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Ambition And Its Discontents

Ruthie & Mike Leming, five days after her cancer diagnosis
Ruthie & Mike Leming, five days after her cancer diagnosis

I’m so grateful to The Atlantic’s Emily Esfahani Smith for her terrific piece about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and the book’s message about ambition in American life. Excerpts:

In the book, he describes leaving his Starhill home to pursue a career in journalism — a career that took him to cities like Baton Rouge, Washington DC, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia. He was chasing after a bigger and better career with each move. “I was caught up in a culture of ambition,” Dreher told me me in an interview.

While Dreher was a dreamer, Ruthie was satisfied with what she had. When Dreher was living in big cities, going to fancy restaurants, carousing with media types, writing film reviews for a living, and traveling to Europe, Ruthie was back home in Louisiana, living down the road from her parents, starting a family of her own, and devoting herself to her elementary school students as a teacher. Ruthie could not understand Dreher’s lifestyle. Why would he want to leave home for a journalism career? Wasn’t Starhill good enough? Did Rod think he was better than all of them?

These “invisible walls” stood between Ruthie and Dreher when, on Mardi Gras of 2010, Ruthie was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer — devastating news that ripped through her community “like a cyclone” says Dreher, who was living in Philadelphia at the time. She was a healthy non-smoking 40-year-old, beloved by her students, her neighbors, her three daughters, and her husband. Now, she had about three months to live. She actually lived for nineteen. On September 15, 2011, Ruthie passed away.

Ruthie & Hannah, Homecoming parade
Ruthie & Hannah, Homecoming parade

Watching her struggle with terminal cancer for 19 months, and seeing her small-town community pour its love into supporting her, was a transformational experience for Dreher. “There are some things that we really cannot do by ourselves,” Dreher said. “When Ruthie got sick, there were things that her family could not do — they couldn’t get the kids to school without help, they couldn’t get meals on the table without help, they couldn’t pay the bill without help. It really took a village to care for my sick sister. The idea that we are self-reliant is a core American myth.”


The conflict between career ambition and relationships lies at

Abby & Ruthie, dancing on the bar at a Cajun roadhouse
Abby & Ruthie, dancing on the bar at a Cajun roadhouse

the heart of many of our current cultural debates, including the ones sparked by high-powered women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter. Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back. Which is more important? Just the other week, Slate ran a symposium that addressed this question, asking, “Does an Early Marriage Kill Your Potential To Achieve More in Life?” Ambition is deeply entrenched into the American personae, as Yale’s William Casey King argues in Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue­ — but what are its costs?

Esfahani Smith explores social science research showing that the more plugged into community you are, the more likely you are to be happy. More:

This may explain why Latin Americans, who live in a part of the world fraught with political and economic problems, but strong on social ties, are the happiest people in the world, according to Gallup. It may also explain why Dreher’s Louisiana came in as the happiest state in the country in a major studyof 1.3 million Americans published in Science in 2009. This surprised many at the time, but makes sense given the social bonds in communities like Starhill. Meanwhile, wealthy states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California were among the least happiest, even though their inhabitants have ambition in spades; year after year, they send the most number of students to Ivy League.

It’s like a friend of mine, a Louisiana expatriate working at a good Washington job told me (I paraphrase): “Louisiana is a great place to be mediocre. In Washington, everybody is consumed by ambition. They all want to change the world. In Louisiana, you can be not very successful, and that’s okay, because people will still love you and invite you to the crawfish boil.”

get-attachmentThis, ultimately, is what my book is about: yes, it’s a story of an amazing woman who lived well and died tragically, but more than that, it’s a story of a people and a place, and what really matters in life. That’s why, I dedicated the book to my nieces, Ruthie’s children in the way that I did (see photo).

You know someone who needs to read Little Way. Maybe he or she is graduating from high school or college, or struggling in their 20s with what to do with their lives.

Or maybe that someone is you.

UPDATE: I just read the comments under The Atlantic article, and boy are so many people completely missing the point. I’m not saying everybody should move back to their small town. It’s not for everybody, and many people don’t have a small town to move back to. The point is that wherever you are, your community, and your relationships, are more important than your ambition and your professional accomplishments. If you want to be truly happy and at home in the world, focus on those things.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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