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Chapter 142: Ambitious Thoughts

August 23, 2021
Chevy Chase, MD

I have a follow-up from my inquiries with experts who research newspaper coverage specific to society sections in the early 20th century. All agree with my theory that Emmett Wilson used the society sections as a way to promote himself, but other people did as well, so it wasn’t as if Emmett was doing anything outlandish or unusual. Melissa Jerome, project coordinator for the US Caribbean & Ethnic Florida Digital Newspaper Project for George A. Smathers Libraries ׀ University of Florida, suggested this practice was likely routine, as ordinary folk would contact the paper with this information, and editors made the decision what to include in their daily news based on the status of the individual.

Dr. Kimberly Voss, a researcher on newspapers and society for the University of Central Florida, agreed, stating that this kind of information seeded within the society columns was useful especially on slow news days.

It seems like a small detail to focus upon in Emmett’s research, but understanding the motives behind his actions as he was rebuilding his career is important. It’s also the most accurate approach I have for understanding Emmett’s ambitions when having to write much of his story without primary data.

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A while back I mentioned Emmett’s double addiction (ambition, in addition to alcohol).

I don’t believe ambition is a bad thing in and of itself; taken to an extreme, though, it can be destructive.

For example, if someone focused on ambition (furthering a career, or work on a project) to the exclusion of other important relationships, or healthy activities, and so forth. Another way of thinking about this is that many of us probably know a workaholic, someone who routinely puts in 80 hours a week, or more, because achievement can be addictive. I have a colleague who literally thrived on praise and feedback from her boss — and she did anything to chase that feeling — to the extent she eventually had a nervous breakdown.

She’s better today, working fewer hours and living a more balanced life. But it took several months for her to change her way of thinking about how she measured her self-worth, which is what she essentially told me was the underlying reason for her self-imposed work schedule. It came down to discovering what was really important to her in life; a good therapist helped her figure out how to set healthy (and realistic) ambition goals.

I’ve come to believe that sometimes, we embrace certain things to fill holes in our emotional lives.Ffor myself, it was alcohol for years, until it got out of control and I had to change my behavior, and my way of thinking that booze was a solution for that special something missing in my life. Like my workaholic friend, I discovered that booze filled the self-worth hole, but the problem with that is once the buzz was gone, I didn’t have anything to rely on or turn to when I felt down about things. (Nowadays as a sober women, I fill that hole with meetings, or call friends; or I knit socks, or work on this research.)

For myself, it comes down to this: If I have that thought, I take an action. I look for a positive thing to do that gives me a benefit in some way, which also helps build the self-worth up. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be as small as cleaning out the kitchen junk drawer! It has taken years in the program to figure this one out, by the way. I am a slow learner. But this works for me.

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All of this has led to a better understanding about Cousin Emmett and his second addiction to ambition.

It seems as if the ambition focus was safe for Emmett; i.e., no dealing with sloppy feelings or emotions, because I don’t think had much of a role model for dealing with deep, sometimes painful, emotions, and that habit was set in early.

Dr. Francis C. Wilson, Emmett’s father, taking it easy in the back yard, @ 1895, Chipley, Florida. Used with permission. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard

Case in point: the sudden death of his mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson when Emmett was eight years old. No one seemed to want to talk about it once the funeral was over. His own father, Francis Childria Wilson, buried himself in his work right away and was gone most of the time during the months after Elizabeth’s death, leaving the care of the young children to a Quaker family who moved in to help out. (Of course, times were different; perhaps the men in that family were raised to not show emotions, to have a stiff upper lip during tough times, or, that showing emotions was unmanly in some way.) I have the impression that Emmett and his brothers were raised to stuff down any kind of emotion that wasn’t either tough, or macho, or manly.

So, for Emmett, ambition was reliable, solid, unemotional, and something. Being a workaholic is/was considered a positive in many cases (as compared to things like alcoholism, gambling, womanizing/sex addiction). One can always fill that empty space with activity that can generate more money, more fame, more opportunities. Certainly better than wallowing in sadness or processing emotions, right?

And then, I have this idea that Emmett believed relationships with people could be perilous: People you love can and will leave you, either voluntarily or tragically. There’s a hole left where that feeling/person was, and if you dwell on it too much, you run the risk of becoming a crybaby. But a great way to fill it is to throw yourself into something else that makes you feel good. Like work. Or drinking.

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Know that although I think I understand Emmett better at this point, I realize I am still missing a lot. Without being able to speak to him directly, and without his primary information/documentation to work with, I’ve had to rely on secondary sources. Even the secondary sources from family members, letters saying what the brothers and sisters thought was going on with Emmett, though wonderful to have, are not from Emmett directly.

I still hope one day someone finds his long-lost scrapbooks. Or a letter from him. Anything, really, would be wonderful.

In wrapping up this reflection on ambition, it seems that we (people in general) keep in the back of our minds an idea of how we’ll be remembered for our efforts, with former employers, or friends, and so forth, once we leave. My colleague the former workaholic used to tell me that she liked hearing from her coworkers about how no one else seemed to work as hard as she used to back in the day; but then, she reminds me that she almost died for that effort. “I don’t want to be remembered as the martyr of that office,” she told me the other day. “What was I thinking?”

I doubt very much Emmett could have imagined his legacy, either.

Emmett’s been a gift to me in so many different ways; changing my life in ways I’d never have imagined, and all for the better. Once upon a time, 13 years ago, I had this idea that telling Emmett’s story would lead me down a completely different path; mostly a straightforward biography about a politician who flew too close to the sun and went down in the opposite of a blaze of glory. My own ambition about Emmett’s story has not turned out the way I thought it would, and that has been the best thing.

And Emmett?

I’m sure he had no clue or idea of this, as he lay broke, broken, dying from the DTs in Pensacola Hospital in 1918, that his life had any value beyond what was happening at that moment. It hasn’t turned out that way, though.

Kinda miraculous if you think about it.

Categories: Addiction Book Family Florida History The Writing Life

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jsmith532

Professor
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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