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.