Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: Be grateful in spite of your suffering. (Part 1)

I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. Although Peterson did not intend for all the chapters in the book to build on each other, this final chapter seems like a summary of many of the previous elements in the book.

That isn’t to imply that there aren’t new ideas in here. There are, and it actually presents some images that are strong and either unexplored or only trivially pursued in earlier chapters or work by Peterson. It also relies on the exploration of past concepts while moving in a new direction.

How To Live

The fundamental challenge that confronts everyone is the question of how to live.

It’s not even a particularly difficult question to formulate, though that can make it harder to consciously examine since we might (and not entirely incorrectly) break it down into the many small decisions we make instead of examining it in the perspective of a grand orientation toward a course of action that makes our life meaningful.

But it is one that we must ask, and one that we must also answer in a way that is sufficient to act upon.

And incorrect answers carry a high price.

Peterson focuses on this because it is something of value that we can take from an exploration of the various concepts he’s interested in, so it aligns easily with the text of both Beyond Order and 12 Rules for Life.

Human beings have the capacity to courageously confront their suffering—to transcend it psychologically, as well as to ameliorate it practically.

Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

This is an important step on the road to gratitude because it forces us to reformulate our understandings of the universe.

It is not so much that we have things that we ought to be grateful for.

That is true, but it’s hard to appreciate. Our minds are problem-oriented by design and as a survival strategy.

If they weren’t we’d experience serious problems. We need to be equipped to think forward in time, and there are two ways to do that.

One is, as Peterson outlines, to confront the sources of problems. This can take place consciously through a heroic struggle (which is what the archetypal hero undergoes), or unconsciously through the adherence to tradition and the reliance on inherited and vicarious wisdom.

The second is to react to problems’ results. This can be something as simple as eating when you are hungry (because there is no viable solution to avoid hunger, it is the right course of action) to as extreme as waiting until a faulty device catches fire to replace it.

The first option is superior to the second where it is possible.

Once you realize that, you can see where other people have made that choice.

Not only is that a learning experience and something that helps to orient your own action in the universe, it also answers an important question surrounding gratitude.

What should you be grateful for?

The reduction in suffering possible when people live as they should. And that is something we can all be grateful for, because it is not only our right action that serves as a bulwark for us but also the right action of our altruistic forebears.

What Do You Have To Be Thankful For?

I’ve never liked the idea of being thankful.

It’s not so much that I’m full of ingratitude. I’ve got my materialist streak coupled with enough time of relative hardship that I am quite aware of what I have and how much it makes my life easier.

But it’s felt wrong to me to feel thankful for things in the same way that praying for a pony feels like the wrong way of thinking about prayer.

And I think the proper thing to be thankful for is the fact that things are not as bad as they could be.

If you act nobly—a word that is very rarely used now, unfortunately—in the face of suffering, you can work practically and effectively to ameliorate and rectify your own and other people’s misery, as such.

Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

The reason why this is the proper way to approach things is that you can never wind up without things to be grateful for.

I think of the Biblical story of Job when gratitude comes up.

Job starts the story well-off. He’s not necessarily all the way up at the top, but he’s the sort of person you want your kids to grow up to be. He’s got a family, he’s healthy, he’s fabulously rich. I’d compare him to a small business owner, but the problem with that is the adjective small.

And in a brief sequence of events, all that changes.

Most of his family dies–and it would be better if his wife died with them, because she becomes a righteous terror to Job. He loses his possessions. He is afflicted with sickness. His friends come to visit him, and they insist he must have done something to deserve it.

We’d describe Job during the dark periods of his life as unfortunate, mostly because coming up with a proper description for it would involve delving deep into unpleasant territory.

It is certainly the case that the only thing Job has left, barring a feeble body and evidently some attention from other people (albeit probably not the sort of attention Job wants), is his relationship with God.

And Job doesn’t have a direct phone-a-friend line to God. He’s relying on faith.

Eventually, however, God shows up in the conversation he’s having with his friends, and God basically calls Job a miserable worm (which is true).

Job responds to this by saying that he is nothing before God (also true). He begs God for forgiveness, and God redeems Job.

Now, the powerful lesson to be taken from this is something like the following:

Know that you are not the center of the universe. Even if you were, the universe is not so great a thing that you would be free from suffering. But when you suffer, do not reject the potential for greater things.

Of course, God can be terrifying to us. There’s a reason we often describe proper reverence as the “fear of the Lord.”

Some of that is because of the sublime nature of the divine, and some of it is because the horrible things we will face instil doubt in us. We must confront the fact that God exists and evil exists. God is the only entity which is composed of unalloyed good.

And evil is the absence of God, which shouldn’t be mistaken for a limitation on the power of God but the intrusion of the profane brought on by deliberate (or perhaps not deliberate but certainly improper) action.

We should be glad because there are things which are sacred. They are the places where we can find God.

We should also be thankful because things can go a lot further downhill than they have.

The Propensity for Evil

The adversary is a mythical figure; the spirit who eternally works against our positive intent (or, perhaps, against positive intent generally). You can understand that psychologically, as well as metaphysically or religiously.

Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

One tremendous challenge that can cause our gratitude to waver is the existence of evil.

This is wrong.

Evil is not the natural state. It is something deliberate beyond the normal tragedy and suffering of nature.

If we are grateful for the goodness of past righteous action, then we can conceive of evil as something like a degree of ingratitude so severe that it deliberately creates harm.

This is not always the conscious process behind evil, but it’s hard to find examples that do not fit this mold. There is some caution to be had here, because evil is not always deliberate in the traditional sense.

People can take an evil action in an impulsive moment (and, as Peterson points out, will later say things like “I don’t know what came over me” when asked to explain their actions).

The important thing here to remember is that evil can be unplanned. It is volitional in the sense that someone takes an action that is wrong, and not wrong in a matter of trivial error.

Unexamined acts of evil are still evil. We perceive conscious acts of evil as worse, in part because people who set their aim to something are more likely to be successful at it.

The terrifying part of evil is not the conscious evil, however. Once you acknowledge the existence of malevolence, the more difficult problem becomes understanding where and why it occurs.

The problem with evil is the small cracks that can form in otherwise righteous conduct. It often requires an extreme examination to avoid. Only the honest seeker can steer clear of evil, and even then they still err.

From a Christian theological perspective, this is the reason for the doctrine of original sin. It is written that all have sinned and fall short of God.

People who are outside the Christian tradition often view the original sin doctrine as abhorrent because it presumes guilt.

But that isn’t really the point of original sin.

The point of original sin is that no matter who you are, you’ve done something that has made the world worse than it had to be.

You don’t get to rub your righteousness in others’ faces, because you don’t have that much to begin with. And, further, you don’t get to pretend to yourself that you never made any mistakes.

It’s also about forgiveness. When the Bible references the faithful, it’s not about some magically exclusive group. It’s those who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of God’s will.

Author’s note: I do not believe in the modern ecumenical lie that the term faithful extends universally. I accept anyone as a member of the faithful (in Scriptural terms) who practices Christianity within the context of the ancient creeds which define the religious traditions and beliefs that bind us together. This does not mean that I believe that others’ strivings are useless–I would encourage them for their practical values and the edification of all people–but they are not sufficient because of the redemptive agent being in Christ and not works.

Because everyone is essentially flawed, the faithful are all blemished by original sin. It is the faith in Christ that saves the believer, not deeds (though deeds follow belief, this is not the mechanism of grace).

Why Aren’t We Good?

There are two reasons we aren’t inherently good.

The first is that we’re feeble and finite.

We just don’t have the power in us to be perfect strivers, though we can certainly become better at it than if we don’t develop that talent.

But vice and weakness characterize our lives. This is natural, because we are not perfect. The sublime element of existence is that we can rise above the limitations with which we are equipped.

Sometimes, of course, it is simply much easier just not to do the things we should. Good actions can be and often are difficult to undertake, and there is danger—exhaustion not the least of it—in difficulty. 

Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

The problem is that we always run out of steam. This is one reason for the existence of divine grace, but it’s also a limitation even in the more mundane failings we have (e.g. those which we do not consider evil).

And the consequence of this is that we are constantly reminded of our own failures. We may succeed more than we fail, at least in the realm of conscious actions (which are how we build our self-identity), but we still have failures to contend with.

It is easy to lose resolve when setbacks drive one back.

We can conceptualize the second reason we commit acts of evil as a spirit that operates within us.

That is Mephistopheles, whose essential viewpoint might be paraphrased as follows: “Life is so terrible, because of its limitations and malevolence, that it would be better if it did not exist at all.”

Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

Psychoanalytic thought (especially Jung’s) would state that we can acknowledge the existence of such a spirit by understanding it as a symbolic representation of a material phenomenon even if we don’t have faith in a supernatural world or a religious tradition that recognizes their reality.

Now, there are some issues with this conception.

The first is that we should not presume that the spirit is intrinsic to us. Although that is a valid level of understanding for psychoanalysis, that which is profane opens us up to the potential for these spirits to “possess” us, either literally or figuratively.

We might choose to argue that it is our vulnerability to our inner demons (again, a term we throw around with significance beyond what most attribute to it) that causes us to fail, but it’s not always correct that it is intrinsically us. This does not exculpate us, but sheds light on why it is important to be careful of the company and totems one surrounds oneself with.

However, there is a degree to which true and conscious evil can stem from the belief that we are irredeemably evil. Not only is this a justification for our own actions (because we can claim that we are not so much worse than the other guy, whose own justification may be our wickedness), but it also understands the world through the darkest possible perspective.

When we believe that we have a propensity for evil, we can work against it. When we believe that the highest possible achievement we can bring forth in the world is still evil, we lose our way.

Those who do not believe that it is possible to aim at righteous striving make the world harder for those who seek to do so when they use destruction to resolve the existence of evil.

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