Part 2: Ayn Rand and the Person Practicing Buddhism

I live in gratitude for meditation and Buddhism.  Because of Buddhism, I noticed this:

  • I wrote a blog about a writer I loved when I was 17-22.
  • This was very controversial.  People wrote comments.
  • I had to go meditate, because some of the comments were personally insulting.  Or at least I constructed them that way.
  • I watched my mind.  How when someone disagrees, or argues, my mind starts arguing back, trying to prove I’m right, trying to win.  My body floods with adrenalin and I get all racy.  It’s not pleasant.
  • Then I decide to write a blog about watching my mind go nuts and my body flood with adrenalin.  Of course, while I’m deciding this my mind is still plotting how I’m going to slip in insults and witty comments and prove I’m right.  Because that is what a mind does.
  • I start to think about why bipartisanship seems impossible, and how a controversial blog shows that once the mind decides a disagreement is an attack the body floods with adrenalin and no one learns anything because they are too busy defending ideas they had in the first place.
  • Of course this is also my mind saying how much more enlightened I am because I am noticing my mind being crazy even while I’m still being crazy.  Ayn Rand’s not the only one with elitist tendencies (as in, I still think I’m smarter than everyone, and I notice this because I practice Buddhism and besides it’s pretty obvious.)

As it turns out, I am a person practicing Buddhism whose life was saved over and over by books, among other things.  Little Women, when I was about nine.  To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was twelve.  The Fountainhead, when I was seventeen.  Another Country, when I was 20.  I am still, in many ways, nine, twelve and seventeen.  I still remember vividly the moment those books gave me, and the permission to be myself.  I am grateful to the writers, and I love the feminism in Little Women, and the character of Jo, the compassion in To Kill a Mockingbird and its rage against racism. I love the passion for individual freedom and expression in The Fountainhead and James Baldwin’s profoundly complicated understanding of how all our prejudices intersect even as we try to reach each other, exemplified in Another Country.  Right now, in this moment, I am focusing on my personal experience of these books, and the need I had for their ideas, for their images and rising song.  I am doing this on purpose, because I do have an idea I want to explore here, and the idea is that all our ideas come from personal experience, and nothing is objective (sorry Ayn Rand).  Perhaps that is why we defend our ideas instead of questioning them–it is so, so personal.

One of the commenters on my last blog wrote about Ayn Rand’s ideas of personal freedom and integrity as adolescent; he said that freedom and integrity must be connected to community, and the complexity of community must be reflected in the morality of the individual.

I don’t really know what he means.  It’s a philosophy I’ve been reading and hearing about–this idea of caring about your community and your place in it, about making your decisions with this larger picture in mind.  About developing your self with this larger picture in mind.  I’ve been interested in this philosophy because I can tell it comes from a life experience I haven’t had, and that always makes me curious.

And so, it comes to the personal.  Ayn Rand was obsessed with communism and its dangers, enough to testify for HUAC, not against individuals, but against a movie that had, in her opinion, communist propaganda.  Oh, how we become what we hate.  That HUAC would do more to violate rights of free speech and to destroy that lives of innovators, that its legacy would be the Hollywood of today (with its plastic values and oversimplified stories), makes her testimony a complete act of self-betrayal–and she was a champion of individualism and individual integrity.  I can only imagine how blind she must have been on the subject of communism, how angry she must have been at American communists, who had never had her experiences of deprivation and oppression.  She believed in the individual because of what she lived, saw, breathed.  Because of what it did to her psyche and soul.  Betrayed by a country that destroyed lives, how would an Ayn Rand develop a philosophy based on group anything?  (And when she developed a community, she had to dominate everything about it to feel safe…so totalitarian.)

It’s personal.  I have listened to the Obamas, to their life stories, to their ethics; I admire them and envy how deeply loved they were by such decent people.  But much of what they speak about is foreign to me (minus A More Perfect Union, I get that).

I grew up bullied at school, oppressed by my religion as a girl and a queer person, oppressed by my country as a woman (the ERA failed when I was still in high school).  At home the oppression was more personal, with as few personal choices as they could give me–and the oppression of the religion showed up as a philosophy of self-sacrifice…meaning that I was to sacrifice myself for everyone in my family, as well as anyone who asked, with no hope of return (because that would be selfish).  Then I escaped, and found that I was queer, and that the world wasn’t really having it, and I might get fired, and I couldn’t get married.  I turned to the queer community, but bisexuals weren’t exactly popular there, either.

Intellectually, I have come to understand that community is important, but my experience, right up through my twenties, taught me that groups of people were not to be trusted.  Like Ayn Rand, my experience didn’t lead me to a philosophy based on making decisions based on altruism (which I understood, as she did, as a tool for manipulation because that is what it had been in my life).  I didn’t base my way of seeing the world on a larger vision of community, either.  Frankly, I was like, “F785 these people.  Get me out of here!”

At the developmental time of life when we decide what we believe about other human beings and life (adolescence, as it so happens), I decided that morality was about being true to self, not true to family (they treated me poorly) or community (just as poorly) or even country (female and queer, a 2nd class citizen).  I defined true to self against what I saw around me, not in emulation of it.  Honesty was and is the center of my value system, because growing up in the bourgeoisie, I saw only false values and people who lied to impress others.  I didn’t think about being loving or kind then, even though I often was, mostly because I loved my siblings and friends so deeply.  I did start to think about those things, eventually, and when I did I realized that I could never consider lies to be loving or kind.  I’m not talking about walking around confronting people (though I did this as a teenager and then some).  I’m talking about telling the truth about my inner reality as best I understand it as a form of caring, instead of telling white lies to make people feel better.  It can be said that I hate any pressure to take care of people’s feelings.  I’d rather know them, tell them the truth, and trust them to be honest with me.

So I’m intrigued by this intersection of morality and community, because I hope it’s not the same old song and dance about how I should sacrifice my life to make other people feel better or more comfortable.  I don’t quite know what to make of it.  I know my own well-being has to factor in; and I’m certainly not interested in oppressing anyone else because I see that as about as contrary to my own well-being as pretty much anything on earth.  So what are people talking about?

If I want to defend myself, I can say that some of the hardships and oppression in my life made me capable of seeing life differently, and some of them deeply hurt my ability to participate as someone with less oppressive experiences might be.

But here’s the thing–the person with Michelle or Barack’s experiences of community and love–that’s not the only world.  That’s not the “real” world.  The real world holds their experiences and mine and Ayn Rand’s and the survivors of the Holocaust and Kosovo, and people of privilege.  Whose view is idealistic?  Or negative? Or correct?  All our experiences come from the same world; we just live in different parts of it.

In Buddhism, no view is any of those adjectives.  Judgment is removed, and one looks at what is.  How can we put the many views into conversation?  I mean, we’re human, it will be construction of reality rather than the real thing, but if we can step back from aversion, craving and “I’m right,” we might construct a more accurate mosaic, or at least one that offers the possibility of peace.

Ayn Rand’s deepest mistake, for a person believing in freedom above all things, was forgetting that all voices should be heard.  Buddhist or not, I believe that.  I believe I may figure out why someone might trust a community, when my own experience tells me that’s insane.  If I listen.  If I let the adrenalin drain out of my body, and just consider.

Because, hell, Buddhism or no Buddhism, thinking is really FUN.