Arnold ran from the fight. At 14, having grown up in the Bronx, he was no stranger to brawls. But when a much older bully started shoving, then punching him, jeered on by a crowd, he didn’t even pretend to stand up to his tormentor. He fled.
Dr. Arnold Nerenberg -- psychologist, Objectivist, cancer survivor, bodybuilder, and felon -- traces the depression that shrouded his his teenage years to that moment: "It was what I perceived as my act of cowardness that was traumatizing," he told me.
The ensuing depression -- with symptoms of crippling shyness -- proved immune to prescription medications. It wasn’t until he discovered Ayn Rand, and studied psychology, that he was able to turn his tribulations into triumphs.
He began his own practice as clinical psychologist, catering primarily to low-income Latinos in Whittier, California, treating issues of workplace stress, anxiety, depression, panic disorders and relationship issues. He wanted to share Ayn Rand’s message of self-reliance, achievement and individual responsibility with his flock, but he found there were certain cultural barriers.
“Latinos are very friendly. They need their mom, their family, their parents,” he explained. The stark message of self-interest doesn’t resonate with what they intuitively understand as an interdependence and a benevolent way of helping each other -- at least not in the way it’s thus far been presented, Dr. Nerenberg said.
Toward that end, he has elevated another concept -- one which does resonate with the mostly male Hispanic practice, and that is “honor.”
He teaches four principles:
No. 1 — I choose honor above all else.
No. 2 — I wish you well.
No. 3 — I take full responsibility for co-creating my reality and my problems
No. 4 — I am grateful for the power I gain from hardships.
And Nerenberg himself has had his own share of hardships -- and fully admits to having co-created some of those problems with his own mistakes.
Five years ago the FBI raided his office, with a helicopter hovering overhead. He was indicted on issues of billing improprieties for cases involving workplace stress among government workers. When he went before the judge he said: “ I knew right from wrong I deliberately chose wrong over right. I don't blame society or my parents, it's on me.”
This unusual candor -- plus an outpouring of public support from the countless patients he’d helped over the years -- helped him avoid jail time. Instead he received hefty fines, plus five years probation and one year home detention. The experience led him to found “Felons of Light” where he teaches others to “salute those who captured us and imprisoned us, as they have helped us to shape our destiny”.
The perspective also caused him to revisit the part in Atlas Shrugged where Rand wrote that "money is the root of all good.” He realized, it was more than a slogan, but that in the context she made clear that ill-gotten gains are no good.
Nerenberg is grateful for the power and perspective he has gained through hardship, and has made it his life’s mission to pass this along to others. "The reason anyone goes into a story of victimization is that they are always telling themselves a bad story I help people tell themselves the best true story about their worst problems."
He remembers one patient who came in to see him -- tough guy, “all tatted up to his neck and to his cheek.” His wife had left him for another man, she took their kids, he lost his house. He felt he had nothing to live for.
Dr. Nerenberg listened with compassion, and without minimizing the man’s suffering told him: “For such a powerful man that's a very wimpy story.”
He went on to explain: “You need to look at the full reality of your life not just part of the reality. So what if I told you there's a story that would add nobility to your life instead of just a pathetic dimension?
As they continued to talk and brainstorm, he saw the light of recognition dawning on the man’s face. He could see a new self-narrative taking place. In place of despair, he saw hope. As he left, the man thanked the doctor, saying, “I lost everything but I gained myself.”
For Dr. Nerenberg, a man inspired and deeply influenced by a philosophy that places such weight on the self -- self-reliance, self-esteem, being true to one’s self -- this is quite an accomplishment indeed.
It resonates what Ayn Rand said at her historic West Point Academy speech:
"You have preserved three qualities of character which were typical at the time of America's birth, but are virtually non-existent today: earnestness—dedication—a sense of honor. Honor is self-esteem made visible in action."
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.