Back when I was still in corporate America one of my co-workers recommended that I read Atlas Shrugged. She thought I’d like it. And I did. It resonated for me. It’s part of why I left the job I was in at the time.
But I hadn’t been a writer long before I learned that liking Atlas Shrugged was short-hand to some of my fellow writers for being a cruel, uncaring asshole who is completely self-centered and willing to watch the world burn as long as they get ahead.
Which is why I’ve never talked about why I liked that book and why it resonated with me even though it’s a large part of what led me to where I am today.
But I think there’s finally a real-world example of what I found in that book that I can point to for others to understand what that book said to me.
(And I think it’s important to stop here for a moment and explain that what readers find in a book is not always what authors put into that book. So people who know Ayn Rand and her philosophies may have seen very different things in that book than I did because they came to that book with a different background. I knew nothing about her before I read the book so I took from that book the parts of the story that resonated for me.)
This is how I would summarize that book (bearing in mind it’s been about ten years since I read it and this is what I took from the book): A woman is trying to hold a business together and giving everything she has to do so while the people around her are not. And even worse, some of those people who are not putting in the effort to hold things together are demanding more and more and more for themselves. As this trend progresses there are fewer and fewer people keeping things together until it finally becomes too much and things start to fall apart. Planes crash. Train tracks fail. Finally, at the end, that woman who was trying so hard to keep her part of things together, stops trying. She leaves. She retreats to somewhere where other people who went through what she did have created an enclave. And yes, she leaves the world to burn. Because she just can’t carry the burden for everyone else anymore.
The modern-day equivalent of this would be nursing in the United States right now.
I follow a number of nurses on Twitter to keep informed of the current state of COVID and they are incredibly burnt out. They keep showing up to work because they know if they walk away people will die, the system will collapse without them. But they are underpaid and understaffed and showing up to work now to care for people who call them names and tell them that the disease they’ve dealt with for the last fifteen months is a hoax. People who didn’t have to be there in that hospital room dying because there’s a fricking vaccine they could’ve taken for free.
These nurses are trying to make an unfair system work because they are the type of people who step up when the times are hard.
But at some point in time things get so out of balance that it just isn’t sustainable anymore. When that happens Atlas shrugs.
These nurses give and give and give and instead of someone saying “thank you” the hospital management says, “We need more” while collecting massive profits off of their backs. Or says, “Great, you can do that with X resources, now do it with 1/2X.”
And as each individual nurse finally collapses and leaves, the burden on the remaining nurses becomes that much worse and it takes out more and more nurses until there’s no one left standing.
The U.S. healthcare system is at very real risk of this happening in the next six to nine months. Because you cannot take and take and take from people forever.
Which brings us back to the lesson I took from Atlas Shrugged. That as long as I was willing to stand there and carry the burden and be the one that picked up the slack when others didn’t do their part that my management would continue to add to the burden I was carrying while enjoying the results of my efforts and paying everyone else the same (or better) than me.
Because why should everyone pull their weight and why should management make things fair if I was going to step in and make it work every time regardless?
I finally realized that my only choices were to live under that incredible crushing burden or to leave. Because when you’re the type of person who steps up you can’t just stay where you are and decide not to care anymore, that’s as painful as taking on all the burden yourself. So I shrugged, I walked away. Not because I didn’t care, but because I cared far too much and it was going to crush me if I stayed.