Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Selfishness and Sacrifice

--by Juliet

After reading The Fountainhead as a young teen, I swore never again to read a book by Ayn Rand. But I found myself researching the author the other night. Don’t ask.

All right, if you insist…it had to do with a book I’m writing, and the San Francisco-based founder of the so-called (and now largely defunct) Church of Satan and, suffice it to say that for someone with my political inclinations, reading anything written by Ayn Rand goes real bad, real fast. Sort of like eating dinner with Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly -- not a pretty picture.

In her Virtue of Selfishness, Rand equates sacrifice with allowing oneself to be victimized. I tried –I really did-- to wrap my mind around one particular tenet of her philosophy: that sacrifice, in particular self-sacrifice, is ultimately an irrational act unless one is acting in one’s own best interest. Of course, this last would go against what most of us think as the very definition of self-sacrifice, i.e, that it is an altruistic act.

No surprise here: Ayn Rand had no children. Parenthood is one obvious example of true, everyday self-sacrifice. In fact, the unrelenting sacrifice by parents of their time, energy, monetary resources –and sometimes sanity—are so expected that when their efforts fall short or are withheld altogether they appears monstrous, as in the case of neglect or outright abuse.

Other, non-parental examples of true sacrifice abound: teachers and social workers and human rights activists…all those who choose to place others’ well being above any selfish hope for decent pay commensurate with their hours of labor. Their everyday heroics are, to me, more inspiring in the long run than the more dramatic examples we are occasionally witness to on the evening news.

And art…do we sacrifice for our art? I think we give up time and energy, yes, but at least in my case I have to admit to a degree of Randian selfishness: it’s more about me than anyone else. Like many writers, I caught the bug with my first completed manuscript and never looked back. Though I like to whine from time to time, overall I enjoy the heck out of what I do. Whether I'm painting or writing, there’s never enough time to indulge. Ultimately my vocation is a selfish thing, one requiring dedication and determination, but nothing like true sacrifice.

In this way, I suppose, Ayn Rand would applaud the time I spend on my writing, doing precisely what I want for purely selfish reasons.

Gah, makes me want to sacrifice something just to think of it...anybody got an extra chicken? Quick! I feel the need to propitiate the writing gods...

16 comments:

Rachael Herron said...

Even if Ayn Rand applauds for your "selfish" writing, so do we. And isn't it just that? I love being selfish about this. About getting up early and getting work done before the rest of the world wakes up. Oh, yeah. I think it's 1/10 sacrifice to leave that warm bed at 3am. The rest is pleasure. :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

So says she of the 3:18 comment! Good morning, princess--hope you got enough sleep!

Ali Hawke said...

As someone who is unable to have children, I find it offensive that you imply I am selfish because I can't sacrifice for my child. I have read this blog for a long time, but I unsubscribed today because of this post.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Ali, did you read the paragraph after that, where I said that other non-parental examples abound? And the part where I said parenthood was an "obvious example", by which I meant to imply that it was not the ONLY example? Really, I was just trying to come up with a common example of everyday sacrifice, and I certainly never meant to imply that otherwise one is selfish. I apologize, sincerely, if I gave you or anyone else that impression.

And I hope you don't punish the other excellent authors on this blog for my clumsy prose. Blackball me, but keep the others!

Mario said...

You had to read Ayn Rand? That alone is a sacrifice for your art. Ugh. You have my sympathies. I found that Atlas Shrugged has the perfect heft for smashing roaches.

Sophie Littlefield said...

great examples, all. I too struggled with Rand - I put her down after a few pages and never picked her up again. I think you are absolutely right about the many people who work for the greater good with no hope of monetary remuneration (hope i got that word right, it's one of my hard-to-remember ones)...I will redouble my efforts to appreciate their sacrifices.

And parenting *is* a good example though, as you say, far from the only one. My sister - who is not a parent herself but who has been helping me raise my kids since she was born - is constantly doing selfless things for them; I think she and they are richer for it.

mechelle said...

I am brand new to this blog but I have to say that I love it!! I love the fact that when I first tune in the subject is sacrifice! My opinion on sacrifice.....when in its true form...it really doesn't feel like a sacrifice at all...be it an author or parent or any type of public service...it's for the love of a craft...a person...a purpose or a cause....so to some of us..."sacrifice" doesn't even compute...it's a way of life =)

Juliet Blackwell said...

I love that, Mechelle. Just imagine if everyone lived their life that way! And Mario, great use for Atlas Shrugged. The best, as far as I'm concerned. And Sophie, I couldn't agree more: my friend helped me to raise my boy, and though she's not a biological parent she's no stranger to sacrifice, that's for sure. Your kids are lucky to have a number of interested, invested adults in her life. It takes a village...

Ingrid said...

I think Ayn Rand's "altruism is for suckers" P.O.V. is a common philosophical argument among people who can't fathom concepts like the public good, or the kindness of strangers. Sometimes I also think she confuses the idea of "victim" with the conman's idea of "mark". On topic.. sacrifice, I think, is something that gets a lot of publicity when it serves someone else's purpose, when its natural state is to be very private. It reminds of me of T.S. Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral", and the debate over whether saintliness can be achieved if you want to achieve it.

In more earthly terms, all art has elements of sacrifice, doesn't it? You give up a little piece of yourself to create it, and you give it gladly.

Juliet Blackwell said...

I think you're right about Rand, Ingrid -- and I like your take on the private nature of sacrifice. That's worthy of its own blog entry!

And yes, we do sacrifice for our art. But for me, it feels like a selfish kind of sacrifice, because I do it so gladly.

Martha Flynn said...

Stick around, Ali, I've just decided to blog about the other half of that argument - that having a parent, is in fact, the most selfish thing you can do! Bwahahahaha! DISSENT AMONG THE RANKS! ROCKING THE BOAT! It will be fun.

Gigi Pandian said...

I couldn't get through The Fountainhead. Regardless of my other flaws as a teenager, I never had the idea that I should finish an awful book.

Rachel T said...

I'm sure the writing gods would prefer if you sacrificed some virgin paper or pens or some such.

Ali- I'm sorry you feel attacked by that paragraph but please see that it was in no way personal. It was just an example of how "sacrifice" happens as a matter of course and can be a good thing.

Lisa Hughey said...

Juliet-
Interesting and thought provoking about the nature of sacrifice. I think Rand missed the point that sacrifice can be a profound gift of love.

HardBoiledMysti said...

I read The Fountainhead in English class in 7th grade because I lived in Las Vegas and that town was founded on hard-core libertarianism (strong relationship to whatever-it-is-ism that she promoted), and class was boring. I just remember how she seemed to confuse sex and violence in ways that bothered me. Just call me Mysti-of-the-missing-subtext :)

My brothers have kids & wives, I just have a husband and a cat. The depth and breadth of their sacrifices (some of them blood curdling if I shared) make me look like a bimbo on a yacht. God help me when I am called on to make the same level of sacrifice...

Re altruism, they've found ANCIENT skeletons of people whose bone disease was so bad they couldn't have lived long enough to get that bad without other people feeding and caring for them. It's as old as love, and as hard as pushing anti-matter up hill sometimes. And yet, when we're doing it, it doesn't feel like sacrifice as much as the right thing to do, even if we don't want to. Yes?

juliet blackwell said...

Gosh, Mysti, now I'm all choked up! And Martha, you crack me up ;-) And Rachel T -- no blood sacrifices, I promise. Nothing but paper and computer bytes are harmed in the writing of my novels....