When I talk about ambition in this article I am talking about something far more than a simple desire to take the next step up whatever career ladder we’ve found ourselves trying to climb. I am talking about a very basic motivating factor in all living creatures; the desire to improve one’s life.
This concept, the desire to have an easier or happier or better time of it is not only perfectly understandable at a very basic level (after all who wants to be miserable when they could be happy?) it is also an integral part of evolution, or survival of the fittest. If a species finds there is lots of food and a safe habitat then things are fine, but then the population of that species will grow, suddenly there is a shortage of food and / or habitat, then there is a desire to move on, to find somewhere that isn’t so crowded or where food isn’t so scarce. The human species originated in Africa, but it now covers the whole earth, and it did so before modern modes of transport were even thought of.
Ambition is a feeling within us, like a hunger, to always be moving on to the next challenge, or the next improvement, to always be on the lookout for ways to improve or better ourselves.
I am convinced that this ‘ambition’ is a contributing factor to many people’s drinking, it certainly was for me. At one point I was living in a two-bedroom house with a wife and two young children. It was cramped and cluttered, but we couldn’t afford to move. I was doing a job that I found ridiculously easy, I knew I could do better but just couldn’t find an opportunity to move on. I had a constant feeling of thwarted ambition nagging away at me, and drinking was a way to anaesthetise this for a few moments.
Ambition is a feeling that is always with us. No matter how well things are going there is a perfectly natural desire to keep making improvements, to always be on the look out to make things better. If things are going well ambition is a very small and remote feeling, it is almost just an awareness to keep an eye open for ways to improve. But if things aren’t going well, if we are going through a tough time, then ambition becomes a stronger motivating factor. It becomes a strong desire, a constant feeling of restlessness, a living thing within us driving us to seek change.
Ambition is one of the reasons many addicts are constantly moving between taking the drug and abstaining. They are miserable when they are taking the drug, but because stopping means giving up something the believe they enjoy, they are miserable when they stop. So they are constantly looking to make a change between imbibing and abstaining. The problem is of course there is no third way, they either take the drug or they don’t. They are miserable either way, so they are constantly flitting between the two. Sure, they can try to moderate, but with drugs the natural tendency is to take more and more, so eventually the intake slides back to where it was and they have to stop again.
The thing about ambition is it is based entirely on our own position, it knows no perspective. I once served in the reserve battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and did a tour of Iraq back in 2005 / 2006. I’ve seen first hand how difficult and terrible some people’s lives actually are. We are aware on an academic level of the problems out in Syria, but it is a very different to witness these things first hand. Rationally I should never have felt that level of discomfort I felt when we were living in that two-bed house. I had no realistic expectation that we would run out of food, or that we could be killed at any moment, or that we could be robbed and lose everything we owned. Compared to that we were living the high life; a steady wage, a place to live, and readily available food. But I wasn’t happy. I was deeply unhappy and deeply unsatisfied, and no matter how much I told myself to be thankful for what I had it didn’t stop me wanting more. Ambition was there gnawing at me, and drink was a way to dull it. This is perfectly natural if you think about it. If an animal is living in one area where food is short, and it sees ample food in another area, should it remain where it is purely because there is a third area where food is even more scarce? Just because there is someone else worst off than you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want to make changes to your own life to improve it.
There is a prayer you quite often hear at AA meetings about having the courage to change the things you can change, accepting the things you can’t, and having the wisdom to know the difference. It is good advice as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that accepting the things we cannot change is not something we can just choose to do. It also I think ignores how much of a motivator desperation can be. How many things in a human being’s life are incapable of change, and by incapable I mean that there is literally nothing we can do to change it? I would say virtually nothing, unless you are physically chained to the wall of a prison. What we really mean when we say we cannot change something is that the available options to change something are either impracticable, or difficult, or more painful than suffering whatever it is that we are suffering. However the more desperate we become, the more consideration we give to these alternatives. It may be best not to accept something you cannot change, if that refusal to accept causes the desperation and / or courage finally required to make the change. Necessity is the mother of invention.
The problem of course with drinking to relieve thwarted ambition is that drinking weakens us mentally and physically (see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which can be read here), and therefore leaves us less able to make change. All change requires courage, and drinking robs us of courage. Plus why we would we want to take active and often risky steps to make a change and appease our ambition, when we can just as easily anaesthetise it with a bottle of something? It is no coincidence that since I stopped drinking I have had two new jobs (both a considerable step up from the previous) and we have managed, as a direct consequence, to move house. Both job changes have taken courage, they have both been a step into the unknown, the most recent one in particular took a huge leap of faith and it was touch and go as to whether I made the move or not. Had I still been drinking I genuinely doubt I would have had the courage and self-confidence to make the move. The additional problem is of course that we always convince ourselves that life has turned out for the best. Had I not taken this current job I could have sat there until the day I died telling myself it was for the best, that I was better off staying where I was. I would have believed it as well, and having never taken the step I could never be proved wrong, but the fact is that the move was better for me, and nothing can ever change that.
Drinking removes our courage, our metal resilience, and our confidence, which leads us to believe that some changes are out or our reach or ability or are not possible for other reasons, so we do not take them. We then convince ourselves we were right not to take that step, and of course it doesn’t really matter anyway because that thwarted ambition is easily relieved by drinking. Instead of making changes for the better, stretching ourselves, reaching higher and developing ourselves as we are supposed to, we just dull the ambition with drink.
What we need to bear in mind is that this constant desire to improve, to always be moving on to the next thing, is not something that we should try to resist, it is normal and natural and it is the way that we improve our lives and the lives of those who rely on us.