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. This chapter is more heavily drawn from Peterson’s clinical practice, and involves multiple case studies.
I won’t dwell on his case studies at length, but I will discuss the takeaways more broadly to give a feel for what the lessons that helped his patients revealed about the proper way to live life.
While not a psychoanalyst myself, I have spent a fair amount of time studying dreams, and there seems to be something to the idea that a lot of our problems stem from what we know but can’t articulate and the challenges inherent in dealing with a world that might very well overwhelm us at any moment.
This is the fundamental concept behind the modern premise of psychological trauma. Some experiences are too difficult for us to process, and our inability to process them has dire consequences because we are aware, if only unconsciously, of our lack of processing those events.
Coming to Grips
There’s an interesting thing about the idiom of coming to grips with something.
We often describe ourselves as wrestling with, grasping at, or otherwise in physical engagement with very complex abstract ideas and concepts that have complicated and sometimes incomprehensible elements to them.
This seems to be common with moral and ethical issues in particular, but this is not the exclusive domain of these idioms.
They are, however, a correct representation of the need to conquer the unknown and turn it into something known. While there might be something said against the use of a martial metaphor in this case, since the unknown does not conspire against us so much as merely exist outside the boundaries of our comprehension, things from the unknown invade our lives with startling regularity.
A part of reality, and a perilous part, has remained unmapped, low resolution, lacking sufficient detail—and so has a part of you. You are not sharp, alert, dangerous, wary, wise, or kind enough—who knows?Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem is that in the absence of a tangible and physical threat, we still need to fight somehow.
And biology is unequipped to handle that.
We deal with most things in a variety of ways, a fight/flight/freeze system being a simplification that still accurately reflects our broad avenues of approach to any threat.
But psychological and metaphysical threats, those things we need to come to grips with, assault us from a space that we don’t even consciously occupy. It’s true that we might one day occupy them consciously, with sufficient reflection and earnest seeking, but even then there will always be more.
Further, we have usually lost these battles in the past. Because they occur entirely in the unknown (since psychological spaces that are known don’t have a traumatic effect, as much as we may feel shame at our own petty failings), they sneak up on us and it is only with care and outside support that we avoid being ambushed by them.
One consequence of this is that we do not know how to improve ourselves. Even if we attempt to grow, we might not grow in the right way. Further, we might not consider the fact that we need further development in order to be all we should be.
As Peterson remarks, there is a consequence for not striving, and we dread the consequences of leaving our own potential unrealized.
However, we can often fool ourselves into believing that we are reaching our limits and improving as much as we can. This is especially true if we are engaged in small acts of self-improvement.
But what we consciously believe may be a product of self-deception, or at the very least an uninterrogated perception of the world, while our unconscious is always looking for signs of impending disaster. This is there to keep us alive, in part, because we need to be doing constant pattern analysis to foresee doom.
The consequence for this is that we get a feeling that patterns are not matching the way they ought to, but we cannot always articulate this. Our reflexes and instincts are powerful, but they integrate poorly with the linguistic nature of human consciousness.
Humility is the Way
Humility is the way to orient yourself to avoid the consequences of past mistakes, because it is what encourages us to look for our own errors and also what drives us to correct them instead of rationalizing them or hiding them.
The humility required to clamber out of such hell exists in precise proportion to the magnitude of the unrequited errors of the past.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem is that there is such a thing as degree, and humility is often dreadfully important.
Peterson argues that some people hit a point of no return and have ultimately lowered themselves so far by not engaging with the things they have been avoiding confrontation with that it may be impossible for them to recover.
On one hand, I want to believe that he’s wrong, and I certainly believe that anything is possible with the grace of God.
He seems right about this. There may be a need in some people for such humility that it unmakes them. As someone who’s been through an experience that basically remade me as a person, I think I wouldn’t have been willing to do what I had to do to reach the point I’m at now if I realized I was throwing out everything old and switching to the new, though I don’t regret it in hindsight.
And the consequence of that is destruction. Whether it’s metaphorical–and people come through on the other side as something entirely different than they were before–or literal–and some people simply die unfulfilled and in desperation–the end effect is that some people have dug themselves in too deep to turn back.
I will not recreate Peterson’s case studies at length here. They’re quite interesting, but I don’t know that I can do them justice (and, despite Peterson’s own work being superior to my writing, I don’t want to risk replacing the market for his book by providing for free what he has put together in a book).
But the benefits of actually engaging with something you should engage (which may require outside help) and growing as a result are immediate and tangible.
We often linger at a crossroads between necessary actions. Even if the specific action we take is less important than the mode of action (e.g. finding a spouse or business partner, deciding on a career), it is important to take an action. Even with a functioning value hierarchy that should make this process easy, two problems can occur.
We can be overwhelmed by choices, many of which seem valid, because the amount of information we have for the decision making process is unclear. Even with a solid aim there can be complications and the proper way to conduct oneself can be unclear.
However, it might also seem that we have no choices and that we are powerless before forces much greater than ourselves.
This is the reason dealing with the past is so important, because much of what disempowers us belongs to the past.
As we make ourselves more powerful by dealing with that which has torn us apart, we prepare ourselves for the world and we find more clarity in the future. Situations beyond our control may conspire to put us back in a quandary, but this is at least more difficult when we have dealt with the destructive elements in our past.