The summer before I turned 19, a woman I was staying with said, “You are SO Howard Roark” and I had no idea what she meant. So she gave me The Fountainhead, and I devoured it, as well as Atlas Shrugged. Having done that, I took her remark as the compliment I think she meant it to be, and went off to bestride the world like the semi-pubescent colossus I imagined myself to be.
As the years passed, I realized that Rand, like all philosophers, needs to be taken with a big grain of salt, and, until recently, I felt confident that her influence had worn off – I’d successfully incorporated the few aspects of her thinking that made sense to me, and moved past the notion of ability as the sole metric of human value – no harm, no worries.
But one character’s nickname has stuck with me, along with the disdain with which it was uttered: “Non-Absolute.” In my memory, this character, assigned by some nefarious government organization to watch over one of the Randian Ubermenschen, is utterly dismissed because he believes that life is NOT either/or – that there are shades of grey. I’m pretty sure that the majority of the shitty things I’ve felt about my own life over the intervening 23 years have, in some way, connected to my belief that being a “Non-Absolute” means being guilty of lazy thought and weak feeling. I have relished the notion that there can only be greatness or failure, love or misery, passion or numbness, art or bullshit, right or wrong. I internalized the notion that you cannot hold two conflicting beliefs or experience two opposing feelings without being a hypocrite.
Last week, my friend Sarah wrote this on Facebook:
“I keep trying to find a meme that expresses the following: ‘I am so happy you are in love and I respect your relationship so much. You are so beautiful in all your wedding pictures this weekend, spreading that love through the internet. I’m so very happy for you! Also, I want that too. The love and arms wrapped around and commitment and cherishing the moments. It makes me sad I don’t have that, too. But I’m still so happy for you! Yay for you!! *pity party in my mind*”
And suddenly, I realized how inane I’ve been, for all of these years.
Of course life is non-absolute. Of course we can feel happy for our friends’ happiness, and sad for our own loneliness at the same time. We can be utterly transported by singular aspects of a terrible play, or elated and scared at the same time when our plane takes off. We feel concurrent conflicting emotions all the time – being human partially means being able to reconcile two seemingly exclusive ideas or feelings without our minds breaking down.
Just stop and think about all of the things that make you unhappy. How much of that unhappiness is just beating yourself up for feeling two things at once? It’s so easy to see in children – watch a five year old kid play a game with his best friend. He wants his friend to have a good time, but he also wants to win. Since his friend’s good time is based on winning the game, too, emotional breakdown is nearly guaranteed. Because we’ve already taught kids that it’s not okay to feel two things at the same time. For us adults, I think it’s ever more debilitating, because we’re not allowed to throw temper tantrums in public. Our brains are just exploding with the internal conflict.
In public life, we face an ongoing crisis because politics has ceased to be the art of compromise and negotiation; now we have talking heads yelling that it’ll be “my way or the highway” at the top of their lungs until they shut down the government. Here in Pennsylvania, some school districts are only making payroll by taking out horrifying loans while the state senate and the new governor refuse to swerve in a giant game of Budget Chicken. Either/Or. Totally absolute. If it can’t be my way, it can’t happen any way.
In the Internet world, the Trolls of Outrage lay poised to attack at anytime – you either support the police or the Black Lives Matter movement. You’re either pro-women, or pro-freedom in video gaming. Chose your sides in the Wars On Women, Christmas, Google, Islam, America, Poverty, Drugs, Guns, or pretty much any other issue that some writer with a free platform can polarize and then hype into a viral frenzy.
Of course, this isn’t Rand’s fault – the Platonic dialogues I studied in high school are all about the quest for an empirical “right” and “wrong” in philosophical dispute. We’ve been doing this crap in western culture since we’ve been doing western culture.
So, what’s to be done? For me, it’s got to be about accepting contradiction. Accepting that the universe may well not be a consistent, well-ordered, rationally polarized place – indeed, that there are no absolutes. That it’s totally possible to feel hot for the woman I married even when so many of our conversations center around the horrifyingly quotidian details of our lives.
About ten years ago, I was standing at the base of Uluru in Australia, with a group of tourists. A Pitjantjatjara tribesman was taking us around, pointing out features. At one spot, he indicated a giant shaft in the rock face – a straight column of stone 40 or 50 feet tall, connected to the rest of the rock solely at the top and bottom. He told us that this was where one of the Spirit People had thrown a great spear. A midwestern tourist standing next to me kept saying “I don’t see the spear! I don’t see the spear!” until our tour-guide said “It’s not a REAL spear” to her. (We pretended we were from Canada for the rest of the tour.)
Of course it’s a real spear – a spear that was thrown thousands of years ago, and still quivers there today. It’s also a shaft of rock. It’s both. In most Aboriginal culture, simultaneity is a given. The Dreaming is not an oral history – it is all happening now, here, concurrently with our conscious bodies, as well as in history. This is not impossible – it’s just not Euclidean. Today, great physicists grow more and more convinced of parallel universes, of multiple realities overlapping, splitting, and co-existing.
If our greatest scientists can question objective reality as fixed, isn’t it time we stopped being so Platonic with our own feelings? Take a minute and imagine the balm of knowing that’s it’s okay to feel joy while mourning, passion for the person with whom you pay the bills, anger at the ones you love the most. Maybe the real hero in Atlas Shrugged is “Non-Absolute,” and the tragedy of the novel is his conversion to Randian extremism.