Ayn Rand, in her famous novel The Fountainhead, wrote that compassion “is what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar.” Compassion, in Rand’s view, was neither virtuous nor commendable. Instead she believed that the squashed caterpillar should inspire contempt and nothing more. Certainly no free rational being ought to feel any obligation to help such a pitiful life form.
I confess I read a lot of Ayn Rand at an impressionable age. I admired the clarity of her philosophy. I resonated with much of the libertarian ideology. I relished her sense of justice and integrity. But I never could reconcile her contempt for broken humanity with a faith rooted in God’s love for it.
Rescue the caterpillars
When my sisters and I were children we loved to play in the backyard. There was a crab-apple tree in that yard which attracted tent caterpillars, and year after year they occupied that tree until it became irredeemably diseased. My father would make a torch and set the tents on fire in an attempt to rescue the tree. I remember complaining with tearful protests while he stoically went about this. I would then resort to frantically trying to catch the burning corpses of the caterpillars as they fell, hoping to nurse them back to health.
Rand asserts that the most broken people among us (represented by the squashed caterpillar in her pithy proverb) are parasitic on society and, like the caterpillars in my backyard, they are killing the tree. Moreover, those “parasites” who seek to receive support from others more capable, should be shrugged off with indifference.
Looking to the example of Jesus
Jesus never talked about squashed or mangled caterpillars. He did, however, have some words to say about fallen sparrows. What he said was that God’s intimate fatherly knowledge and compassion extends even to them, and that broken humanity is of much greater value in his sight.
Now I would love to think of myself as one of Rand’s heroes – brilliant, invincible, godlike. But I know that I have more in common with the caterpillars and the sparrows than I do with her two-dimensional protagonists. It did not require the wisdom of ages or introspection of monastic proportions to come to this realization about myself: I am flawed and I fail – frequently. A rather small dose of experience and honesty was more than sufficient to make this abundantly clear.
The greatest grace of my life is that God does not shrug me off as worthless. He has gone to great lengths to rescue me. And his clear expectation is that I will strive to be like him in caring for the weakest and the most vulnerable in my world. I know that this will inevitably require that I make enough room in my grown-up worldview to see the inherent value in the mangled caterpillar once again.
“Do not fear, you are of more value than many sparrows.” – Matthew 10:31