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Ayn Rand was dead.
My heart sank. I was living in the small town of Willimantic, Connecticut, not far from New York City. The newspaper said that the funeral would be at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home.
I knew that I had to be there. I needed to say good bye and to say thank you.
In high school I was ashamed of my intellect and abilities. Throughout junior high I was pretty much a straight A student. I was the youngest member of the National Honour Society at the school, all the others were finishing their studies while I had barely just begun.
At my 8th grade graduation I listened to a millionaire motivational speaker tell us about possibility thinking. I always knew that more was possible but it was the “more” that frightened me.
Each year the school gave an award to a student who exemplified intellect and maturity. The thought of winning terrified me. As we approached the moment that the award winner would be announced my heart raced. There was a horrid terror gripping my emotions.
The last thing I wanted was to win. The last thing I wanted was to be ridiculed for achieving something. The ethos of the other students was one that despised intelligence and accomplishment except that which was achieved by brute force.
When my name was announced I was stunned. This was unbearable. I was a zombie as I walked toward the stage to accept the award. What rationally should have been my greatest achievement of the year brought me nothing but shame and terror.
A few years later this started to change. I remember the warm summer afternoon that I left behind as I walked into the living room. I sat down on the couch and turned on the television set. There was an old black and white film that I had never heard of. It was almost over. I heard these words:
“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brother to light.”
That caught my attention. There was more:
“And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.”
And: “It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.”
I sat stunned—watching the end of this film. My mind quickened as I realized that the words I heard just moments ago reflected my deepest held values. They were a truth that I had instinctively known, but which I refused to acknowledge. They were a pardon given to a prisoner who could now walk again in freedom.
There was so much that I still needed to understand, but I had taken the first steps. I searched for the TV guide. I needed to know the name of this film. I had to have more information. The effect of those few words was so profound that I had to find out more about the author, the film, anything that might tell me more.
I remembered that I owned a book by this author. As I went to my room I wondered what type of man could write these words? Why didn’t anyone else tell me these things? I looked through my library and was disappointed. I didn’t own The Fountainhead. Instead I had a book called Atlas Shrugged.
I sat down on my bed and opened the very large book with the tiny, little print and started reading: “Who is John Galt?” If I came out for dinner that evening I don’t remember. I read, and read, and read. I hardly moved as I devoured the novel.
By the time I put the book down I could see the slivers of sunlight starting to come in through my curtains. I fell asleep, but only for a couple of hours. When I awoke I grabbed the book again and started reading where I left off. I don’t remember leaving the room at all until I finally finished the book early the next morning. I had read it straight through taking only a short time off for some sleep.
I hunted the bookstores for other works by Rand but they were in scarce supply. I finally found Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, which I read within a day of purchasing it. But the more I read, the more difficult it was for me to understand the world in which I was living.
I had learned the gospel of self-hatred. I had been taught a world of sacrificing where one always put one’s self last. But I found another world in Rand’s novels.
A world of reason, not faith; of individual achievement and not self-sacrifice. It was a world where man’s mind was the final arbitrator, not some dusty book from an ancient and primitive era.
I picked up Anthem and read the book in 20 minutes. It was a hymn to my soul. Its lyrical beauty and simplicity of plot made it my favorite of her works. When Prometheus rediscovers the concept of the individual, I too experienced his joy and celebrated his enlightenment.
In this, the most lyrical of her books, Prometheus rediscovers the lost concept of the word “I”. Born in a world of gray, oppressive sameness Rand’s hero strives to rediscover the concept of the individual—a concept lost long before his birth. In a world of “we” and “our” and “us” he strives to express an idea. In the close of chapter 10 he implores: “May knowledge come to us! What is the secret our heart has understood and yet will not reveal to us, although it seems to beat as if it were endeavoring to tell it?” Those words were my words.
Until that afternoon when I stumbled across an old film, I felt them inside of me. They were churning, bubbling, struggling for expression. They demanded to be spoken, but I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t find the words to express them. Like Prometheus I was thinking: “What is the secret our heart has understood and yet will not reveal to us?”
In Anthem, Prometheus before he named himself, flees to escape the world of “We”. He does not know where he is going, but he doesn’t care — he only knows that he must go.
Beyond the Uncharted Forest he finds a house of glass, long abandoned by its owner. And inside he finds a library. I like to think that it was there that he finally discovered the value of individuality; that in a library he found the song that his soul had been singing — a song without words. But in those books he found his lyrics.
That was how it was with me. In Ayn’s books I found my lyrics. In her words I discovered what my heart had been endeavoring to tell me. Prometheus expressed for me the words I needed:
I am. I think. I willMy hands... My spirit... My sky... My forest... This earth of mine...What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest.I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning.I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being.I am the warrant and the sanction.”My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”...the word ‘We’ must never be spoken, save by one’s choice and as a second thought.This word must never be placed first within man’s soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie.”“The word ‘We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it.It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it? What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me?What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and the impotent, are my masters?What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree, and to obey?Indeed what was my life if all I did was bow and agree and obey? What was my life when fools dictated to me as I cringed in fear of achievement, when I hid ability beneath a cloak of conformity and mediocrity.
And there, once again Prometheus spoke for me. His words were my words.
But I am done with this creed of corruption.”I am done with the monster of “We”, the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.
The internal changes became apparent. I was no longer afraid of using my mind. I didn’t care about the envious hatred of others anymore. I remember how in high school we would take tests that were supposed to last for two or three hours. I would usually finish them in 15 to 20 minutes.
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But I would sit there going over them again and again simply because I didn’t want anyone to know how easy it was for me. I didn’t want them to realize I was finished. I wanted to appear to struggle with the answers the way everyone else was doing. But now it was different.
The day all this really came home to me is clear in my mind. I was taking classes at the local extension of Purdue University. That morning I was to take a final in one of the courses. Two hours had been set aside and all the students from the various classes were gathered in one large hall to take the test at the same time.
There must have been two hundred of so students sitting there. We all had the test upside-down on our desks. The signal to begin was given. I read through the questions quickly marking answers for most of them immediately.
The ticking clock on the wall, and pencils scratching on paper, were the only sounds in that room. I put my pencil down. The ticking attracted my attention and I looked up— only 15 minutes had passed. I still had almost the entire period to finish the test. But I was done. In the past I would have gone over the test repeatedly. I would have pretended to still have unanswered questions.
But that was the past. That was before my spirit had absorbed Galt, Roark, Kira and Prometheus. That was before Rand. Without giving it another thought I stood up and carried my test papers to the front of the room.
The professor had his head buried in a book. He barely looked up. I stood before him for a second or so. Finally he glanced up: “What’s your question?” I could feel the eyes of every student in the room.
I said: “I don’t have a question, I’m finished.” I put the test on his desk and turned around. My declaration of independence was heard by everyone in the room. I went out into the sun and enjoyed the day I had earned.
I moved across country and started taking courses at the University of Connecticut. One day I picked up the local newspaper and saw an advertisement for the Ford Hall Forum lecture series in Boston. There was a picture of Rand and the date of her lecture was listed. I ripped the page from the paper and kept it, intending to drive to Boston that day and hear her speak for the first time in person. I naively assumed I could just waltz right into the auditorium and find a seat.
But shortly thereafter the papers announced that Rand had died in her apartment in New York City. I could feel the mourning begin. I sensed that I had lost someone important, someone who had rescued me when I desperately needed rescuing. I had lost a mentor, a mother, even a friend, yet I had lost someone I had never meet and never knew—but I did know her, at least the most important aspects that made Ayn who she was.
I had meet her in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, I found her spirit in the song that was Anthem, I learned something of her life in the grayness of We the Living. She was my friend and I loved her.
That afternoon I packed a small bag of clothes and got in my car. For two hours I drove toward New York City. I needed to tell Ayn Rand good-bye. I had called a friend in Manhattan and arranged to stay with him. He had saved the clippings from the New York Times regarding Rand’s death for me. I arrived that evening and we spoke a bit about Rand and her ideas.
The next day I walked through the one cathedral which Ayn would appreciate — the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan. As the afternoon ended I headed for the funeral home that was a block from where I was staying.
I was one of the first to arrive that day. I think I was second or third in line. There was one man in front of me and we started talking. That was the common theme that evening—everyone talked to one another. He asked me about Rand and how I had found her works. He shared his story with me. He had flown in from Los Angeles. He couldn’t find a direct flight so he had been steadily working his way East the entire day. He must have taken a combination of four or five flights before he finally arrived in New York.
The line behind us grew longer as we waited. Small groups of people would chat with each other keeping their voices respectfully low. These people while respectful were celebrating. Each one had a story of how their lives had changed because of the words they read in Rand’s novels.
The doors finally opened and the crowd poured into the small viewing room. As I made my way into the room I was one of the first there. The room was awash with the colours of dozens and dozens of floral arrangements.
Every spot was filled with tributes to Rand and her influence. The casket was in front, and to the left, away from the double doors leading into the room. Immediately to the left there was a couch. Leonard Peikoff sat there with a wall of his friends insulating him from the rest of us. He was weeping.
I could see the casket and for the first time I saw Ayn in person. I went and stood by the casket, which was framed by the many bouquets. I didn’t pray but I whispered: “Thank you.”
There were no chairs for the many mourners. Except for the couch there was virtually no furniture. There was a small wooden table with a record player on it. Beside it sat a dozen or so very old records. For the entire two hours the room was filled with light-hearted music. It was Ayn’s “tiddlywink” music. If I close my eyes I can hear it. It takes very little to see Ayn joyously marching around her apartment waving her hands in beat with the tunes. You can almost feel the happiness that would overtake her. You can understand the pleasure these notes gave her.
The room filled quickly with people. There was little room to move about. No one wanted to leave. Small groups of people formed and talked. People wandered from one group to another. I walked from bouquet to bouquet and read the notes that were attached. Some bouquets were small and some were large. Yes, there was a floral dollar sign but it was neither as large nor as obtrusive as some have led others to believe. In fact, it was almost hidden by the sea of flowers surrounding it.
One card touched me unlike the others. It was from a group of college students who wrote: “Our sorrow in your passing is only surpassed by our joy in your living.”
This is what I needed. This room filled with flowers and joyous music. This room packed with people sharing with one another the impact that this Russian woman had on their lives. Except for the tiny band near Peikoff the people in this room, while saddened were not mourning Rand’s death—they were celebrating her life. This is what seemed proper.
Whatever time we have on this earth is ours and if we live life to the fullest, if we conquer the obstacles before us, we can triumph. Ayn Rand triumphed. She lived her life—and what a life it was.
Whatever faults she might have had paled in comparison to her accomplishments. Whatever obstacles she faced were minuscule in relation to her victories. It’s been many years since that spring evening in New York City. But I remember it like yesterday.
I especially remember how that room filled with mourners was alive with music, and flowers, and with the voice of reason, spoken by many different people from many different places.
Each lived a unique life. Each came from a different background and had a different story. But for each there was one common denominator. For each there was Ayn Rand—and the words, those incredible words, that she wrote.
She brought us into her universe through those words. And that evening we had the chance to come and say good-bye and thank you.
In The Fountainhead there is a scene where Howard Roark is standing outside a resort he built. A boy on a bicycle comes by and is awestruck by the resort. At first he doesn’t see Roark but when he does he goes to him:
“That isn’t real, is it?” the boy asked, pointing down.“Why, yes, it is, now,” the man answered.“It’s not a movie set or a trick of some kind?”“No. It’s a summer resort. It’s just been completed. It will be opened in a few weeks.”“Who built it?”“I did.”“What’s your name?”“Howard Roark.”“Thank you,” said the boy.He knew that the steady eyes looking at him understood everything these two words had to cover. Howard Roark inclined his head, in acknowledgment.Wheeling his bicycle by his side, the boy took the narrow path down the slope of the hill to the valley and the houses below, Roark looked after him. He had never seen that boy before and he would never see him again.He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime.”
For the last two decades, on more than one occasion, I have remembered what Ayn Rand did for me.
And still, often in moments of solitary reflection, I repeat those words. I whisper them to someone who is no longer with us because I must.
I simply whisper: “Thank you.”