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.
For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link).
Peterson subtitles this chapter “A Religious Problem” and takes it in directions that you wouldn’t expect. It’s particularly interesting (if interesting is the right word) to me because yesterday when I arrived home I heard of a shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 students and staff at a school dead.
Such news is never easy to take, especially as a teacher who works with students every day. I feel an imperative to figure out what went wrong.
By that point I had been reading this chapter of Peterson’s book, which opens with the following:
IT DOES NOT SEEM REASONABLE to describe the young man who shot twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 as a religious person. This is equally true for the Colorado theatre gunman and the Columbine High School killers. But these murderous individuals had a problem with reality that existed at a religious depth. As one of the members of the Columbine duo wrote:
The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the Earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do. Nothing means anything anymore.
It’s difficult to empathize with such a statement in the wake of seeing the things it has caused, but it’s also critically important to understand.
In many ways, even this heinous statement of distilled evil seems to be the modern archetypal spirit. Certainly it is one of the prevailing notions of the 20th century, where the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind were perpetrated in the name of progress and justice.
One of the most important things reading Peterson’s work has done for me is to remind me of the need to see the good in people, in the world. In a previous chapter he writes something along the following lines: It is easy to say that life sucks and then you die, but it carries grave consequences for how you view the world.
One of the quotes that Peterson includes in this chapter comes from Nietzsche, who writes that “Distress… need not produce nihilism…” but rather can produce various results.
The hope that Peterson provides is that ultimately people have the freedom to choose their responses, to pick to end a cycle of violence and pain.
This is important to us in these moments; that we would pick to end the cycle of violence and pain and teach those around us to do the same. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson writes, used an awful experience–that of the Russian gulags–to turn his suffering toward noble causes, and in doing found like-minded souls.
Peterson also uses the example of one of T.S. Eliot’s characters, who hopes that her suffering is caused by her and not God so that the power to possess it is in her reach.
The lesson to be gleaned here is not that the world is good. Any sane person can look at the world and see that it is cold and full of darkness.
However, that is no excuse not to light a fire.
Reflections from 2021
It’s weird to be here right now and looking back at events like Parkland from years later. For many people that was life-altering, and it’s changed the national psyche, but it’s also something that feels distant and immaterial.
A not obvious but also quite important link there is the effect that criticizing the world has on people. One would think that looking at how bad something is puts us above it.
Rather, condemnation blinds us to our own faults, at least when we condemn others (and condemning ourselves is little better).
The danger of condemnation is that we can become as bad as that which we condemn, or if we are already beneath that which we condemn we will never rise above it.
When one criticizes the world, this is a grand undertaking of supreme impotence. The world, as it is, is not subject to change in that way. While it is certainly possible to improve the world–to lessen suffering and increase virtue–this comes from acceptance. There are things that need to be done, and this is impossible in the face of despair.
One thing that I cannot emphasize enough is that there are those who consider themselves to be on the side of righteousness who are puppets of bitterness and resentment. These are Nietzsche’s tarantulas and the “ordinary men” of the police battalions who carried out the Holocaust.
A little bitterness has an outsized impact. If you establish your own rules by which to play the game of life, you can make them very one-sided when you consider the situation you find yourself in. After all, it rarely seems that one’s superiors have gotten to their heights fairly, and there will always be distant examples of people cheating their way to the top even for those blessed with the good fortune to not deal with such matters in their immediate sphere.
A solution to this is to preserve some sphere of idealism, though it’s difficult to explain.
It is not enough to merely say, “But I will not become corrupt.”
While that is a noble goal, this overlooks the greater problem. People are rarely corrupt by their own standards. If they are and cannot restrain their own behavior to what they consider right action, they will engage in self-deception, self-justification, or self-destruction to remedy their plight.
Further, the belief that one will not become corrupt comes loaded with the unspoken counterpoint that corruption is endemic outside oneself. This is a hard notion to disabuse because it seems, as a general rule, to be true.
The problem here is that it blinds one to correction.
This is where Peterson gets it right. Do something that is simple and good, as far as you can understand and be certain of that, and then move forward with that process. Eventually the result becomes something akin to the purification of action and the proper remedy to corruption.
Once one has traveled far enough along that road, they at least have some standing to judge, but it is not because they are more accustomed to the distinction between purity and corruption. It is because they know how to measure that which is good and place it clearly in their understanding of the structures that make up the universe.