Full life requires balance of ambition, contemplation

I was deeply moved reading “Tuesdays With Morrie” (1997), by Mitch Albom. I never saw the television adaptation (starring Jack Lemmon). No way could the story be better than the one Albom painted in my mind. There are some 11 million copies of this book published worldwide. Seems I wasn’t the only one deeply moved.

If it’s even possible that you missed it, Good Reader, “Tuesdays With Morrie” is the true story of the author’s reunion with college sociology professor Morrie Schwartz. Mitch had said he’d “stay in touch.” But, 16 years later, this held untrue. Mitch rekindles his relationship with Morrie when he sees his friend and mentor being interviewed on television. Morrie is in a wheelchair. Morrie is dying from the ravages of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease.)

Mitch visits Morrie on 14 Tuesdays before Morrie dies. In the book, Mitch tells the story of a professor who yet had much to teach him.

Mitch talks about a moment when he sees a stark contrast between himself and Morrie. I don’t have the quote right in front of me, but, in effect, Morrie tells him that, while they are both “looking out a window, I see more than you.” Morrie helps Mitch see how the “busy” and business of a hard-charging life can easily blind a man from the deeper contemplative life. ALS makes hard-charging impossible. It gives Morrie but two choices: despair, or dig deeper into the human experience. Morrie chooses the latter.

The timeless balancing act of ambition versus contemplation is much discussed by modern philosophers, moralists, theologians, sociologists and yes, therapists. And, if you’re not careful, you can easily get the idea that the contemplative life is to be much preferred over the ambitious life.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the number of middle-aged men who drop into therapy, paralyzed with this equation. These men tend to be uber-successful. They have conquered virtually every business undertaking. They are experts in their vocation. They have provided a lifestyle of advantage for their wives and children. Their lives are littered with adventures and experiences greatly admired and envied by others.

And they plop into therapy — lonely, anxious, lost, aimless, sometimes depressed, sometimes “acting out” in compulsive behaviors, affairs and the like. It’s a crisis of meaning and purpose. Everything that ever defined them seems no longer capable of defining them. They still rule their corner of the universe, but now they are wrestling with misery.

I’m saying you don’t have to get a terminal diagnosis to begin this journey of digging deeper into the human experience. Better said, to need to begin the journey, lest you despair, or even behave in ways that destroy all you’ve accomplished.

But, not so fast. Ambition is not, in itself, the enemy. Mitch would not have been inspired to reconnect with Morrie had Morrie not once been ambitious. Morrie’s gifts as an inspired professor, his efforts and rigor and hard work, are the very link that pulls Mitch to contact Morrie. Navel-gazing contemplation doesn’t do the world much good unless it eventually inspires concrete action (ambition) in the world.

I’m saying that the contemplative life is at once necessary for balance and human wholeness and a potential temptation to inertia. Finding the balance does not begin with disparaging all you have rightly and admirably accomplished in the first half of life.

Alone, I’m suspicious of both ambition and contemplation. Each is, by itself, one-dimensional. Though I’ll freely admit that Western culture overvalues the former, and tends to undervalue the latter. Which is why those middle-aged men in crisis so often seem lost and disoriented, like a child learning to tie his shoes for the first time.

I’m not willing to discard ambition altogether. Though I am willing to admit that the most lasting and satisfying human experiences — love, intimacy, serenity, self-knowledge and self-acceptance — are not usually apprehended by ambition.

The human journey is cycles of moving out into the world to experience, hunt and gather, to conquer, followed by equally necessary movements into the inner world, to integrate, think, feel, grow.

And, for the lucky ones at the end of life, to hold gratefully, peacefully and dear.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.

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