The ambit of ambition

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

It was a bright and still morning as he stepped from his elegant Georgian town house in Bedford Square, the ad-be-clad double-deckers delivering the day’s first visitants to The British Museum on the far side of his familiar Fitzrovian neighbourhood. Sunday. Church bells pealing. An absence of sharp tailoring on the now ambiguously accoutred. More of a crinkled linen state of affairs, for those consciously á la modish. A day of rest, not of work, not for most. Free of the throbbing urgency of nine-to-five-ness; though usually for him, for my erstwhile friend, it was seven-to-ten-ness. Long days keeping his holed ship afloat. A captain of business anticipating, in some dread, any skipper’s final obligation should the waterline be holed.

A resting day, yes, and so he strolled towards a wooden bench in the tweet-filled square oasis, these days now twice tweet-filled, but then just sparrow emanations. A time to consider: options, options. In the past, Virginia Woolf may well too have weighed her fate here, before in time lining a weighty overcoat’s pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse on a similar Spring day four decades ago. Across the square, another local resident, John Maynard Keynes, would have sat considering means to palliate Capitalism’s frequent waterline breaches. Later still it would be Madonna Ciccone, then Lady Gaga, eyed at discrete distances by ex-vets, they too bereft of options within their muscle-twitching watchfulness. This quadrant, hemming in.

Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

A short stroll to the workplace; thirty seconds to key the alarm codes; an ascent to a now eerily quiet office; a passive stare at his Mac Classic and the sleep-depriving spreadsheet printouts; pour a single malt; more – at least three fingers; slump in the chair; toss the carton of Pethidine onto the desk; options, options. The ship was going down, and it needed half a million to stay afloat. These days, his home in Fitzrovia would amply cover that sum, nine or tenfold. But this was back in Thatcher’s day, and besides, the bank already had a charge over the house. Options, options none. He takes a pill, the first of forty. Clarity pacifies the mind where options once had wearied. Each pill a pocketed stone; each bell-tolled minute a step closer to the river.

And so it was, upon that bright sun Sunday, my friend found his way out. A victim of his own designs, sunk by ambition. Now I’m told that such striving is a healthy, natural human quality, hearing politicians’ endless mantras of ‘aspiration’, of people wanting to ‘get on’, to ‘work hard’, to ‘climb the property ladder’, and thereby ‘doing the right thing’. The message is clear: compete or fall by the wayside. I must set goals to ensure my security, must compete – perhaps even against my own instincts – so as to propagate and extend familial interests. Who, ultimately, is served, though? I witnessed so many follow this ambition-laden trajectory over the years, and learned that whatever promise was fulfilled, and mostly it was not, the price was heavy.

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Can sufficient ever satiate my fundamental desire for contentedness, or am I bound to a striven life irrespective of my material needs? As I heedlessly clamber, eyes directed skywards, over the failed ambitions of the many less able to compete, as I turn my thoughts away from the price others pay for my cutting myself a larger slice of the pie, do I feel true to the ethics I would so glibly espouse, in knowing I really am ‘doing the right thing’? Again, who or what is served in my assumed, self-centric ambitions, other than a vague article of misplaced faith which somehow came to inhabit me as if a given of nature? If my contentedness subsists in the ambitious pursuit of wealth or status, so my innermost needs are met. The thing is, it seems it is not so.

The ambit of ambition is exposed in asking just such questions, and yet why would I ever doubt my assumptions; why should my ambition be bounded? Is it not so that, just as my erstwhile friend believed, an endless succession of frontiers are there to be conquered, each elevating one to an ever higher degree of fulfilment? Or has what I serve now become a vacuous promise, a point at which my remaining time – perhaps a span shorter than I suppose – would best be passed in restraining my purblind acquisitiveness? Oh, the justifications leap quickly to one’s defence, do they not? As always, we find the complex though habituated easier than the simple yet uncustomary – a perverse trait in many higher animals, even we, the paragon amongst them.

The house was sold; the bank and preferential creditors paid off; the Mac and remaining assets auctioned; and in short time, Madonna arrived in the square – for the very first time – and Thatcher, in tears, left Downing Street – for the very last time. Unlike so many, and would he but have realised it, my friend could have attenuated his pernicious cupidity, spared himself that opiate-dulled submersion into the darkened waters of quietus. Most have not even the choice to indulge likewise such avarice, their ambitions extending no further than providing essentials, with perhaps the occasional purchase of some brief cheering. So it is that my words are as irrelevant to them as ineffectual they are to those spellbound by an ambit-less ambition.

Contentedness with little and the fetishisation of possession


Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Writing as an inhabitant of an island which, whilst sinking in debt, is superficially moneyed, I’m conscious that the title of this piece is a little facile. I have no clever way with finances, and am still to luck-out on the lottery, yet hold few concerns over meeting my future needs, and none over my present. And I write having made what is I think a fair guess: that most readers too are similarly comfortable. But if like the good lady in our picture, your living is scraped selling wildfowl on the streets of Havana, these musings could but only appear both facile and irrelevant.

So the expression in the title ‘with little’ is relative. Contextually, it means the provision of one’s modest needs and comforts only, relative to societal norms. And the argument I put forward invites you to ponder a way of living contentedly which discounts unreasoned desire and aspiration. Now of course, we can dwell contentedly with any amount of excess or luxury, though these surfeits add naught to our emotional well-being. Once satiated psychologically, their indulgence produces nothing further in our subjective sense of ease – rien du tout, zip, nada.

So why argue the case for moderation; what’s the point in spoiling all the fun? From any ethical or environmental perspective, the case can be readily, if a little tediously, made; such positions need no reworking here. This is about contentedness; we’re juggling with ideas of personal passivity and (dare I say it?) acceptance. It’s about how these dynamics play out subjectively in the warp and weft of life. The case to argue here surrounds our compulsive possessiveness, our overstated claims, our overreaching desires, and how these blind us to our emotional needs. And what does any such lack of balance produce? For many it conduces only to ill health or the despoiling of relationships and family life. We pursue this myth of well-being through accumulation whilst neglecting ourselves and those closest to us. Not only this, but we miss the mark of contentedness itself; because by definition, to be content is to be satisfied and remain psychologically at rest with what one has. We need to re-examine what motivates this acquisitiveness and look at its effects – did it produce the sense of fulfilment we rashly assumed that it would?

Indeed, so blinded are we as to what motivates our accumulative nature that we’ve lost sight of its very purpose. We’re often only barely aware, if at all, of what drives our compulsive desires; whilst the vision we have of the objects of those desires retains an almost hallucinogenic vibrancy. We unthinkingly hunt down what occupies our attentions whilst losing sight of the primary reason for their pursuit. What drove the process was a matter of the psyche: a deeper need for emotional fulfilment. We confuse the means with the end, and are left dissatisfied time and again.

Much of this behaviour is rewarded with short-term gratifications. We momentarily or, perhaps for a day or two, feel satisfied with our successful acquisition. This fleeting sense of gratification acts as an endorsement of the process and so we fail to question whether our more fundamental psychological needs were met. We set out in our pursuit so as to feel happier or more contented; and this again, is what drove the whole process – the need for emotional fulfilment. In a sense we’re bought off by the fleeting gratification; we’re sold short, short-changed. And of course, because of this, the psychological needs remain in place. We still, albeit perhaps only at a barely conscious level, have a sense of lack or dissatisfaction. So accustomed are we to this vague feeling that we never question its existence; we accept it as part of the emotional wallpaper. And yet it’s this that triggers the next round of acquisitiveness, the repetition of compulsive desire. It’s no wonder that after a few years of this cycle, we become stressed and anxious; our health begins to fail; our relationships disintegrate; things fall apart.

So, moderation and a sense of balance are called for. In reappraising what it is that we want from life, we discover the fundament is simply contentedness. We now have a clear reference point from which we can navigate our way towards balance. For many of us, this reorientation will involve moderating desires and aspirations. Actually, it entails clarifying the hierarchy of our desires themselves. This means indulging only those reasoned conducive to emotional fulfilment, and bringing balance to any habituated tendency to acquire, accumulate and possess.

It’s not about asceticism and depriving ourselves of pleasure per se. Material acquisitiveness is hardly an assurance of delight and pleasure in any case. If we can calm this fetishisation of possession, of accumulation, we lend ourselves to a pleasing sense of ease amidst even the mundane, finding repose in our simple presence of being. So the moderation balances the overreaching fixation with goods, with what is truly good. Absenting this, we remain trapped in a cycle of desire and gratification, never free to realise any enduring emotional well-being.

In contentedness, we relinquish desire itself, and the need to moderate expires along with it. Desire on its own isn’t pleasant, no more than thirst and hunger are. It’s often accompanied with excitement, and we conflate and confuse the two. Clarifying this conceptual mess involves living contemplatively, and in so doing we disentangle ourselves from the whole sorry state. The idea of contentedness with little isn’t viewed as some trite and precious New-Age trope; it’s lived and is real. In using desire to overcome desire, we at last find what we’ve been looking for.