Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
A Miserable Business
Admiring ambition to succeed at all costs is a fairly recent attitude, part of the fall-out from the 80’s Wall Street boom epitomized in the mantra “Greed is good.” Greed and ambition have always been bedfellows. But prior to this new (which is not to say better or legitimate) light, sages and philosophers held them in dim view. In Ecclesiastes 4.4, Solomon writes, “I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Verse 8 pities a workaholic without family. “There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless—a miserable business!”
While Solomon’s stereotype has spawned great art (The Merchant of Venice, A Christmas Carol, There Will Be Blood), when played out in actual life it is indeed a miserable business. Howard Hughes is a case study in ambition run amok. Everything he touched turned to gold. The problem was he couldn’t stop touching things—oil drills, aircraft, movie studios, hotels, etc.—and his tragedy surfaces in being remembered as a paranoid recluse rather than the innovative genius he was. As Solomon predicted, Hughes’ insatiable ambition brought none of the satisfaction he sought, which ultimately drained his life and work of meaning. Had he controlled his compulsive, golden touch he could have grasped the peace of mind and fulfillment that eluded him in the end.
When More Turns Into Less
Ungoverned ambition is like heroin. Once it enters our system, it generates constant cravings for greater challenges and rewards. It has no final objective, though it habitually deceives us to imagine one exists. Before the latest high dissipates, ambition whets fresh appetites to fill. We all know people who’ll invest ridiculous time and energy and hock everything they value for one more success fix. Heroin addicts call this “chasing the high;” Solomon calls it “chasing after the wind.” Both amount to the same thing—the satisfaction never materializes. The chase resumes, enticing the success junkie to look for higher highs, regardless what they cost or how dark the search gets. Sooner than they know, they’re ambition’s slaves, toiling ‘round-the-clock and surrendering all sense of self to its demands. The world closes in, severing their connection with their Maker and crushing their confidence in His principles. As 1 John 2.16 explains, “Everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” Since nothing in the world has lasting value, the price of success eventually outweighs its worth. Status and wealth no longer compensate for lost beliefs, dignity, relationships, joy, and ethics. There comes a time in every success junkie’s life when more turns into less.
So what is Solomon saying? Should we abandon our dreams, ignore our drive to achieve, and live out our days in an idle funk? Of course not. In fact, Ecclesiastes 4.5 balances his warning about success addiction with caution against idleness: “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.” Everything comes together in the next verse: “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” Instead of yielding to worldly ambitions and meaningless measures, it’s better to focus on meaningful aspirations. The emphasis shifts from what we can do to who we can be. An aspiring life is no less challenging than an ambitious one. But it radicially differs in where it leads and what it values.
Aspirations establish fixed goals that produce satisfying rewards. A life steered by aspiration heeds Paul’s counsel in Colossians 3.2: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” So we align our ideals with Christ’s principles and we gauge our progress by His standards. When this happens, confidence we’re headed in the right direction brings about profound tranquility that precedes reaching our goals. An aspiration-led life literally flips ambition’s equation. Instead of seeking success to find peace, aspiration finds peace in seeking success. At every point, we’re sure what we have is all we require. We have no need for greed. We place no faith in two-handed toil, because we walk hand-in-hand with Jesus. He tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) Once we know and accept this by faith, we can stop chasing the wind and start walking on air.
Ambition seeks success to find peace. Aspiration finds peace in seeking success.
(Tomorrow: Look Inside)