Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ambition vs. Acceptance

Ambition. It sounds like a good quality. It's the drive we have to try to better our current situation. That's good; that's desirable--in most cases even admirable. But sometimes, usually in retrospect, we realize that in order to better ourselves, there was something sacrificed in the process.

When Pizarro went to conquer a new land in the Americas, he was the archetype of ambition. He came from humble beginnings, and in Spain at that time, it was almost impossible to overcome the station one was born into. Unless. Unless one was willing to strike out in the newly discovered Americas and conquer lands for and in behalf of Spain.

Pizarro gambled everything he had and all the respect he had gained so far in order to acquire the Peruvian lands the Incas claimed. The gamble paid off: he became wealthy, received titles and fame, and became the de facto ruler of Peru--everything an illegitimate child from the poor region of Spain could have ever hoped for. In the process, he annihilated thousands of Incas, including 3 of their chiefs, and stripped the land of all the gold and silver he could find. In the end, Pizarro himself would be killed by ambitious men looking to gain honor and glory themselves.

Perhaps that is too strong a case. Most people would say, "Sure, I want to get ahead, but I certainly wouldn't kill anybody. Or steal their stuff. I have my limits." But what about the guy who works long hours to get ahead, and leaves their families to eat dinners alone without him? Or what about the athlete who taunts his opponent and then, sometimes literally, crushes him? If getting a good deal on a house means taking advantage of someone who has to sell in a market that has suddenly tanked, well, that's just life, isn't it? And if you have to crawl into bed with people with low morals to get elected, well, it wouldn't be the first time.

Still, what is the alternative? Accepting the way your life is, without pining for more, can also be a good and desirable trait. Admirable, even. These are the people in a perpetual state of calm where trials and tribulations are peacefully accepted as part of life. Instead of yearning for things they cannot have, they make the best with what they have. And yet these are also the people who get stepped on, abused, and forgotten.

The Incas were by no means calm and peaceable people. They had conquered most of what is now Peru and parts of Chile and Ecuador only three generations before the Spaniards appeared. However, they didn't react when the Spaniards showed up, and instead did everything the Spaniards asked. They gave them gold and silver, women and food, thinking that if they just endured these hairy men from a strange land, they would eventually go away. It wasn't until it was too late that they started to rebel and revolt against these foreigners who were unilaterally cruel and untrustworthy.

Again, we might say, "Well, I would never stand for someone to take advantage of me time and again like that, without putting up a fight." But what about the guy who stays at a job that asks for all of his time and effort without paying enough to feed his family? Or the athlete who throws in the towel and gives up before the contest is over? If we get laid off of a job, do we try to make it by just on unemployment, hoping the economy will just turn around? And is it right to sit back and let others shoulder the responsibility for the PTA, the work committee, the local co-op, when we reap all the benefits?

I'm not sure what the answer is, where the fine line is drawn between the two and which virtue is better. Although they are mutually exclusive states, perhaps it is all about the timing. Learning when to fight, and when to stop. As they say, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this in one sitting on the way home from my grandmothers funeral. I'd read it in high school but honestly couldn't remember anything about it. It's the quintessential growing up in the South, coming of age book narrated by a young girl. It's what The Secret Life of Bees and countless others try to be.

In the first scene, Scout describes her Southern town as moving slowly in the hot summer heat. That is how Lee's novel seems to unfold, slowly and carefully, not rushing along, or preaching too much. Characters don't come from nowhere, or dissappear. The lessons learned in the book come about organically, naturally, yet leaves you with hope that we have actually learned something from them.

Atticus Finch was recently listed as one of the all-time best heros--and indeed, for his courage and his wisdom, he is one of my favorite literary figures.

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The Last Days of the Incas The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
The book jacket introduces Kim MacQuarrie as a filmmaker who lived among Peruvian Indians for 5 years. Both experiences color his writing, but mostly for the benefit of the reader. The history he relates of the interaction between the first Spanish conquistadors and the Incas reads like a Hollywood film. I can almost picture the marquee: Tom Cruise in the Last of the Incas....But history is almost always at least as exciting as fiction and this is certainly entertaining reading. The Spanish conquistors come across as being selfish, bigoted, and cruel--which they most certainly were. However, while MacQuarrie takes pains to justify the Incas' retaliation, he gives no quarter to the Spainards. Which may be justified--but--the Incas themselves were conquerors--how did the native peoples feel about being subjugated by the Incas? The point being, perhaps it wasn't the most objective book about the subject.

Still, it was an exciting read. You root for the Incas and feel vindication when they are able to win a battle or two. The ensuing tale of the search for ruins of the lost city of the Incas is not as exciting, but still fairly interesting.

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