Mind Matters — Ayn Rand, the I, the We, and a Stink Bug

Ayn Rand has been bugging me lately, but then so have stink bugs. Now stay with this meandering journey, and you’ll come to find how they are connected.

Many of us know Ayn Rand as the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, among other things. Rand was an ex-patriot from Russia who made it to Hollywood and then to New York in the 1930’s. Born in 1905 (as Alisa Rosenbaum) with a silver spoon in her mouth that was yanked out by the Bolshevik Revolution, traumatized Rand became forever reactive to her loss of family wealth. She evolved to become the flame thrower for the “rationality of selfishness,” which, of course, is the diametric pole of the collective. Torching the tension between the one and the many, she proclaimed the virtue of selfishness to be the reasoned view. Indeed, we all need to be differentiated individuals, an “I,” not just part of the “many.” Every child needs to learn to become an adult and “individuate” from the family’s “group grip.” However, becoming one’s own person doesn’t mean “going it alone.” We need our families sometimes and they need us sometimes as well. Unless our families have mercilessly abused us, we generally keep connected as well as, hopefully, differentiated. Likewise with couples: the dance of the “I” and the “we” is ongoing. Partners need to have their own individual lives (the “I”); yet they also come together to enjoin in the “we” (togetherness, connectedness). This process continues as much as an ocean’s wave ebbs and flows. So too with communities and cultures. In some cultures, the “we” is more the focus than the “I.” In our culture, the “I’s have it. Nevertheless, to go to the extreme “I” of Ayn (yes, it is pronounced “I”) Rand is to disregard the necessity of the tension between polarities. You really can’t have one without the other. “I” and “we”—it’s a marriage that can never divorce!

And so the other side of Ayn Rand for me is precipitated by a stink bug. The other night, as I lay sleeping, a stink bug decided to attempt to snuggle inside my nice warm, dark ear. I awoke screaming, yanking at the insect with my fingers. I extracted most of the bugger but decided to go to the ER. The nurse noted “there is something black still in your ear.” She gave me anti-biotic drops and urged me to see my physician for follow up. After the weekend, I went to the ear, nose, and throat specialist who informed me, “There is debris laying on your ear drum.” And, by the way, “how is your hearing?” He flushed out the ear with some sort of solvent, then had me take a hearing test. Fortunately, my hearing was okay.

How does this relate to the non-relational Ayn Rand? I wondered to myself what would have occurred in that scenario had I not had health insurance or the means, wherewithal and presence to get myself to the ER and the M.D. afterwards. People who have no health insurance, who are barely making ends meet haven’t the luxury to take care of themselves properly. I do think that this is where community and the common good come in.

Of course, I like my independence and want to be my own quirky individual self, but that doesn’t preclude my from being connected to my community. I believe we do need to heed the call of the common good. No one can really be a rugged individualist without the help of others along the way.

[Note: For more on Ayn Rand, I recommend the book, Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns.]