The Second Most Challenging Book I've Read: Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Dr. Jordan Peterson

August 29, 2018

Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is the second most challenging book I’ve read in my adult life. The first is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which articulates the foundational principles of Ignatian spirituality. It's challenging and inspiring on a profound level. For me, Peterson's book is number two. As a teacher of literature, I hang around a lot of books—so I don't make that statement lightly. 

 

I'll turn forty in June. In one sense, I wish I could have read Twelve Rules in my mid-to-late twenties. It would have helped me navigate some perilous years. Then again, it’s entirely possible that due to my own level of maturity at that stage of life, I wouldn’t have understood it. 

 

There are dividing lines in adult life—great demarcations of maturity. For me, marriage and fatherhood have been the most profound, because they are predicated on sacred, binding oaths and vows. There are other sacred oaths and vows, but I’m not sure any is quite so binding as parenthood. You can’t back out of that contract without tremendous collateral damage. Bringing a life into the world is a radical act of faith and an unparalleled commitment to another person.

 

I couldn’t possibly have fathomed that level of responsibility before crossing those lines. It’s not that I was irresponsible. I come from a strong family with wonderful parents. I've had an excellent education, from Montessori, to Jesuit college preparation, to two postgraduate degrees. I really had it pretty well together in my twenties. But while I was certainly accountable to others, I wasn’t ultimately responsible for anyone but myself.

 

Big difference between “accountable to” and “responsible for.”

 

Which is why, as a husband and father, I state with no exaggeration that Dr. Peterson’s book has been life-changing, and why I am grateful to have encountered it now, instead of in my twenties. Many people have claimed that Peterson’s work has helped them for different reasons. I will tell you why it mattered so much to me. 

 

Peterson has helped me recognize two patterns. The first is that I haven't often been listening to people with the primary goal of understanding them—rather, I have a tendency to listen with a primary goal of responding to them. These both involve careful and attentive listening, but the former is a far deeper investment in the other person.  

 

The second pattern his work has helped me identify is how I act in light of my natural aversion to conflict. To avoid conflict, I have often failed to be assertive and, consequently, honest. By default, I try to please. If I disagree with someone, I’ll often avoid stating as much—or I’ll expend lots of energy phrasing things so as to avoid tension, even at my own expense. (The force of that tension has to go somewhere.) This is a form of deception, both of self and others, and I have engaged in it—though never maliciously or with ill intent—for years. This has been true both in personal relationships and in professional contexts. 

 

I see it now. Clearly. I can trace many of the struggles I’ve had to my own unwillingness to engage in conflict. Certainly, we all need a filter. But too much well-intended filtering? Ironically, it leads to festering resentment. And that’s not sustainable. The center, as Yeats put it well, cannot hold. So, to me, Peterson’s most resonant theme is self-deception, which, if I’ve understood him correctly, will be found at the root of just about all other lies. 

 

Throughout and across his twelve rules is a consistent motif: lies and resentment are intertwined; together, they spiral toward a living hell—whether in our own minds, our relationships, our culture, our institutions, or our very society as a whole. He illustrates how lies have been peddled by both the right and the left throughout history. Throughout the twentieth century, for example, we see the lies of fascism and communism alike, which had different flavors but mightily terrible poisons each. 

 

Peterson demonstrates these principles in broad arcs across history, mythology, religion, and culture. But what makes the book challenging—especially to reflective readers—is the author’s laser-focused application of these same principles at the micro level. When Peterson delves into the collision point between these timeless, fundamental challenges and the mundane realities of our personal lives—particularly insofar as marriage and parenting are concerned—he reveals challenging truths recognizable by anyone who loves and tries to live with other human beings. Peterson likes to use dragon metaphors. Because baby dragons, left unchecked, eventually grow into massive, destructive beasts that devour us. 

 

Peterson articulates complex ideas about psyche and society with remarkable clarity. The razor precision of his words is simultaneously intimidating and invigorating. He might have been more concise in some places, but I’m glad he wasn’t. I’m glad he pushed harder to the length necessary to say exactly what he meant. 

 

And I have to say there’s courage in that clarity, because his critics have had a field day peddling outrage. Most draw from the ranks of the radical left, a group that Peterson calls out just as he has the radical right. But he points out—accurately, I think—that it’s easy to know when the right goes too far. There’s nothing subtle, for example, about white supremacists. It’s harder, he explains, to know when the left has gone too far. A particular Canadian law involving the compelled use of preferred gender pronouns in one's speech—to which he has voiced stark and reasoned opposition—comes to mind.  

 

Lest people inaccurately portray him as a right-wing activist, he contends that both left and right forces are vital for a functioning society. Forces from the political “right” acknowledge and allow for the natural tendency of hierarchical organization to play out (e.g., the value of competency, along with the free market and the creativity and risk taking it fosters); whereas the political left imposes redistributive forces against that natural tendency of hierarchical organization to proceed unchecked toward, Peterson explains, inevitable tyranny.

 

Yet if one reads carefully what Peterson has written in Twelve Rules for Life, he or she will realize that the book, and the foundation of the author’s clinical approach to it, is overwhelmingly apolitical. One of his most ardent concerns about our culture is the degree to which we seem inclined to think politically—that is, to assume political motivations for everything. Peterson urges us, unapologetically, to stop making assumptions about each other’s motivations based on group identities and affiliations. These assumptions comprise one set of untruths, and he argues that lies are the root of our problems.

 

Identity politics are dangerous on both sides, and there is real wisdom in Peterson’s explanation of the dangers of single-cause interpretations, which are usually rooted in group identity. Looking at a situation from a group-identity position, rather than considering the full range of ways in which people are individually unique, paints an immediate bias over everything. Following Peterson’s explications in this context, it’s not hard to see the holes in extreme political ideologies on both sides of the spectrum.   

 

Political stuff aside, the most relevant and challenging of Peterson’s content for most of us, I think, has to do with getting oneself together and being honest—with ourselves and with the people we love. His mantra that dishonestly leads to resentment, which in turn leads to destruction, cannot be ignored. It’s true in relationships, it’s true at work, and it’s true in parenting. For me, it’s absolutely true in teaching—and I can say without a doubt that my approach to working with the young men entrusted to my care will be influenced by Peterson’s thinking. While his writing is probably too complex for most adolescent readers, they would do well to be introduced, in a manner and context appropriate to their age, to so much of what it articulates.   

 

Contrary to how many portray him, Peterson is a humble, emotionally sensitive, empathetic man with a career dedicated to helping people. His critics don't seem to be truly listening—at least not to understand. And they seem hamstrung because they apparently can’t, or at least won't, think apolitically. They portray him as aloof and cold at best, and a bigot at worst. It’s so obviously not the case. They seem unaware of his many years of clinical psychological care for those suffering deeply, and the depth of his sympathy for his patients. His work, both in Twelve Rules and in his many podcasts and broadcast lectures, reveals his profound compassion for those facing the struggles of mental health. It is so apparent in his many anecdotes and admonitions. One cannot read his final chapter, for example, which focuses intimately on his own struggles as a father of a suffering child, without an intense awareness of his humility and humanity. Being blunt and direct is not mutually exclusive of being compassionate.  

 

Ultimately, Peterson has helped me understand, in a deeper way, the importance of authenticity with ourselves and others. We cannot operate as individuals, as spouses, as parents, as professionals, or as a society if we make decisions based principally about how things feel, or our presumptions as to how things might make others feel. There's no need to be an inconsiderate jerk, but we should say what we mean and mean what we say, as kindly as possible. Discomfort is key to growth. Saying only what we think will avoid tension and conflict, and therefore layering our relationships with varying degrees of subtle lies? There is no ethic for that way of proceeding, and indeed, it makes too amorphous the very lines that make ethics, well, ethics. And in the absence of ethics, we get chaos. 

 

All that said, I am profoundly grateful to Dr. Peterson, because he has helped me on the road to understanding some things I need to do to be a better husband, father, colleague, and teacher. This is a profoundly optimistic book. It affirms that we matter, and that our love for each other matters, and that love can make us remarkably strong, even in the face of the terrifying challenges and suffering life inevitably throws our way. 

 

 

 

 

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