My favourite poem on the topic of ambition is Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Perhaps, it’s because it spoke to me in a way so few poems did, or its impact stemmed mostly from the cautionary tale effect it had on me. Many of us yearn to make our lives mean something. I guess we all figured, that since we’re already here, we might as well leave our mark. Like a teenager in high school, etching into walls and benches “Martin was here”, so perhaps down the line that small mark may survive.
The great dilemma is that even though one may truly understand this, it does not render one exempt from a yearning to make it all matter. Some may seek God, others fame, and almost everyone financial success. Something to make the blip in time we spend on earth, or any other planet when we become an interstellar species, outlast us.
Far from being an admonishment of those who pursue material gains, fame or other attempts at eternalising our mortal lives, I believe this should serve to temper us. While we may devote ourselves to a worldly pursuit, we should always remain cognisant that it in itself is not the be all end all of our lives, and that while we play our parts in the current stage play on earth, in time we will fade into a forgotten dream. We will meld into the residual traces of a zeitgeist that will only survive through symbols and the modern record keeping of its time.
Life will move on, as it always does, and the lesson in the parable of Ozymandias is that even a “king of kings’s” mark on earth will erode in time, leaving but vestigial remains. This does not mean that we should not attempt to live meaningful lives but on the contrary it should embolden us to make the most of our roles in this current play. Without deluding ourselves, with a calm and controlled approach to life. Alternatively, it could help us pursue whatever life will make the play hold some personal meaning for us and render it more bearable, with no shame or regrets. Even as far as our species at large is concerned, all its “greatest and most ignoble acts” will one day succumb along with this universe’s end.
It is perhaps for a good reason that most choose not to contemplate this unavoidable truth. There is a pleasantness in deluding ourselves to think just one or two generations down the lines and believing our actions are universal necessities. As though the universe is in short supply of technological advances or rich men, or that its ultimate end will be altered by how famous one becomes, by furnishing it with a will to live to keep our legend alive.
These are all products of vanity and ego, immature reasoning intended to keep us drudging through life and exaggerating the importance of our actions. While there is nothing wrong with wanting things in life, so long as no one is harmed, it does not matter how much wealth is accrued, or how much power is gained. Not really, but strangely the smaller, easier deeds do matter in the present. Treating others well, as comrades or brothers on this journey and making this strange existential experiment easier and somewhat enjoyable are things that matter now, and will always matter in each future generation. If only for the sake of decency and being human, we should treat others as we would hope to be ideally treated.
On the other hand, this realisation also exonerates us of fears that could cripple us into inactivity in our lives. Those fears and excuses are many and sundry, but they may sound like:
- What will others think of me, if I did music (or any thing that’s not the societal norm) ?
- What if my parents hate me for not studying Law?
- What if I get killed for speaking the truth about this or that matter in public?
- What if I wished to do X, or am X, how will the world treat me?
In relative terms, these seem such big matters but even in relative terms once a thing is done, it usually loses all the frightening hold it has over us. Life moves on, and people tend to adapt to the current reality much quicker than we realise. Yes, this article and its theme is probably making you uncomfortable, you’ll most likely try to block out that discomfort but ultimately if you are bent on achieving great things, some part of you should always remain aware that while you may be totally consumed by the accomplishments you seek, it does not ultimately increase your worth or make your life any more meaningful, or less meaningful than that of anyone else.
Now I leave you to enjoy the Ozymandias poem:
I hope you enjoyed this article and it offered a short reprieve from the hum drum of life. Please, share your thoughts in the comments section.