Egoism as Defense Against a Life of Unending Heartbreak

Then the Dean understood what had puzzled him in Roark's manner.

"You know," he said, "You would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not."

"That's true," said Roark. "I don't care whether you agree with me or not." He said it so simply that it did not sound defensive, it sounded like the statement of a fact which he noticed, puzzled, for the first time.

"You don't care what others think—which might be understandable. But you don't care even to make them think as you do?"

"No."

"But that's ... that's monstrous."

"Is it? Probably. I couldn't say."

In this passage from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, fictional character Howard Roark demonstrates a very important skill that I really need to learn—that of emotional indifference to arbitrary people's opinions: not the mere immunity of "It's okay that people now disagree with the manifest rightness of my Cause, because I know the forces of Good will win in the end," but the kind of outright indifference that I feel about, let's say, the amount of precipitation in Copenhagen in March 1957. Someone disagrees with the manifest rightness of my Cause? Sure, whatever—hey, did you see the latest Questionable Content?

I say this purely for pragmatic reasons. There's nothing philosophically noble about being narrowly selfish, about devoting the full force of one's attention to questions like "What do I want to study?" or "How am I going to make money?" rather than "Why are my ideological enemies so evil, and what can be done to stop them?" So if there's no inherent reason why scholarship or business are more worthy than activism, why explicitly renounce the activist frame of mind?

Because activism is painful and it doesn't work very well. I'm tired of hating Society (whatever that means) for not being what I wish it were. What good has it done me or anyone else, all the hours I've spent over the past five years, fuming and raving over how I have been wronged?

Better by far to focus on the tiny scrap of the world that I actually have control over: to bury my head in a subculture of my kind of people, to master valuable skills, to make piles of money and donate a fraction of it to organizations that are doing valuable work, rather than waste any more precious moments of thinking time being personally offended by all the evil in the world. If someone's interested in what I think, then I graciously welcome them to read this blog. If I see a cheap opportunity to possibly change someone's behavior for the better—to offer them a rationality tip, or glance at them disapprovingly when they violate a social norm that really ought to be kept intact—then I'll take it. But if not, then not.

Some might object that if everyone thought this way, then all social progress would halt: the moral progress of humankind depends on the selfless activists who sacrifice so much to change so little. To which I reply: sure. But not everyone thinks this way, and my relinquishing the cloud of moral outrage that's been making me so unhappy isn't going to change that. We all have our roles to play in this Great Romance of Determinism, and it's long past time for me to finally choose a role that works, rather than one that doesn't.

One thought on “Egoism as Defense Against a Life of Unending Heartbreak

  1. >What good has it done me or anyone else, all the hours I've spent over the past five years, fuming and raving over how I have been wronged?

    It does more good than you think it does. Those that get angry with certain aspects of society for a long time end up dealing with those aspects more efficiently. Those that don’t get angry end up falling for the same traps, and continue getting screwed over for the rest of their lives.

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