Monday, August 07, 2006

Ambition

Recently I've become aware that there are some things that I just don't care about. Included in this list are things like "making a difference," "doing something of significance," "having an impact," and "changing the world." Had you asked me ten (or even five) years ago whether I wanted my life to include these things, I'm pretty sure that I would have said yes. Granted, it would have been in my chosen sphere of influence. I would have wanted to write books or teach or engage in ministry that changed the way people think and lived their lives. I probably have thought in terms of how I could use my gifts and talents so as to have the greatest possible impact on the world around me.

Not that there was anything particularly self-serving or arrogant about these thoughts. It was, I think, a question of responsibility and the idea that we should all do something with our lives that "really matters." But as of late, I find it very difficult to think in such terms. "Changing the world" and getting out there to "make a difference" just don't make it onto my "to do" list anymore.

This isn't to say that I don't care about things. There are many things that I care about much more than I used to. Since I've been a parent, I've been far more concerned about matters political than I ever was before: about poverty, war, famine, disease, educational policy, the national debt, and yes, even the stock market.

I care deeply about what kind of person my son grows up to be: that he is honest, humble, compassionate, that he isn't lazy, that he finds a vocation that engages his passions, that he has friends whom he loves and who love him in return, and that he still wants to hang out with me when he's sixteen.

I care about my wife: that she is happy and able to fulfill her goals, and that I might play a role in helping her do those things.

I care about my parents and my sister and how great the time is that we are able to spend together.

I care more about my friends, especially those I am unable to see very often. As Cory recently said, "Life takes friends. It is fuller, richer, and more beautiful than life lived in isolation, or with mere acquaintances." Amen.

I care more about having fun and laughing and about simple pleasures: good beer, good wine, good movies and music, college football on Saturday afternoons, stolen time on the golf course, or watching the back nine of a major championship.

I still care deeply about truth and about the integrity of my work. If no one ever cites my papers or books, I'll be fine. If I never hold a named chair at Oxford or Harvard, my life won't be one wit less successful. But if people don't believe that I am trying to address issues that are truly important as honestly and tenaciously as I can, then maybe I'm not doing something right. And relatedly, I care about getting my students to think beyond themselves and to see the importance of thinking critically about philosophical questions. I don't care if I'm the greatest teacher they've ever had. I do care that they don't think they've wasted their time in my class.

To some, this shift might signal a loss of ambition, as though I've ceased to care about leaving my mark on the world. Fair enough. If that is what ambition is, then I'm couldn't be less ambitious. If living a life of significance means having one's own wikipedia page, then count me out of the realm of significance. I just don't care. On the other hand (and in case you couldn't tell, here's where I come down), maybe it means that I'm starting to have things in proper perspective--that I'm maturing, gaining a better sense of what things are really important, and finally learning how to live the life that God intended all of us to live.

7 comments:

Jared said...

Hey Adam-

Good thoughts. I've spent the last few weeks thinking about my future and how I can change the world and realized how quickly I become consumed with my power and my glory. While I agree with what you say, I still want to belong to a community of people who desire to make a difference, to address the significant work that needs to be done. Perhaps the difference is the difference between leaving "your" mark on the world vs. "a" mark on the world, of "being" significant vs. "doing" significance. Lately I've been listening to Rob Bell's sermons on the "New Exodus"and his picture of what a community of believers can do in their city and the world is something that I find truly exciting.

Jared said...

Sorry I screwed up the link to the sermons. Try this instead.

AJK said...

J-

I certainly don't deny that there are things like "making a difference" or "doing something of significance." It's rather that I think it's a mistake to pursue goals under those headings--to explicitly try and go out and make a difference or do something of significance. It's far better for us to pursue truth, love, beauty, happiness, justice, etc. and leave all determinations of significance completely out of the equation. Thinking in these terms doesn't necessarily make everything easy--it's hard to figure out what's true or just and happiness is often elusive. But at least it gets us on the right track.

There are a number of reasons why I think this. One is that the process of figuring out how best to do something significant can paralyze us: we search and search for something significant to do instead of just putting our heads down and doing something and we dismiss many good things as unimportant or "too small" for us when, in fact, they are entirely appropriate sources of immense joy.

Another is perhaps more self-serving in that I've come to think that a life filled with the things I now care about (the kinds of things I list in the original post) will be as full and as rich a life as I could possibly hope for.

A third is that judgments of significance often seem to be made by people who have no idea what kinds of things are really significant. This is particularly true in academia (where I live and move and have my being) academic "celebrities" often seem to me to have very little to say that is truly important or insightful. And since they set the agenda, work that accept their terms may not get a real hearing. I'm just saying that I no longer care about getting that kind of hearing. I'll pursue truth and let other people make their own judgments.

~A

cory said...

kara and i have this discussion often. although our conversation tends in the direction of what it means to do "kingdom building" work. while we've been involved with churches that err on the side of neglecting the world, we've also been a part of bodies that see improving people's earthly lives as the highest ideal. i keep coming back the idea of redemption, and that we are here to take part in God's redemptive work in any/all arenas.

that said, i was blown away listening to the "new exodus" series. this is a vision with which i can get on board wholeheartedly.

Jared said...

That word, "redemption" has been at the centre of the amazing things I've been experiencing in Paris. This will be a topic of a blog soon, I swear, but I'll give you the quote that initiated it all. I came to the end of Theodor Adorno's "Minima Moralia", one of the harshest takes on reality and “humanity's descent into inhumanity” I've encountered, and read "The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed from the standpoint of redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent, and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light."

He ends with questioning the reality of such redemption, a question he deems unimportant compared to the task itself. But we, Christians, know not only is this a process that has begun, but one that we can be a part of. Amazing.

Dad said...

A belated post...

Very good thoughts, son. In isolation, "Making a difference," "having an impact," and "changing the world" are or can become largely self-serving political goals -- the kind that a person with blind ambition might set. People who pursue such unqualified goals, even from innocent or laudable purposes, can easily be caught up in them, losing sight of their roots and focusing on ends with less regard to means.

I am proud of who you are -- a good father, husband, son, and conscientious person of integrity searching for truth. Don't waiver.

While achievement is not in and of itself bad, if you get recognition, you want it to be for your real contributions, not just for what you have achieved.

Dad said...

A belated post...

Very good thoughts, son. In isolation, "Making a difference," "having an impact," and "changing the world" are or can become largely self-serving political goals -- the kind that a person with blind ambition might set. People who pursue such unqualified goals, even from innocent or laudable purposes, can easily be caught up in them, losing sight of their roots and focusing on ends with less regard to means.

I am proud of who you are -- a good father, husband, son, and conscientious person of integrity searching for truth. Don't waiver.

While achievement is not in and of itself bad, if you get recognition, you want it to be for your real contributions, not just for what you have achieved.