We’re all familiar with images of poor monks and nuns and holy people of all kinds who are so humble they practically disappear. They try so hard not to stand out or be noticed that they seem to be apologizing for their very existence, as if they’re afraid someone is going to accuse them of being unspiritual by breathing someone else’s air. They don’t want to be accused of trying to call attention to themselves.
And yet sometimes it seems they’re engaged in a contest of reverse oneupmanship, where they’re trying to outdo everyone else in humility. The humbler they are, the prouder they are of it.
Or maybe they’re just scared and really think they’re nobody. Either way, they’re not serving anyone but themselves.
What is ambition though, really? Ambition is just the desire to accomplish a goal. And there’s nothing inherently unspiritual about that. Ambition to do good is highly spiritual.
Mother Theresa was ambitious, but not for the sake of making a big name for herself. She had a goal of serving the poorest of the poor, and she understood that it takes money to do that. In order to accomplish her ambition, she had to market herself, literally to make herself a brand, because she understood that that was the way to raise the funds she needed to do the good that was her life work. She was humble enough to accept that reality, she did what she had to do, and brought love and light to some very dark and loveless places.
Ambition doesn’t have to be about self-aggrandizement, or calling attention to oneself in a narcissistic way. Ambition is often confused with greed, but it is not the same thing. There can be ambition to get into heaven, to be spiritual, but in a way that is so selffocused that no-one is helped.
Take the begging monk, for instance. By selfishly focusing on himself, he does no-one else any good. Because he doesn’t take care of himself, he’s not healthy or strong enough to help anyone else. And he sure doesn’t have the financial resources to help anyone.
So how do you integrate the two – spirituality and ambition? Maybe the most unselfish, spiritual thing a person can do is to succeed at something so that they have the material, physical and spiritual resources to bring some light into the world.
There’s nothing wrong or unspiritual with using your gifts, which include your hopes, dreams, and yes, ambitions to make your life better. Mother Theresa may have been a “pencil in the hand of God,” but she was a quality pencil, and she made sure she was sharp at all times so God had a decent pencil to write with. You don’t have to live a decadent wasteful life just because you have ambition. But you have to have the means to carry out your ambition, and it takes a certain amount of ambition to get there.
And that’s just plain ordinary, down to earth, practical spirituality.
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