One of the most profound lines I’ve come across in literature is a remarkably simple one — “But I don’t think of you.”
About half way through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, our ‘hero’ and antagonist, by chance, eventually come face to face for the first time outside a building at night.
Ellsworth Toohey, the antagonist we’ve come to distrust immensely by this point, is a scheming media personality who’s developed fame and a large, positive reputation through his writings and teachings of selflessness, brotherhood and altruism. He teaches that happiness can only be found in serving others, and seems hell bent on control over people. He goes to great lengths to destroy individuals and professionals who think differently or show real ability against the grain. He is ultimately a bully whose goal is dominance, yet is loved by all as some sort of saintly figure of virtue.
Howard Roarke, the protagonist of the novel is a contrast to Toohey. Roarke is an achiever who finds meaning and fulfilment in his work and doing what he loves. His happiness is found in serving his own purpose first and foremost. He’s utterly uninterested in any negative public opinion of him. A man who refuses to bow down to what was popular or the fashion of the time. He isn’t afraid to be different and never compromises on his own values. He lives his life and crafts his work the way he sees fit, not by the demands of society.
When they eventually come across each other and exchange words, Toohey finally asks Roark “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”
Roark replies “But I don’t think of you.”
And so the conversation ends. I stand corrected, but I recall it being the only conversation between the two in the book.
I’m fairly familiar with the essential themes of the philosophies of Stoicism, Zen and Objectivity. All three have very useful lessons and ideas to incorporate into modern life. Of course, they all differ from each other and none of the three are perfect. Yet in this single short response — But I don’t think about you — Roarke had, in my opinion, expressed the best aspect of all three philosophies and successfully found the sweet spot where all three meet.
At the cornerstone of these philosophies is this idea that your happiness can be derived from no other place than within yourself. They just express this a little differently. In simple layman’s terms:
Stoicism — control what you can control — don’t stress about the rest
Zen — be mindful of the current moment and what you are doing and feeling now — nothing else matters
Objectivism — pursue your own happiness as your highest purpose and moral aim
Toohey had slandered Roarke in the press and actively worked against him for years, yet Roarke found no reason to waste time thinking about him. Roarke was too busy pursuing his own goals and devoting himself to the things he loved. How many of us look for happiness from external influences rather from within ourselves? How many of us spend ages thinking about people we don’t like — even enjoying the feelings of anger, jealousy or bitterness that arise? And what good does it do? How much time and thought do we devote to things that are not essential to our happiness or the achievement of our purposes in life?
I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to falling into these traps of the mind, and I’m still figuring life and living out as I go. I’ve made a habit of continually asking myself the simple question “Is this worth my time and thought?” You’ll be surprised at how often my answer is “No” and how much clutter I can throw out of my life and mind. I’m still learning.
Maybe one day I too can stand in front of everything I oppose and say “But I don’t think of you.”