I listened to entirely too much Hamilton over the last year.
Ok that’s not true. There’s no such thing as *too much* Hamilton. But I did listen to it a lot. A LOT. I was a little bit late arriving to the party (as I am with almost anything in pop culture), but once I arrived, I didn’t want to leave.
As a result, a great deal of my thinking over the past year has been framed through the lyrics and the characters of Hamilton. At one point I spent a lot of time worrying because I related so well to Aaron Burr’s character before eventually deciding that was a silly thing to worry about. I’m probably not going to kill anyone in a duel just because he won’t let me in the room where it happens (mostly because I don’t live close enough to New Jersey). But then again, maybe I just haven’t met my Hamilton yet.
The clash between Hamilton and Burr (as it is presented in the musical, at least) is essentially a clash of styles of ambition. Hamilton and Burr are incredibly ambitious men in a cast of ambitious characters. Each character has their own style of ambition: Washington seems very aware that history has its eyes on him and is able to set his ambition aside for the good of the nation; Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and enjoys reminding everyone of that fact; Angelica will never be satisfied; Hercules Mulligan is using the war to socially advance instead of sewing some pants… You get the idea. Every character in the cast has goals and will do what it takes to reach them.
It’s Hamilton and Burr’s ambitions, however, that take center stage. Their different personalities come through most clearly in how they express and pursue their ambitions.
Hamilton charges full-speed ahead after the things he wants, while Burr is often willing to take a more roundabout approach. Hamilton is “not throwing away his shot,” but Burr is going to “wait for it.” Hamilton says exactly what is on his mind (“sometimes I get over-excited, shoot off at the mouth”), but Burr’s approach is to “talk less, smile more; don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” (That line is why I relate so well to Burr’s character.)
Over and over again, Hamilton’s ambitions are rewarded, while Burr is left wishing he too could be “in the room where it happens.” On more than one occasion, Burr calls out Alexander for his pride and ambition, without seeing the danger of the ambition within himself: “I swear your pride will be the death of us all; beware, it goest before the fall.”
At one point in a letter to Angelica, Alexander compares himself to Macbeth and writes, “Ambition is my folly.” It’s not an important line in the grand scheme of the script. I’m not even sure whether or not Hamilton’s character believes it when he says it. Yet it’s so true. For Hamilton, for Burr, their ambition IS their folly. Ambition derails them both on their way to the top.
Ambition is bad. That must be the message of Hamilton, right? After all, it kills one main character and makes the other one a murderer. It’d be nice if it were as simple as that, but it can’t be. Not much would happen in this world without ambition. No one would seek cures to diseases or explore outer space or run for president without ambition. Ambition may be folly, but it’s also pretty productive.
Not long ago I told my mom a career goal I have, then quickly followed it up by admitting that maybe I was being a bit pretentious. She responded, ‘Someone has to decide they want to be the principal.’ (She’s a schoolteacher.) Being a principal isn’t my goal, but it was her way of saying, ‘It’s okay to aim for big and important things.’ It’s okay to be ambitious. Someone has to do it.
And yet ambition is still a tricky quality as a Christian, because ambition is so closely associated with pride. Ambition takes many forms: a belief in one’s own abilities, a confidence to move forward, a desire to lead, a desire to be remembered, and above all, a desire to do something great worth remembering. I don’t think any of those are necessarily bad, but it’s also easy to see how those desires lead fallen humans to where Hamilton and Burr ended up.
As I have pondered ambition this year, my thoughts have turned to where ambition fits within the ministry. How does one balance lofty goals with the call of God? I’m definitely a person who is prone to ambition. Can my ambitions be used to advance the Kingdom of God? Or will they always get in the way?
“Ambition is my folly.” In a single day I might swing multiple times between the extreme poles of pride at the good I am doing and jealousy of the good other pastors and churches are doing. My ambition drives these swings. It’s an internal struggle to balance a call to do good with a drive to be great.
I’ll give you an example. I pastor a small church in a small town with too many churches. Some days I remember that we are all on the same team and I sacrifice and work with them and do my best to put the good of God’s kingdom ahead of the good of my church. Other days I go full-on Alexander the Great and want to just conquer every other church in town because I’m pretty sure I should just be in charge and boy would it make my life easier.
See what I mean about ambition being my folly? As much as I want to think that personal ambition is ok in this world, I really have struggled to find a place for it in the Kingdom. And maybe that’s because Jesus was so anti-ambition in the way he lived. “…Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7)
I spend a lot of time grasping. I’m not sure I spend enough time emptying myself.
Is there a good kind of ambition, or is all ambition folly? I was beginning to think it all folly until I caught something I had never noticed before in the final song of the musical: ambition on behalf of someone else.
There has actually been a lot of writing over the past year about the ambition in Hamilton. Writers have looked at Hamilton, Burr, Angelica, Jefferson, etc. And yet, nowhere has anyone considered the ambition of the other central character to the story: Eliza.
Eliza is Alexander Hamilton’s wife. In a play full of characters obsessed with their legacies (what is a legacy?) and with what stories history will tell about them, Eliza is different.
While everyone else is worried about how they will be remembered, Eliza worries about how Alexander will be remembered. In the final song, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ she recounts everything she did to preserve Alexander’s memory in the fifty years after he dies, and then she asks the most selfless question in the entire show:
“When my time is up, have I done enough, will they tell your story…?”
In a play about people who want to make sure that history tells their story, Eliza devotes her life to making sure that history will tell someone else’s story. She is no less ambitious than anyone else in the story. The difference is that her type of ambition is not self-seeking, but is ambitious on behalf of the glory of another.
And so it was in Eliza that I finally began to see how my ambition could fit into ministry. I can aim to accomplish great things…on behalf of the Kingdom. I can dream lofty goals…on behalf of the Kingdom. Ambitions and selflessness can fit together!
I spend much of my life worried about being remembered, about people having a story to tell about me. I can be a little obsessed with my legacy, as Hamilton was. As long as ambition remains about me, it is my folly, but as soon as it is focused on God, it becomes my purpose.
At the end of the day, at the end of my life, my goal isn’t that people would talk about great things I’ve done… It’s that they would talk about the great things that God has done. “…Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
They may not remember me. But that’s ok because I have a God who remembers me.
When my time is up, have I done enough, will they tell God’s story?