I recently came across a wonderful book by Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Jordan is a clinical psychologist and I would say, philosopher. His wisdom is culled from the Bible, various philosophers, his studies of the Cold War and the effects of communism in Russia and China, the holocaust, and his psychology practice. The result is a practical, high-reaching set of rules which I will summarize here, along with my commentary. The book was interesting, if sometimes a bit esoteric. It’s definitely worth reading and pondering.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Jordan recommends this because it demonstrates to yourself and those around you that you are ready to take on whatever comes your way. It also produces serotonin in your body, which makes you happier. He talks about how when male lobsters lose to an opponent, it literally changes their brains and they then skulk about like the losers they see themselves as, and refuse to even fight lobsters they’ve beaten in the past. “If you present yourself as defeated, then people will react to you as if you are losing. If you start to straighten up, then people will look at you and treat you differently.” I have also found out from first-hand experience that bad posture causes chronic pain. I now remind myself daily to stand up straight with my shoulders back!
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. This was an interesting chapter. Jordan says that statistically people will fill their pet’s prescriptions more often than their own. They actually take better care of their pets than of themselves. He says that people see themselves and all of humanity as fallen, and don’t really respect themselves much because of it. They feel guilty for doing wrong things and see themselves as not worth taking care of, where animals are innocent beings that deserve to be cared for.
He has an interesting discussion here that struck a chord with me. He says that we need to strive to have one foot in order and the other in chaos. What he means is that if we want to progress and grow in life we need to have just enough order in our life to feel secure, but still be reaching for the unknown. We need to be willing to take chances, and strive for something, even if we don’t know exactly what it is at the moment. I see it as being willing to take one step into the dark, trusting that the way will be lit. I see this in my own life. If I’m too complacent and willing to settle for what I already have, I’m not growing, so not happy. Part of taking care of ourselves is always striving to improve.
The cure to not caring about ourselves enough, according to Jordan, is to recognize the spark of the divine in ourselves. To recognize that we were made in God’s image. And we owe it to our maker to take care of His creation. “We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obligated to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued.”
He stresses that it’s not about making yourself happy. It’s about doing what’s right for yourself. The way you would for a child or someone else in your care. You wouldn’t just give them what they want whenever they want it just to appease them. It’s not self-indulgence. You would do what’s right for them, both short and long term. “You need to consider the future and think ‘What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful so that I could shoulder my share of the load and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?’” I would add, “What am I doing to increase my spirituality and bring me closer to being like the Savior?”
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you. Jordan grew up on a very cold, small remote town in Canada. He learned that friends made all the difference, for good or ill. He warns against only befriending people you think you can rescue. As a psychologist, he recognizes that people need to want help. Don’t make friends with people who will pull you down. Friendship should be reciprocal. If you are always giving, helping, and rescuing, you are not in a true friendship. “If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner. People who are not aiming up will do the opposite.”
Good friendship takes a lot of time and effort. That’s why I have many acquaintances, but only a few people I would call ‘friends’. These are the people I know I can count on to tell me when I’m getting off course, and that I can do the same for. These are the people who believe in me, even more than I believe in myself. And I do the same for them. We genuinely care about each other, trust each other, and know each other well enough to share our honest opinion with each other. If someone demonstrates that they don’t want the best for me, I limit my interactions with that person and don’t count them as a friend.
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. Jordan makes the point that comparing ourselves to others is pointless. “No matter how good you are at something, or how you rank your accomplishments, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent.” I would also add the opposite. No matter how bad we think we are at something, someone else is worse! He also warns against excessive self-criticism. “If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavors—or your life, or life itself—perhaps you should stop listening.”
He makes a great point that we need to stop looking at ourselves as either a success or failure. We are involved in many things. We will do better at some things than others. “To begin with, there is not just one game at which to succeed or fail. There are many games and, more specifically, many good games—games that match your talents, involve you productively with other people, and sustain and even improve themselves across time.” He then mentions that there are many different professions. They’re all good choices. Not everyone is going to be good at every profession. “If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths and situation. Furthermore, if changing games does not work, you can invent a new one.”
“It’s also unlikely that you are playing only one game. You have a career and friends and family members and personal projects and artistic and athletic pursuits. You might consider judging your success across all the games you play. Imagine that you are very good at some, middling at others, and terrible at the remainder. Perhaps that’s as it should be. You might object: I should be winning at everything! But winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult. You might be winning but you’re not growing and growing might be the most important form of winning. Should victory in the present always take precedence over trajectory across time?” (Emphasis added.) I love that! If you’re not excelling at everything, that’s a good thing because it means you’re trying something new and you’re still learning how to do it! You’re growing!
The other part of this chapter that stands out to me is that he talks about how we are all born with a nature. We aren’t going to change our nature. We can’t tyrannize ourselves into changing, or we will rebel. Instead, when we see something in ourselves we want to change, we need to negotiate with ourselves. For example, if we want to get organized, we can start small and then give ourselves a reward. If I clean off my desk, I will take a break and grab a soda. Then tomorrow I will clean out one side of my closet. If I do that, I can watch some TV or spend a little time on social media. I like the idea of making deals with myself like this. It makes me feel like I’m getting things done and getting rewarded, instead of browbeating myself.
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. Wow. This one was a hard one for me. If you’ve read my past articles, you know that I have a strong-willed child. It is a daily struggle to know how best to handle her in a firm, but loving way. The main thrust of this rule is to give your children adequate attention, guidance, and discipline. Not spending enough time with your kids and hoping they’ll turn out alright is a recipe for disaster. He describes some kids he sees in his practice who are basically ignored at home. They are needy, whiney, and directionless. And other children avoid them, which compounds the problem as they are not properly socialized. We need to make sure our children act like decent human beings so that other children (and adults) want to be around them so they gain acceptance and can make their way in the world.
He has a few rules of thumb for discipline: don’t use too many rules and when you enforce the rules, use the least force necessary. If we don’t discipline our children, others will. It’s better coming from a loving parent. We need to learn how to maximize children’s learning so that useful knowledge may be gained with minimal cost. He says it’s our job as parents to act as proxies for the world so that children are ready to face it. He also says that “parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful and deceitful,” which is one reason why two parents are better than one. When one parent is at his or her limit, the other can step in and take over. He unequivocally states that two-parent homes are better than one parent homes. Unfortunately, some of us aren’t in that situation, so we have to find other ways to deal with ourselves when we’ve reached our limit. But I agree with him, wholeheartedly. Kids are better off with two parents in the home.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. The gist of this rule is to stop looking outside of yourself to make the world better. He discusses the evil that can be found in the world and how some people give in to it, like the Sandy Hook and Columbine shooters. Then he points out that there are people like Aleksander Solzhenitsyn who survived a Soviet labor camp and then had cancer. “He could have become resentful and bitter. His life had been rendered miserable by both Stalin and Hitler, two of the worst tyrants in history. He lived in brutal conditions. Vast stretches of his precious time were stolen from him and squandered. He witnessed pointless and degrading suffering and death of his friends and acquaintances. Then he contracted an extremely serious disease.”
“But the great writer, the profound spirited defender of truth, did not allow his mind to turn towards vengeance and destruction. He opened his eyes instead. During his many trials, Solzhenitsyn encountered people who comported themselves nobly, under horrific circumstances. He contemplated their behavior deeply. Then he asked himself the most difficult of questions: had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life? If so, how? He remembered his unquestioning support of the Communist Party in his early years. He reconsidered his whole life. He had plenty of time in the camps. How had he missed the mark, in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself, and lied? Was there any way that the sins of his past could be rectified, atoned for, in the muddy hell of a Soviet gulag?”
“Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life, with a fine-toothed comb. He asked himself a second question, and a third. Can I stop making such mistakes, now? Can I repair the damage done by my past failures, now? He learned to watch and to listen. He found people he admired; who were honest, despite everything. He took himself apart, piece by piece, let what was unnecessary and harmful die, and resurrected himself. The he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the Soviet prison camp system.” “Solzhenitsyn’s writing utterly and finally demolished the intellectual credibility of communism, as ideology or society.”
How can we be more like Solzhenitsyn? “Consider your circumstances. Start small. Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you? Are you working hard on your career, or even your job, or are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down? Have you made peace with your brother? Are you treating your spouse and your children with dignity and respect? Do you have habits that are destroying your health and well-being? Are you truly shouldering your responsibilities? Have you said what you need to say to your friends and family members? Are there things that you could do, that you know that you could do, that would make things around you better?”
He then says to stop doing things you know are wrong. And to take the responsibility on yourself instead of blaming capitalism, the radical left, or your enemies. He talks about letting your soul guide you. I would add, let the Spirit guide you. I know from personal experience that if you ask Heavenly Father what you could be doing better in your life, He will tell you!
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (Not what is expedient). This rule is about sacrificing what you want now for something better later. “Pain and suffering define the world. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering at abeyance, to a greater or lesser degree—and greater sacrifices can do that more effective than lesser.” He tells the story about Socrates and how he did not take the easy way out when on trial. He could have lied to avoid the fatal judgment that he received, but he knew it was better to be honest. He paid the ultimate price, but he was philosophical about it. (After all, he was Socrates!) He decided that staying true to his principles and accepting the death sentence wasn’t all bad. He would never grow old and suffer the physical problems of advanced age.
Jordan exhorts us to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, which is much more gratifying than any earthly short-term pleasure. He also points out that “expedience is wrong because it merely transfers the curse on your head to someone else, or to your future self, in a manner that will make your future and the future generally, worse instead of better.” “Sometimes we have to sacrifice what we love best, so that we can become who we might become, instead of staying who we are.” This sacrifice that he’s referring to is sacrificing our will for God’s. He points out that Heavenly Father sacrificed His Son for us.
He tells us to seek meaning, which I translate to living the gospel. “Meaning is the way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and Speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.”
Rule 8: Tell the truth—or at least don’t lie. This seems pretty straightforward on its face, but Jordan’s focus is on how when we are inauthentic, we stop our progress. It’s about sins of omission. Saying yes when we want to say no. Not speaking up for yourself. “Consider the person who insists that everything is right in her life. She avoids conflict, and smiles, and does what she is asked to do. She finds a niche and hides in it. She does not question authority or put her own ideas forward, and does not complain when mistreated. She strives for invisibility, like a fish in the center of a swarming school. But a secret unrest gnaws at her heart. She is still suffering, because life is suffering. She is lonesome and isolated and unfulfilled. But her obedience and self-obliteration eliminate all the meaning from her life. She has become nothing but a slave, a tool for others to exploit. She does not get what she wants, or needs, because doing so would mean speaking her mind. So, there is nothing of value in her existence to counter-balance life’s troubles. And that makes her sick.” If you don’t speak up at work, you give your boss or co-workers permission to exploit you.
He goes on to say that if you don’t reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. “That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it does mean that. It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward.” This leaves you incomplete. If we aren’t honest with ourselves, we never discover who really are and what we really want. And if we never discover what we really want, we can’t pursue it. Lying to ourselves is one way to avoid failure. But failure is necessary for progress. “If you’re lucky, and you fail, and you try something new, you move ahead. If that doesn’t work, you try something different again.”
If you’re honest with yourself and others, you can present your authentic self to the world—including your fondest wishes. It is only through living authentically that we, through taking chances and constantly striving to achieve, can become who were meant to be. Lying cuts that process short and leaves us living a miserable, unfulfilled existence.
Rule 9-Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t. Jordan makes a case for having deep, productive conversations with others. I personally love those types of interactions and wish I could have more. It’s hard to find that these days with the use of texting and social media. This is probably why so many of us value our counselors or therapists so highly. They are trained at this.
If you do find someone to have one of these interactions with, then Jordan recommends that you meditate, or think deeply, as you converse. This allows new and original thoughts to come from deep inside. Then you are listening to yourself as well as to the other person. If the other person is doing the same thing, you both discover new information. “A conversation such as this is one where it is the desire for truth itself—on the part of both participants—that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, vital, interesting and meaningful.”
I would add that if you ask the Spirit to be present during these conversations, they will go to a whole different level. I have had some of these conversations. Where truths are spoken and confirmed by the Spirit. Where solutions are found. Some enlightenment is reached. When two people are intent on staying open and honest, willing to really listen instead of listening just to respond, willing to put in the work of doing some deep thinking, and are sensitive to spiritual promptings, great things can be accomplished.
I have only had the opportunity for a handful of these types of conversations in my life. That will most likely continue to be the case as long as I’m single. I’m sure many others are in the same boat. So I strive to have this type of conversation with Heavenly Father and myself. Again, it requires work to really search my mind and heart and present my true feelings and desires to Him. And then staying open to the answers which may come immediately or later. But when answers do come, I know they are better than anything I could’ve come up with on my own.
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech. This one seems very similar to Rule 8 to me. It’s about asking for what you want, but precisely, especially in relationships. Jordan tells the story about a woman who thought she had a great marriage and then found out that her husband was having an affair. This obviously shocked her and forced her to reevaluate her marriage. Where had it gone wrong? Had she avoided difficult conversations and fights merely to keep the peace? Had she left things unsaid that should have been said? Had he done the same thing? Could their marriage have been saved if they had both been willing to do the hard work, including telling each other what they really wanted to have stop (or start) happening?
Jordan has advice on how to have constructive discussions in the marriage: “You have to consciously define the topic of a conversation, particularly when it is difficult—or it becomes about everything, and everything is too much. This is so frequently why couples cease communicating. Every argument degenerates into every problem that emerged in the past, every problem that exists now, and every terrible thing that is likely to happen in the future. No one can have a discussion about ‘everything.’ Instead, you can say, ‘This is the exact, precise thing—that is making me unhappy. This exact, precise thing—that it what I want, as an alternative (although I am open to suggestions, if they are specific). This exact, precise thing—that is what you could deliver, so that I will stop making your life and mine miserable.’ But to do that you have to think: What is wrong, exactly? What do I want, exactly?” So always be precise in asking for what you want, especially in a relationship.
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding. This rule is about the feminization of boys and how it’s harmful to them and to society as a whole. Jordan takes on the whole idea that gender is nothing but a social construct. It’s not a construct, it’s biological. Boys skateboard because it’s dangerous and allows them to become competent at something. Competence is the best antidote to real danger. For example, nobody wants an incompetent doctor to operate on them. They are much safer with a doctor who knows what he’s doing. We need to let boys do things that are dangerous like skateboard and in general, be boys.
“Men toughen up by pushing themselves, and by pushing each other. When I was a teenager, the boys were much more likely to get into car accidents that they girls (as they still are). This was because they were out spinning donuts at night in icy parking lots. They were drag racing and driving their cars over the roadless hills extending from the nearby river up to the level land hundreds of feet higher. They were more likely to fight physically, and to skip class, and to tell the teachers off, and to quit school because they were tired of raising hands for permission to go to the bathroom when they were big and strong enough to work on the oil rigs. They were more likely to race their motorbikes on frozen lakes in the winter. Like the skateboarders, and crane climbers, and free runners, they were doing dangerous things, trying to make themselves useful.”
“When the boys were spinning donuts, they were also testing the limits of their cars, their ability as drivers, and their capacity for control, in an out-of-control situation. When they told off the teachers, they were pushing against authority, to see if there was any real authority there—the kind that could be relied on, in principle, in a crisis. When they quit school, they went to work as rig roughnecks when it was forty bloody degrees below zero. It wasn’t weakness that propelled so many out of the classroom, where a better future arguably awaited. It was strength.”
This last paragraph really resonates with me for many reasons. “If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter. They desire someone who brings to the table something they can’t already provide. This often makes it hard for tough, smart, attractive women to find mates: there just aren’t that many men around who can outclass them enough to be considered desirable. The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is, therefore, no more friend to woman than it is to man.” He ends with “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.” Amen.
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. This rule is about noticing the small wonders of our world—of appreciating what’s right in front of us. Jordan talks about a cat in his neighborhood and how she comes for a visit, giving him a nice break during his day. “If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe you will see a little girl dancing on the street because she is all dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a café that cares about their customers.” (Or in my case, a Diet Coke at McDonalds, or some really good dark chocolate.) “Maybe you can steal ten or twenty minutes to do some little ridiculous thing that distracts you or reminds you that you can laugh at the absurdity of existence. Personally, I like to watch a Simpsons episode at 1.5 times regular speed: all the laughs; two-thirds the time.” That is how I feel about Studio C. Only I watch it at regular speed. I just love Matt Meese.
“And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.” I relate to this because I take daily walks on a trail that takes me to a duck pond. These walks help me to maintain my sanity. I have the best talks with Heavenly Father on these walks, and then I sit and look at the ducks and let myself enjoy nature and God’s creations and forget about my troubles for a few minutes.