Jun 5, 2008

The third greatest sacrifice?

I began reading Ayn Rand's writings 47 years ago. From the beginning, almost everything I read sounded right. Only one idea didn't fit: the idea of sacrifice. Ayn Rand defines "sacrifice" as "the surrender of the greater value for the sake of the lesser value."[1]

At the age of 17, I wondered, "Why would anyone give up a greater value for a lesser value?"

As the years rolled by, I saw examples of sacrifice. To stop a war, a pacifist burns himself to death (the greatest sacrifice of objective value, life itself). To please her mother, a young woman marries a man she doesn't love (the second greatest sacrifice, happiness in life). To be more "practical," a 25-year-old man abandons his central purpose in life, telling success stories from history, to become a technical writer (the third greatest sacrifice, a passionately held central purpose in life).

Nearly twenty years ago, I met a man who was active in a local network of supposed students of Objectivism. He had all the accoutrements of success, such as high income, professional prestige, a large house with a grand view, and exotic vacations. And he was unhappy.

I asked him why he was unhappy. "Because," he said, "what I most want in life is to do something creative, like writing novels."

I asked, "Why don't you make that your central purpose in life, and throw yourself into the work full-time?"

He gestured to the walls of his living room, lined with paintings and the best of sound systems, a way of living that a beginning novelist could not afford. He said, "Learning to write novels could take decades of full-time effort. I would have to give up all this."

I was too stunned to respond. Now, with better understanding of the issue, I would reply: "So what?"

A PROBLEM. I have seen this situation repeatedly. It is giving up a passionate pursuit of a central purpose in life, a higher objective value, for the sake of comfort, a lower value. I have finally accepted the fact that people do this, and I have tried to understand why. There are several explanations, different for different individuals.

One explanation, which I infer partly from introspection, is mistaken methodology. This individual starts with a lifestyle--his particular set of ways of living, such as hobbies, kind of housing, dining habits, and form of transportation. Then he tries to fit his central purpose in life into that lifestyle. He cannot make it fit. The result? Instead of adjusting his lifestyle, he abandons his central purpose in life. He abandons "I love" for a set of comforting "I like" choices.

A SOLUTION. I know from personal experience, including 15 lost years, that this method--trying to integrate a central purpose in life into a predetermined lifestyle--is backwards. The proper place to start is with the central purpose, not a preferred lifestyle. Why?

"A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man's life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos."[2]

A central purpose is the foundation from which to build a life. By contrast, choosing (or defaulting to) a central purpose life by the standard of a lifestyle is like defining by nonessentials: a reversal of cause and effect. Imagine a young student of architecture in a school of his choice in New England. He likes to swim outdoors. He learns that he can do so, year-round, in the Dominican Republic. He leaves architecture school, moves to the Dominican Republic, and becomes a bookkeeper to earn an income--but swims outdoors every day.

To sacrifice passionate productive purpose for the sake of comfort (or any other lesser objective value) is the third greatest sacrifice. It causes the second greatest sacrifice, unnecessary unhappiness; and it leads to the greatest sacrifice, a wasted life.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Ayn Rand, "Sacrifice," Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 429. [2] Ayn Rand, "Purpose," Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 398.