Guest post: Ambition — friend or foe?

This guest post comes courtesy of Mary Powers, who works in the D.C. area, and does a lot with political activism. She “gets it” when it comes to dealing with ambition the right way. Should we foster a spirit of ambition, or does being a good Christian require us to stifle it? A great reflection for all of us, whether we struggle with too much ambition or too little.

And today is the feast day of one of our all-time favorite saints, an atheist philosopher, convert, Carmelite nun, and Auschwitz martyr, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. JPII’s sermon at her canonization in 1998 will stir you to the depths. A great saint to turn to when discerning the proper place for ambition in our own lives as professionals in the modern world.

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Recently, ambition has been on my mind. I know a number of young adults who are feeling restless in their jobs or professions and are searching for work with more meaning or their next big step. Naturally, as young adults, it seems that this will be a part of life until we are more settled (especially for those of us in our “turbulent twenties”).

Working in politics, I have seen ambition and competitiveness corrupt people, not necessarily illustrated in their actions (or lack thereof), but in how it has affected them. Their entire personality changes, their inner person seems to succumb to this need and want for success and fame.

As I analyzed myself, I found that I too was ambitious and very competitive. Since I had seen what I did not want to become, I instead tried to keep my ambition in check and move forward without too much ambition, fearing I’d hear people say, “She’s ambitious!”

But, in looking into ambition further, and discussing it with friends, I’ve discovered a new outlook on it.

First, like any good Thomistic Aristotelian, I have to start at the beginning of the argument and ask, “What does the text say?” What is the actual definition of ambition?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ambition is a strong desire to achieve something; a strong desire and determination to achieve success. So ambition is not an end. Ambition is a means to an end. If a person is ambitious, they are working hard toward a goal or vision that they hope to achieve.

Determining what that end goal is is the first step in ensuring whether a particular ambition is a good ambition, or if it will eventually negatively overcome the individual. Essentially, if the goal that a person is working toward is selfish, what would that ambition be working toward? A goal that is completely for oneself: immature and self-seeking. Contrast that with a goal that is good, and you find that the person is using every means necessary to further an admirable goal, a goal that will serve to benefit more people than just himself.

With this understanding, each Catholic Christian is called to be ambitious. Our goal: To sanctify ourselves so we can not only be good, but be saints and, in addition, bring the Truth and Light of Christ to the world—especially for those who need it.

I recently saw a Facebook meme with a quote from Pope Francis that read, “Dear Young People, Do not bury your talents, the gifts that God has given you. Do not be afraid to dream of big things!” This is so true. Not only are we called to be ambitious with our own sanctification and in our journey to Heaven, but we are also called to dream of great things and bring Christ’s light to the world. Perhaps God hasn’t shown you how you will achieve this (both sanctification and your exact path in life), but each of us is called to this goal. God didn’t give us ambition to do good in order for us to bury our desire to use our talents; rather, he gave us our talents so that we can use them for all to see in order to bring people to Him.

So often it is easy to fall into disillusionment, because we lose track of our goal, or because we aren’t sure what God’s mission is for us. As a person who likes to tell God what I would like to do, I know how hard it is to discern what He is calling you to do and where to go. I recently told a friend of mine (half jokingly) that I was going through an existential crisis. She responded by showing me an explanation of existentialism (picture below) and I realized that really, in life’s most difficult and restless moments we are not going through them alone.

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We’re not called to freak out and go into panic mode (which I so often do), but to go to God to ask what he thinks we should be doing. What should we be striving toward? What is my goal? Discerning a path forward can only happen and be completely realized with God’s help. We are not solitary beings randomly placed in our station in life. We are loved, willed, and necessary* for our community and society as a whole, only actualized by reliance on God’s Providence.

As I was searching the internet for the definition of ambition, and seeking an answer to the question, “Is there ever good ambition?”, I came across a prayer in a chat room on this very topic:

Prayer of Gratitude

I asked God for strength that I might achieve
I was made weak that I might learn to humbly obey
I asked for health that I might do greater things
I was given infirmity that I might do better things
I asked for riches that I might be happy
I was given poverty that I might be wise
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life
I was given life that I might enjoy all things
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered
I am among all men most richly blessed.

We have every resource we need to use our ambition in order to work toward our goal and telos (ultimate end). But sometimes we have to recognize the fallacy of the resources we think we have. Using our talents and relying on God, we can turn restless ambition into a driving force toward a goal that reflects the mission that God has placed on our hearts.

Now, about discerning that goal. . . .

Mary Powers lives and works in Washington, D.C., and is a recent graduate of the University of Dallas.

* From Benedict XVI’s first homily, 24 April 2005,
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20050424_inizio-pontificato_en.html

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