One of the topics I’ve struggled with since the beginning of my conversion is the role of ambition in the Christian life. I have an odd personality type that could be described as “mostly extremely lazy, with occasional flashes of Type A behavior.” In other words, by default I sit on the couch and do nothing; but when I do decide to get up from the couch, I make it worth my while. I think this is why the concept of being ambitious is a tricky one for me: It’s easy for me to be tempted to do nothing and call it virtue, passing off sloth for holy detachment. On the other hand, it’s also easy for me to get so into whatever project I’m working on that I turn it into an idol.
This has been my main topic of prayer for months now. I know that placing too much value on worldly accomplishments leads to misery and spiritual death. I also know that we’re not supposed to sit around and do nothing, and that we can bring glory to God by producing top-quality work. So, how can a Christian be both intensely motivated to do his best work, yet still remain detached? I still don’t have all the answers, but I think a lot of it comes down to this:
Rock the present moment.
First, the rock part:
One thing I noticed recently was that I brought great energy to my various writing projects. I wanted to do my best at these tasks, and I wanted to do it for God. The problem was that the Jen’s-Passion-for-Bringing-Glory-to-God-o-Meter dipped down to about zero when it came to work that I didn’t like as much and/or that didn’t have a worldly payoff. I would devote myself with zeal to learning how to write a quality book; but when a lonely neighbor needed someone to talk to, I suddenly had all the enthusiasm of a prisoner on a chain gang.
The problem with ambition is that we tend to put it into practice selectively. This is what Fr. Walter Ciszek was always talking about in He Leadeth Me (a lesson which, somehow, didn’t sink in the first five hundred times I read the book): to turn your life over to God means to turn each individual moment of your life over to God. A God-glorifying life doesn’t hinge on the outcome of grand events; it isn’t dependent on the future. Rather, it’s created from the small moments of each day: the enthusiastic conversation with the chatty woman on the bus, the cup washed with extra care before it’s returned to the cupboard. A new litmus test I use to keep myself from becoming overly ambitious in the wrong areas is, “Do I devote this much care and attention to every area of my life?” If the answer is no, it’s time to recalibrate.
This brings us to the present moment part:
By default, being ambitious is a very future-oriented state of mind. We want to have accomplished X by the time we’re 50, we’re passionate about achieving Y by the end of next week — all of this takes place in the future. I think one of the devil’s most clever tricks in this department is to take our honest efforts to live in the present moment, and use them as fodder for temptation to fixate on tomorrow. For example, a while back I was writing something that I thought was turning out to be great. I could feel the Holy Spirit with me, and just knew that this was what God wanted me to be doing at this moment. All good so far. But then my thoughts drifted to the future: This must mean that God wants this piece to be really successful! It’s going to go viral! Everyone is going to read it! I ended up drifting around in dreams of the future, ignoring the present moment to become more and more attached to what was surely going to happen later in the week.
As it turned out, the piece was mostly a flop, except for some people who wrote me to say how much they hated it. Rather than using it to teach thousands of people about the Lord through my writing, God used it to teach me some lessons in humility. It was a painful experience, mainly because I had relied so heavily on my God’s Will ESP and had gotten attached to my visions of what the Holy Spirit was surely going to do with this project. If I had simply done my best during the writing, then moved on to doing my best with the next thing God called me to (which, in this case, was changing the bag in the kitchen trash can), I don’t think I would have been so impacted by the outcome of the project.
Again, I’m still working on all of this, and will probably struggle to find balance in this area all my life. But I wanted to share what I’ve learned, because it has really helped me be both motivated and detached, simply to remember to rock the present moment.