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The Grand Ambition

As promised, here is the long and convoluted story of the driving force of my ambitions. I have never before told this in so much detail to anyone else, so I hope you can bear with me. I would be very interested in hearing what you think of it, in detail if possible. I really need lots of feedback on this one, though no hurry. Anyway, here goes.

I have to start with my father. He was born in Asia but studied abroad as a graduate student before eventually settling here. While there, he interned briefly in the capital and became drawn to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements of the 1960s.

Yet not forgetting his origin in the desperate poverty of the Third World, he was committed to international social justice, and joined a social-democratic party shortly after his immigration. His own political career, however, was stillborn. Too closed to himself and unable to form true alliances with people, he could only dominate people or battle them. His efforts to gain elected office got nowhere, and by about 1980 he had given up politics and turned to the anti-nuclear movement and other causes of that type. (Typically, he blamed his wife for his failure, arguing that he gave up politics under pressure from her.)

So when I was growing up I was very conscious of world social issues and trends to a degree that few children are. I was aware, to a painful extent, of the great suffering and despair than afflicts uncounted millions in the Third World. Grim statistics such as "40,000 children die of malnutrition and preventable disease every DAY" were tenets I absorbed before I could ride a bicycle. The political class I came to see as evil men who had to be replaced by the just in order to end the great wrongs of the age.

At first I didn't see myself in this role, of course. As a young child, I possessed a feverish intellect and read everything under the sun. The earliest career goal I can remember is wanting to be a mathematician, in the later part of Grade 3. Interestingly, this is about the first time I experienced depression, even though the emotional abuse at home had not yet started, nor had either of my addictions.

The turning point for me came in the summer of 1984, when I witnessed a federal election and was absolutely fascinated. Polls, parties, votes, government and politics had my 10-year-old mind spellbound, and I fell asleep every night watching the news, and amused everyone by obsessively following the campaign in the newspapers. At that age I decided that I, too, wanted to be prime minister one day. I had my party chosen and had ready-made stands distilled on nearly every ideological issue imaginable. Childish stands perhaps, and usually carbon-copies of my father's opinions, or what I thought would be his opinions, but held no less firmly.

I am also aware of another instinct that surfaced in the novels I read and stories I admired; the image of the Special One, the enormously talented boy who rises in steady brilliance and saves the world. I identified a lot with characters who were labelled as "exceptional" or "special" and were chosen for some great thing in the tale I was reading.

This tied in the the desire for attention that proved my downfall. In the private school I attended in Grades 5-6 that I have written earlier to you about, one of the biggest beef the other boys had with me was that I sought too much attention, and that resulted in the wave of bullying and abuse from them that so deeply scarred and traumatized me. They also were resentful of my militant leftist views, in fact six of them vowed to assasinate me if ever I was elected prime minister.

I had many other career dreams of course. Sometimes I fantasized of being a famous writer; or a great scientist. Always I wanted to be famous, to be celebrated, as Someone Who Changed the World. Even at that age I used to read biographies of great historical figures and see if I stacked up to their achievements at my age.

Eventually, though, I began to dismiss my abilities as a potential politician. I thought of myself as uncharismatic, unable to win hearts, lacking the energy to win elected office. And although I was forever winning praise for my intellect, my own growing self-hatred led me to believe it was not sufficient to stack with the best and brightest. It is interesting, though, that no one, other than my father or myself, ever seriously questioned my capability to eventually attain high office.

By the early years of high school I decided that a scientific or technical career would be best. My father never tired of pointing out the terribly high unemployment rates faced by people with "useless" degrees as political science. He kept pointing out his own example; he held a graduate degree in political science and was stuck in a job he hated (a community college instructor). The fact that I was as talented in math/science as in English was a great source of pride for him; he still had bitter memories of being rejected by medical school because of his low mark in chemistry in grade 12.

I cannot say I eventually chose to major in computer science in university under pressure from my father, since I agreed with his position and never really considered anything else. But a dichotomy, a deep inner conflict, was already apparent by late high school. My first intellectual love, ahead of anything else, was politics, economics, and philosophy. I liked computers, but I loved politics.

I felt driven. By age 18 my independent reading patterns were those of a boy bent on political pursuits and studying all he could to draw the appropriate lessons. It was almost as if something was compelling me. I had to be ready. For what end, I did not know; I had forsaken the "childish" prime ministerial dream, or so I thought. Yet I realized I was systematically building up a comprehensive personal economic and political ideology. All my extra-curricular activities in university - debating, student politics, the newspaper etc. seemed quite out of place for someone whose declared career goal was to be a computer professional.

I was maintaining all this reading and extracurric. on top of a completely unrelated academic workload and the dismal family background I have told you about earlier. I allowed myself no time to rest, and if I read science fiction instead of Mill or Kant felt guilty about it. And if people whose full-time academic studies were in the humanities seemed to be outpacing me, I fretted and worried about my "inferiority" even though I had forgotten more of computers and mathematics than any arts student had ever known. I obtained a nomination for a Rhodes scholarship; but my regret was that I failed to actually win the prestigious prize.

(I am sorry if I sound conceited - actually it is taking me a considerable effort to say anything positive about myself.)

I conceived of a plan that might finally reconcile the yawning gap between my official career path and my true heart's desires. I would find a job easily upon graduation (computer science is by far the most marketable discipline these days), and build up a large base of savings. I would then use my technical expertise to open doors in the corporate establishment and create a network. Then when the time was ripe, sometime between 2005 and 2015, I deemed, I would make the run for elected office.

The hitch was that I knew of no one who had actually done anything like this. Nor did I know anyone else with such an elaborate strategy, which furthermore rests on skills I do not possess - social charisma and the ability to impress people easily. The shyness, tiredness, and hesitance that were an integral part of my personality would have to be eliminated if success was to be mine.

Also it was evident that my addictions had to go if the Grand Ambition was to be realized. The lost hours I spent in sex addiction wouldn't fit well in a political campaign - also my perfectionism was always fretting about my lack of "sufficient" achievements, which was due to lack of physical fitness, caused in turn by compulsive overeating. I knew the demanding workload of a professional politician - the 15-16 hour days, the endless travel, the boundless energy and stamina required.

...

A wide-ranging intellectual such as myself can often feel frustrated and constrained by the often ritualistic nature of 12/step meetings, which can appear still and oppressive. The fact that many members have only contempt for intelligence and intellect does not help. "Nobody's too stupid to work the program, but some people are too damn' smart to work it" is a saying I have heard ad nauseam. The admittedly elitist thought that meetings are for the "little people" and I must rise above such mortal levels is still very much with me.

Nor is that all. There is a growing body of evidence that although the Grand Ambition - and its threat of failure in the face of seemingly intractable psychological problems - may actually have been a primary cause of my addictions. The constant sense of messianic duty to the downtrodden, the belief that I was given talents that had to be used for the benefit of humanity if I was to obtain redemption, the guilt and shame at the slightest sign of rest or relaxation - all this perfectionism is becoming evident as a strain few could live up to. I have been almost literally seeking, even planning, to gain the whole world and lose my own soul.

This in turn makes me question whether I have the strength or stamina, on a mental/emotional level, that is necessary for the Dream to be realized. If the striving causes me to fall into the throes of depression and addiction, am I really capable after all? Must the ambition die? If then, what will become of me? To what end will my life serve after the death of all I have ever craved and all I would want it to be? I do not believe I could stand working as a computer programmer for the rest of my life. It is not my heart's desire and it does not serve a cause of justice. I want to become a Great One, a character in the history books rather than a reader of them.

I am haunted every time I see a homeless old man digging for food in a garbage can. I all but blame myself for the cold lines of children lining up at food banks, the hopelessness of those trapped in poverty and injustice, the stark wrongs crying out for rectification. Nor is "ordinary" community work - volunteering at soup kitchens and the like - enough for me. I do not want merely to impact those close to me; I want to change society. Is this ego gone wild, the same kind of Master of the Universe, King Baby thoughts the Twelve Steps warn darkly of crushing, or simply the legitimate passions of a man almost consumed by the ideals of social justice and righteousness?

These are the kinds of questions I grapple with.

Private email, Oct. 10, 1996.