I watched Atlas Shrugged this weekend – a movie based on Ayn Rand’s book. I also watched the movie Idiocracy. As per usual and without conscious planning, there was a theme for me related to these movies – how much does any one being need to give society, or to the “greater good”?
Atlas Shrugged appeared to have a key message: Altruism and charity are OK, as long as these are neither guilted out of nor forced upon an individual. Here, the individual’s rights are primary and no person need feel obligated to society. Those who create or discover, including inventors, artists, philosophers, and scientists, need not feel pressured to offer up their creativity to the “greater good” unless they are fairly compensated in some way. What do you think about that?
Atlas represents the practical creators who prop up the world. If the world forces or manipulates Atlas to continue to support it, Atlas can simply shrug in response. Otherwise, the needy just get needier and the competent would just have to pick up more slack for everyone else. People do get lazy and complacent when they feel that someone else will take care of things. As a high-school teacher, I see this fact clearly with my students.
Idiocracy was about what would happen to the world if all intelligent, creative people were bred out of existence. It’s actually a known fact that cultures placing a high value on education also reproduce less! According to the movie, the world would literally degrade to garbage in this case. In the end, “average Joe” does not save humanity, but does give it a solid kick in the right direction – the “average Joe” is not so helpless after all!
I’ve often pondered how much I can give to others. My tendency was to give everything I had and expect nothing in return. If I had something that others wanted or needed, I would give it away with no consideration for myself.
Eventually, I realized that I would die if I kept that up – I was constantly tired, became ill, and generally started to fade from life. It was a wakeup call for me to realize that if I did die, the very people to whom I gave would not care much or at all. That didn’t feel right – was I really expendable?
In everyday-life terms, I always had a job and was able to solely support my family on my income for nearly a decade. Many assumed that I was built to do, accomplish, and ensure everyone was taken care of. In addition, I had this deepseated wish to help others in need and provided emotional strength and support to anyone who crossed my path.
It was my difficult lesson to begin to accept that, just because I could do something didn’t mean that I always need to do it. It even began to feel wrong to want to take away people’s suffering because, on a deeper level, I was taking away something they needed to grow.
I willingly took responsibility for anything and everything I could, incorrectly thinking that this was the right way to live my life. But, I was wrong. I chose too quickly to sacrifice myself until it became impossible for me to continue. I had to learn when to help and when to step aside and let others take responsibility.
The wisdom required to discern when it is correct to help is much more profound, as it turns out, than Ayn Rand’s thesis. After all, almost all of us have unresolved karma and obligations from this and other lives. At times, we are rightfully in the position to give more than we receive. However, when balance is achieved, it is utterly wrong to continue giving.
Similarly, wisdom is necessary to discern when to receive from someone. When someone may appear to be giving, they can actually be giving mostly resentment and guilt – which does not serve anyone. In fact, such giving is actually a form of further taking.
The intention behind giving is more important than the superficial act. I’ve had people in my life go through the motions of giving, but in reality just unloading their resentment onto me for whatever reasons their perception concocted. I had to learn when it was necessary to refuse such “gifts.”
There can be an entire teaching around the art and science of giving and receiving! This is the dynamic at the core of human relationships.
Unfortunately, it took me becoming completely drained and exhausted before I learned my lesson. Interestingly, I also became more attuned to situations where it was undoubtedly still OK to give to others and I would not be drained.
In my case, I often had to reach a point of great discomfort before I realized I needed to make a change. I guess I am a bit dense. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way and I enjoy my much-needed solitude. It is my time to recouperate and to undo some of the damage from overserving. My body is very tired and barely functions – I did that to myself and I take full responsibility for allowing this to happen. Fortunately, I may have caught this in time and now just wait for old karmic connections to be severed.
The Mahabharata talks about one’s duty – the kind we develop over lifetimes and for which we must take responsibility. If we do this, life is clean, free from imbalance, self-loving, and appropriately giving to others. It took waking up to the value of my own life to recognize the reality of the need for balance.
In practice, it is not necessarily good to serve everyone we meet. Also, the “greater good” is much more subtle than people having all their needs met. The bigger picture is much more nuanced, where telling someone off may very well be serving the greater good.
I had to learn this using my own life and body as sounding boards. It never ceases to amaze me how our bodies are such sophisticated devices for intuiting the correct response or actions. The more we listen to our intuition, the easier it becomes to hear.
I am OK shrugging now when there are cries for help. My life has as much value as I see in the lives of others, which is significant. It’s important to know, without any illusions, when we don’t owe someone a single thing.