The story of the titan Atlas is traditionally one of oppression. As punishment for his defiance of the Olympian gods, Atlas is imprisoned by Zeus, condemned to carry the sky on his shoulders for all eternity. He gets a brief respite when he convinces Heracles to carry the load, but is quickly tricked back into his chains. And so he stands, crushed by the weight of the sky, for all of his immortal life.
In some versions, Atlas carries the world itself, not just the sky, but the intent is the same: Atlas carries the world as a punishment. In this traditional depiction, he is shown groaning under the load, crumbling beneath the immense weight.
But there is another way to see the story.
At the Rockefeller Center in New York is a statue of Atlas standing tall, proudly bearing the load nobody else can shoulder, a regal being doing all he can to carry the weight of the world.
This statue celebrates the titan's strength. He is not shown in chains, nor is he bowed beneath the globe. Instead, he gazes towards the future, with one foot stepping out, as if carrying humanity forward.
This statue is often associated with Ayn Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged, though the statue was made long before the book was written. Atlas Shrugged is about those who bear the world's burdens -- the wealthy capitalists and industrialists according to Rand -- walking away from the expectations imposed on them by the mediocre masses. (Rand, a Russian transplant to the US, was reacting to communism and was perhaps overly enthusiastic about capitalism). Thus, the image of those who bear the greatest loads and carry the weight of the world shrugging it off and retiring to form a perfect society.
I don't think this version is much better.
The story I want to tell is one in which Atlas is a hero. He has the strength and the will to carry the world, and so he does, not because others force him to do it, but because he believes in living at his greatest potential and taking on the challenges worthy of his strength. He helps others by carrying them through their troubles, moving the entire world into a future of possibility and promise.
Even in my story, Atlas is an impossible ideal, but he represents something I think we should all aspire to: serving humanity at our greatest capacity.
If you are a genius at healing the sick, do that. If you are a brilliant game designer, do that. If you are excellent at working financial markets, do that. And in all cases, do it to make the world a better place, whatever that means to you. We ought to carry the burdens that our strength allows us to shoulder, to help others where we can. By doing this, we can lift them up.
And we ought to do it with no thought of thanks or recognition, but simply because it is within our capacity and concern to do it. We don't have to work ourselves to death and poverty, but we shouldn't hold back our gifts for want of reward.
In my version of the story, Atlas is happy to help because he is so powerful and so caring that the burden of the world is nothing. He was made to carry it, and it is his greatest pleasure to serve. He doesn't turn his back on the world, shrugging it from his shoulders, nor does he buckle under a weight he resents as punishment.
Instead, he smiles and stands taller, so that everyone can be that much closer to the sun.