In a college literature class, a professor I respected, and who I respect deeply still, returned my final paper to me with long-awaited lines of his hand-written feedback. This feedback began with a one-liner so double-edged that I sometimes slip it into stories to get a laugh: “The ambition of this paper is both its biggest asset and its greatest downfall.”
I did not like receiving this comment, because I loved the paper I’d written. I loved it in the way one loves long projects that have wrapped their academic tentacles around one’s soul. My research had become a catharsis to me, an obsessive and scholarly way of working through a recent heartbreak; I had launched myself into the deep end of the literature pool, where my own pain and confusion was reflected back to me in poetry and biography and academic articles, and in 15 pages of enormous argumentative claims, I had not entirely found my way to the surface. I was all grand plans without enough method to ground them, and in this way the comment found another, more lasting, hold on my memory—it was true.
It was while reading Ambition that I recalled this wry piece of feedback again, and realized how wise my professor had been in his diagnosis. In this essay collection, nine members of the Chrysostom Society—Erin McGraw, Luci Shaw, Emilie Griffin, Dain Trafton, Eugene H. Peterson, Jeanne Murray Walker, Diane Glancy, Gina Ochsner, and Bret Lott—unearth the ways in which ambition always is teetering on the fence between asset and downfall.
At the heart of this collection is a set of inquiries into the nature of ambition: Is it good, bad, or neutral? How might we best wield it? What kind of character do we nurture when we reject ambition? Is such a rejection worth its cost? All nine authors work through these questions carefully, often making visible their own internal debates about ambition. One gets the sense of overhearing them muse aloud, vulnerable and contemplative, with by turns a childlike wonder and an acute sense of self-awareness. The pieces of this collection are both essays and meditations, and as such, reward an unhurried—dare we say, unambitious?—pace.
The act of questioning the ubiquitous American Dream, the Western drive to succeed, is a philosophical project. In that spirit of seeking wisdom, there is a dialectical quality, a Socratic conversation of sorts, that echoes throughout the volume. These essayists reason richly and complexly, grappling with perspectives of literary and classical tradition, with historical and celebrity figures, layering each on each to create new, surprising syntheses. In one of the loveliest essays of the collection, Peterson describes how he’s learned from three disparate authors—James Joyce, Wallace Stegner, and Wendell Berry—to slow his busy pastoral pace and search for the stories of redemption that are immanent in the everyday.
Reassuringly, there is no Monolithic Christian Stance on ambition to be found here. Although every author is committed to both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the tradition of literary craft, they come to a plurality of gentle conclusions about the dilemma that ambition poses. Lott writes of the need for humility to temper success; Glancy gives thanks her ambition as the spark that makes vocation possible; Walker confides in us of a moment in which “[i]t [was] heaven to give up ambition and just sit on the blue couch with my child” (78). It is a testament to each author’s thoughtfulness and nuance that we find ourselves agreeing with all of them.
Though the deftness with which these essays weave Milton and Machiavelli, Browning and Billy Graham into their meditations is dazzling, what leaves us truly moved are the quiet, anecdotal reflections on how we might strive for excellence while still remaining faithful. The most vivid and fruitful moments in the collection are guided by a specific narrative of ambition—the fear of forcing one’s ambition on one’s child; reconciling the competing desires for romance and for success; a mother’s determination to resist the grip of dementia—rather than facing the entire knot of inquiry head-on. The least, we might say, is the greatest—even in Ambition.
Veronica Toth is a graduate of Taylor University's English program. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in Literature and Cultural Theory at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she attempts to decipher Marx, coax freshmen into loving the research process, and talk about theology in every seminar paper. Her poetry has been published in Rock & Sling and Windhover.
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