Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ambition vs. Gratitude

The fight of my life is here.

I have often watched movies or documentaries that chronicle the life and struggle of a famous athlete, a disabled person who reaches a seemingly unattainable goal, the plight of someone left for dead who managed to escape and struggle back to their former life, tougher and with a will to live that makes other people look like two toed sloths.

These films, books, articles written under human interest sections, were food to me-I ingested each one hungrily to satisfy my voracious appetite. We all want to be inspired. We look to these survivors to show us how to live with more verve, with less anxiety, to grab what is ours and take it to the mountaintop! I wanted the fight of my life to have drama and a musical score.

More than anything, I have always thought I wanted my life to be full of gratitude. I struggled for years to understand whether that meant I would simply learn to be truly grateful for the things I had going for me; (health, youth, education, freedom and a sense of democracy) or if I needed to attain greatness in order to have anything to be truly grateful about. Who would decide if I had become great? Was it only when there was a book or movie or at least an article about your struggle? How did you know it was time to be grateful and that you had succeeded? Money? Fame? Power? When would you know you had made it? This is why we all say we want happiness and why stories are written about "Which country has the happiest people?" You are happiest when you have what you want, right? I figured that was how I would measure. When I had what I wanted, then I could be grateful.

Well in order to get what you want, you need to know what or where it is. Then in order to get anywhere, you are going to need some drive. Without motivation, small tasks seem huge and larger ones seem like building a castle by hand. The drive displayed by people who have overcome enormous obstacles is matched only by a rabid dog on a leash. Who just saw a squirrel. Did I have what it took? What mountainous obstacle did I hope to overcome that would put the motivation into me? How badly did I want to be successful and rich and famous and catch that elusive attainment we all crave?

I had a huge problem standing in my way of this motivation. As far as I was concerned, I should try be grateful. For crumbs. I have a tendency to compare my plight to that of the poorest, most downtrodden people in the world and figure that since I come out ahead, I am OK  I knew that I just needed to see how good I have it. I thought, well I have that down pat. I know how to pay my dues with a smile. I know how to find pleasure in the little things.... In fact, my Pollyanna attitude has irritated more than one of my siblings and at least a dozen other people. I can find the silver lining in a cancer cell, so what exactly was I hoping for in terms of gratitude? I wanted to be absolved of the guilt that comes with wanting even more. It wasn't that I wanted a yacht, just a much better job that used my creativity and intelligence.

This is the fight. Can you be grateful and still have ambition? Isn't one the opposite of the other? It took me nearly 15 years and a dozen failed attempts at loving the work I was handed easily to realize such a simple truth: yes you can have both. Just not the way you think. You cannot pretend to be grateful then waste energy on being angry, and hope to have anything left over for ambition.

The reason that ambition and gratitude seem to be at odds with each other is merely in the way we (mis)apply them. People that struggle with balancing ambition and gratitude erroneously believe that if you are a grateful person, you will find that every simple thing you have is just fine and enough to be thankful for, and that you should consider yourself lucky to have such things. We then believe that if you have ambition, you can only do it in the course of attaining the basic necessities  and once you have those, all further attempts at validation or to reach some imagined heights is just vainglorious and a sign that you are morally empty.

This is incorrect. The truth that I have found for myself is that while yes, you have to be grateful for the little things, appreciate life and all the good things that you are able to enjoy, you then need to take that feeling, hold onto it, feel the warmth and power of feeling good, and use it as fuel to propel yourself to being able to feel that way continuously. After all, how long can you feel thankful for your shitty job that you're 'so lucky to have'? Only so long. Then you need to get ambitious.

If you have never had gratitude in the first place, you will find ambition difficult. You won't have any idea what feeling you are chasing and why you want to go to any great lengths to achieve more of it. The reason I struggled with ambition may have been that I wasn't grateful enough. The people that overcame great odds remembered what their life was like before and could see that it was worth having again. Maybe I didn't think I had that much to be excited about, so why would I put more energy in only to get more of the same thing I had (and hated)? Or maybe I felt that since I live in an industrialized country, I was asking to have too much already. My existence was not being threatened, so what push was there to dig deep and find what I was made of to fight my way back? I only worked hard enough to keep things moving along; food to eat, a roof over my head.

This collision is one that you will face at some point in your life. If things are reasonably good, why go to the trouble of rocking the boat? Well, that is entirely up to you. How good is reasonably good? Who controls you and your time? Who makes the decisions (really)? Do you deserve to want more? That is the question that kept my gratitude from becoming my ambition, it kept me from reaching higher because I had to realize that this is not a zero sum game. If I do well, it doesn't mean someone else does worse. I knew the basic math on that and yet, the ways we derail ourselves are many and complex.

Until now, I never really understood what Carpe Diem meant. Sure...seize the day...great...But now I really get it- I just need a drill instructor to scream at me: "Seize that day by the throat and wring every last little bit of good out of it. Someone else would kill and die for this day. You are lucky to have it and you never know when it will be taken away from you, you ungrateful little shit!" Apparently the fight of my life is set in boot camp. I'll let you know when it comes out on DVD.

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