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.

Rivers of anticipation

Photography: J. Lau, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

Photography: J. Lau, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

I check the post, make a few calls, and then, beneath a cerulean sky, I wander over to Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street, where Jamaican Blue Mountain and croissants await, just as they do each workday. It’s going to be a fine start to the week, the mood feels good, and even the West End’s down-and-outs seem chipper at their day’s prospects. As I sip my coffee, I look forward to the visit of a very dear old friend back at my office, and also to the evening, when the two of us are off to see Oscar Peterson at the club ‘round the corner on Frith Street. In between, there’ll be fascinating anecdotes about my friend’s recent tour of South America. My mood balloons with each sip, each bite, and each expectant thought; I just know this will be an unforgettable day.

These anticipatory rivers flowed within me on the morning of Monday 26th of October 1981. Yet as I exit the patisserie, I feel a palpable tension rushing the veins of Soho; police trot purposefully along Greek Street up towards Soho Square, staccato bursts of urgent voices, mixed with static, crackle through walkie-talkies, the stressed faces of the officers betray to all that trouble is in the air. Earlier that morning, just a stone’s throw away, two taciturn young Irishmen had discretely descended to the basement of the Wimpey burger restaurant on Oxford Street. And just 29 minutes before, the IRA had issued their customary warning to Scotland Yard. In a few seconds, an explosives officer’s career will end abruptly, along with his life, in what I will feel and hear as a single dull ‘thwomp’.

Our days pass peering into the future expectantly; tidal streams of anticipation ebb and flood the estuarine contours of the mind as we imaginatively envision how our life will be in the next minute, hour, day, or year. Some even project as to the quality of their putative afterlife; whereas others illogically dread their inevitable non-existence. The colouration imbued within these projections reflects our character; we may conjure a Panglossian narrative in which all will be well in this, as Leibniz would have it, the best of all possible worlds; or we sense only foreboding as the weeping prophet of selfhood cries upon the shoulder of the Jeremiah within. These are the extremes of our anticipatory tendencies, the majority of which lean more to moderation.

It can be instructive to examine this ubiquitous tendency to anticipate, as for many of us, this necessary faculty is overused to the point of abuse. One may ask what harm may be done in our habitual projecting; to be forewarned is to be forearmed is it not? And yet, if it is Doctor Pangloss diagnosing optimistically within the cranial ward, we absorb only into a quasi-magical wish fulfilment, which in truth protects us from nought and holds reality in abeyance. On the other hand, should our own homunculus take on the character of the biblical weeping prophet, we then are rendered transfixed in a similar stasis of inaction. A useful moderator is to mindfully observe these internal patterns; in this way, we gain balance between a helpful preparedness, caution and idealism.

Any seasoned meditators reading here will know all too well the flow of their own anticipations. ‘Just sit’ the Roshi and Rishi advise, as if it were the simplest of instructions. Yet even as discursive thinking is allayed, and the mind pacifies in spaciousness, there still may at times be felt a momentum as expectation navigates awareness from one moment to the next; a subtle grasping at the immediate future; an almost imperceptible bumping along the tracks of time. Whilst this is an extremely subtle state of affairs, there remains a certain time thievery which brooks no interruption and seeks only now-ness in a curious denial of its presence. There’s a misguided, neurotic neediness to anticipate awareness itself as the busying homunculus within rejects all offers of an early retirement.

As I have aged, I increasingly distrust the mind’s projections about the world and my place in it, having come, slowly, to recognise their unreliability. I acknowledge also just how much of the life gifted to me has been squandered as I dwelt in expectation of this or that occurrence. Events turn out differently; just as they did for both Officer Kenneth Howorth and myself 33 years ago to this very day. With my quarter of the West End in virtual lockdown, my dear friend feels unable to visit; Oscar remains holed-up at The Dorchester; and I return home in the afternoon only to discover cause for the ending of a relationship. A river of anticipation forms; I surely face only this inhospitable tundra of the emotions; my past with its imagined securities detonates – ‘thwomp’.

The absurdity of adulthood

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Have you noticed the manner in which many adults relate to each other when discussing children? Much of the time, there’s an affectionate knowingness that presupposes some naïve absurdity of either the child, or of children, generally. This attitude of the adult often carries forward in any spoken exchanges with children themselves, particularly so when engaging with others’ offspring. So there’s a certain pretension or dissembling that goes on, and within which the adult assumes superiority over those less mature. I wonder, what is the validity of this?

In maturity, we garner a greater sophistication of thought of course; this is undeniable. Although the child’s acquisition of language is remarkably efficient, due in part to the neural plasticity of their brain, there’s of yet little or no urbanity or finesse apparent in the structure of their words. This lack, we as adults extrapolate from in arriving at our conclusions as to the child’s naiveté and necessarily present, though cute, daftness. The poor little things will learn of course; over time they’ll come to see the world through eyes such as ours. Is this good?

Perhaps, after all, there is something we lose in our maturing of thought and in the percipience of our on-going analysis of the world. The directness of the child’s apprehending of this same world remains unencumbered by the myriad assumptions we assimilate as we go through life making sense of it in ideas wrought from experience and conditioning. We slip imperceptibly into the habitation of these assimilations and also into the extended ideas they sculpt in our minds. This is our so-called maturation, upon which we abandon all naïveté.

Which, if either, is the more absurd condition, that of the child, or of the mature adult? This article’s title reveals my own conclusion, though it’s worth unwrapping how we arrive at any personal position. Then again, you may feel that the question of absurdity is misplaced, particularly if you detect none within your own character or behaviours. You’re a serious individual perhaps, never prone to the farcical or preposterous; you’ve long since outgrown those tendencies and pursue your life with an unremitting clarity of purpose for the greater part – is that really so?

As an adult, I lose my immediate connection with life as my attention is seduced by thoughts. This seduction may not hold any overt allure, and I might just as easily float adrift upon a meaningless sea of flotsam and jetsam as perhaps upon rarefied clouds of reason. It would utterly horrify me if others could see the abject mess that my adult mind is in for most of the day. The dramaturgy of my social construct would be seen for the façade that it is. I am acting in a farcical play in which I detach not only from others, but from my own vital presence of being.

If others are sensitive, they can sense the dissembling at some level, recognising it as a reflection of their own habitation of mature self-entity, their own clumsy collisions of a patched together narrative. So there we are, the two of us each knowing the other has lost authenticity in the interchange. Despite this subtle knowing, we intuit we have no option but to continue the whole charade. We recognise that in once long ago having stigmatised the possibility of appearing naïve or absurd, we in the process became objects of that same feared absurdity.

Some of our dramaturgy is altogether necessary, as true spontaneity, absurdity and unmitigated directness can be rather frightening or offensive to others. Unconventional displays feel risky to us anyhow; we feel safer in our make believe and have long since lost the wide-eyed receptivity of childhood past. Playing the cautious hand, entrapped like Yossarian in Catch-22, we otherwise would escape the drama so as to relate more authentically, yet doing so risks alienating those we would relate to. So our maturity confines us as we pine for the child’s freedom.

This is not to say that we must remain caught in such a predicament. In knowing ourselves deeply, we no longer need default to the obfuscation of absurdity, yet may still retain certain conventions of social interaction. The truly mature adult embodies the child within amidst a playfully offhand knowingness that remains respectful in all encounters with others. Our physiognomy and dialogue may at times adapt so as to bridge two worlds of knowing, at once refining the art of absurdity to such a point that its formerly elusive obviousness negates openly.

Contentedness with little and the fetishisation of possession

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

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.

Behavioral awareness and change

Alan. By Chez Worldwide, Manchester

Photography: Chez Worldwide, Manchester

There’s a man I’ve known for a number of years who, despite his intelligence and sensitivity, has a behavioural problem he’s quite unaware of. This man is by no means unique in that regard; many of us are blinded to aspects of ourselves which in others we may well regard as failings. It’s a known phenomenon; we quite often take exception to the character traits of others that are prominent in ourselves too, though which we deny or remain ignorant of. It’s quite likely that you too may recognise this phenomenon in someone you know quite well.

When sub-consciously we recognise in ourselves a very similar characteristic to that which we disapprove of in others, there’s often a strong emotional response that appears as if out of nowhere. All the while, we deny access in awareness to this very same characteristic that we too abundantly possess. Whilst those around us may often see through the lack of self-awareness, we assiduously maintain our self-deception. So this is what the man I’m referring to does, and I thought it would be useful to write about how it’s affected him throughout life.

As I was saying, this fellow is intelligent; he’s a lecturer in the humanities department of a state-run college. He reads quite widely on the environment and politics, through evolutionary biology and anthropology, to current affairs and social trends. And like I said, he’s sensitive too; he recognises inequality and injustice in their many forms, and responds emotionally to any act of compassion he may witness or hear of. So you would think that most of the pieces are in place for him to be a reflective and self-aware man – someone who knows himself.

What this chap fails to see in his persona is an arrogance borne of impatience. In other words, his compulsively impatient nature leads him into making snap judgements in which he assumes he knows best. In a sense, these conclusions are logical, because if we resist understanding the position of the other, then what remains is only our own position or world view. And of course, we all assume our own views and opinions are best – if we thought they weren’t we wouldn’t hold them. So the impatient mind tends to limit its capacity to be informed by others.

Now of course, in his chosen reading, this man takes on board the views of others – he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Yet this reading conforms to his world-view in that it’s self-selected; he reads what broadly endorses, or expands upon, his own set of beliefs. When it comes to the views of his social and familial contacts however, the shutters come down. His impatience impels him into snap judgements which invariably fail to grant any validity to the other. To him, it’s just a waste of time to listen to what is borne of the others’ life experience; to him it has no validity.

Naturally, this results in a tangibly felt transmission of high-handedness. There’s a palpable air of exclusion, a heavily qualified acceptance in which the other knows and feels what’s implied – that ultimately they don’t count for much. And all of this rebounds upon our man because he cares for his friends and family of course. And like him, his friends and family have sensitivities too; they know what they feel even though they may not extend those feelings into any analysis. They don’t need to; they know their feelings are true, and know how and when they arise.

So this chap I’m discussing who could know himself and yet doesn’t, unwittingly creates a distance between himself and those around him. He stifles his siblings and parents with his arrogant assumptions, which he regards as reasonable but which are solely self-validations. And he oppresses those who would be close to him in denying the validity of their experience. He’s blinded to all this, even though his culpability is quite apparent to others. Retrenched into self-validating views which he protects at the cost of his relationships; he in effect denies himself too.

If he were able to resist his impulse to judge prematurely, for once to be unconcerned about wasting time and the terrible possibility of suffering a little boredom, he’d learn much about himself through others. He’d see that each individual has a uniqueness of experience no less valid than his own, so having a valuable capacity to inform. Progressively gaining insight into his wilfully ignored and damaging past behavioural traits, his self-validating existence would gradually be supplanted with a new sense of engagement in which all around him would happily participate.

Instead though, this otherwise intelligent man remains intolerant of any whose views are unaligned to his own. Ungraciously rebuffing those who wilfully resist or simply ignore his own perceived correctness, he dismisses them with a passive aggression – sarcasm or hostile humour. Yet the others’ discounting of his stance was akin to his own behaviour reflecting back at him, and which sub-consciously he recognises as such. So he responds curtly, spurning the very thing he perpetuates in his own persona. He rejects this trait, though in others only – it’s hypocrisy.

The remedy entails receptivity and a willingness to listen, to set aside our impatient self-interestedness and participate in shared moments without pre-judging. In not indulging impatience, its opposite arises and we engage with others rather than being dismissive of them. If boredom or conflict arises in our mind, we accept this is self-generated – it’s our problem, not the others’. Rather than enslaving ourselves to impulse and alienating those around us through our behaviour, we put our house in order. We can change at any time in life; all it takes is the will to do so.