The Courage to Face a Lifetime: Nathaniel Branden, 1930-2014

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By Joel F Wade

December 6, 2014



I’ve lost a mentor and a dear friend; Nathaniel Branden passed away on Wednesday, Dec. 3rd. Playful, brilliant, mischievous, incisive, inspiring… He was the best ally a young soul striving for strength and self-possession could have.

When someone we care about passes, we long for stories that remind us of them; stories that help us feel like we can still know them better, as though they’re somehow still here, and we can continue to feel closer to them, if only for a little while longer; while we get used to the jarring truth that they’re gone.

The next day without hesitation, I changed my major to psychology.

There are stories that are public knowledge – and they are big stories. Nathaniel was instrumental in creating a systematic philosophy and organized school of thought from the novels and thought of Ayn Rand. She was his mentor… among other things. With his founding of the Nathaniel Branden Institute and the spread of Objectivism as a school of philosophy in the 1950’s and 60’s, he may be the man most responsible for the intellectual growth of the modern liberty movement.

After he and Rand split, he focused on his work with self-esteem. Earned self-esteem; which is different from self esteem as it has been researched and applied in policy. I would say that his view of self-esteem is closer to the title of one of my favorite of his books, “Honoring the Self,” than to the popular definition of self-esteem, which is simply, “feeling good about yourself.”

For Nathaniel, healthy self-esteem is not about just having happy feelings – and it’s definitely not something fragile, that can be given or taken away by others. It’s a deep internal sense of ownership; it’s about consciousness, responsibility, conscientiousness, self-discipline, self-awareness…. To do justice to his work, there will one day have to be some way to measure and study these qualities taken as a whole.

That’s a brief introduction to the man for those who may not know him or his work. What I have to say here is more personal.

I first met Nathaniel and his then wife Devers in 1980, at one of their weekend “Intensives.” I was a 20 year old college student, still searching for my path. Seeing the two of them work together was exhilarating. I was struck by Nathaniel’s brilliant and clear teaching, the playful and loving spirit between he and Devers, the moving work they did with the group, and the practical and expansive vision of what psychology could bring.

I had a profound personal moment of inspiration and clarity that weekend. The next day without hesitation, I changed my major to psychology. I knew what I wanted to do, and who I needed to learn from.

Over the years, Nathaniel was a consistently supportive, sometimes irritable, often impishly playful, always helpful mentor. He let me sit in on his groups, he took the time to discuss his thinking and strategy with me; and he encouraged me to study a wide range of thought and practice.

One day, as everyone sat waiting for a group to begin, Nathaniel popped his head in, casually leaned against the doorway, and with his familiar grin said, “You know, I’m getting tired of all this sentence completion business. How about we all go to the pool in the backyard, and I’ll just hold each of you under water until you promise to give up your problems?”

There were no takers, so he just shrugged, plunked himself in his chair, and said, “Okay, we’ll do it the usual way.” Of course he was having fun with this. But humor and playfulness in itself is a powerful intervention. Our troubles grow when we live too deeply inside them. The kind of mischief Nathaniel brought to his work served to pop people out of themselves, and forced them to come out and play. The world becomes bigger, more expansive, and our problems become smaller in comparison, when we play.

“I look for the best within them. I look for that part of them, even if they aren’t aware of it themselves. I speak to that part, and help them to bring it out.”

I asked him once, “What’s the most important thing you do with your clients?” He thought for a moment, and then he said, “I look for the best within them. I look for that part of them, even if they aren’t aware of it themselves. I speak to that part, and help them to bring it out.”

And he did that. Nathaniel looked for the best in people. Not in some kind of phony, sappy way, but seriously… playfully… relentlessly.

Sometime during the first couple of years I knew him I asked him for some “fatherly advice,” on dating. He looked at me with that warm smile of his, and said, simply, “Just, be friendly.” With all the stupid advice and supposed “rules for dating” that were circulating back then in the early 80’s, that simple statement cut through all the confusion and game playing, and brought it all back to what’s fundamental: It’s not complicated, just be present with who you’re with, be friendly, be yourself.

We know now from research that a sense of deep friendship and allegiance between partners is what’s most important in a relationship. I got that from Nathaniel in those three words, “Just, be friendly.”

I’ve known Nathaniel for 35 years, my entire adult life. I know I wouldn’t be the man I am today without his influence and friendship. More than anything, the gift that Nathaniel gave to me was a sense of moral confidence.

When I say moral confidence, I don’t mean the confidence to push my morality onto others. I mean the confidence to know deeply, with certainty, that my life matters, that my happiness matters, that love, joy, and happiness is what life is about. The corollary to that, of course, is a deep – I’d even say fierce – respect and honor for other people’s life, happiness, joy, and love. It makes it almost necessary to champion this in others.

It’s this quality, I think, that made his work so very important. If we’re going to change anything in our lives, it has to matter, it has to mean something. Nathaniel’s work wasn’t just about how to overcome psychological troubles; it was about nurturing an adventurous spirit, a heroic vision of life. This life matters, dammit! Dive in, embrace it! Use that spirit and momentum to drive through your problems to get to what’s really important.

Life is to be lived, embraced, savored. Even when things are hard; even when everything’s falling apart.

I have never known anyone who so consistently fought to squeeze the most joy and happiness from life as did Nathaniel. His condition worsened over the past several years, and over lunch with him and his wife Leigh a couple of years ago, he said to me, “The hardest thing is to not go around being pissed off all the time, because I can’t do things now that I could do perfectly well a couple of months ago.”

But the thing is, he didn’t walk around pissed off all the time. He didn’t walk around pissed off at all – though I know he had his moments. He took his situation not as a reason to surrender and feel awful, but as a challenge to meet as best as he could. He was always willing… no, he was always eager, to accept what’s true, to learn from his mistakes, from conflicts, from hardships; whether they were self-inflicted or thrust upon him.

Nathaniel was a resilient man, a happy man, a complicated man; a good man.

Aristotle said that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end to human existence. Nathaniel embraced this.

I know that others have had different experiences of him in his earlier years, and I’m sure since. But for me, Nathaniel was a profoundly warm, kind, and challenging friend. I was not always completely at my ease around him, particularly when I was younger. He challenged me to feel deeply, think clearly, love profoundly, work and create doggedly; to look for the best in others, and to bring my very best to the world. He was a man who lived with passion, humor, and integrity.

Ayn Rand signed one of her books to him saying, “To the boy on the bicycle.”

His life has been an inspiration for those of us longing to live life that fully, that joyfully. I think I remember that Ayn Rand signed one of her books to him saying, “To the boy on the bicycle.” To those who’ve read The Fountainhead, you know that the boy she’s speaking of is the young man with whom Howard Roark has a brief encounter, and in doing so fills that young man with a sense of life as it could be lived; as it should be lived – with “the courage to face a lifetime.” If Ayn Rand had that effect on Nathaniel – and I know that she did – Nathaniel has multiplied that effect many times over in those whose lives he’s touched.

I know I’m not alone in saying that Nathaniel Branden inspired me with a sense of life as it could be lived; as it should be lived. Because he lived it himself. Through all the drama and the tragedy and the passion and the excitement and the love and the success… and even through the decline; he lived it himself.


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  • Rick Bolstler

    Thank you Joel for reminding me of my roots and for an inspiring acknowledgement of Nathaniel.

    • admin

      Thank you, Rick.

  • brucejc04

    My personal experiences with Nathaniel Brandon were limited to a luncheon and visits at several Libertarian Party conventions, plus, of course the NBI, and I thoroughly agree with Joel’s description and experiences. I am a profoundly better human being for having known Nathaniel Brandon.

  • Dale Netherton

    Read, “To Whom it May Concern” by Ayn Rand in the May 1968 Objectivist.

    • JackMarse

      All these strong groups develop into worship. When income becomes the driving force for philosophy we have a problem. Maybe that is why we have religion. The more I live the more I like anarchy.

      • Dale Netherton

        Anarchy requires you have nothing to protect you from the violation of your individual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t think you really want that.

        • JackMarse

          Politicians, at least the ones since 1865, steal your rights in America. With no central government, like-minded get together and have private “police”. Man is naturally a social animal. Human horrors are committed by man in the name of government.

          • Dale Netherton

            Anarchy has its own history of chaos.

    • Jerry Biggers

      Bringing up that sordid and brief affair has nothing to do with Joel
      Wade’s account, .Strangely, some still have a vendetta against the
      Brandens that is grotesquely out of place, 46 years later.. But those
      interested can read the three biographies published: Barbara Branden’s
      in 1983, followed by two in 2009, by Anne C. Heller and Jennifer
      Burns..(BTW: the Branden’s reply to Ayn Rand’s charges may still be
      found on their website) .Read them and make your own judgement..

      • admin

        Thank you for those references, Mr Biggers.

      • Dale Netherton

        The words of Ayn Rand put the character and actions of Nathaniel Branden before the jury of readers. Secondary opinions by much lesser minds contributes nothing.

        • Jerry Biggers

          Indeed, the words of Ayn Rand also put her own character and actions in
          that sordid affair up for all to see. It was as much her doing as
          Branden’s,(she in fact proposed and insisted on the affair) a fact that
          the Branden haters will not even consider. Why not? because “secondary
          opinions by much lesser minds contributes nothing” meaning Ayn Rand was
          more than a great philosopher and novelist (which she was), to these
          people. Rand could do no wrong, she was infallible. By their
          description, denying her any human failings,she is above any criticism.
          No longer considered human, but instead, a deity ( an embarrassingly
          contradictory position for an atheist to subscribe to). . The curious
          should read the three biographies…(Oh, wait: if they said anything at
          all critical, they must be “lesser minds”).

          • Dale Netherton

            Depicted the affair as sordid ( involving ignoble actions and motives; arousing moral distaste and contempt:) is a misrepresentation. She was mistaken in the motives and character of Nathaniel Branden and openly admitted it in her article. As I said before , read the article.

        • NB was pretty forthcoming in his 2 books covering his relationship with AR. He admitted many failures while AR admitted none. When a 50 year old is banging a 25 year old the 50 year old damn better take some responsibility for the relationship. Period. End of Story. NBs “side” rings far more true than AR’s one-sided diatribe. They’re both dead and they both did some great work. Let that speak for itself.

          • Dale Netherton

            He admitted many failures because he was guilty and knew it How can the wronged person take responsibility for the other person’s actions? Her’s was an error of judgement which she freely admitted. His was outright deception.

    • advancedatheist

      It takes a real kook to still obsess over what allegedly happened between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden half a century ago.

  • babyming

    “I know that others have had different experiences of him in his earlier years, and I’m sure since.” No kidding.

  • DavidRHenderson

    Very nice.

  • Chuck Chekuri

    unaware of his passing, I just sent an email addressed to Dr. Branden on I would like to apologize to who ever sees those messages.

  • Michael

    I’ve known him through his works, like many of us, and I followed his teaching by way of practicing the sentence stems. It puts my head in the right place almost everyday, regardless of what happened the day before.

  • Sean Baltz

    Thank you for writing this. I love Dr. Branden’s works.

  • David

    So much unexplained gobbledygook, without a single illustrative example of what Branden did as psychotherapist that was supposed to be so wrongheaded. The mark of a bad therapist is that he is not himself in therapy? There is something innately bad about being productive for an introvert? The comment starts with arbitrary, unexplained assertions and doesn”t get better. It is just an elaborate smear.

  • fuguewriter

    When did all this happen? Can you give some specifics? I’m sympathetic to your pain, but it’s hard to know just what happened? When were you in therapy with him? When was he in therapy and for what? (I”m not sure you can’t be a therapist per se while you’re in therapy.)

  • On the contrary

    tom tan, you have made heavy and disturbing charges against Branden as a psychologist and as a man, and I think you need to back them up with specifics and examples, if you want them to be taken seriously.

    One that I dismiss out of hand is the dogma that therapists need to be in therapy themselves. I can certainly see how psychologists during their training could benefit from being in therapy themselves, and why some should be weeded out from degree qualification at that point, but if an aspiring psychologist harbors major personal problems that he isn’t able to overcome even with the help of others, he ought not to be granted a degree in the first place. (BTW I’m using your psychiatric terminology as a courtesy here, despite the fact that it is quite clear that the “mental illness” is a myth – an inappropriate, but self-serving, extended metaphor used primarily to empower and enrich monopoly-credentialled “professionals”, and to relieve society of the burden of dealing with people with aberrant and disturbing personalities.)

    Of course most psychological counseling is done by people with no professional credentials whatsoever – friends, relatives, pastors – and I’m quite sure that much of this amateur counseling is of more value than what many professionals purvey. This is an inevitable artifact of the coercive monopoly professional education and licensing racket, and the same may be said, even, of medical practice: many doctors, especially these days, fail to practice the prime injunction – first do no harm? You accuse Branden of malpractice in that respect, and worse, you accuse him of hypocrisy, yet from my limited personal experience with him, and my extensive reading of his words, if he is a pathological liar and actor, as you imply, he is probably the best actor who ever lived – yet you say that his relentless extroversion prevented him from ever being an artist.

    You claim that Branden lacked all empathy and sympathy with introverts, but that has to be the most incredible claim of all. Branden wasn’t just a psychologist, he was an intellectual first, and primarily, and the vast majority of those who attended his NBI courses were both introverts and intellectuals. Why would he have created such a relentlessly intellectual presentation of Rand’s philosophy if he lacked all empathy and sympathy with introverted intellectuals. And by the way, I almost don’t need the qualification “introverted” because practically all intellectuals are introverted, as are the vast majority of those with high IQs. Statistics from a study on the Myers-Briggs typology of Mensans (with top 2% IQs) show that about three quarters of them are introverts, compared to about one quarter of the general American population.

    If you have any psychological insight yourself, I hardly need to expound that I am deeply introverted myself, and also an intellectual with an exceptionally high IQ, and I identify with your “passive receptivity” paradigm. And I likewise infer from Branden’s early NBI career, as well as from his continued active intellectual curiosity and thinking (amply displayed both in his books and in the many interviews and public talks he has given) that Branden until his split from Rand fell into this same paradigm. In fact, it was clearly Branden’s prolonged period of “passive receptivity” even as he found himself sinking deeper and deeper into a hypocritical hole that he, a master intellectual synthesizer, couldn’t synthesize his way out of, that accounts for his reprehensibly furtive behavior during this period.

    What the split happened to him, I think, is that the light went on, and he realized that while the unexamined life may not be worth living, to wallow, and stultify, indefinitely in a state of passive receptivity was to let too many other facets of life, and life’s rewards, pass one by, and after his own born again conversion, he became a passionate proselytizer for his new liberated way of life, ESPECIALLY when confronted with clients just like his former self. It is thoroughly understandable and in keeping with his liberated, passionate, nature that he resorted when necessary to radical means to help these introverted, trapped, personalities break through their own self-made shells. If he occasionally went too far in this endeavor, well, even the best medical professionals make mistakes – lots of them, in fact. Both medicine and psychological counseling are evolving arts, and crafts, not sciences, despite their pretensions to be.

    I was never a client of Dr. Branden’s, but I have to say that as a full-blown introvert, the theme of whose life remains understanding, not action or deeds, that I have benefited significantly from reading his books (as well as, back in the 1960s attending his NBI lectures and reading much of the heavyweight literature purveyed by NBI – especially the philosophical works of Brand Blanshard), and I have even benefited (in my passive receptivity) by the radiance of his charismatic example of a fulfilled person. I am also quite sure that if I had been a client, even though his techniques may not have worked on me or for me, that I would have derived some additional insight and stimulus for becoming a more real, and reality-oriented person, and that my self-esteem would have been robust enough that it would have been in no danger of being traumatized by those techniques or exhortations. As an intellectual, even if Branden had failed to reach me, I would have found the whole scene interesting and food for thought. And I have no dark shadow fear of extroverts or extroversion – quite the contrary – I feel quite impregnable.

    Finally, your use of Jungian terminology, makes me wonder why you have failed to note that Jung himself (who originated the concepts of extroversion/introversion) believed that each of us should ideally work toward balance in our personalities: introverts should open up more to the world; extroverts should cultivate an inner life. The anima should seek its companion animus; the animus its anima. It seems to me that that is exactly what Branden did with his own life, and I for one celebrate his accomplishment.

  • Rainbowstew

    This was a good article. Nathaniel Branden certainly made some valuable contributions to the well-being of the human race.

  • advancedatheist

    Real psychological research into “self-esteem” doesn’t support Nathaniel Branden’s claims about it. Look up what psychologist Roy Baumeister has written about Branden’s ideas.

  • dreamer

    good article “I try to make my comments like a woman’s skirt: long enough to be respectable and short enough to be interesting. ”

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