What Matters More, Self-Development or Relationships?

Trying to psychoanalyze people on the basis of the books they read is always pretty stupid. But the following attempt to do so is even more idiotic than I expected:

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?
Sure.

What do you think Paul Ryan’s obsession with her work would mean if he were vice president?
Well, you’d have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him. Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a “you’re on your own” society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.

I had no idea anybody in their right mind considered “the entire project of developing ourselves” as less important than “relationships to other people.” I understand, of course, that this is said within the context of a political campaign for a very specific reason, but still, the statement bothers me. Choosing relationships over one’s own development, over the core of one’s self sounds hugely problematic in absolutely any context.

This is my candidate speaking, for lack of anybody better, but his philosophy, in this instance, could not be further from mine. Relationships first, self-development later? I can only imagine what kind of relationships a person who has betrayed her or his own development for the sake of having as many people around as possible can end up having.

20 thoughts on “What Matters More, Self-Development or Relationships?

  1. A problem I have with this remark is that it presents a false dichotomy between self-development and relationships with other people. The kinds of relationships you have – and that you’re capable of having – are a huge part of self-development (who you decide to have in your life and why and how you relate to them). And the people in your life can influence your own development for better or worse. We are always in relationships with others, and hopefully they amount to more than being superficially surrounded by people (e.g. gathering the most “friends” on Facebook) or sacrificing yourself continuously for others.

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    1. “The kinds of relationships you have – and that you’re capable of having – are a huge part of self-development (who you decide to have in your life and why and how you relate to them).”

      – Exactly. And not surrounding oneself with people who stunt one’s development is a very respectable choice, I believe.

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  2. The problem is in the US it’s always presented as an either/or position: you can be entirely individualistic and wrapped up in your own self-development OR you can be completely self-effacing and devote yourself to other people. It’s like the idea that you can do both — that you can work on yourself AND your relationships because you need both to be healthy — is ever considered. This dichotomy is based on a lot of things, not the least is the idea that our culture has a war mentality (basically, instead of life being full of problems that have to be worked on, life is Conflict! and Nature Against Man! and God Against All!) so anyone who talks about “balance” and “compromise” is castigated as a weakling. For example, any politician knows that they have to be very careful using the “c-word” and hedge it about with much chesty macho talk of “fighting” and “combating” whatever it is or they’ll lose votes.

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    1. I agree completely with this comment. I’m also getting the feeling that in this culture the position of “you can be entirely individualistic and wrapped up in your own self-development” is the one that is considered more appropriate for men and the position of “you can be completely self-effacing and devote yourself to other people” is more traditionally assigned to women.

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  3. Ayn Rand gives a good example of one mess of a human being who always put others before himself in Atlas Shrugged. I somehow doubt that Obama puts anyone before himself ever! He is the perfect Randian regarding his own life. Of course, that is not the goal that he presses for the great unwashed.

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    1. Even though there’s some good insight about egoïsm, the bad side of statism and the good side of free markets (even though free market anti-capitalists like me are more pro-free than you and one your ideological idols) in the Randian way of thinking, I don’t give much of a fuck about a pro-genocidal, militaro-terrorist and anti-libertarian (for Rand, libertarians are “hippies”) ideological stunt like this.

      I’m an egoïst myself, but a Stirner-like egoïst, i.e. a egoïst without the desire of harming others.

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      1. Even though there’s some good insights about egoïsm, the bad side of statism and the good side of free markets (even though free market anti-capitalists like me are more pro-free markets than you and one your ideological idols) in the Randian way of thinking, I don’t give much of a fuck about a pro-genocidal, militaro-terrorist and anti-libertarian (for Rand, libertarians are “hippies”) ideological stunt like this.

        I’m an egoïst myself, but a Stirner-like egoïst, i.e. a egoïst without the desire of harming others.

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    2. “Ayn Rand gives a good example of one mess of a human being who always put others before himself in Atlas Shrugged.”

      – I hate it how people keep misreading this part of the novel. Hank Rearden is bullied and abused by members of his own family in a variety of ways. When he realizes that stunting his sexual, emotional and intellectual development for the sake of not alienating his relatives is a huge mistake, he accomplishes a great personal and spiritual breakthrough. Why people keep seeing this as some sort of a negative development is a mystery to me. This is a great story that many people could identify with. I most certainly identify with it deeply. It took me a while to recognize that stunting my development to placate others was benefiting neither me nor those others. I realized that after i read the novel, for which I will be eternally grateful to the author.

      I feel like people condemn Rand’s novels without even reading them. They heard somewhere that she is in favor of selfishness and don’t even give themselves the trouble to discover what she means when she uses this word.

      “I somehow doubt that Obama puts anyone before himself ever! He is the perfect Randian regarding his own life. Of course, that is not the goal that he presses for the great unwashed.”

      – Good point. To be honest, I’m very disturbed by this interview that I quoted. I don;t know whether he misspoke or what the goal of that statement was but I don;t like it.

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      1. Rand was very insightful about a lot of human nature. Where she fell down — where many people fall down — is in two places: politics, and sexual relations between men and women. She had some huge blind spots in those areas. But when it came to observing the dynamics of people who were not in love with each other (i.e., relatives, co-workers, and groups of people who don’t know each other but were thrown together by events and had to deal with each other, she could be spot on. Reading her most notorious books — Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead — can be very frustrating for people who want the author to be perfect at all things.

        I also agree people misunderstand her idea of Egoism and what she meant by selfishness. It had nothing to do with just being a callous, uncaring selfish beast and riding roughshod over people — she’d have called that the altruist’s take. It was more the idea that people who think they are being “altruistic” and humble and living solely for others are often much more selfish than people who live for themselves first and don’t demand others give them cookies for “caring” about them. Altruists, as she called these “non-selfish” folk, are often really just manipulative, empty people, who use others to make themselves feel good. One of her favorite examples was the “social worker” who didn’t actually like it when her “charges” bettered themselves because then they wouldn’t need each other and their lives would have no meaning.

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        1. “Where she fell down — where many people fall down — is in two places: politics, and sexual relations between men and women.”

          – And taste. Those huge golden dollar signs are the most tasteless image I have seen anywhere.

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  4. I agree that when dealing with interpersonal relationships, self-development is key. Nobody can be a good partner, a good friend, a good parent if they neglect the self. So in that respect, I agree with you.

    But I don’t think the quotation you provided is necessarily dealing with interpersonal relationships. I think the quotation is critiquing “institutional/social selfishness” for lack of a better phrase. If people fail to look beyond their own narrow interests and refuse to consider larger social structures, then many things start to crumble. Rampant self interest motivates staments like: I don’t have children so I don’t want to pay for public schools; I don’t take the bus so my taxes shouldn’t go towards funding public transit; I am not poor so I shouldn’t pay for food stamps; I am not a woman, so my taxes shouldn’t pay for birth control; my money lies with Big Oil so I refuse to fund green energies etc. etc. So when it comes to governance and social organization, I think that people need to look beyond themselves and their self-interests. Just my take on the quotation! 🙂

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  5. Ayn derives her ideas about the benefits of egoism from Nietzsche. Nietzsche effectively criticized Christian morality by arguing that there is no positive correlation between Christian selflessness and the capacity to do good for one’s society. In fact the correlation between the two looks to be a very negative one, instead.

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      1. It shows how much metaphysics has become embedded in Western consciousness, that people see this as cynical. By the way, most people also misinterpret Nietzsche’s encouragement to re-assimilate one’s “evil” aspects as an injunction to become nasty and selfish. He more talking about getting to know your “shadow” in the Jungian sense. You actually need that shadow to become forceful and whole. You can’t go separating your “evil” from yourself if you want to be effective.

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        1. “You actually need that shadow to become forceful and whole. You can’t go separating your “evil” from yourself if you want to be effective.”

          – Exactly. Denying that it exists serves no useful purpose.

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          1. The Nietzsche thing is once again psychological, unlike Jung’s rather more moral emphasis. The stuff you identify as “evil’ is actually the manure for your soil. If you don’t have it, you will be weak.

            It’s why patriarchal men are generally weak. They don’t own their intuitions, their emotions, their immediate reactions. Instead they attribute them to women. This method is intended to make them stronger, but it actually removes from their use some of their most potent psychological attributes. Patriarchal men become wooden.

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            1. “It’s why patriarchal men are generally weak. They don’t own their intuitions, their emotions, their immediate reactions. Instead they attribute them to women. This method is intended to make them stronger, but it actually removes from their use some of their most potent psychological attributes. Patriarchal men become wooden.”

              – This is very interesting. I need to think about this because I never considered this before.

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  6. This is a really stupid false dichotomy — a bit like saying that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf. How can you develop relationships with other people when you have no self that they can relate to? And how can you develop your self without anyone else to relate to — iron sharpens iron, as they say. It would be like you teaching your course without students, or ever having been a student.

    And I’m not sure what any of it has to do with Ayn Rand. I read some of her books and found them rebarbative, and read a biography of her that seemed to show that she was dysfunctional in both self-development and relationships.

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