[Happy Birthday to Ayn Rand! She hit the Big 1-1-1 today and I can’t think of a better celebration than to sing an ode to one of my favorite writers. -Rich]

“Lifestyle begets philosophy,” I once heard Julia Tourianski say, wayyy back at PorcFest in 2014. “There is only a handful of people that live their philosophy.” Her point was that many people who declare ideals in life do not back it up with lifestyle choices that provide definition, clarity, and purpose. She gave some simple examples – such as how she still carries her iPhone (i.e. a tracking device) everywhere she goes – but her argument really lingered at the emotional and intellectual level. Everyone in the audience was thinking of how they can live up to their own so-called standards. Myself included.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought of that challenge again until recently, when I read Ayn Rand’s novel, Ideal.

In the 1930s, Rand wrote a play called Ideal. It was never produced in her lifetime, and has remained in relative obscurity compared to her other works. After Rand’s death, a manuscript was discovered in her papers: Ideal — as an unfinished novel.

Towards the end of 2015, Ideal was published – the novel and the play in one book, with notes from Rand’s protégé, Leonard Peikoff. I am always in the mood for some classic Rand fiction: wind-in-the-hair, arms-at-the-hips, gaze-in-the-distance, jaw-dropping heroism, always epic and always romantic, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Anthem, The Fountainhead – even some of her short works such as “Good Copy” and “Red Pawn” – always fill me to the brim with the energy to act, and the firepower to be more aggressive in the pursuit of my own chosen goals and desires, regardless of what I’m “supposed” to think. (I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged yet, but forgive me – my reading list is very long.)

Rand’s earlier works (Anthem, Ideal) are stripped down to the bare essentials: This is what she thinks, and this is the example she is giving you – in the form of a story that is 100 pages or less.

Anthem is about a self-actualized man living in a collective society that rejects the notion of individuality. He must revolt to find satisfaction with his existence. He takes a pretty gal for the ride, because she’s turned on by his devotion to individuality. It’s pretty simple. And pretty awesome.

And Ideal is about Kay Gonda – the most famous actress on the scene, whose career came from nothing but her own pure talent. She embodies something that people wish to embrace, but cannot explain. We see it in all the greats, this intensity that can’t be inherited, but only earned.

One such fan in Ideal writes to Kay Gonda:

It is not your beauty, nor your fame, nor your great art. It is not in the women you have played – for you have never played that which I see in you, that which – with the last faith left to me – I believe you really are. It is something without name, something lost deep beyond your eyes, beyond the movements of your body, something to which one could wave banners, to which one could drink, for which one could go out into a last, sacred battle – if sacred battles were still possible in the world of today.

When I see you on the screen, I know suddenly what it was that life has never given me, I know what I could have been, and I know – anxious, helpless, frightened – the fearful spark of what it means to be able to desire.

The novel is based around this premise: Gonda goes missing after being accused of a murder, and we follow her as she visits six individuals, all of whom have previously written her letters similar to the one above, each declaring that they understand completely what it is she embodies, and that they, too, wish to embody this “something without name.”

Each person is distinctly different from the previous, representing various lifestyles and philosophies: a married family man with a controlling wife; a poor farmer who is behind on the mortgage (in the play, this scene is replaced by a communist behind on rent); an arrogant, up-and-coming artist who probably just needs a good kick in the ass; a preacher about to lose his flock to a flashy competitor; a rich playboy who has everything he could ever want, but a reason to live; and lastly, an apparent no-gooder without a future, but there is where Rand takes the story to its exciting, unpredictable conclusion.

Each person, representing each philosophy, with an exception or two, offers Gonda sanctuary at first, and sticks to their scripts from the letter – even after she tells them about the murder. Upon realizing their particular troubles, however, they succumb to their immediate desires for comfort and ease. For example, the family man is forced to kick her out after his wife threatens to leave him; the poor farmer and his wife plot to turn her in for money, and so on. Kay Gonda must slip back into the dark yet again.

At the time, Rand was influenced by the works of O. Henry, and the ending to this story is a mind-twister, but I’ll leave it to you to find out for yourself. From here we can end our hopscotch along the plot and begin climbing the monkey bars that is the theme of Ideal. Kay Gonda is on a quest: to find someone who shares her ideal — her philosophy — the very ideal these letter-writers saw in her, but could not live up to.

Ayn Rand wrote in her journal while drafting Ideal that those who “tolerate a complete break between their convictions and their lives, and still believe…they have convictions” are the owners of “worthless” ideas and lives – “usually both.” Ouch.

To “eliminat[e] thinking from your actual life,” she wrote, means to not live in accordance with reality – and that can be a dangerous thing. It can lead to years of cognitive dissonance, lazy trudging through well-trod paths that lead to the same nowhere it led before. Oomph.

Piekoff puts the nail in the coffin: “Ideal…is a philosophical guide to hypocrisy, a dramatized inventory of the kinds of ideas and attitudes that lead to the impotence of ideals – that is, to their detachment from life.” Knockout

Rand shares an all-too-real-life example in the introduction to Anthem, published in 1947:

The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default; the people who seek protection from the necessity of taking a stand, by refusing to admit to themselves the nature that which they are accepting; the people who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas need not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated, by keeping one’s eyes shut. They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing “But I didn’t mean this!”

But they wail anyway. I’ve done it too. When I took my own inventory of hypocrisies – shrugged obligations, quiet bows to authority, fearful silence, outrageous losses of control, repeated failures while half-assing not-quite-goals, and feigning “happiness” with my mediocre results – I realized how detached from life I really was.

I connected most with the family man in Ideal, good old George Perkins of the Daffodil Canning Company. His story opens with the exciting news that he is being promoted, but when he takes the news home to his wife, and mutters incoherently about this wild idea to take a vacation, he gets an earful about how they need lots of new expensive gizmos — and that an unplanned baby is on the way. He knows deep down that he wants to burn the house down and float down a river into the sunset, but alas, he must convince himself he’s “happy.” He wrote in his letter to Kay Gonda:

You know how it is: when you’re young, there’s something ahead of you so big you’re afraid of it, but you wait for it and you’re so happy waiting. Then the years pass and it never comes. And then you find one day that you’re not waiting anymore. It makes you sad, and that’s silly, because you didn’t even know what it was you were waiting for. I look at myself and I don’t know.

Later he continues, on the defense:

Oh, I…It was just sort of like dreaming…and you might’ve thought I was…unhappy, and it isn’t that at all, only you know how it is: you work and work all day, and everything goes nicely, and suddenly you feel like you can’t stand another minute of it, for no reason at all. But then it passes. It always passes.

And life becomes a game to minimize the damage, instead of stepping around it to continue onward. Squirming and determined to stay in the philosophical kiddie pool, Perkins tells Gonda:

You see, I’m not unhappy at all. In fact I’m a very happy man – as happiness goes. Only there’s something in me that knows of a life I’ve never lived, the kind of life that no one has ever lived, but should.

As happiness goes…” He’s making a strong case that happiness is not a barometer to measure one’s life satisfaction. Happiness does not lead to satisfaction – and they are not the same thing. Being on top of a mountain and seeing the view and feeling the cool air brings me happiness. Satisfaction is what I feel in my bones and muscles (and my spirit) when I lay in bed that night, knowing I get to do it again someday — not just enjoy the view, but do the hard work to get there.

It is integrity that brings satisfaction. And it is only integrity. Later, Gonda tells the comrade Chuck Fink:

There are some men with a purpose in life. Not many, but there are. And there are also some with a purpose – and with integrity. These are very rare. I like them.

I like the sound of that.

I think a reasonable strategy to get there might be fairly simple: practice living in accordance with reality. Just wake up and look around, then be honest with myself. I’ll align my goals with my values. Purpose will come organically from this natural process. It’s a giant metaphysical math equation.

Declaring purpose without understanding my goals and values – the building blocks of integrity – will lead to the slippery philosophical slope that Rand shows us over and over in her Ideal.

Sitting down to identify my values and goals – after years of not thinking this way — was a challenge. And I’m going to be working on it for a long time. I’m paying attention to the things I say and do. I’m remembering that every action I take directly affects the outcome of my life and the immediate world around me. My good choices reinforce themselves. This builds integrity.

And from there, lifestyle will beget philosophy.

And if I’m ever in need of a little pick-me-up, I’ll grab my copy of Anthem or Ideal – I might even tackle Atlas Shrugged this year – and seek out some favorite passages, to remind myself of what I plan to achieve.

“A spirit, too, needs fuel,” Kay Gonda says in Ideal. “It can run dry.”

Take a crack at Ideal and see if it lights a fire under you, like it did for me.