Resume in 1986
Engage the World
Engage World II
Engage World III
Engage World IV
Monk and Lover I
Monk and Lover II
Bad Advice I
Bad Advice II
Bad Advice III
Places of Life I
"Blow it Up"
Escaping Life I
Escaping Life II
No Ideologies I
No Ideologies II
No Ideologies III
Your Right Mind
A Current Regret
Current Regret II
Goals In Life
I Lost a Girl
Layers of Life
What do I Do? I
What do I Do? II
What I Do III
What I Do IV
My Mind I
My Mind II
My Mind III
Travels since '06
Capacity et al.
The Small Picture
Cross and Wreath
Types of People
Bill Long 11/21/07
Coming to Grips with the Myself
The Oxford English Dictionary provides us the interesting origin of the word ambition. It is derived from the Latin verb ambire, which has to do with "going around," specifically going round to canvass for votes. When the term came into English the meaning first developed was one we are familiar with: "the ardent (in early usage, inordinate) desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, influence, distinction or other preferment." The "vote-getting" meaning has only been minimally attested in English.
The term ambition and the concept lying behind it has been like a millstone around my neck for most of my life. Finally, in the last few years, I feel that I am breaking free from my past and am able to express my ambition in clear language for the first time. I will get to it at the end of the next essay lest you leave me without first "hearing me out." But let me tell you the story of what ambition has meant to me, how it was squelched and how I decided to recover it.
Sources of Ideas
As I review my life, the four major sources of values or orientation in life for me are: 1) my innate sense of my own gifts; 2) my treatment in my family of origin; 3) the role of American Evangelical Protestantism and; 4) the influence of the first generation feminist movement of the 1970s. Each of these has given me "mesages" about a number of things in life; most of the messages have, it seems, been contradictory. The result was that for years I lived in with a certain amiable, and then increasingly desperate, immobility with respect to the idea of ambition. This immobility and growing desperation lasted until about 2002-03 when I finally decided it was better for me to listen primarily, if not exclusively, to myself and to discard all the messages given me by people over the years. The purpose of this and the next essay is to try to discover how ambition "worked" for me over the years.
Interpreting the Four Sources of Values
As I reflect on my life, the abiding memory I have from my early days is that I was special, in a most extreme way. I didn't know how to put my finger on it, but I had the sense, as early as three or four, that I was not only the center of the world, but that I had a mind that could deeply see and understand things, a mind that others didn't possess. Maybe that is what every child thinks, but I had it in spades. I perplexed elementary teachers because, on the one hand, I could master everything they taught in a matter of minutes but, on the other hand, I acted up constantly, always seeming to draw attention to myself, and not being satisfied until I was thrown out of class.
I recall that I would try to take advantage of my teachers, placing almost impossible demands on them for me to continue to be their pupil. For example, in 2nd grade, where I had a 22 year-old rookie teacher, I demanded that I be allowed to correct the math homework of the other students before I would participate in any class exercises. My antics eventually proved a source of embarrassment both for my older brother and my parents. My brother told my parents to make me stop being thrown out of class (his friends were making fun of him because of it), and my parents did what any parents would do in the 1950s--they spanked me and warned me in the most serious language to conform to what was expected in school. As my mother said to me through anguished tears on one occasion, "Billy, do you want us to send you away?"
But if I was going to act with an outsized ego and impossible demands, my parents took it as their role to do two things: "channel" me into activities where my energies could be dissipated and clip my wings by emphasizing over and over again that I was just like everyone else. After all, they had four boys to raise, and I think that the idea that one (or more) might have been a "special needs" child, even before the concept had much developed in American education, was too much for them to handle.
As with most young people, my ambition to excel, to be "great," didn't have a lot of focus at first. I did well enough in school to get into Brown University and did well enough in athletics to set a sophomore shot put record (but was injured the subsequent Fall in football), but the thing that first fired my imagination to excel was when I became an Evangelical Christian when I was 16 years old. I decided that since God spoke through Scripture, and since Scripture was to be the source of the divine words, that I could spend my time in no more valuable way than mastering the very words of God. So, I did. Beginning when I was 18, I memorized, internalized, and prayed the Scripture, made up songs with Scriptural lyrics, and learned hundreds of hymns by heart. By age 19 I wanted to make myself a sort of spiritual guru, a person who had wisdom before his time and knowledge without peer. In addition, I wanted to be a sort of "Christian organizational guru," being President of my local college Christian fellowship as well as seeking for ways to begin to probe for larger and wider inroads of leadership in the Evangelical world.
But then the ideologies of Evangelicalism and radical Feminism entered and destroyed my nascent ambitions. You might think it is strange that I would mention these two influences in the same sentence, since they seem to be polar opposites but, in fact, they reflected not only my experience at the time (I began attending a liberal church late in seminary--1976-77), but the scope of my ambitions. I felt that my "greatness," such as it was, would stretch to all nooks and crannies of the theological spectrum. I would become a sort of Evangelical guru as well as a Feminist guru. In Joan Didion's felicitous phrase, this was my "year (make it a decade) of magical thinking."
The messages I began to pick up from these two sources were that ambition was a bad thing to have. But they buttressed the case in two completely different ways. The Evangelicals argued both from what I call democratic theory as well as theological/biblical grounds, while the Feminists made their case based on the concept of patriarchy. Let me explain each briefly.
My Evangelical friends would argue to me that we are all special in God's sight and, at the same time, we were all sinners, too. In addition, God's love was equally extended to all people, even though all didn't respond to God in the same way. In short, we were all so much more like each other than different from each other that we ought to spend most of our time celebrating our commonness rather than distinctiveness. Jesus Christ Superstar had just come out around that time (1973), and the words that keep ringing in my mind from that work are the ones from Mary Magdalene, describing Christ: "He's a man, he's just a man. And I've had so many men before, in very many ways, he's just one more." Even though there is much more going on in Mary's song than the notion of the commonness of our humanity, it was that message that I picked up. We are all the same, Bill. Get over your specialness.
This argument was buttressed by biblical texts. After all, hadn't Jesus, in the Christ hymn in Philippians, not counted equality with God a thing to be grasped but, rather, he "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant"? Hadn't Jesus, when the disciples were arguing about their own greatness, referred to the little child as the exemplar of faith? Didn't Jesus say in the Beatitudes that it was the "humble in spirit" or the "humble-minded" who were blessed? What was I, Bill Long, doing then, trying to think of myself as someone distinctive, trying to raise myself above others by knowledge or some other kinds of skills? If I had any skills at all, and of course those were granted, I ought to thank God for them and get back to work.
The Feminists launched a different critique. They, whom I got to know on a weekly basis through Church of the Covenant in Boston, were convinced that the roots of all evil in the (Western) world lay with male patriarchy. Men had wrested the power away from women at an early time (the theory of an original feminine divinity and power was just starting to make the rounds at this time, even though it was based on pretty flimsy evidence), had held onto it, and had oppressed women ever since. Two of the ways that men demonstrated this abhorrent patriarchy were through obsession with women's bodies and by always wanting to be "in charge." Men would force women out of the conversation, take over in social situations, rise to the top in business, education, government sectors and every place else. Then, the men "valorized" what they did by giving themselves bigger salaries (and paying women nothing), promoting themselves incessantly and, in general, becoming an untouchable ruling class. Of course, for the Feminists, this had to stop. Right now!
The Effect of Evangelicalism/Feminism on Me
Faced with this dual onslaught from my Evangelical days (fl. 1970-76) and Feminist days (fl. 1977-1980), I retreated. I, as it were, gave up ambition. I remember telling myself on numerous occasions that the desires I had to excel, that my self-focus on personal aggrandizement, that my inclinations to lead, that my longing to be a "big personality" and catch the attention of many, were things I simply had to lay aside. I had to deny them. I couldn't give them any berth in my life because they simply didn't fit into the regnant ideologies around me.
But why, you might ask, did I put so much stock in what others were saying rather than just rely on myself? I have asked this question to myself time after time, especially as I have met and dated several women from 2002-2006 who developed their own critiques of radical Feminism while it was unfolding. As one of my dates once said to me, "I just saw the irony of all these privileged women at Harvard or Penn, sitting around and telling each other how oppressed they were. Maybe they had some points to make, to be sure, but that men were the source of their problems--well, I just couldn't buy." And then, she would say to me with a wink, "I always tended to like men." Where is she now? Boy, I wish I knew...
I think I felt I had to adopt both the ideologies of Evangelicalism and radical Feminism because the people who expressed them were intelligent and passionate. I recall a woman, a doctoral student at the time, standing up at an education forum at church, and being so eloquent on how women were oppressed, how language of "He" for God was demeaning to women, etc. etc. I remember thinking, "My, if someone is this eloquent and passionate about what she believes, she must be right." I felt the same about the Evangelicals. After all, they had the Bible, and the Bible said that "There was one God and one mediator between God and man (oops, sorry Feminists), the man Christ Jesus." They could point to the Scriptures that said, "No one comes to the Father (oops again) but through me." Since they were so confidently pointing to the Bible as their source of authority, which Bible I had dutifully memorized for several years, and if the Feminists were pointing to history to make their point (and I respected historical argument), and if they were so terribly passionate about it, who was I to disagree? In fact, who was I to have the pleasure of going to a movie, for example, or enjoying a concert, or pleasantly passing the day at a Red Sox game when people were so passionate about the truth?? I would be "betraying the revolution" either by spending too much time cultivating my own pleasure or ambition. Leadership had to fall to those who were sure, and I was not fully sure of anything.
The next essay describes how I lived my life in denial and how I, finally, emerged...