Thursday, October 31, 2013

Atlas should shrug


Forty-five years ago when I was sixteen, I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.  While Ms. Rand doubtless qualified as a Narcissistic personality of the most Olympian stature, and her non-benevolent view of humanity has been condemned to hell by many, being a member of her “cult of individualists” back then probably saved my life.  It provided an “inflated balloon” (Masterson) of false ego to substitute for my complete absence of one.  And so, I still have a warm feeling for Rand’s philosophically bent heroes.

Though I haven’t picked up the book since then, during certain moments of therapy the titular encounter between Hank Rearden and Francisco d’Anconia comes to mind.  I may relate the encounter to my client, after giving a synopsis of the novel’s theme and plot-line.  For those of you who don’t know the story, Rand conceived, in her narcissistic gaze, a world where “the men of the mind” go on strike in order to starve a leeching, authoritarian government of its lifeblood.  Not the ordinary workers on strike, but the entrepreneurs, business owners, creators, geniuses, great artists.  Inspired by the Einsteinian polymath John Galt, they hide away in a mountain fastness to watch the disintegration of society, which Rand compellingly portrays to be held up by them – the righteous providers of life, light and right.

What I want to convey to my client is not the epic moralistic theme, but the counsel that d’Anconia gives Rearden, a noble industrialist-inventor who is being taxed, robbed and regulated to death but continues to struggle on.  Rearden has not yet been enlightened to Galt’s plot, while d’Anconia is Galt’s secret henchman, the grim reaper who culls not the damned but those worthy of being saved.

Here is the passage:

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?
“I . . . don’t know.  What . . . could he do?  What would you tell him?
“To shrug.”
There are times when drama, inspiring drama, seems to me felicitously fitting and likely moving in a therapy moment.  A client may be talking about her unquestioned obeisance to family expectations; his multivariate service to a sick aunt – chauffeuring to doctors, medical power of attorney and negotiator roles, frequent bedside audience – and to his abortive live-in adult son and his alcoholic depressed wife and his classes of students; her caretaking of her sister, walking on eggshells around her Borderline husband, handful of charitable outreaches; her carrying her lame husband, adult daughter and son-in-law, mothering of her daughter’s children and financial support of her own indolent son, not to mention planning, buying, cooking and cleaning and organizing and saying little.  She will be describing – like those entertainers on the 1950s Ed Sullivan show who spun ten plates on ten sticks – a life of excessive burden and balancing that, though characterological to her, is enslaving and draining.  And more, she has described depression and anxiety and a childhood that gave her those legacies: where she had to “grow up too fast” (an actual impossibility) because there was no parent to lean on.  This is a life of drastic drama, of running and crisis that has never been named for what it is.  Feeling the hidden calamity of it, I reach for my own drama – Atlas – and present the disturbing story of a society and government that mooch and crush the producer.  Entitled, blind and carnivorous they suck service from her, until she must do something.

Shrug.  Drop the damned thing.  Say “no.”  Look “no.”  Cut the leash which, as Rand said in The Fountainhead, is “only a rope with a noose at both ends.”  Parents, family you serve are symbiotes like you, not independent and strong.  They are babies who have grafted you into their being as their mentally and physically stabilizing force.  Cut the noose and both of you will have a chance to grow.

I am aware that an encouragement, even a dramatically stated one, may just ruffle the client’s feathers and not cause her to take flight.  But then again, a therapeutic statement such as this may have uncanny power because it names an unavoidable logic: Pain and injustice, through one’s history, must be answered by pain and justice.  It hurts to be the freed child, because she is still alone.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.