I was younger – much younger – at the time. But the list caught my attention. Quite simply, the question posed, “What is the most influential book you have ever read?”. The results of this purportedly widely-solicited poll gave a list of ten books. The first book, as expected, was The Bible. But the second I had never heard before. It was strangely named Atlas Shrugged by an equally oddly named Ayn Rand. The list continued with To Kill A Mockingbird, a book by Jane Austen (forgive my memory), Catch-22, and Moby Dick among others. Interesting. I set the newspaper down and went about my day. However, in the following weeks, I found myself nagged a bit. I couldn’t get this Ayn Rand book out of my mind. Atlas Shrugged? What was this story all about? Ayn Rand? Was this a man or a woman? How could this book, according to this poll, finish second only to The Bible in influence when I had never heard of it or the author? What better way to answer this question than to read it?
And so I did. All 2.5 lbs and 1200 pages of it. To be honest, I had never read anything like this before. And for a time, I was captivated by it. The story of Dagny Taggert, Hank Reardon and John Galt was an unabashed champion of ambition, self-assertion, unapologetic and hard-edged success. It portrayed its protagonists as steely, unsentimental aspirants and its antagonists as mealy-mouthed, rationalizing saboteurs of their achievement. Needless to say, there was no love lost between the two.
I have to be honest: I was mesmerized. Even though the main characters were icy and somewhat unapproachable, they possessed an admirable singularity in their resolve. They represented unapologetic genius, innovation and determination. Furthermore, they became even more attractive when contrasted with their adversaries. It was the first book I read that at least gave me pause about the manipulators, the craftily entitled, and the professionalized victims that can, at times, claw at those aspiring for great ends.
Now, I know, I know. My literary betters can rightfully point out all the naive traps I have fallen into with my initial admiration of Ayn Rand. Even Flannery O’Connor shames me when she acidly quipped,
“I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get [regarding] fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”
I know. But, still I was a bit taken. I read The Fountainhead, then Anthem, followed by some of her lesser works. I recommended her to some friends. While I wasn’t endorsing her worldview, I was simply saying she would make you think a bit differently about ambition and its detractors. Perhaps, I began to wonder, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was worthy of the number two spot after all…
Perhaps. But time passed. And life truly began to happen to me. Successes and failures. Small triumphs and galling tragedies. The shine I fancied in myself when young began to tarnish as I recognized my own foibles and shortcomings. I began to realize that the credit I awarded myself for my successes carried with it a rather sizable asterisk. In truth, I was learning that I had more dependence on others for my achievements than I was, at times, willing to admit. Suddenly, Ayn Rand and her cool, autonomous characters seemed a bit hollow to me. And then, I started to read the Apostle Paul.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan,to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
– 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10
For when I am weak, then I am strong. These words sank into me. And I realized just how much Paul spoke to the true human condition in a way that Ayn Rand never could. Paul affirms that we are dignified children of God and yet we are flawed through sin. But that’s not the end of the story. In spite of our sinful shortcomings – shortcomings worthy of just punishment, we have instead mercifully been deemed worthy of redemption. This redemption is offered us through God’s grace. But we best know God’s grace and are most receptive to it when we recognize how far we have fallen and how far He has raised us up. So the narrative Paul tells is one of glory and humiliation, joy and pain, suffering and sweet, incomparable healing. While this brilliant, paradoxical story so readily describes, comports with, illuminates and affirms what we all experience in our daily lives, Ayn Rand’s stories simply and sadly affirm…the ego. In The Fountainhead, without blanching, Rand wrote,
“The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men.”
“A man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”
Over time, as I have grown (and, though it is arguable, matured), Ayn Rand’s stories have increasingly struck me not as valiant tales of independence, but rather as bitter struggles against any form of dependence. Rand’s is a bitter autonomy. We stand on no one’s shoulders, she asserts. We owe nothing but praise to ourselves, she insists. Her unapologetic narrative finds her characters achieving, excelling, conquering and ultimately exulting in…themselves. Curiously, as I consider them now, her most triumphant characters focus sharply on themselves and paradoxically shrink into pathetic, deformed caricatures. They strut as a lost sheep bragging in its freedom, yet remaining lost. Or as the prodigal son boasting that he is untethered, and yet he is empty. Or as the lost coin that is proud and autonomous, yet missing and useless hidden among the dust and filth. Rand’s characters drowning in ego are tragically stripped of their truest dignity. They are one-dimensional figures. As Georges Bernanos might say, they become little more than “stumps of men”. Ah, yes. There you have it. The glorious ego.
And so we find ourselves left with a choice between the ego and the thorn. Do we choose our own will, our own path, our own deified autonomy to lead us to worldly success and ultimately meaningless self-affirming accolades? Or do we choose the thorn of which Paul begs relief from the Lord? The very thorn which causes us to wince, to limp, to stumble and yet reminds us of our utter and glorious dependence on God for assured guidance, redemption and salvation. Which indeed?
The once-proud Paul reflected,
“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.”
– 1 Corinthian 13:11
So, too, for me. Sorry, Ayn. I choose the thorn.