My life is good.

It is nearly un-American to say ambition isn’t always good.  It’s the American way – strive, be ambitious, succeed.  Never be satisfied, never be content with where you are, never rest.  I am not entirely done with that – I do still have a mortgage to pay for – but my ambition these days is for inner peace.  To not worry about whether I’m achieving enough, but to love what I’ve already achieved.

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Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

4 05 2012

Spring,  with its warmer temperatures and singing birds and open windows, is nearly always a time of personal awakening for me as well.  It happens every year.  But for some reason this year it feels like more than waking up from a few months of winter.  This year I feel like I’m coming up and stretching from five years of slumber, back to the time before my husband died.  Waking up after a long dormancy is overall, I think, a good thing. Outside of a restlessness and a sense of wanting more of nearly everything. More time, more talk, more sensation, more contact, just MORE. I suppose that’s a normal response to a long time of taking care of business.

I don’t want it to sound like I’ve been merely existing for the last five years. It hasn’t been that at all. It’s just that the focus has been so strongly on other things. About the time my son graduated from college two years ago was when things started getting more difficult with my in-laws, in terms of health and mobility – although, thankfully, it didn’t get medically bad until last year. It was really during the last three or four months of her life that things got hard for my mother-in-law. At the time it seemed endless. In retrospect, and looking at what other people have dealt with in end-of-life issues, it went fairly quickly.

I was with her a lot towards the end. She was in and out of sleep, and often confused – while she remembered who everyone was, she didn’t always remember when they had been in to see her, and she lost track of time. I spent a lot of time answering the same questions. And sometimes she’d realize that she had asked me the same question more than once, and she’d get upset with herself, and I’d tell her that it was okay, I didn’t mind talking to her about anything she wanted to talk about, even if it was the same things. I could make her smile, and I could comfort her when she was afraid. Because at the end, she was confused about where she was, and she was frightened. She didn’t understand that she had been in the hospital for weeks. I could hold her in my arms and tell her what had happened, and why, and feel the tension leave her. She told me, in so many words, “If you’re saying it, I know it’s true.” The depth of her trust in me, and her willingness to place herself completely in my hands, is a gift I will never forget. I treasure those hours that I sat at her bedside, watching and listening to her sleep. And I was able to tell her, over and over, that I loved her.

I lost my husband very suddenly, one moment here and the next just… gone. And I still think that’s the exit of choice, if you can get it; live until you’re done, and then go. But being with my mother-in-law for those last weeks and months of her life were life-changing for me, and removed yet another layer of mystery from death. It isn’t always pretty in the way we usually think of it, but there can be beauty and grace to it, and a sense of things working as they should. I have been blessed (I mean this sincerely) in feeling the beginnings of life in my own body, and also in witnessing the end of life. I know why people are frightened, but I can tell them that they don’t need to be.