Ayn Rand polarizes. There are those who declare that everything about Ayn Rand has already been decided. Whether Andrei is better than Leo, what Dominique really wanted, whether John Galt is one dimensional, what Rand meant by the train wreck, whether anarchy is politically viable, whether you can mention the names “Nathaniel Branden” and “Barbara Branden,” and what is up with Eddie Willers—for over 70 years, in journals, newsletters, internet forums, and books, it has all been discussed to death. There are others who claim that where Ayn Rand is concerned, there is nothing to discuss. She is a bad writer with dangerous, reactionary views. Period. Then there are those who love her, but who have put her away, as they would put away childish things, for the sake of respectability. Finally, there are those, of whom I am one, who practice a form of Open Objectivism, using Ayn Rand’s ideas as a point of departure for their own journey through life.
But that isn’t really what I want to write about, except to say that I know. My perspective on Ayn Rand is a little different. I did not read her work seriously until I was an adult and facing some very adult problems, which she helped me to solve. This essay is not about how everything worked out for the best, however. It is about the tools used and the hard work done during midlife to right my course and to make the life I want with the time I have left. It is about how I found Ayn Rand’s ideas indispensable to creating that life, even though I am no longer young. And it is about rewards and consequences.
My Ego Lost
I had been single-mindedly mothering two children for eighteen years. Mothering is demanding work. It is also work that is largely ignored and for which growth opportunities are nonexistent. Now I know that what I was experiencing was a process of reestablishing my ego. Then, all I knew was that things had run their course, and I was out of ideas. Such exhaustion is alarming on its own, but I had had personal experiences that amplified the danger. During the same years that my children were growing up, my father died, my sister died, my brother died, my career goals died, and my marriage died. I did not want to follow suit, but at that point I had nowhere else to go.
I caught a break in my early fifties and I took it. With both kids away at camp, I spent the entire summer traveling on my own. Being away gave me time to think, and it occurred to me then that there was no reason anything had to be the way it was, that I was free to change my life. So, I did. I lost weight. I traveled some more. I started writing for my local garden club and remembered that I had wanted to be a writer, that I had once been goal-oriented and had earned a PhD, written a decent dissertation, and presented scholarly papers for academic conferences, one of which was published in a prestigious academic journal. I rediscovered forgotten psychological resources and started tapping them. Eventually, I asked for and received a divorce.
The divorce was deliberate, and I succeeded in getting one after two years. Most of the rest, however, had happened accidentally, which isn’t really a good reason. I was gaining experience, but not the way someone would who was setting goals and rationally working to meet them. I was more or less taking advantage of whatever came along as I strove to get my life back. But grasping at straws is no way to live. I needed a philosophy, and after much deliberation, I chose Ayn Rand.
Because my own journey with her ideas did not begin until I was in my fifties, I came into Objectivism as an outlier. I first heard of Ayn Rand years earlier as an undergraduate, although not in the classroom. Even though I was studying modern American literature, Ayn Rand’s name never came up. At parties and bars and coffee shops, however, there were always a few Objectivists. Hardly a candidate for a Randian heroine myself—while intelligent, I was embarrassingly impulsive, insecure, volatile, provincial, and at that point a binge drinker and a smart aleck— but I found the Objectivists attractive. I would start reading The Fountainhead as a way of getting to know them better, and we would talk excitedly about individualism and creativity. Then things would go south. Inevitably, I would say something heterodox or, worse, completely ignorant. My ignorance would provoke a stern rebuke, a condemnation, and a farewell. There were an awful lot of dead ends. I would shelve The Fountainhead unfinished or chuck it. The logical step would have been to continue reading Rand for myself, because I suspected then, and know now, that Objectivism was exactly what I wanted, but at the time I didn’t see the point of slogging through over 600 pages of The Fountainhead just to be yelled at.
As it turned out, similar dramatic disconnects were happening all over the world. The quintessential disconnect between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden had taken place ten years earlier. Unbeknownst to me, everyone was taking sides and taking each other to task about sanctions, social metaphysics, and emotionalism. I thought it was just me who kept making mistakes. This was not so much solipsism as it was the aforementioned provincialism coupled with extraordinary gullibility—the very problems Objectivism could have helped me correct.
To make clear, none of the dramatic midlife changes that I made were caused by Ayn Rand or Open Objectivism. On the contrary, my interest in Open Objectivism was an effect of those changes. It arose from my struggle to understand the psychological upheaval that had shattered my complacency about marriage, motherhood, and career. I’d waited a long time before making necessary life changes. The stigma against radical change in midlife is no longer what it used to be, and since the problems of midlife don’t seem to be going away, this is a good thing, but that doesn’t make change any easier. An inevitable consequence of midlife change is that problems have had a long time to fester, time is limited, and so is opportunity. But the reward—one’s life—outweighs the risks.
Ayn Rand’s ideas are most often associated with the young, but that does not mean that her ideas can’t contribute to middle age or later. We are young, after all, for a short time. Those of us who live, live the length of our lives as adults. Ayn Rand seemed to be on my side: “Man’s life is a continuous whole,” Rand declared. “He can alter his choices, he is free to change the direction of his course, he is even free, in many cases, to atone for the consequences of his past—but he is not free to escape them.” That is exactly what I needed to hear.
I was also fortunate at that point in my life to have a very good introduction to Ayn Rand and Objectivism: George H. Smith. I met George as things were beginning to unravel for me at home, and we became friends. George suggested that I read Atlas Shrugged. He said it would help me finally to commit to the life I wanted. Because of the difficulties I had had integrating her ideas in the past, however, I wasn’t so sure.
This time it was different. During numerous conversations and email exchanges, I had spoken with George freely and at length. Nothing I had ever said provoked him or caused a rift, and he had never said anything to me, and still hasn’t, to cause me to question his integrity and fundamental goodness. And he has intellectual credibility. He has spent decades reading, thinking, and theorizing about Objectivism. He knew Nathaniel and Barbara Branden personally and had been influential in Randian circles since the publication of his first book, Atheism: The Case Against God. While he has not accepted Objectivism as dogma, he has never for a moment downplayed its importance as the best articulation of individual freedom and free market capitalism to date. True, he experimented, pushing boundaries—I know about the weird stuff—but those experiments, while unorthodox, were still practical applications of Objectivism, something any rational person would understand. I trust him, but that’s not the point. He happened to be right.
On his advice, then, I started reading Atlas Shrugged and continued reading Rand’s other fiction and nonfiction, and Nathaniel Branden’s self-help writings applying Objectivism to the psychology of self-esteem. I read David Kelley, whose book Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, became one of my favorite books on the subject of Open Objectivism. I discovered The Atlas Society and had the pleasure of participating in several of their reading groups. Finally, I learned to integrate rational self-interest and self-esteem into my personality.
To commit to the life I wanted, I had to figure out what that was. To do that, I needed a system to discover and organize priorities—my values—the exact strengths of Objectivism:
Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains/and or keeps it. The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values, which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.
Or, as John Galt said, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Then I had to figure out if I could succeed. Objectivism was enormously helpful in that regard. Explicit in Objectivism is the theory of the benevolent universe, in which happiness and success are part of the natural order:
[W]e do not hold the belief that this earth is a realm of misery where man is doomed to destruction. We do not think that tragedy is our natural fate and we do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it—and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering that we consider unnatural. It is not success, but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.”
Marriage, Motherhood, Career
I had already realized that I did not want to be married, that the responsibilities of motherhood, while satisfying, were ending, and that I had been wrong to abandon my chosen career as a teacher and writer. Open Objectivism helped me to understand where I had made mistakes, how I could correct them, what I could reasonably expect to accomplish in the rest of my life, and that I could reasonably expect some success.
Statistically, I was not alone in divorcing in middle age. According to Pew Research Center, the divorce rate of people aged 50 and over in the United States has doubled since 1990.[i] I had to decide whether to stay married for the sake of my husband, for the sake of the children, for the sake of our extended family, and for the sake of our friends or to end the marriage for the sake of my own growth and development. Put that way, the reasons to stay married outweighed the reasons not to. I knew that what I was doing might look like a retreat from responsibility.
On the other hand, Objectivism helped me to see that my life was failing and to accept the challenge of rationally trying again. In a 1946 letter, Ayn Rand said this to her cousin Vladimir Kondheim, who was contemplating divorce, and who had asked her for advice: “[H]ere is my most urgent advice: You must forget everything and everybody, and ask yourself only one question: what do you want for your own personal happiness?” This selfish consideration, she continued, is the only way to arrive at an ethical solution with the best possible results for everyone involved:
If my opinion ever meant anything to you at all, I don’t know how to impress upon you strongly enough that self-sacrifice never works. Lying and dishonesty never work—and it is a great human tragedy that people think dishonesty can work “for a good motive.” It can’t and it doesn’t, for any motive, good or bad—and, besides, self-sacrifice is not a good motive. It’s the rottenest motive of all, and leads to the worst results for everybody concerned, for yourself and for the person to whom you sacrifice yourself.[i]
Since the divorce, I have finally succeeded in asserting myself, in individuating. Along with Ayn Rand’s writings, Nathaniel Branden’s book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, helped to shape my understanding of what was really at stake. I had moved toward, not away from responsibility. My self-esteem improved considerably.[i]
Ending a marriage does not end the bond of motherhood, but there was no denying that the divorce had changed that too. Ayn Rand is rarely given credit for being an advocate for women, but Objectivist ethics are gender neutral, and Rand said so throughout her career: “What is proper for a man is proper for a woman. The basic principles are the same.” That statement helped me to make sense of wanting to work, but what was surprising is how Rand followed up that statement with an important, limited, defense of motherhood. When it comes to motherhood, she said, women should undertake the work as seriously as they take their choice of career:
“[I]t would be proper—if she approaches it [motherhood] as a career, that is, if she studies the subject, if she defines the rules and principles by which she wants to bring up her children, if she approaches her task in an intellectual manner. It is a very responsible task and a very important one, but only when treated as a science, not as a mere emotional indulgence.”[i]
Rand is one of the few people who approached motherhood as real work and who gave women real credit for doing it. She helped me to understand the value of motherhood. I wanted to have my children. I love them. I willingly raised them and don’t regret for a moment being with them as they grew up. I love to be with my children still. I had devoted myself to something important.
Rand also pointed out that motherhood is a temporary job. For a woman to limit her sights to motherhood, she argued, would be “impractical.” A woman should pursue a career, “because a home cannot be a full-time occupation.”[i] I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. Wanting to thrive, wanting to return to work, was a rational next step. Quite naturally, I wanted independence and autonomy. There was nothing to regret about single-mindedly bringing up two healthy, successful children. Living through them, pushing them to accomplish goals that I should be accomplishing myself, would be regrettable. Reestablishing my ego has kept me from demanding my children live the life I didn’t.
Now, returning to teaching made sense. On the other hand, at my age, thinking about being a writer was mortifying. Everyone says they want to be a writer, for one thing, and I’m middle aged, and a woman my age shouldn’t be making a fool of herself like that. Such thoughts were frequent, and they made me feel terrible. Now, rather than quit to avoid feeling that way, I took a page out of Nathaniel Branden’s book The Disowned Self: “A person who does not permit himself to know when he is afraid,” Branden wrote, “cannot be aware of the defenses he establishes to protect himself that have the effect of restricting and inhibiting his growth and development—and he cannot take action to correct the situation.”[i] Now, being older simplified my choice. I might be afraid, but there was no longer any time for defenses. I wasn’t going to get another chance. As a middle-aged woman, I would have to act accordingly, but I would act.
Because of my age, I drafted a short list of professional goals. Being old will just have to be part of the package. Frankly, now that I am older, and now that I have the values that eluded me for so long, I no longer fear that my goals will look foolish to others. As long as the goals are rational, I work to achieve them. That freedom from fear is possibly Objectivism’s greatest benefit.
I love Ayn Rand. She was a gifted stylist and storyteller. Her fiction is more dynamic and inspiring than she gets credit for. Her philosophy is subtler, more optimistic, and more benevolent than is claimed. Her success and influence are deserved, and worth emulating, in the best possible way. Had I known that this stage of life would have so much to offer and that I would appreciate this time of life as much, I would have gotten older and read Ayn Rand much sooner.