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. While the first part of this chapter deals heavily with case studies, the second half opens up to a deeper discussion of the reasons we need to confront the past.
The reasons this is necessary range from minor concerns to major life-impeding issues, and Peterson also brings to light the best methods for achieving this process.
Fear of the Unknown
The greatest and most immediate reason to deal with the past is that when it lies unconfronted, it serves as a sword of Damocles, perpetually threatening us with death (even if a figurative, rather than a literal, kind).
It is far from uncommon for people to worry, sometimes unbearably, about what lies ahead of them. That worry is a both a consequence of and an investigation into the multiple pathways extending from now into the future.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Fear is not a productive way to deal with the problems of the past, however. We only have the wherewithal to fear because of things in the past–or embedded instincts, which are merely a product of the past–that have taught us to fear.
And fear is not inherently bad. Brave and valiant people fear things. But they are very good at converting their understanding of the world from fear into purpose.
The consequence of that is simple. Converting fear into understanding makes it manageable. We know that putting our hand on a hot stove will burn us, but we–in most conditions–do not fear the stove. This is because we know the boundaries and scope in which it operates. It has no power over us because we are outside of its influence.
There are, of course, things we cannot escape. But these things are not in and of themselves omnipotent.
For instance, death.
As a writer, I have thought a lot about death. It carries a great deal of numen, spiritual or psychological significance, and as a result many of the most powerful stories feature it as an element of their plot. This does not mean that it must interlace all stories, but it certainly can.
I also have a different understanding of death than most. While I’m not exactly going around looking for it (it seems mighty inconvenient), between my Christian faith and my work as a writer I don’t believe I’ll really die in the way most people think of dying.
First, I have the assurance of Christ. That’s quite something, if you really believe it. Knowing that your spirit will live on in even better alignment with God than you can achieve in your life is a great comfort.
Second, I have my writing. I don’t have delusions of grandeur; I’m not famous and unless something changes I am unlikely to have a massive impact on the world once I’m gone.
But my words will still be there. Since we are made up, in large part, of ideas, this is quite a weighty consideration. Of course, they will fade with time, but between my writing and other actions I’ve taken in my life, I can be reasonably assured that my impact in shaping the future is greater than average.
Civilization is, on a wider scale, a way of shaping the world after our own deaths. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to confront the things that have gone wrong.
Too much instability, and the entire game of life comes to a crashing halt. Too much order, and the game becomes corrupt and ends everything else.
Then it is no longer a game, but a labor.
Peterson points out that one universal of human behavior is the need to justify our actions in moral terms. Even the most depraved person may have a psychological need to feel that they are in the right, but there is a further requirement that we present ourselves as virtuous so that we can continue to interact with others in any way but outright hostility.
One way we confront the past is to assess the moral decisions that played into our own actions and those of others.
Not only do our choices play a determining role in transforming the multiplicity of the future into the actuality of the present, but—more specifically—the ethics of our choices play that role.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The idea of ethics versus morals is a complex issue, and while Peterson addresses both separately I’m going to focus on the idea of ethics.
Let’s define ethics as the study of the way to behave properly, with the defining line between ethics and morals being something like the difference between applied and pure sciences.
Ethics are what we need to develop when we move from moral ideas to the real world. This is because moral arguments serve as a framework for a compass but must in the end compete with scarcity of time and resources. It would be good, of course, to end all suffering that confronts humanity.
But this is not within the power of mortals. Ethics recognizes this, and the purpose of the discipline is to study the way to behave in a moral fashion.
This means two things.
First, ethics can be social in a way that morality is not. While different people may have different convictions, we derive ethics from individual moral convictions through conversations and discussions (and their application, though we are prone to make post-hoc rationalizations for our actions).
The consequence of this is that we must in the end face the consequences of when our attempts at morality have fallen short.
In short, we must wrestle with our own sin, because sin is nothing more or less than moral error as straying away from alignment with God.
The consequence of failing to address this is becoming sinful. This is not a place one should seek to occupy deliberately, because freedom from morality is akin to the idea of freedom from responsibility or freedom from money. It is possible to avoid recognizing it, but only in the short term.
Jordan Peterson brings up the Word–the Logos–as a central idea of Christianity.
The idea behind the Word is that it is the shape that God takes in several passages, and the mechanism He uses to create the world. The two are nigh-inseparable, and it is the word that serves the basis of the image of God within humanity (this is a hypothesis, but it seems as good as any).
The Word—the tool God uses to transform the depths of potential–is truthful speech.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The lesson here is two-fold.
One, the tongue is powerful. James compares it to the source of a raging fire, and Proverbs stresses the dangers of evil speech. However, the tongue can also edify, bringing forth words of healing and construction.
People ought to use their speech–responsibly–to bring about change in the world. The suppression of speech is wicked in more ways than we can comprehend. One fundamental danger is also that people demonstrate the way they will use power when they speak.
By silencing and censoring people, we say two clear messages:
- You are not welcome to contribute. This may seem appropriate for evil-doers, but is a horrible thing to sentence people to. It is utter condemnation, the statement that someone is irredeemable (even though it is often painted as a more humane alternative to brutal reprisals for thought crimes).
- You should take action through other means. And the lesson here is shown both by implicit statement (“if you want to change the world, you must use action and force”) and example, since force is used to silence people.
This does not mean, of course, that we should not condemn speech. But our role in intervening with the speech we deem wicked is to counsel against it, not to pursue the destruction of those who espouse it. The consequence of destroying someone is always an increase in the world’s suffering.
However, there’s another point to this.
God has entrusted us with the greatest tool and greatest weapon–and even those who are not particularly articulate still communicate–that anyone could ever wield.
This is a basis for understanding the responsibility we bear to the world. When we do not believe that we have power, we are merely denying our own potential.
I’ve diverged quite far from Peterson’s original thoughts here, but I think that’s okay. This is what has been interesting to me as I reflect on this chapter, which is on the longer side and is full of good stuff (the case studies stand out to me, though I don’t reproduce them here because I could not do them justice).
Important take-away: Do not presume to lack power, and do not give up on seeking to use it properly. Explore the past to figure out when you used your power irresponsibly (or, better, did not pursue your responsibilities with your utmost power).