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. I am splitting this chapter into three parts because of its length, but also because I think this is such a significant topic that it deserves extra treatment.
The reason this chapter is so important is that it brings the grand scheme into perspective. Everything in Peterson’s book so far leads up to this point and mastering this one principle gives a lot of power to a person.
And this is essentially the antidote to evil, at least in the sense that you can keep yourself from being worse than your natural proclivities.
It may seem unusual that the injunction against resentment begins with a consideration of what we could be.
After all, it is typically our failures in light of our potential selves that leads us to resentment. Nobody resents rising above their station, or at least nobody we would consider normal. Nobody resents having something unearned. Nobody loses sleep over how fortunate they are, unless they are so ecstatic with joy that they have energy they cannot control.
But there’s an important point here. I recently wrote about the power of positivity.
Being positive isn’t about ignoring problems.
It’s about believing that you can do something about them.
And that’s important, because it’s hard to be miserable and full of burning hatred or seething angst when you keep aiming at reaching your own future potential. When you see what you could be if you were perfect–even with the humility to remember that it’s an aspiration, not a guarantee or even a realistic goal–and start taking steps toward that, you become something better than you might otherwise be.
Having a view of potential–one that isn’t based on the projection of anxiety and neurosis into the future–serves as a guiding star.
It also makes it possible to deal with something that is more real than life.
That is a bold claim, but it’s also true in a psychological sense.
What we focus on in our lives is not the physical and material world around us but concepts and ideas. Often these are representations of the world, but at the very least they slant toward what we perceive. We don’t think in terms of substance.
It would be odd to look at a desk and first observe that it is made of wood, rather than that it is a desk. We do not think of it in terms of its height or its layout until we need to make use of it, at which point we may still not consider it if nothing about it defies our conceptual expectations from a desk.
It is what we do at the desk that we perceive.
And our perceptions of actions blend across time. We consider the past to guide our expectations, the present to focus our actions, and the future for what we expect to happen.
The past is dead. It is no longer real, though the ripples it sends through the universe still have a controlling stake in our lives.
The present is instantaneous. It may not even, strictly speaking, exist because of the difficulties we have in perceiving the world.
Rather, it might be more correct to say that we do not exist in the present. The biological nature of our existence is such that we perceive only in reaction to that which has occurred.
It is proximal enough that it functions as present, but what is currently happening has already achieved the unalterable quality of the past.
When we act, we act in the near future.
And then we plan, based on what we expect to happen in both the near and far future.
We operate in possibility. Surrendering potential is so dangerous because we make plans based on expectations of defeat and sorrow, regardless of our actions.
And if it is possibility that is most real, rather than actuality (as evidenced by the fact that it is possibility we are destined to contend with), then it is the investigation into possibility that is the most important of all investigations.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The important point to draw from Peterson here is not to consider the future. There is some limited utility to our ability to predict, and the near future that we operate in works based on our momentary knowledge.
The lesson is that the relationship we establish with possibility governs our future.
When we expect problems, we act accordingly.
For one or two problems, this is good. A hunter goes out to bear country with a weapon that deters or kills bears. To do otherwise is ignoring the real risk that predators pose to humans.
But carrying bear mace or a high-caliber weapon every day of your life because you fear a bear is not a reasonable reaction, unless you live in peculiar circumstances.
Taking a negative approach to possibility is the equivalent of preparing for a bear attack in the middle of a major metropolis.
It could, of course, happen.
But that preparation comes at the cost of other things. And it prevents both future happiness and also future actions that could benefit the world.
Life is a Story…
We naturally think of our lives as stories, and communicate about our experience in that same manner. We tell people automatically where we are (to set the stage) and where we are going, so that we can create the present out of the possibility that springs forth…Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One consequence of the way we perceive the universe is that everything functions as a story to us.
Whether this is our limitation framing the universe, or whether that’s an accurate (ergo truthful) way to perceive the universe is largely a secondary concern.
The reason for this is that we see things in narrative terms, and we don’t seem incapable of transcending this.
Peterson uses the periodic table of elements to explain this.
In a practical sense, the periodic table is simple (in the sense that you could condense the relevant information very easily, including in a well-known graphic format).
If we think about it in a certain sense, people should be able to have the memory capabilities to retain all the information in the periodic table.
Even if we assume a premium on linguistic information, we should be able to maintain a couple hundred concepts at a very basic level.
But most of us do not remember the periodic table, even if we were taught all the elements when we were in school. Heck, most people couldn’t even name all the types of element, though there is some question about whether this would be more or less obscure than the individual elements.
The main reason for this is that they are fundamentally meaningless to us. We all know lead, gold, oxygen, silver, iron, and the “common” elements. These are things we see or talk about frequently. They have roles in our lives.
Most of us can even explain things like uranium, which we rarely work with on an individual level but plays a role in nuclear weapons and power, which hold great significance to–or perhaps power over–our lives.
What we should take away from this is simple.
We know things when they make stories.
We don’t know things when they don’t, at least not without a concerted effort.
Chemistry class was the one class in my life that I’ve ever gotten a C in. Actually, I might have also gotten a C a stray class from my freshman year of my undergrad program, but I don’t remember for sure what my grade was or even the proper designation of the class (it was a scientific anthropology class that I had a weak lab group for and quickly grew to resent).
The reason for this was two-fold.
First, I was not adept at the subject. I was timid in the lab, especially when working with anything that held even the perception of danger. There were other issues going on with my math performance that made it hard for me to do math which I could properly explain step by step. I enjoyed the teacher’s presentation and her treatment of me was favorable despite her occasional frustration–in fact she was one of my favorites–but I had enough difficulty that I feared the subject and did not expect that I would do well.
This predisposed me to failure, along the lines I mentioned above.
The second reason was that I could not form a narrative about the activities and concepts in the class. I could sometimes do this with labs, but my timidity interfered with my attention. Even my abstract mathematics classes, which were no easier given my difficulty and the fact that I had bungled my way into advanced courses by my senior year in high school, were more immediately applicable to me.
Some of this was because my interest in games prepared me for concepts like probability, both because I was familiar with dice and because I liked the idea of modeling future events.
Chemistry offered no such opportunities. I don’t blame my teacher for this, because I think she was equally frustrated with the school’s curriculum and didn’t overlook the fact that we didn’t have a clear tie between what we were doing and the potential to apply these skills in the field.
Make a story out of something, and people remember it.
Leave it unmoored to reality, and there’s no reason to care.
… and You’re the Protagonist (kinda)
We are at the center of our own universe.
This is a limitation, and not something to celebrate.
The problem with it is that we are ignorant. Our frame of reference hinders the need for humility, and the consequences of that are dire.
But the benefit of this is not to be overlooked.
We are set in the center of our own universe. Because we perceive the universe as stories, we are the central story in our own universe.
We conceptualize what we experience as a story.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Figuring this out means balancing our story with all the other stories.
And that’s liberating because we can view everyone else as fellow protagonists. This is like the Christian concept of people being made in the image of God, in ways I can’t quite articulate.
But the joy of this is that we can overcome our differences and work with each other.
We can also learn from each other, using narrative forms to communicate or vicariously experience important challenges that lie ahead of us–and their solutions.
Do not underestimate the power of this. It is one reason to avoid being bitter and cynical. So long as one other person can figure out a way to not be abjectly miserable we can join them.
A core archetypal symbol is the dragon. We see it repeated in myth across all times and eras. They fascinate us, forming a core of the fantasy lexicon that still dominates popular culture. Look no further than the newest fantasy series on TV or the next major movie, and you might very well find an entire work of creative expression dedicated to dragons!
Dragons represent power, and they’re primordial.
They’re also untamed, and usually they’re evil. At the very least they threaten us. If they are not evil they are something we must learn to negotiate with, because we cannot truly tame them even if we develop a relationship with them.
And, as Peterson notes, when a villain transforms into a dragon it is rarely something that causes us much pause. We expect the witch to transform to a monster, and the dragon is the highest of all monsters.
And that’s one thing to consider when you think of the potential future.
You need to find a place where the dragons are kept at arm’s length.
This may sound like a good reason to be bitter. While it is certainly an antidote to arrogance, it is easy to live in a state of rebellion against a world that has dragons lurking in the dark.
There is an idea embedded deep within the human psyche that potential can be a place of maximal horror, home to an infinite predator–or an infinite variety of predators.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
But the issue with dragons is this:
They are dangerous, but they are rare.
You live your life in such a way that you do not attract their attention. They are vicious, but do not forget that “vicious” is a fancy way of saying full of vice.
You need that in your outlook, because you need to understand your own limitations.
But we’re also sheltered from dragons. We know how to defeat them, when we behave forthrightly. This is why we have the image of the hero as equally embedded in our mind.
When the dragon comes to cast fear and shadows, we rise against it.