I have a history of ambition. Superficially, this history appears to be replete with success and the happiness that generally accompanies it. I have a lot of framed stuff from people and places, some of it signed by individuals thanking me or wishing me luck in the next whatever. Others are awards or their reminders, received for being better than others in one small and ultimately insignificant way or another. If the truth be known, awards in my previous profession had more to do with writing than with reality; the better one could plausibly combine the two, the more decorated the individual.
Ambition was my downfall and ultimately, ironically, my salvation. I became a dynamo of self-destruction, while excelling in every single thing I did by virtue of staying later, working harder, doing more, etc. The universe stepped in, thankfully, and shined a light on my misgivings. Success was how I had always intended to separate myself from a childhood that I desperately wanted to leave behind. It was a remarkably absurd goal for a laundry list of reasons and I owe the universe a beer for helping me to see the flaws in my thinking.
As I’ve said here before, however, self-awareness can be a double-edged sword. My youth made me a pessimist and my adulthood a cynic, but exiting on the far side of addiction(s) and depression allowed me to see myself with a clarity that can at times be a bit disconcerting. I call myself on my own bullshit regularly. I can’t abide self-pity, in myself or others. I cut myself no slack. And there, I think, is where I sometimes catch myself once again tipping into the abyss.
I’m a 4th year graduate student involved in medical research. Things are going swimmingly. I publish. I travel to conferences. I win things occasionally. The goal of re-entering academia was to re-engage the mental hamster on its wheel in areas difficult enough to preclude any possibilities of said hamster focusing on anything else. I’ve channeled my A-type personality into things that are both fulfilling and ridiculously difficult. I solve puzzles for a living, more or less. It’s a hoot.
But science is a rather cutthroat community where ambition can be both a equirement and a detriment. When I left the military, I swore that I would never again lose the balance between what mattered and what didn’t. And yet, recently, I’ve started to feel familiar pangs of fatigue and mental exhaustion. The warning signs have started to make themselves glow a shade of red that I haven’t seen for many years. I’m starting to worry and to push myself about a future that I think I have some sort of control over, despite documented evidence to the contrary. When I get this way, I live in a black and white world: There is success and there is failure and nothing in between. I have to publish more. I have to get this grant. I have to be all things to all people (except to myself, of course).
So, yes. I do catch myself falling into old habits and and am both capable and willing to call myself on the piles of horseshit that I shovel upon my own head from time to time. But the balancing act is difficult, bordering on impossible. My girlfriend’s step-father, who’s been a exceptional pastor for eons on top of decades, asked me over coffee one morning around the holidays, ‘What do you do for fun?’ The question stumped me. Fun isn’t a thing I do anymore and haven’t for a few years now. All the sports, all the climbing and hiking, everything that I might label with the ‘fun’ tag has been pushed aside. It made me think how handy it would be to have an older pastor follow me around asking the kinds of innocuous questions that end up making me look at them like they’re speaking mandarin.
Life for me, as for all addicts (there are no ‘former’ addicts), is one of constantly walking a tightrope. There is ambition and then there is obsession. I’m not a good judge of where the middle ground is between the two. The rope represents to the present, which is really and truly all that matters. Yet it’s the past that we carry and the uncertain future that unbalance. It pays to know the person walking the tightrope, but I do so with the understanding of how precarious the situation is and will always continue to be.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, The Lime challenged me with “Walking the tightrope” and I challenged Allyson with “‘When does the fun start?’, he asked, blood dripping slowly from the knife in his right hand.”
Sir @ April 5, 2012