Note: This is a repost of a blog series that I started in January 2018. Because this was prior to the blog being syndicated on PeakD, and it was some of my most-viewed content on the old blog. I’m going to be editing these slightly, but I’m also going to be adding my own thoughts as I re-read what I wrote. You can find the original post here.
Wrapping up the 12th chapter of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link) feels a little surreal, because I’ve now been going through it for almost a month. It’s been a long journey, and I’ve been trying to apply some of the tips that Peterson gives to my life.
And, not too surprisingly given the feedback he’s gotten on the internet, many of them work. Some of them overlap with things I already did and knew about, but where I have made an intentional effort to pursue the objectives laid out in the 12 Rules I can see immediate improvement in my outlook and performance.
The 12th rule, however, is not one that involves some grand and lofty effort on the surface. It is a bit different in its approach, going for a bond with the readers and then telling us how; Peterson is more than happy to reveal his magician’s secrets.
One of the secrets he uses is group psychology: by linking the title of the chapter to cats, but opening by talking about his family’s dog, he avoids the pitfall of falling into either side of the notorious cats versus dogs divide. While this seems a little puerile to me (though, as a cat person, perhaps I’m simply offended anyone saw fit to justify themselves to dog people), it has a meaningful point for us: it is in our benefit to make sure that we activate peoples’ pro-social behavior and avoid their anti-social behavior by avoiding barriers.
There’s a dark side of this that could be raised, of course, when totalitarians use identity as a basis for controlling their populations, but I’m not going to dwell on that because this chapter is very positive and I don’t want to derail it by going down a pessimist rabbit hole.
One of the things that Peterson talks about is coming to grips with the limitation of Being. I remember there being a psychological behavior I read about when I was in high school called “seeking for magic”, where people sort of turn to fantasy worlds when they can’t figure out what to make of their own (as a nerd with significant social issues, I may have indulged in a little bit of this myself; not the least when I imagined myself as significantly tougher and good-looking than I was before snapping back to reality).
Suffering, of course, is one of those things that happens to everyone. Peterson is fond of the saying “Life is tragic” to describe the fact that everyone will lose something in their life (or, perhaps more accurately, lose everything and their life). I have had a hard time as a person coming to that conclusion. I don’t see a whole lot of shame as confessing myself as naturally very materialistic, and mentioning that when I was a child I had a hard time getting rid of anything (I’ve gotten somewhat better about this, though not entirely).
But it is understanding suffering that is important to who we are that creates our meaning. Peterson describes wanting to make his children invulnerable, but also his conclusion that the process of making something indestructible will inevitably unmake it in the image of something else.
Using an example from The Brothers Karamazov, he illustrates the notion that people often rebel against the suffering of the world by rejecting it; not the notion that being can exist and how it functions, but rather that it is inherently flawed and as a result is not acceptable: rather than believing that there is no God, they come to the conclusion that God is a farce, or God is malevolent, and that it would be better were there no God and no Being.
If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be… [everything] already is, and everything that could happen already has.
The notion is that for Being to exist, things that are going to change must exist.
Peterson uses the example of Superman to explain the concept: when Superman kept gaining more powers and more immunity to harm, it made him into a sort of omnipotent figure. There was no point to Superman any longer, because there was no story, no Being within the pages of his stories. They all were the same event, dressed in different colors, and not a particularly interesting one either: there is no archetype for swift and easy success, because it is shallow and meaningless success.
Perhaps, as the Columbine boys suggested (see Rule 6), it would be better not to be at all. Perhaps it would be even better if there was no Being at all. But people who come to the former conclusion are flirting with suicide, and those who come to the latter are something worse, something truly monstrous.
The grand idea that Peterson is getting at when he says to pet cats as you pass them by is to find things that are good and wholesome, and that you enjoy. Not decadent and self-destructive things that are just dressed-up rage, but the little pleasures that cost nothing to you: the sunset, the world that surrounds you, the company of people.
When you appreciate these things, you inoculate yourself against the trials of your own life: when things go bad, as they are wont to do, you need to see something other than yourself, and while having a concrete purpose can be good, sometimes it will need to be re-examined (as all people are prone to operating on flawed premises) or appear lost.
At those times, the ability to see beyond the self and the path are important. Sometimes the point of the forest is the trees, to corrupt a metaphor, and when you stop and appreciate the goodness in a child’s laughter or the beauty of the sky, you realize how Being is worth having.
I think that’s a lesson that everyone can get behind. It’s a great antidote for chaos and destruction, and a fitting final rule.
Reflections from 2021
This is a chapter in sore need of adoption by everyone.
One part of this is that it seems like people have lost their ability to enjoy things. A pandemic is prone to lead to that, especially as we have mixed increased uncertainty and anxiety with the general duress of health and safety measures.
The problem with that is that you need to appreciate the good in life. I have mentioned the archetypal Fool, who is a powerful figure in shaping the universe. The Fool, in his positive instantiation, is a representation of the ability to appreciate what is good in life.
The problem is that when people are concerned with the appearance of wisdom they often insist on the absence of foolishness. This means taking things “seriously” without considering what the consequences of that could be.
One issue with taking things seriously is that we lose our emotional connection to them. This is useful when we need to devote our efforts to something without re-evaluating our positions, but one who takes their family seriously to the exclusion of enjoying the presence and interactions with their family members has missed the bounty that God has created for them.
I believe as a Christian that God wants us to be happy in a way that’s hard to explain. It’s not necessarily that we will enjoy success in our endeavors on account of our faithfulness, nor that we will never have to deal with the tragedies of life.
Rather, we are to enjoy that which God has given us. Creation may be tarnished and imperfect on account of our actions, but we can still see many things which God has made for us to enjoy and have mastery over.
Refusing to recognize that or becoming so focused on the negative elements of the universe that we cannot appreciate the wonders that a caring and loving God has set out for us jeopardizes our relationship with Him and causes undue suffering.
The proper relationship between us and God is one of gratitude toward our creator. Being happy is one part of that, but at the very least we can appreciate our blessings in our misery, because it is very hard to be so abjectly miserable that we cannot find at least one unearned gift that has given succor to us.
Maybe our only gift is God’s presence. That is still much better than nothing. In fact, understood properly, it is the greatest of all gifts!
The interesting reflection I have is in seeing how materialistic I considered myself to be. One of my earliest memories comes from reading the story of Solomon.
There’s a particular section in which Solomon asks for discernment, which is particularly understood as a form of wisdom.
“So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, to discern between good and evil. ”1 Kings 3:9 (NASB)
The response that God has to Solomon is to grant his wish, but also to say that because Solomon’s wish was for wisdom he would also achieve all the things that a king could dream to achieve.
Now, I think I probably read this passage when I was nine or ten, though the exact age escapes me. Initially, I think I understood this passage wrong. I saw God’s reward to Solomon as “Wisdom, and all the other things.”
But now, (hopefully) wiser myself, I think that the correct understanding is reversed. God’s words to Solomon are praise: because he has chosen wisdom, he will have all these other things. It’s not a further gift, it’s like a mentor telling their charge that they have done well.
Now, I think of my younger self as materialistic, sure, but I don’t think that’s being fully fair. I’ve always had a desire for wisdom and zeal. Some of that was suppressed as I grew older and more worldly, and I’ve rediscovered it over the past year.
I should not have to say that the obvious take-away from this is that wisdom is a worthy goal. It is not a matter of hubris to wish for wisdom; wisdom is available beyond the human capacity to be wise. When I pray, I often pray that I would be aligned toward God, which is something that I never really gave deep thought but it seems like a reflection of this pursuit.
The Unmaking of Indestructibility
One of the great tragedies of life is that it is finite. Not only is it finite, but it seems to reinforce its finitude in a great number of ways.
One of them is that our vulnerability and our weakness is a fundamental part of our humanity. Not only can we not fix it, in the sense that we can mitigate aspects of it but not the whole, we also would be something else if we got rid of it.
That’s part of the transcendent element of writing, since creating the word that perpetuates itself in the world is a way to live beyond life.
But as Peterson points out, everything we experience is fleeting.
Embracing it while it lasts is understanding it for what it is. There’s a sublime value in that, something that approximates joy.
Since I wrote the original post, my childhood cat had a stroke, and we were forced to put her down. Although in the grand scheme of things a cat is a cat, this was a loss that I felt keenly.
I’ve sometimes joked that cats are my spirit animal, and there’s some truth to this in the sense that cats are a dream-symbol of mine. One reason I had such a bond with my cat is that I didn’t have many bonds with people growing up. While a cat is a poor substitute for social interaction, it is certainly better than nothing.
One lesson that I learned from that experience is that you can love something, have it leave your life, and love again. I have a new cat, but the memories of my first cat will always live with me and in commemoration through my writing.
And every time I see my cat I am filled with joy, because I know that (at least as far as I can tell), cats are a manifestation of unreserved goodness. There are some entropic elements along the edges (they are carnivores, after all), but we can’t blame parts of life for existing within the rules of life.
And I think that’s the lesson about petting a cat when you encounter one. Let that which is noble and good bring light into your life.