When Atlas Shrugged, Compassion Crumbled

"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." This is the creed of Ayn Rand’s 1000+ page novel, Atlas Shrugged. It was written in the 1950’s from a woman who had grown up in communist Russia, and the story focuses on the negative consequences of regulating capitalism and individualism.

The book was a page-turner – at times because I was captivated by the mystery of the story and fascinated by Rand’s ability to take me into a world where I rooted for the characters that I would hesitate to endorse in my real life. The other way it became a page-turner was that I ended up skimming past several 30-page monologues (or rants) that were redundant and, quite frankly, self-indulgent. Rand’s arguments are compelling and worthy of consideration, but they were also disturbing – particularly reflecting a worldview that promotes selfish ambition for the sake of happiness and denies the responsibility that we have to one another.

Rand’s words state:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Atlas Shrugged is an upside-down world where acts of mercy and compassion are deemed sinful, and where selfishness and self-promotion are virtues.

I read this book through the dirt roads of Africa where the desert people of Marsabit are at the mercy of strangers to partner with them in the provision of water. I read this book in western Kenya where a thousand HIV-positive mothers, fathers and children are alive because of the life-saving drugs provided by PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). I read this book in our nation’s capital as global forces gathered for the International AIDS Conference to protect those who dearly need it. And I read this book back in my inner-city neighborhood that is struggling through the implications of gentrification by the rich in the neighborhood of the poor.

I appreciate the novel’s warning against the destruction of society through communism. Yet, ultimately Ayn Rand’s story mocks the life I am committed to. She simplifies the world’s problems by suggesting that those who matter in the world are the ones who are the most intelligent, reasonable and powerful for their own sake. It is a “God helps those who help themselves” kind of worldview. I do believe in free markets and the rights of individuals. And I do not believe in handouts, and choose to model our work in Africa differently than traditional charity. But I do believe in the story of the Good Samaritan, and in the power of sacrificial love. Therefore, when Atlas shrugged, compassion crumbled.