Black-out Poetry (Part 16)

I dug into Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays to make some blackout poems, and these are what I came out with. They tend to follow the Stoic philosophy (surprise), but I tried to break out of that in a couple of these for a fresh take on the words on the pages.

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Land of Unknowing

“In fact, there is no way to ‘return to the faith of your childhood,’ not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life— which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived— or have denied the reality of your life.”

Life is not an error, even when it is. How painful it is for me to read that, yet how hopeful. I live with the error that I’ve made of my life, a life I think I’ve botched for good and forever by choosing at one point several years ago to turn away from the faith of my childhood and pursue a different path, one guided by a moral compass I believed could be constructed through experience and self-observation. And though Carl Jung understood this impulse to find out for oneself how to live one’s life (“It is no reckless adventure, but an effort inspired by deep spiritual distress to bring meaning once more into life on the basis of fresh and unprejudiced experience”), it ushered in a period of gray meaninglessness and hopelessness for me. A period of several years. A period that I’m not sure has ended.

Yet upon reading Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss after a good friend recommended it to me, I felt something light up with recognition, “as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.” I know it’s there; my years of belief were not for naught, surely. But what is this flower? What is it made of? Will I learn to water the ground in which it is rooted to quench the thirst of my parched soul? Or will I continue walking through the desert, grateful for such an encounter but in denial of its significance?

The years that I was fully and willingly ‘in the faith,’ I had a structure upon which to build my life. I knew what was right and what was wrong, and I felt a purpose in the forward motion of my life. I followed it because I believed there to be meaning in it, that any effort I put in now would lead to something better (not comfortable or material, but important) later. My life was not mine; I was an instrument to do the work of God. That made it easy to deny myself ‘things of this world.’ I had to keep myself pure if I wanted to be a holy instrument.

Then I decided that I wanted a break from that. Not necessarily from doing what I thought was important, but from following something that had been handed to me rather than discovered by me. There is obvious egoism in that, I know. There is also something disrespectful and ungrateful about that: the deep and vast history of individuals struggling with a faith that never comes easily, that is always present and always just out of reach, has so much to teach me about wrestling and acceptance, and I brushed it away. Just like that. Thousands of years of experience in the face of unknowing? No, thanks. I’ll do it the hard way and learn for myself.

Well, learn, I did. Achingly. Disastrously. Unforgivably. I pay the price even now, after I decided that what had been passed down to me was something of value and have been trying to reclaim it. But I’ve been trying to reclaim it without reclaiming its core, the kernel inside the package I’m trying to take bits and pieces from. Is that possible? Given that I haven’t been successful yet, the answer might be no. Wiman writes:

“We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. . . . And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.”

The kernel is made up of those definite beliefs, and the rest stem from those (or, if those beliefs all stem from Christ, then the rest stem from Him). My experiment years ago in trying to separate the moral from the Christian eventually proved to me that a life rooted in a tentatively moral yet decidedly un-Christian ground is easily uprooted. I don’t mean Christian in terms of one who chooses to wear that title, but Christian in terms of one who follows Christ, who seeks something as definite and indefinite as a dead-then-resurrected God, who sets strict boundaries on their life based on that seeking and yet who is open to what that seeking might ask of them. I have not yet come across a life capable of withstanding “the storms of suffering” that was not rooted in a strong spiritual disposition. But I’ve looked. Lord knows I’ve tried.

And yet. And yet, faith is not belief. It is not the set of beliefs that make up such a spiritual disposition, a spiritual discipline. It is inarticulable, ungraspable.

“Faith is nothing more— but how much this is— than a motion of the soul toward God. It is not belief. Belief has objects— Christ was resurrected, God created the earth— faith does not. Even the motion of faith is mysterious and inexplicable: I say the soul moves “toward” God, but that is only the limitation of language. It may be God who moves, the soul that opens for him. Faith is faith in the soul. Faith is the word “faith” decaying into pure meaning.”

This is where I find myself: pre-belief, encountering faith in the desert of my soul as it takes the form of a rare flower one moment, a catch of breath another, an empty space yet another. I cannot hold it, as it cannot be separated from my soul, and I cannot understand it, as after all this time, it should have died, closed up, suffocated. But there it is nonetheless: a mystery, transcending reason, allowing me to build up my negative capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” There is movement there, but is it I who is moving?

“Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.”

Wiman has answers, but just as soon as he sets them down, he pulls them away. This is what I needed, as paradoxical as it sounds. I needed a reminder that there is a YES, that there is a Definite, but that I may never find it– or rather, that I may have a moment, maybe a few moments, where I find it, sense the realness of it, but that that moment will pass, will always pass, will never stick around for me to be able to turn it over and look at it and show it off to others. I needed a reminder to listen again for the whisper of the soul, to hear the music it is always making but can easily be mistaken for white noise.

“Some modern philosophers (Heidegger, Kierkegaard) have argued that existential anxiety proceeds from being unconscious of, or inadequately conscious of, death. True, I think, but I wonder if the emphasis might be placed differently, shifted from unconscious reaction to unrealized action: that is, our anxiety is less the mind shielding itself from death than the spirit’s need to be. It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music.”

I don’t have any answers. I don’t even know what I am exploring, where I am in this territory of the spirit, where God is just as much as He is not. I am tired, and I am thirsty. And I just don’t know. But there is a small, rare flower, and there is strange, distant music. And maybe, after all these years, I’m finding my way back home.

Fashionable madmen

“Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.” -Joan Didion, On Morality, as quoted here

I have spent the past year or so observing and absorbing current events, not so much to stay up to date– I’ve never really cared about that– but more so to understand something I had willfully ignored and completely misunderstood up until now, namely the misguided ideology and narrative of the Left. While I mostly refer to what is more commonly called the ‘progressive Left’ and is less commonly– but perhaps more accurately– called the ‘regressive’ or ‘illiberal Left,’ the ideology of the regressive Left is gaining traction and infiltrating both common politics (see AOC) and arenas where politics shouldn’t even be (see quotas in the tech industry, publishing, and air traffic control, for examples). So for brevity, I will simply write the Left. Understandably, the question has been posited to me and to others who write about the Left, why focus on the Left? In other words: What bone to I have to pick with them? How can I just overlook the wrongs done by the Right? At first, I thought that maybe I did hold a grudge, that maybe, because I made it a big deal that I no longer considered myself a feminist, I had to justify that action and calm any cognitive dissonance I may have felt by searching out incidents that supported my newfound belief system. But I don’t think so. I’ve tried to observe with open eyes what is happening– what I wouldn’t let myself see before– and it’s been deeply troubling. If what has been increasingly upsetting to me was done by the Right or any non-Leftists, I would write about that. It’s just that the triggering moments have been due those on the Left.

Still, I have been checking myself over and over these past few months, wondering if I am being unfairly biased, if I am falling for the algorithmic trap that all social media platforms have in which they direct you to more and more extreme content until your views are so drastic they seem absurd and dismissible to the opposing side. I am hesitant to answer that, as I could be wrong, but the more I see and read, the more I think that the answer is no, I’m not being unfair. I’m just a witness to a baffling and even frightening moment in history and feel the need to express what I see.

So what have I observed? As Joan Didion wrote in the quote above, it is fashionable to be on board with certain ideas right now– fashionable to the point of hysteria, where those who are not on board are punished. This is not an exaggeration: people have lost their jobs and been beaten up simply for not believing the ideology of the Left. I say ‘simply,’ but it is often actually a messy formula that has roots in mob mentality and laziness: someone who does not believe the Leftist ideology is mischaracterized as something horrible, like alt-right, far-right, neo-fascist, racist, homophobic, or sexist; anything that person says or does is from that point dismissed or held up as an example of what’s wrong with the world; when that person or supporters of that person are seen in public or publicly state some contrarian view online, they are ridiculed or worse; and thanks to social media– Twitter in particular– news of the presence of the individual or their supposed misdemeanor spreads like wildfire, and the mob takes to the streets and/or the Twittersphere to lambast the person for their perceived sins. The laziness at play here is in the trust in the members of the team for others on the team to do the homework for them: if so-and-so says this person is a neo-Nazi, he must be; therefore, it’s totally ok and even justified that we attack. But they haven’t actually gone to the source themselves. They haven’t listened to or read anything directly by the accused person. They don’t really know if they’re a neo-Nazi. Yet, having passed off the responsibility to do the homework to someone else, they harm others, whether it is their reputation, their livelihoods, or their lives.

Sometimes, one of the tribe gets caught in the cross-fire. For some perceived infraction, they are punished by those whose side they were on just moments before. This is often far more painful to witness because, more often than not, the accused lays him/herself down before the mob-jury and offers an apology, one usually filled with promises to do better and ‘listen harder.’ But, just as often, the apology is not enough. The mob doesn’t accept it. The accused is either ex-communicated indefinitely or starts working on ingratiating themselves with their tribe again with head bowed and tail between the legs.

Ah, but how can a person sin without a religion? That’s just it: the Left is a religion, one that has been described here, here, here, and here This religion is marked by the identity first and foremost: white = bad; male = bad; black/latino/trans/women = victims; victims = sacred and must be protected, believed, and defended at all costs (even at the cost of truth and, sometimes, the safety of others).

The resulting culture of victimhood has all kinds of repercussions, from the expected to the bizarre:

  • Censorship— the requisite strict adherence to the dogma results in self-censorship and censoring each other to stay in line with the dogma;
  • Concept inflation— for example, words like ‘safety’ and ‘harm’ are stretched to describe effects of words, not just physicality, which devalues their meaning;
  • Deplatforming— to protect the ‘safety’ of those ‘harmed’ by opposing views, it is imperative not to let those with those opposing views express them ever, either in person or online;
  • Virtue signaling— to let others in the tribe know they are toeing the line, they post their support on social media, in conversation, or in action (such as protests, ‘punching a Nazi,’ or calling out racist, sexist bigots);
  • Anger— anger is lauded as overdue and justified after so many years of oppression and ignoring the lives of the victim groups listed above;
  • Violence— those outside of the religion of the Left represent abhorrent views, are undeserving of empathy, and therefore must be fought by whatever means so that the good side wins (this is one of the least bizarre and more expected ones);
  • Blatant lies— this can be seen in the lie of false statistics or statistics misinterpreted being pushed to further a cause (like feminism or police racism), in the lie about a racist attack that won support in the religion of the Left by preying on the victim ideology for selfish motives, and in the lie about being racially profiled for bringing a homemade clock rather than a bomb, which resulted in an outpouring of sympathy so strong that the White House issued an invitation, Microsoft donated $10,000 worth of technology, and Qatar provided a sponsorship, all because the victim ideology was exploited for personal gain;
  • Emotions over context and reason— it doesn’t matter the actual story or the complications of the details that would require thought to work through because if it feels bad (like children crying or people not being able to live in whatever country they choose), then it must be bad;
  • Narrative over nuance— whether it’s passing judgment before all the facts are known because an image is easier to latch onto than the actual event, or ignoring the facts even once they are out because a narrative is simpler and brings out a bigger, more desired reaction, narrative trumps nuance when the nuance would require rethinking one’s beliefs; and
  • Avoidance of cognitive dissonance— when confronted with thoughts and opinions that do not fit into the ideology, deny them, attack the character of the person spewing them (or at the very least, of those the person quotes), become angry, and, if all that fails, walk away.

I am a heretic. I no longer belong to this religion, though I once did; it is not mine, yet I live in a world where it dominates. I’ve seen what happens when people stand up against it, but I also see where it’s taking us. For the sake of my as-yet-unborn niece or nephew, for the sake of those of us who would like to have fulfilling and self-directed futures, I want to prevent that from happening. I just hope– despite my fears– that it doesn’t get too much worse before it gets better.

The best books that I read in 2018

It has been a slower reading year for me, coming in at just under 60 books where last year I came in at 120. But I have tried to choose those that actually interest me without regard for ‘shoulds,’ and while I still had some duds, there were some that I came to adore. Here I present the list of my favorites from this year, in the order I read them.

 

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

When my boyfriend first introduced me to Dr. Peterson on YouTube, I was skeptical and remained skeptical for a long time until I saw a video of him describing an email chain with a Business Insider writer who describer Peterson as ‘alt-right.’ Dr. Peterson’s outrage at that description and his articulate explanation on why it was wrong showed me that he believes in his core what I believe– that it is up to the individual to live a productive, meaningful, and individual life and to be an example of that to others, rather than banding together with others in ideological groups that depersonalize and polarize– and it let me trust him. This book strengthened that trust by expounding on how individuals can live more meaningfully, and I would recommend it to everyone (as I expounded on in a separate post here.)

“It is necessary, under such conditions, if we are to avoid catastrophe, for each of us to bring forward the truth, as we see it: not the arguments that justify our ideologies, not the machinations that further our ambitions, but the stark pure facts of our existence, revealed for others to see and contemplate, so that we can find common ground and proceed together.”

 

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Johnson died from liver cancer last year, and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden was his last book, published posthumously. Both of these books are collections of short stories, all of which contain a magnetism. His humor is spot-on, dealt effortlessly with a perfectly placed question or self-deprecating remark. His stories read seamlessly– I read them so quickly because they are so absorbing, so easy to read. (I would also recommend his Train Dreams, which I read last year.)

“By his manner he seemed to endorse the idea of not doing anything about this. I was relieved and tearful. I’d thought something was required of me, but I hadn’t wanted to find out what it was.”

 

She Got Up off the Couch by Haven Kimmel

This is the sequel memoir to A Girl Named Zippy, and it was just as wonderful and endearing and perfect. I hated being away from it, and I never wanted it to end (though the last essay was absolutely crushing and devastating without being overtly so). I felt like I was Zippy’s friend while reading; the way Haven writes is exactly how a child thinks and talks yet is slyly clever at the same time. That was a terrible description, but I love this book and wish I could absorb both memoirs like a sponge.

He was no longer even a little bit of a Christian, something I secretly loved in a person. I was always looking around for nonbelievers, just to see how they got by without being put in prison. For a while, my dream was to find an atheist midget and then light out for a ghost town in the Wild West with him, but when I mentioned this to Julie she said you didn’t really want to put a midget on a horse.”

 

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Another memoir by the lovely and incomparable Primo Levi, this one tells stories from his life based on elements from the periodic table (hence the title), stories of how he became a chemist and of his life in the profession of a chemist. It touches on his life both before and after his time in Auschwitz, though through a coincidental encounter, one story refers back to his time there. For most of the book, though, it was nice reading about his life outside of that.

I know myself: I do not possess any polemical skill, my opponent distracts me, he interests me more as a man than as an opponent, I take pains to listen and run the risk of believing him: indignation and the correct judgment return later, on the way downstairs, when they are no longer of any use. It was best for me to stick to writing.”

 

Calypso by David Sedaris

As always, this is a collection of funny stories from Sedaris’s life. However, these have some poignant, almost sad, moments, as he wrote about his sister Tiffany’s suicide and mental illness, his mom’s alcoholism, and his dad’s aging and past history of not getting along with David (and of cutting him out of his will for no apparent reason). Happy or sad, Sedaris’s writing never fails to draw me in. I will read anything he writes until he stops writing.

Then I realized that it didn’t mean anything. Opinions constantly shifted and evolved, were fluid the same way thoughts were. Ten minutes into The Exorcist you might say, “This is boring.” An hour later you could decide that it was the best thing you’d ever seen, and it was no different with people. The villain at three in the afternoon might be the hero by sunset. It was all just storytelling.”

 

A Life of One’s Own by Marion Milner

Started in 1926, this book summarizes an experiment Milner did with herself over seven years to find out what truly makes her happy, which eventually led her to observe how her mind works and the ensuing thoughts that come from the conscious and subconscious mind. She described my own process of getting to the root of discomfort and anxiety by locating the thought I’m afraid to face but is nevertheless hounding me until I learn from it. I loved this, probably because it felt so much like my own self written on paper.

It puzzled me that these back-of-my-mind thoughts should have such power to spread an emotional shadow. Time and again I would find one of them filling me with gloomy forebodings and yet, when I had caught it and turned my searchlight upon it, it was but a little thing, a trivial difficulty which I knew quite well how to surmount.”

 

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky

If I had to choose one book that I read this past year to recommend to others, one that surprised me with how taken I would be by it, I would choose this one. I have so many feelings about it– it was hilarious; it was familiar; it was sad. Sapolsky is a neuroscientist and primatologist, and in A Primate’s Memoir, he writes about his time in Kenya studying a troop of baboons from grad school up until he was a post doc student (he still goes to Kenya to study baboons). Because of the quality of his writing, I fell in love with his baboons just as he had. The irreverence with which he writes about his experiences is refreshing– his feelings reminded me of my time in the Peace Corps. I adored this so much.

[on seeing his first wild mountain gorillas] “I had a flood of thoughts and feelings. At the first sight, I thought, Now my eyes will well up with tears, but I was too intent on watching for that to happen. I wondered what my social rank would be if I had wound up a mountain gorilla. I was mesmerized by their eyes; their faces seemed less emotionally expressive than those of chimps or even baboons, but their eyes, you wanted to go swimming in. I tried not to make eye contact, not only because it’s bad field technique and discomforts primates, but because the act would make me want to confess to unlikely crimes. I found myself with the barely controllable urge to scream, or to gibber dangerously among them, or to rudely kiss one, so that they would stomp me to death then and there and stop my suspense.”

 

The Gulag Archipelago (Abridged) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While this was the abridged version, it nevertheless felt like a full account of the Archipelago system of prisons and camps under Stalin (and then Kruschev). What cruelty, what torture, what inhumanity there was– and yet we didn’t hear about it! We don’t learn about it! It is mind-blowing that at least twenty million (possibly as many as 66 million) lives were thrown into this system and chewed up, and we don’t even use it as a warning; we don’t even learn it as history. I wish we all would read this and have our eyes opened.

And oh, you well-fed, devil-may-care, nearsighted, irresponsible foreigners with your notebooks and your ball-point pens— beginning with those correspondents who back in Kem asked the zeks questions in the presence of the camp chiefs— how much you have harmed us in your vain passion to shine with understanding in areas where you did not grasp a lousy thing!”

 

Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World by Jane Hirshfield

A follow-up to her first book of essays about poetry, Nine Gates, this one is just as insightful, nuanced, and elegantly articulate. Hirshfield brings up points I’m not sure I would ever unearth myself and explains poems I wouldn’t otherwise understand. A lovely breath of thought.

Existence does not guarantee us destination, nor trust, nor equity, nor one moment beyond this instant’s almost weightless duration. It is a triteness to say that the only thing to be counted upon us that what you count on will not be what comes. Utilitarian truths evaporate: we die. Poems allow us not only to bear the tally and toll of our transience, but to perceive, within their own continually surprising and continually generative abundance, a path through the grief of that insult, into joy.”

 

The Diversity Delusion by Heather MacDonald

I could not have read this book two years ago– my mind was still too much aligned with feminist ideology to receive ideas outside of it with any sort of rationality. But because I’ve swallowed the red pill wholeheartedly, I was ready: MacDonald shows just how delusional universities, corporations, and (increasingly) society is when it comes to seeing minorities and women as victims of racism and sexism. The amount of money that goes into combating these phantom villains alone is sickening, but the behaviors and attitudes that result are even more so, I think.

“The post-Trump nervous breakdown was a direct consequence of the diversocrats’ reign; reaction to his election will only solidify their power, and deepen the delusion that students and recent graduates bring into the larger world. Rather than emerging with minds broadened and informed by the best that our heritage offers, students increasingly are narrowed into groups defined by grievance. Who—other than a vast administrative bureaucracy—benefits from such diminishment? And what will replace what has been lost?”

 

Almost Everything by Anne Lamott

No matter how many books of hers I read and how similar they are and how much I think that surely this time I’ll be sick of the redundancy, I end up feeling renewed and hopeful and vulnerable and open afterwards (and throughout). She makes me remember that I can and should slow down and chill out and go a little easier on myself and others, something I’m not great at doing.

What helps is that we are not all crazy and hopeless on the same day. One of us remembers and reminds the rest of us that when it is really dark you can see the stars.”

 

Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining by Judy Sheindlin

Judge Judy has become my favorite person ever since I first watched a clip from her show this past summer. (I know, I’m only about twenty years behind everyone else.) She is so quick-witted, so direct, so brutally honest, that I want to hear her opinion on everything– she just seems so right. This book was a version of having her opinions given to me, and I ate it up: from foster care to welfare to custody battles, she let loose. I only wish people (and the government) would listen.

If you want to eat, you have to work.

If you have children, be prepared to take care of them.

If you break the law, it is your fault. Be prepared to pay.

If you tap the public purse, be prepared to account.

The Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to pursue opportunity. It does not require the government to provide that opportunity. Beyond creating an atmosphere— legal and social— that enables people to grow, no one is owed anything.”

Uber-cum-meditation

I can’t watch or read much of anything online these days because I find almost everything I come across to be annoying in some way: mainstream media’s take on, well, pretty much everything; the same topics repeatedly covered by the publications I actually like; the distance and hostility between the political parties. Even things that people turn to for distraction and entertainment annoy me. I just can’t seem to stand anything, and I try to ignore it to be able to be minimally nice to people during the day.

This has made it difficult to write about anything, as annoyance is not one of the better known muses and has, in fact, been known to scare the creative and inspirational muses away, leaving one with an ugly feeling and no productive outlet for it.

I noticed this week, however, that annoyance is not a far step from anger, and I’ve actually felt angry by things. When, after waiting for ten minutes after work for an Uber to take me to the place I volunteer, I got a notification that a different driver, this one now another ten minutes away, had replaced the first one, I got mad. Luckily, the driver came, he took me where I needed to go, and there were no more mishaps with the ride. It was only when I arrived that the anger really started to solidify: the meeting I do childcare for had been canceled, so I wasn’t needed. There was nothing for me to do except go home.

I didn’t blow up, but the young woman who had informed me of the cancellation was wringing her hands and shaking in her shoes so much that you would think steam was coming from my ears. So I let her go, poor thing, and went to stewing on my own as I waited for one Uber after another (more replacements, more minutes to wait, etc.).

I was ready to pounce on someone.

Little did I know, I was being sent a teacher in the guise of an Uber driver. Bharpoor pulled up to the building with a long, impeccably trimmed white beard and a big turban on his head. He mentioned when I got in that I was going far, and I said, ‘Yeah, kinda far.’ He responded, ‘That’s okay. That is why I am here– to take you where you need to go.’ He said it so genuinely, so kindly, that I felt my anger melt a little. He’s taking care of me, I thought. I told myself to be more like him.

Unfortunately, my resolve was tested just a few minutes later when we had to pick up another rider who was nowhere near the pickup point, and we had to wait several minutes for her. Bharpoor called her twice, and though she said she was close, we continued to wait with no rider in sight. I wasn’t happy, as I’ve explained, and I started wishing Bharpoor would just cancel her ride and abandon her to the night. Take me home! I just want to be home! But after being told that she was close– again– Bharpoor said, ‘That’s okay. We have patience.’

We. We have patience. We have patience. Right. We have patience. If Bharpoor says it, then that’s what it is. So I told myself that I had patience.

And just like that, the girl showed up, she got in the car, and Bharpoor took me home.

It wasn’t a miracle, not in the biblical sense, at least, but it was profound. Things happen that I think are objectively bad: I don’t like this; I have in my mind a better alternative that I’ve missed; and now my emotions are all in a bunch. But I have a choice, every time. Feelings and reactions are not objective; things are only as bad as I make them. I can try being more equanimous, even if I don’t feel like being equanimous. My annoyance so often stems from wanting life to go where I tell it even as it is doing just the opposite. I have to loosen the reins a bit (a lot.) I have to learn to take things in stride better. To slow down. Look up. Read a poem, maybe write one. Chill out. To have patience.

That’s what I’m here for– to take you where you need to go.

Morals and politics

Somewhere toward the end of 2017, I came across an interview on On Being of Jonathan Haidt. I had never heard of him, but because the wheels of my mind had already been put into motion on the concept of ideological thinking, the description of the interview caught my attention: ‘He explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types — ways of moving through the world.’ I wanted to know what that meant– I needed guidance for navigating this no-man’s-land I had found myself in, politically speaking. And what he explained fascinated me.

The basic tenets of the theory Haidt has culled from his research (more of which is described in his book A Righteous Mind) are that moral judgment is based mostly on intuitions, rather than conscious reasoning; there’s more to morality than harm and fairness; and morality ‘binds and blinds.’ Those who identify as liberal tend to have a two-fold idea of morality, one that revolves around the ideas of fairness and care. But those who identify as conservative tend to have a five-fold idea of morality, one based on the ideas of fairness, care, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. (This does not mean that conservatives are more moral because their definition of morality includes more factors— it just means that the various factors involved are weighted differently by each group.) Moreover, we do not consciously reason our way to moral judgment; rather, ‘When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.’ Lastly, our morals allow us to be part of groups outside of our kin groups; sharing values allows us to find a cohesiveness with others that we might otherwise have little connection with. But they also blind us to values outside of our own moral matrix and to the defects of that matrix.

“…[I]n one study that I did with my former graduate student, Jesse Graham, we asked liberals and conservatives to fill out our main surveys, pretending to be the other, and also as themselves, for different people. What we found is that conservatives and moderates were very accurate at filling it out as though they were liberals. But liberals were not accurate filling it out as though they were conservatives, because they just couldn’t get their mind into the idea that authority is somehow related to morality; they think it’s just oppression. So that’s one reason why there’s a difficulty, an asymmetric difficulty.”

Reading this made me think of all the times I have vehemently stated the case for something to or around my parents– how they must have rolled their eyes! Yes, yes, we can see your point, I imagine them thinking. You just don’t see oursAnd they would be right– I didn’t see theirs. Not only was I afraid to try, but my moral matrix had been whittled down to two legs, while theirs stood on five. I no longer thought the world needed to include more than what I saw. I thought I understood the Truth, and everyone else was blind.

Haidt goes on to explain how different moral matrices can complement each other:

“…[I]n doing this research and coming to see that liberals and conservatives each have a piece of the puzzle — each are really perceptive about certain moral values, about the needs of what it takes to have a humane society, and if you let liberals run everything, they tend to burn up social capital, but conservatives tend to focus more on building up social structures that actually do allow us to flourish in some ways. You do need order. You do need some restrictions. You do need some boundaries.”

So the truth is not confined to two pillars, it would seem. It’s hard for me to admit how eye-opening this was. I shouldn’t have been surprised– I grew up with a conservative moral matrix, after all. Unlike Haidt, who had never encountered conservative ideas until he was an adult, I was surrounded by them for most of my life. And yet I was just as taken aback as he was to find out that there was some value to them. (It hurts me even to write that. The absolute egoism, ignorance, and ingratitude of that statement is shameful.) It was freeing, though. I was now allowed to think outside of the narrow liberal framework I had been working within for so many years. I could appreciate other ideas without having to claim anything. I was given permission to listen to people and hear what they had to say.

I know where my liberal leanings came from, and Haidt explains it in his interview (‘…about the terrible things that happen — I mean we’re talking about polarization here — what happens when the academy itself becomes polarized, so that all the liberals are in the academy, all the conservatives are in think tanks in Washington.’) just as Jordan Peterson warns repeatedly in his own videos and interviews (for example): universities, particularly their social sciences, are often places of ideological indoctrination. I may have been primed through personal experiences and encounters with liberal-minded people, but I was baptized by my college curriculum and sent out from there as a disciple of the religion of the Left. And where did I go? To where other disciples were: grad school, the Peace Corps, nonprofits, none of which are bad in and of themselves. It’s just that the polarization happens with everything: with our online habits, with our choice of city in which to live, with our friend group. We start living in an echo chamber without even realizing it.

What I’ve found from my own experience is that breaking out of our echo chambers is not an easy thing to do. It took a long time for me to accept that some things I didn’t want to hear nevertheless made sense and that I couldn’t just ignore them. Even now, there are things that are uncomfortable (like the effects of diversity or admitting how idealistic and ignorant I have been about certain historical events, like so many people on the Left were/are regarding socialism). Ultimately, though, it’s worth it, however long it takes and however uncomfortable it is. Haidt describes his own experience:

“…[I]in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist who just — ‘I’ve got to understand this stuff’ — over time I realized, ‘Well, they’re not crazy. These ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see.’

The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.”

This has led me even deeper into what I now realize is the Intellectual Dark Web (of which Jonathan Haidt is part): a collection of thinkers all along the political spectrum who are devoted to discussing meaningful subjects– however much they may disagree on them– while maintaining civility and without obeying the laws of political correctness, often to the detriment of their own careers in academia or elsewhere. What has shocked me the most since discovering this ‘third way,’ so to speak, is the realization that people rarely go to the source for information. Blatant and imprecise accusations are thrown around, mostly online (and often by the Left), with as little prompting as a Tweet. ‘Alt-right,’ ‘neo-Nazi,’ and ‘white supremacist’ are slapped on people without regard to the person or group’s statements and alignments to the contrary. It frightens me to see that, rather than actually valuing other people, we are wanting to see an obliteration of any thought that differs from our own. How did that happen? And what good will that do?

I think that part of the answer– at least to how this happened– lies in the different moral matrices: if one side cannot even fathom another side’s moral framework, if theirs is the more restricted matrix, then anything beyond that will appear irrelevant at best and immoral (possibly even evil) at worst. So when someone from the more restricted matrix comes upon something written by someone outside of that, or witnesses a group gathering with values different from theirs, it is more difficult for them to see morality there. If mislabeling happens, so be it– their concerns are misplaced (or downright wrong) anyway. Right?

Something I fell prey to myself as I went from Christian conservative teen to agnostic liberal young adult was the idea that religion (and therefore, religious conservatism) was useless and in many ways oppressive. It’s clear to me now that I was in the throes of quite a different religion and that it was much more dangerous, but it didn’t hit me until I came upon Haidt’s interview just how far off I was, just how much I had benefited in my life from growing up in a religious family with a religious community. It turns out  that there actually is something to religion (again, the ingratitude!): 

“…[A] wonderful book, American Grace, by Putnam and Campbell, is the ultimate authority on this. What they find is that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, and it doesn’t matter what you believe: If you are part of a religious community, then on average, you’re a better citizen. You give more to charity. Religion does bring out the good in people. Now, secular people can be perfectly good too, but on average, they give less, and they give less of their time.”

I am grateful to have been taught in my formative years: giving matters. And what I’ve been grateful for is the model of my parents in their more rural town, continuing to find ways to give of themselves to their neighbors, their church, the people in their community, my grandparents. My blinders are falling off inch by inch: I can now see just a tad bit more than I once could, and I am humbled by what I find.  

“… one of the clearest differences between left and right, psychologically, is that the left is generally universalist, almost to a fault, and the right is parochial, often to a fault. And what I mean by parochial isn’t just ‘narrow-minded and dumb.’ What I mean is — so we have a survey at yourmorals.org where we ask, ‘How much do you care about or think about or value people in your community, people in your country, people in the world at large?’ And OK, so conservatives value people in their nation and in their community much more than people in the world at large. And you might say, OK, well, that’s parochial. But what do liberals do? Liberals on our survey actually say they value people in the world at large more than people in their own country, more than people in their community. So liberals are so universalist, they often don’t really pay much attention to their own groups. As my mother said about my grandfather, who was a labor organizer, ‘He loved humanity so much that he didn’t really have much time to care for his family.'”

What matters? What is really important? What morals do I consider real, do I believe are valuable? And which ones do I think are ridiculous? How many things have I not noticed simply because I couldn’t even acknowledge their presence? All these months later, I’m still left mulling over so many questions. But what I do know is that Haidt’s research has deeply affected how I see the world. And I don’t imagine I’ll stop thinking about it for quite a while.

Not really a Handmaid’s Tale

I cannot have children. I no longer have the biological parts to do so. If our country suddenly decided to adopt the totalitarianism of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, I would not be one of the enslaved handmaids (praise be). Neither would I be one of the enslavers, as I am not married and do not have a wish for biological children to raise. (I guess that would make me a Martha.) The thing is, it was not an unhappy accident that I lost the ability to bear children: it was my choice.

On January 25 of this year, I had a hysterectomy. My gynecologist, manipulating a robot, removed everything but my ovaries: my cervix, uterus, and Fallopian tubes. I am left with two small marks (originally four, but two have already disappeared) on my abdomen that I’m hoping will fade even more over time. The recovery was a bit more of a nightmare at first than I had anticipated, but the months passed quickly enough. I don’t have to worry about periods or birth control or Pap smears ever again.

I had wanted this done since before I even had my first period. I prayed that I would never get a period, or that if I had to, it would come late, say 16 or 18. But I got it at 14, and I was crushed and angry. I didn’t want kids! I wanted to adopt them! Why did I need this stupid thing if I wouldn’t ever use it?! You would think that I would get used to having a period, as it came once a month, every month, forever after. But I didn’t. I was always angry, every time it hit. I tried reframing it to myself after I heard in a class in college that women embraced their periods and loved them for various reasons, such as being connected with all women throughout history, etc. etc. But that didn’t last long. There was no reframing for me: I never intended to have children of my own, and I hated having a period.

After I became a foster parent and was even more turned off to having my own children (and even to the idea of raising any children at all, something that has yet to go away entirely), I became more upset each month. I felt imprisoned by something I didn’t consider necessary. I was desperate to find a way out.

By the time I had the surgery, I had had a period for exactly five months shorter than the time I had lived without a period. In terms of life, though, I had lived through much more in my conscious memory with it than without. That has since reversed. Everything I do now, I do without concern about period blood or tampons or cramps. I have been freed.

It’s hard to express my excitement without worrying that I will alienate people. Both men and women often desire biological children. To express an opinion to the contrary is to invite distrust, defensiveness, and sometimes even disbelief. To state even less ambivalently that it may be morally wrong to bring children into the world at all is to transform into a monster in people’s minds. In many ways, I am an outsider. I cannot be completely frank.

However, that’s not the point. The point is that I consider myself lucky, one of the luckiest, in fact. Not in a women-should-be-able-to-choose-and-be-released-from-the-patriarchy way, and not in a divisive and narrow way of saying that women who love their periods or people who want their own children are misguided, biologically-driven, confused, or wrong, and those who break from that spell are the only true thinkers, the true heroes of the world, but just in a way of getting what I wanted and being totally content with it. I am lucky to have that, as not everyone does. I also realize that makes me sound like a spoiled brat.

All I’m saying is that I feel like I’ve escaped something, like I was supposed to serve a life sentence but by some loophole was let out after a brief stay. I obviously don’t put much stock into the notion that ‘you were given something for a reason, so you better put it to good use.’ Some things we have to learn to live with, that’s true. But if there’s something I don’t have to live with, why punish myself? Why not get rid of it? Not all crosses are worth bearing, and I’ve got enough to carry without worrying about my uterus. That’s what I think, at least.

Blessed be the fruit.

May the Lord open.

Or, you know, please just treat yourself and others with respect and all that.

On 12 Rules for Life by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Life has had me thinking about rules lately and their application in my life, how there is a place for them and a wisdom to them, yet how they can also be suffocating and soul-crushing.

I’ve also been thinking about memory, how distorted it is and how disorienting it is to realize after being confronted with hard evidence just how wrong you were about something you ‘remembered.’

When life requires a stepping back, a reevaluation of what we thought we knew, when it shows us our flaws in a way we can neither escape nor deny, what do we do? How do we proceed? Where can we go from the rubble of the destruction of what we were, and what rules do we use, when the rules we had been using are no longer useful?

Dr. Jordan Peterson has written a book that may be a good starting point. His 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is more than just a self-help book full of platitudes for living ‘your best life yet!’ It is an exploration into meaning, tradition, suffering, and our place in life. Dr. Peterson covers so much ground, from the relevance of the Old Testament and Disney movies to the dangers of ideologies, that a simple summary does not do it justice. And because I want everyone to read this book and internalize its lessons, I am sharing excerpts here to give a taste of the richness that is 12 Rules for Life.

In the introduction, Dr. Peterson explains the most elemental rule:

“[T]he foremost rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.”

This rule underlies every other rule in the rest of the book (and as such is not actually one of the twelve rules). For example, in this first chapter, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” it shows up in a physical way: literally standing up straight. But as Dr. Peterson explains, doing so also has a metaphorical importance: that of seeing ourselves for who we truly are, in all of our sometimes-ugly complexity, and discarding our naive belief that we (as well as others) are inherently good creatures.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognize in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.

[…]

Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily. You respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe.

[…]

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”

Accepting responsibility for our lives can be daunting, especially when we begin to look inside ourselves and find the parts of humanity we want to distance ourselves from. Tying in the biblical metaphor of the snake and its temptations and associations with all that is evil, Dr. Peterson writes:

“The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will keep that out. Even if the fortress were thick enough, in principle, to keep everything bad whatsoever outside, it would immediately appear again within. As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

We must move forward clear-eyed, no longer naive to the world or ourselves. But as Dr. Peterson explains, our vision is itself a tricky thing, ignoring most of the stimuli hitting it and focusing only on what we believe matters. What we see can tell us a lot about what we value. As a result, it is important to figure out what you’re looking at to determine where you might be off in what you’re placing value in.

“But here’s the rub: sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values. . . . If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.”

Often we look to people we admire or envy to judge how we are doing in life. We narrow our vision to value what we don’t have, what we wish we had, what we aren’t. The dangers of that should be obvious, yet not only do we all know what that experience is like, we also know how difficult it is not to do. Dr. Peterson poses the following questions to bring our attention on where it should be, on what we can do with what we have where we are:

“Five hundred small decisions, five hundred tiny actions, compose your day, today, and every day. Could you aim one or two of these at a better result? Better, in your own private opinion, by your own individual standards? Could you compare your specific personal tomorrow with your specific personal yesterday? Could you use your own judgment, and ask yourself what that better tomorrow might be?”

Again, he brings in a biblical allusion–  that of the Sermon on the Mount– to illustrate the importance of focusing on things that matter:

“The Sermon on the Mount outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind: concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you—but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world. Do that only after you have determined to sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed so that you can pursue the highest good.”

Where do we learn this? How do we know what is right from wrong, what is out of bounds and what is proper? It begins in childhood, when our parents first give us boundaries and clear instructions on what to do and how to be. We internalize what they teach us to become more independent and more responsible for ourselves. Dr. Peterson writes in no uncertain terms just how important good parenting is:

“Parents who refuse to adopt the responsibility for disciplining their children think they can just opt out of the conflict necessary for proper child-rearing. They avoid being the bad guy (in the short term). But they do not at all rescue or protect their children from fear and pain. Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment far greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world—and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.

[…]

Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational parents. Clear principles of discipline and punishment balance mercy and justice so that social development and psychological maturity can be optimally promoted. Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society, establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld, where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous parent can bestow.”

Contrary to the idea that no boundaries allows for freer expressions of who we truly are, Dr. Peterson argues that it is precisely the limits on us that ultimately provide freedom:

“A long period of unfreedom—adherence to a singular interpretive structure—is necessary for the development of a free mind.

[…]

A superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He’s nothing specific, so he’s nothing. He has nothing to strive against, so he can’t be admirable. Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. That is only possible for something limited.”

Learning– or rather, being taught by those who care for us– how to regulate our impulses and emotions is not only important for being successful in a conventional sense but also for finding meaning in a deeper sense, for Becoming with a capital B.

“Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.

[…]

You may find that if you attend to these moral obligations, once you have placed ‘make the world better’ at the top of your value hierarchy, you experience ever-deepening meaning. It’s not bliss. It’s not happiness. It is something more like atonement for the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being. It’s payment of the debt you owe for the insane and horrible miracle of your existence. It’s how you remember the Holocaust. It’s how you make amends for the pathology of history. It’s adoption of the responsibility for being a potential denizen of Hell. It is willingness to serve as an angel of Paradise.

[…]

To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will. Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.”

We must experiment, put ourselves to the test in a way, to discover who we are and what we value. We must try and fail and try again if we are to grow in any way. Meaning is hard-won, and so is our sense of self.

“If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward. This is a biological truth, as well as a conceptual truth. When you explore boldly, when you voluntarily confront the unknown, you gather information and build your renewed self out of that information. That is the conceptual element. However, researchers have recently discovered that new genes in the central nervous system turn themselves on when an organism is placed (or places itself) in a new situation. These genes code for new proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for new structures in the brain. This means that a lot of you is still nascent, in the most physical of senses, and will not be called forth by stasis. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not…you remain incomplete, and life is too hard for anyone incomplete.

[…]

What is going to save you? The totalitarian says, in essence, “You must rely on faith in what you already know.” But that is not what saves. What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know. That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be.

[…]

Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better. Sometimes such deaths virtually destroy us. In such cases, we might never recover or, if we do, we change a lot.”

However, there may not be any outward, physical markers for the changes we undergo. They are often internal, affecting more how we see the world than how the world sees us. This requires a shift in our thinking, and thinking is demanding.

“Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something.”

To explain how deep listening affects our thinking and therefore our perspective, Dr. Peterson offers the advice of Carl Rogers:

“Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, ‘The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.’ He knew that listening could transform people. On that, Rogers commented, ‘Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people, and that you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that your listening has not been of the type I have described.’ He suggested that his readers conduct a short experiment when they next found themselves in a dispute: ‘Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”’

[…]

Of this, Rogers notes, ‘Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.’”

Listening and talking– in essence, having a conversation– help us process our thoughts. They are essential to thinking, so it is essential that we practice them.

“The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind.”

Speaking to the importance of talking things through, Dr. Peterson uses the example of a marriage:

“There is little, in a marriage, that is so little that it is not worth fighting about. You’re stuck in a marriage like the two proverbial cats in a barrel, bound by the oath that lasts in theory until one or both of you die. That oath is there to make you take the damn situation seriously. Do you really want the same petty annoyance tormenting you every single day of your marriage, for the decades of its existence?

[…]

Life is indistinguishable from effortful maintenance.

[…]

Here’s the terrible truth about such matters: every single voluntarily unprocessed and uncomprehended and ignored reason for marital failure will compound and conspire and will then plague that betrayed and self-betrayed woman for the rest of her life. The same goes for her husband. All she—he—they—or we—must do to ensure such an outcome is nothing: don’t notice, don’t react, don’t attend, don’t discuss, don’t consider, don’t work for peace, don’t take responsibility. Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order—just wait, anything but naïve and innocent, for the chaos to rise up and engulf you instead.

[…]

When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.”

The same goes for non-marital situations, that we must be precise in our confronting difficult situations regardless of whom they are with:

“You must also know clearly what you want out of the situation, and be prepared to clearly articulate your desire. It’s a good idea to tell the person you are confronting exactly what you would like them to do instead of what they have done or currently are doing. You might think, “if they loved me, they would know what to do.” That’s the voice of resentment. Assume ignorance before malevolence. No one has a direct pipeline to your wants and needs—not even you. If you try to determine exactly what you want, you might find that it is more difficult than you think. The person oppressing you is likely no wiser than you, especially about you. Tell them directly what would be preferable, instead, after you have sorted it out. Make your request as small and reasonable as possible—but ensure that its fulfillment would satisfy you. In that manner, you come to the discussion with a solution, instead of just a problem.”

In regard to heated situations, where talking has escalated to spewing at each other, Dr. Peterson shares the anecdote of what he and his wife do when they are in blow-out fights: they stop in the middle of it, go into separate rooms to calm down, and think about how they themselves were wrong. After sufficient time has passed, they come back and share their insights.

“Alone, trying to calm down, we would each ask ourselves the same single question: What had we each done to contribute to the situation we were arguing about? However small, however distant…we had each made some error. Then we would reunite, and share the results of our questioning: Here’s how I was wrong…. The problem with asking yourself such a question is that you must truly want the answer. And the problem with doing that is that you won’t like the answer.

[…]

When you are arguing with someone, you want to be right, and you want the other person to be wrong. Then it’s them that has to sacrifice something and change, not you, and that’s much preferable. If it’s you that’s wrong and you that must change, then you have to reconsider yourself—your memories of the past, your manner of being in the present, and your plans for the future. Then you must resolve to improve and figure out how to do that. Then you actually have to do it. That’s exhausting. It takes repeated practice, to instantiate the new perceptions and make the new actions habitual. It’s much easier just not to realize, admit and engage. It’s much easier to turn your attention away from the truth and remain wilfully blind.”

Drawing an interesting parallel, Dr. Peterson applies this mindset to prayer:

“Perhaps that is true prayer: the question, ‘What have I done wrong, and what can I do now to set things at least a little bit more right?’ But your heart must be open to the terrible truth. You must be receptive to that which you do not want to hear. When you decide to learn about your faults, so that they can be rectified, you open a line of communication with the source of all revelatory thought. Maybe that’s the same thing as consulting your conscience. Maybe that’s the same thing, in some manner, as a discussion with God.”

Asking this, having this discussion with ourselves, with God, cracks open the door from our suffocating room of stunted, albeit certain, stagnancy to the exhilarating, albeit dangerous and uncertain, world of growth. So much is required to grow, so much is demanded of us. We must prepare ourselves well. Dr. Peterson summarizes it best himself:

“Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.

[…]

Christ enjoins His followers to place faith in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and the truth. That’s a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of Being. That’s an act of courage. Aim high, like Pinocchio’s Geppetto. Wish upon a star, and then act properly, in accordance with that aim. Once you are aligned with the heavens, you can concentrate on the day. Be careful. Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. It is possible that you can manage, if you are careful. People are very tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost.

[…]

What does all that mean? Orient yourself properly. Then—and only then—concentrate on the day. Set your sights at the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, and then focus pointedly and carefully on the concerns of each moment. Aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth. Attend fully to the future, in that manner, while attending fully to the present. Then you have the best chance of perfecting both.”

For even more insight and wisdom— as I couldn’t include everything I highlighted from the book here in this one post; there is so much more to share and think about and discuss— be sure to read 12 Rules for Life.