Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who began writing this book by answering questions on the forum Quora. Eventually, he got a book deal and pared down his answers into a list of twelve rules. The book has since gone on to sell millions of copies and has been translated into dozens of languages.
I knew that Peterson holds some controversial positions with which I would likely disagree, but I was intrigued with his idea of having a life framework for combating nihilism. Also, I’m trying to get out of my media bubble and read more than just that which I already believe.
For 12 Rules for Life, I feel like he gets very close to asking some of the big questions I’ve been asking: how do we structure ethics to best live our lives in the absence of an objective morality? He even talks about having a Cartesian deconstruction to base truth as a younger man, which is a mental framework I have been somewhat stuck in for more than a decade. But much of the answers he proposes go something like this:
No! That is the way of chaos, and we must not go there or we’ll have Hitler and Stalin!
And then he talks about the Sermon on the Mount and a bunch of Bible quotes, referring to them more as history than as religion. And if one doesn’t believe in the Christian God? ‘No! You’re wrong! You’re not an atheist!‘ he responds. He then says how the Bible is the single most important document that formed Western civilization. That may be true, to some degree, although the Catholic Church and other monarchs’ selective interpretation of the document to further their own ends may be more accurate.
I think there is a lot of wisdom to be found in religious texts, but like with many arguments involving biblical quotes, he seems to take only the parts that fulfill his narrative. In the context of ‘being a man’ by punching back the bully that hits you, the phrase ‘turn the other cheek’ is nowhere to be found. Or he talks about how evolution shaped our modern physiology and thus social hierarchies, but then goes straight to how it was natural that Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness, despite there being no precedent for clothes in our evolutionary ancestors.
I did enjoy some sections, particularly toward the beginning. He argues that culture is important for peace and trade as “people who live by the same code are rendered mutually predictable to one another.” Or the idea that “dreams shed light on the dim places where reason itself has yet to voyage” beautifully encapsulates the ambition to take on hard things that may be deemed impossible if only rationally analyzing the problems ahead.
A few other quotes I enjoyed toward the beginning:
“It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.”
“You could begin by treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.”
These may be the most important two sentences from the book for me personally. I’m not frequently bullied by others, nor was I much as a child, but I am a very tough bully on myself. There is the ‘tough-but-fair’ motivating approach, and then there is the way of darkness and self-flagellation. So when the bully voice comes hard at my everyday self, maybe I need a third character to come in and stand up to him. Then, after knocking him down a peg, he can turn back to myself to care for him the way I try to care for others in my life.
Other Ways to Search For Meaning
Coincidentally, I came across a YouTube video and a podcast episode as I was finishing the book that I think more closely mimic how I think about these big questions than Peterson does.
In an episode of the ‘We Can Do Hard Things’ podcast interviewing Ocean Vuong, the poet said:
“So, I’m interested in complicating masculinity. And I’m seeing that already happening. The trend now I’ve noticed is for boys to wear pearls. Very straight identifying cis het boys to wear pearls. And I said, that would be a death note when I was growing up for a boy to wear pearls, and to do it so proudly. And so, we realized that these complex expression of gender were already complicated by our ancestors. We go back a millennia, everyone wore jewelry and makeup. And so maleness was identified in other ways. So, I’m interested in salvaging that and seeing how we can have fun in complicating it. It charges us with this task of innovation. So, as an artist, I feel obligated to say just as I don’t want to throw language away, I don’t want to throw all the genders expressions away because there’s still something of value of use. I see myself as a junk yard artist. I’m taking an imperial language, and looking for value in how I can recast it in the present. And it’s no different than my work as a poet.”
The world is changing and rules aren’t what they used to be. Nor do I think that they should be strict in the ways that Peterson suggests. There is something beautiful and deeply human in digging through the salvage yard of past and present culture and embracing the fun in complicating things that speaks to me.
And in one of John Green’s vlogbrothers episodes, he goes into the garden to pick beans and makes some chili.
But I was struck with his poetic musings, as I frequently am, as he was preparing the dish:
“You’ve got a little time now, so while you watch the beans boil, think about how really you’re just sort of a fleshy worm with limbs. How there’s a tube that goes through the middle of you, just like there is for many other animals. Perhaps you should be a bit more forgiving of yourself, you know, given that you’re literally a mammal. Like, of course you get scared and don’t know which way to turn in your life. You’re basically an advanced squirrel.
…As you eat [the chili], it occurs to you that maybe this is the point. Like, yeah, you’re just a fleshy worm with consciousness, which can feel like a lot sometimes. But that’s also what allows you to share food you worked hard on with people you love and who love you.“
We humans have the capability to build enormous structures and space shuttles, as well as generally change the global climate, but we are also just collections of cells that have slowly evolved over eons through random mutations and reproductive survival. So maybe not having all the answers is a more normal thing than we might think.
In the end, I didn’t magically uncover a ‘why’ counter to nihilism in the book’s pages (or, more accurately, audio file). But Peterson closes out the Coda reflecting on big questions using his ‘pen of light’: a gift from a friend with LEDs near the tip for use in low light. I don’t know that I need that pen, although I used to journal with one when I was younger after I was supposed to be asleep. But I’ll continue to read and write and formulate my own Rules for Life.