Rule 7: Do What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient.

This was by far the most difficult chapter for Peterson to work on. ‘Rule 7 just about killed me. It was the hardest chapter by far and it went down the deepest by far.’ Peterson figured out and explained in the chapter something that took him decades to figure out. The impenetrably deep Christian idea that the Messiah is a person who takes the world’s sins on himself, that ‘Christ died for your sins’ has a psychological element that has lasted for thousands of years and won’t go away, so it is an idea that signifies something. It has a psychological reality independent of its metaphysical reality. Peterson realised – what Carl Jung knew – that it was associated with his idea of the shadow.

Peterson says he had a client once who’s parents taught her that adults were literally angels. By the time she was 28 she was showing varied unusual symptoms, for example she had quasi-epileptic seizures at night. She had a university degree and Peterson asked her if she had ever wondered about what her parents had taught her? If she had read any history? She said she had read some things about the terrible things people did to each other but she would compartmentalise them. Peterson gave her a book called ‘Ordinary Men’ a dark book about a police battalion that was moved into Poland during WW2 after the Nazis had marched through. They were normal middle aged men who weren’t victims of Nazi totalitarian propaganda when they were kids, they had a normal middle-class background.

 

They went to Police Poland and were going to have to do some terrible things. The commander told them forthrightly that if being involved in wartime policing was too much for them, if they felt that it ethically or psychologically violated them, they could just go back to policing in Germany. Very few of them did, partly because they didn’t want to abandon their comrades, and leave the dirty work to them. They were normal policemen and they ended up as the sorts of people who could take naked pregnant women out into a field and shoot them in the back of the head. ‘It is very interesting to read about their training because they were absolutely sickened by what they learned to do, vomiting, shaking, traumatised; but they didn’t stop.’ Peterson told the woman whose parents taught her that all adults were angels to read ‘Ordinary Men’ but not to compartmentalise it. He wanted her to read it as if she were one of those policemen. ‘Which is how you should read history. You read about Nazi Germany and you think well, I’m Oskar Schindler! I’d save the Jews. – No you wouldn’t! Because people didn’t.’ Don’t inflate yourself with fictional heroism without actually knowing the facts. ‘And so I told her to read it and to understand that the policemen were her. And the idea that the Savour is the person who takes the world’s sins upon himself is exactly that. It’s exactly the same idea. The way that there stops being Nazis, is for you to know that the Nazis were you, and for you to decide not to do that. You have to know.’ This is the thing that people won’t do. ‘You have to understand that you could not only do what the Nazi camp guards did in Auschwitz but that you could actually enjoy it. And then you have to decide that you’re not going to do that anymore. And that’s not an easy thing to figure out.’

There are many other things in the chapter that stop you in your tracks and slow down time as you read. It is punishing, but essential reading and so far I would say it is the one that gets closest to the heart of the matter. So in line with yogic philosophy and the knowledge that we are each other, that there is in fact no division between us, but derived from the different disciplines of behaviouralism, biology and neuroscience rather than from the Adiyogi.

‘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.’

Tomorrow Chapter 8.

Rule 6: Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticise The World.

Peterson spends a lot of time reading about totalitarianism, atrocities, and brutalities beyond the capacity of the imagination, serial killers and mass killers such as Carl Panzram. The autobiography by Panzram was chilling, and Peterson quoted him as saying I wish the human race had one neck so that I could put my hands around it and squeeze. Not many people like that write autobiographies, but he did and he told you why he was like that and why he thought that way, in case you want to find out. It is very useful to know such things.

This chapter is also about the Columbine kids. Peterson read their diaries and understood them. He remarks how you see these mass shootings all the time and people ask how did it happen? ‘Well, why don’t you read what they said about why they did it and just assume that that’s the reason?’ People assume they must have been bullied, but ‘that’s a stupid explanation, shallow beyond belief, and really only emerges because people didn’t want to contend with the real issues. And the Columbine kids were contending with the real issue. they were forthright in saying that in their own arrogant estimation Being itself was corrupt and unnecessary and it would be best if it was eradicated in the most brutal possible way and as fast as possible. And you get to places like that if you dwell on revenge for three or four years in your mom’s basement. You can go to extremely dark places. Panzram, who was very brutally treated when he was a child, and the Columbine kids, were judges of Being and decided that it was flawed, and that they were the ones to set it right.’

 

It is a harsh chapter to read, it is a meditation on resentment, which is a key human motivation. Resentment is also a great teacher. To listen to your resentment is one of the best things that you can do. First you have to admit that it exists, then you have to admit to the fantasies that it is generating, and then you have to notice what you would see as the way out of it. It means learning things about yourself that you probably don’t want to learn. But resentment only means one of two things: either stop whining and get on with it, or someone is being a tyrant to you (it may even be you) and you have something to say and do that you should say and do to put it to a stop. One of the principles that Peterson extracted from the fact that a resentful person wants other people to change, is that if you’re resentful your motivations are dark, (hence all the talk of Panzram and other extreme examples) ‘Resentful people who want to change the world are not to be trusted. What should you do instead how do you treat your own resentment?’ There’s a scene in TS Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party where a woman says to a psychiatrist ‘my life is not going well and I’m having a difficult time of it. I hope that there’s something wrong with me.’ The psychiatrist asks ‘What do you mean by that?’ and she says well there’s either something wrong with the world, and there’s nothing I can do about it, or maybe I’m lucky and there’s something wrong with me that’s causing all this unnecessary suffering and I could just put it right.’

So if things aren’t going well, you could find someone to blame, which is easy, or you could say I don’t like the way my life is unfolding, or life in general  because it is tragic and tainted with evil. How do I know my judgement is accurate? And the question is ‘have I done everything I possibly could to set my life straight?’ Because maybe I shouldn’t be judging the quality of life or Being itself, unless I have done everything I possibly could to set my life straight.

Solzhenitsyn, whom Peterson often refers to, wrote The Gulag Archipelago which helped to bring down the Soviet Union and said ‘one man that stops lying could bring down a tyranny.’ When he was in the gulag camps meditating on how he got there, he could have blamed Hitler and Stalin, but he realised that he might have something to do with the way things had turned out for him and he went through every single event in his life and every choice that he made to try and find out where he went wrong. ‘Solzhenitsyn thought what would happen if I took responsibility for where I am in this concentration camp and if I went through my life and figured out all the things I did wrong in my own estimation that increased the probability of my getting here, and what would happen if I tried to set them all right in the present?’ That’s why he wrote The Gulag Archipelago and one of the consequences was that it completely changed the geo-political landscape of the world. Nelson Mandela did something quite similar. ‘It’s not so impossible’ says Peterson. So if you are feeling resentful about the nature of Being, straighten your life out: ‘Try it for a year or even a week. try not saying and doing the things you know you shouldn’t do and watch what unfolds.’ 

It’s a chapter that presents a lot to think about, and makes me want to go and read killer diaries. But not as much as it makes me want to read on to Chapter 7, which of course will be the subject for tomorrow.

Rule 5: Do not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.

Chapter 5 is the one that Peterson thought he would get into the most trouble for writing. people say they never dislike their children, but as a clinical psychologist he has seen the full Freudian nightmare. ‘It is as if the family members are standing in a circle and each of them has their hands around each others neck, and they are all squeezing hard enough to strangle the other person in 20 years’. The idea that parents can’t dislike their children is naive. Jung’s idea of the shadow, the dark side of each individual and of humanity, is that its roots reach all the way to hell. He meant hell literally and metaphysically. If you were able to understand your dark side you would see in yourself a reflection of the behaviour that was present at Auschwitz for example. The reason that people don’t take the dark side of themselves seriously or even confront the fact that it exists is because no one wants to see that reflected within them. Jung also believed that the confrontation with the shadow was an inevitable barrier to enlightenment.

 

‘Pursue what’s meaningful and you will encounter that which you least want to encounter.’ said Jung. That’s the dragon that hoards gold, for example. The dragon is also something that lives inside you, and it’s not something that you take the encounter with lightly. There are very old stories about this. The god Horus for example, like an Egyptian saviour, when he encountered evil, even though he was a god, he lost an eye in the battle, torn out by Set, the precursor to Satan. So we all have this monster in us, and it manifests itself in families all the time. The terrible pathological familial drama can be dismal, brutal and awful. Freud brought our attention to it in great detail.

Peterson says ‘I already knew that I was a monster by the time I had kids and I thought I’d better not let that child do something that makes me angry. There was a woman who plunged her two year old daughter’s arms into boiling water. You think how in the world can that happen? Well, she’s probably hung over, she probably just lost her job, she’s probably desperate in six different ways, she probably didn’t have any decent disciplinary strategies for children, she probably didn’t have anyone helping her, she was bitter and resentful and angry, and the child misbehaved at exactly the wrong moment’. You’re going to be around your children a lot, so you might want to have it so that they don’t misbehave at exactly the wrong moment. It is easy for people to hate their children, and you don’t want to allow them to engage in the sort of hierarchical challenge that makes you irritable and resentful. And if the things they do make you dislike them, then the probability that the things they do will make other people dislike them is extraordinarily high.

You need to know what sort of monster you are if you are going to be a good parent. Your fundamental job as a parent is to make that child eminently desirable socially. Especially by the age of four. If they know how to play, everywhere they go other children like them and include them in their play, and so they develop. The literature is clear that if your child is an outcast by the age of four, the probability that you can do anything about that is almost zero. If you don’t allow your children to engage in dislikable behaviour then adults will like them. If they know to greet adults properly, like a puppy who wags his tail when they meet you, and not growl or go for your ankle, it will help them maintain the attractiveness they have as children.  Adults will then have genuine good will towards them, teach them things, and they can bring out the best in each other.

Although it is the case that most people who abuse their children were abused themselves by their parents, it is not true that most abused children go on to abuse their own children. Peterson tells a few stories of neglected children and shows that it is possible to break the cycle. Bad parenting also includes those who misguidedly believe children to be innocent in a Rousseau sense. ‘Even dogs must be socialised if they are to become acceptable members of the pack – and children are much more complex than dogs. This means that they are much more likely to go completely astray if they are not trained, disciplined, and properly encouraged. This means that it is not just wrong to attribute all violent tendencies of human beings to the pathologies of social structure. It’s wrong enough to be virtually backward.’

I like this chapter. Peterson advises: Limit the rules. Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules. Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world. ‘Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society, establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld, where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing.. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous parent can bestow.’

Yes please.

Chapter 6 tomorrow.

Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today.

As a clinical psychologist Peterson has spent 20 hours a week for 25 years listening to people tell him about their lives. The entire gamut of people from those who were barely hanging on to the bottom of the world up to people who were so successful that you could hardly believe. Being a clinical psychologist he says is fascinating because it’s like being immersed in a Dostoevskyan novel all the time. It’s amazing what people will tell you when you listen. People are so interesting and peculiar, unlikely creatures like penguins or rhinoceroses, or ostriches.

One such intriguing person was an old financier who liked mathematics and would make gold pendants of beautiful equations to give people. This man told Peterson about the Pareto distribution. The man had studied psychology when he was younger and was used to the generally accepted rule of average. In other words most human characteristics were normally distributed, so there was a norm and an extreme, for example most people are average height and most people are average weight. Psychologists tended to work on the basis that it applied universally but it doesn’t. You have probably heard of the 80/20 rule. You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time, 20% of the workers in a company do 80% of the work. The actual rule is more exponential and has wide ranging applications, from the size of cities to the mass of stars. It is called the Pareto distribution.

The Pareto distribution is the rule that in a given domain the square root of the number of people operating in that domain do half of the work, so if you have 100 employees 10 of them do the work. If you have 1,000 then 30 people do. If you have 10,000 then it’s 100. It is a very reliable rule. Like the Matthew principle (to those who have everything more will be given, to those who have nothing all will be taken away) It is not a socio-cultural construct, it applies to many things, for example all creative products, number of records made, songs written, wealth. It is a natural law, if modified it will just go back to its state. There is always a landscape of inequality, but it doesn’t mean you should do nothing about it. We don’t know technically how much inequality there needs to be to generate wealth. It is inevitable, but we don’t know how to regulate it.

With regard to ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today’, there are always people who are better at something than you are. If you are not careful about who you compare yourself to you can get jealous and bitter and resentful. When you’re young you can’t not compare yourself to successful people because you wouldn’t have anything to aim at.

Peterson talks about Jung’s theory that the Book of Revelation was appended to the Bible because the Christ in the Gospels was too merciful. And because we needed to expect more from ourselves, the more frightening book of Revelation had Christ come back as an ideal, as a judge. You are not as good as your ideal. And so an ideal is always a judge. You always fall short of the ideal. So how do you have the benefits of an ideal without having the crushing blow that goes along with having the judge that always regards you as insufficient? You need a goal, but it has to be possible in the short term. You can set a long term high aim. And you have short term goals that are difficult enough to stretch you. The gauging of the aims is so important, but you can aim high in the long term because the Pareto distribution kicks in and your success builds on itself and before you know it you’re achieving things that you didn’t think possible.

Also you can’t compare yourself to others so easily once you are an adult, as you are such a complex individual by then with your idiosyncratic history, that you can only really compare yourself to your previous activity. Aim high, but use yourself as your control. make today a tiny increment better than yesterday. You define better yourself. There doesn’t need to be an imposition of external morality. Incremental improvement is unstoppable, and Peterson has seen that in people’s lives continually. The goal should be: ‘How could I conceive of my life so that if I had that life it would clearly be worth living so that I wouldn’t have to be bitter; resentful; deceitful; arrogant and vengeful?’ That’s the bottom line because that’s what endless failure does to you, and what life without purpose does to you, because life is very hard. You have to ask what mode of being would justify my suffering? Peterson quotes Nietzsche who said “He who has a ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how'” It is worth thinking about. So you can ask yourself ‘How do I manage all this misery and suffering and futility?’ Well, I need to figure out what I would have to do in order to make that clearly worth while? ‘Well, I can have my goal  and all I have to do is be a little bit better than my miserable self yesterday. You can incrementally work towards it and you can succeed.’

It’s a fun book. It is a humble work of art with its tactile gold lettering, its pristine pearl-white chalky cover and drawings made specially for each chapter. It subtly tempts you towards character forming aspiration, not just for yourself but also to uplift the world, who knows, even the universe. Reading it gives me that rare feeling that I am taking good care of myself. Such an elusive feeling these days, but essential.

Chapter 5 tomorrow!

Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want The Best For You

Winters in Alberta, Canada. 40 below zero. No cable TV or internet or video games. I had no idea there could be so much ennui tied to a youngster’s experience of a place and its people. Peterson makes it clear at the start of chapter 3 that some of his friends were aiming up and some were aiming down. ‘If you are aiming up and they’re aiming down then they’re generally not that happy about it.’ They put down what you’re doing, or offer you a cigarette when you are trying to quit, or a drink if you are an alcoholic. They’re cynical and bitter and devoted to no good, and sometimes that’s family members or sometimes it’s even part of you. This chapter is an injunction that you have an ethical responsibility to surround yourself with people who have the courage and faith and wisdom to wish you well when you have done something good, and to stop you when you do something destructive. And if they’re not like that then they’re not your friends. And being friends with them might not even be in their interest.

‘Be careful about whom you share good news with’ was one of the rules Peterson had in a longer list he wrote for the discussion website Quora – the origin of this book. ‘Be careful about whom you share bad news with’ was another one. A friend is not envious of good news. Some people try to drag you down to see if you can put up with it. They have an idea that maybe life is not worth living and if they can taint what is pristine and good then they demonstrate to themselves that there is no true ideal and that there’s no reason to be responsible and to strive forward. They use you as a test case. They push you down and see how you respond and if you put up with it then they think that their cynicism is fully justified.

It is a contentious and painful chapter because Peterson talks about some early friendships and unpleasant realisations, and he details the suicide of a friend. He talks about the teenage wasteland and the pointless parties. He revelled in the opportunities and new friendships that going away to college offered. He noted how his hometown friends on trips to Edmonton just looked for the same parts of town and tried to score the same pot that they looked for back home. 

Freud called the unconscious drive to repeat the horrors of the past a ‘repetition compulsion’ and Peterson goes into the psychology of this in detail. He cites Dostoevsky’s bitter classic Notes from Underground the self analysis of a sick spiteful man in the underworlds of chaos and despair. His exchange with the prostitute Liza shows how far a person would easily go to endorse their own nihilistic indolence. So, if you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father or son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? Such a straight forward point, but so often overlooked. 

‘When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life’s horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on their shoulders, where it belongs.

Don’t think that it’s easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgement, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.

Make friends with people who want the best for you.’

Thus spoke Peterson.

Chapter 4 tomorrow

Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping

After all that talk in the first chapter of lobster fights; a wren guarding his nest territory; and the way defensive body language learned during trauma can become a detrimental habit throughout life, the second rule goes a little deeper. It is a meditation on why humans tend to neglect themselves with such monumental diligence. It was Jung’s comment that the edict to ‘treat others as you wish to be treated yourself’ was not an invitation to be nice to each other. Far from it. If you really want everyone just to be nice to you, how would you grow? We want to be told when we make mistakes, we want to learn and be challenged. Peterson took note of Jung’s distinction and decided that we need to work out how we do want to be treated. We tend to treat others better than we treat ourselves. You are conscientious enough to give your dog all the proper medication that the vet advises, but 30% of people don’t collect their own prescriptions and of those that do collect their prescriptions a further 50% don’t take them properly. ‘Your dog likes you, your dog would like you to take your medication.’ 

Why don’t people like themselves very much? Peterson asks. Well, we are fragile and foolish. We know everything about ourselves and all the mistakes we make. We are weak and useless and prone to temptation. We are capable of some sordid and malevolent acts and we know it. So why would we take care of someone as sorry and wretched as ourself? That is what this chapter is about. Yes we’re flawed but so is everyone else and that is an existential problem, it is universal. Every single human being has always had that problem and always will. The answer put forward in the chapter is to love the sinner but not the sin. Despite the fact that you’re not all that you could be, the proper response is to treat yourself as if you are someone that you genuinely care for. It is incumbent on you to do so. It is also a discussion of why you have a moral obligation to take care of yourself.

You make the world a much worse place if you don’t take care of yourself. Partly because you have something valuable to bring into the world. It is part of what being an individual is about, and what western civilisation recognises is that you have a light to bring into the world. If you do not bring it into the world then the world remains a dimmer place. When the world is a dim place it can get very very dark. It is not just that you feel better if you look after yourself, it is that you have a duty to bring the valuable thing you have to the world. 

Peterson’s in-depth study of Genesis is an excellent development of the idea, he also looks at the difference in our worldly perceptions as a result of science, but maintains that our inner seeing is fundamentally made of drama and story. What is meaningful is what we can extract from chaos. The comprehensive discussion of chaos and order is gripping and peppered with familiar mythology made fascinating again through Peterson’s interpretation. Neuroscience; the Taoists; Shiva; Eden – and not just the standard postlapsarian reading that we had in literary theory; good and evil; the divine; classical Rome; Elkhonon Goldberg and the brain…are just some of the explorations in this satisfying chapter.

I am also enjoying  the pictures that front each chapter, they look different before and after reading.

Chapter 3 tomorrow!

Rule 1: Stand up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

A lobster pumped on serotonin is a great way to make rule 1 memorable. Arguing that dominance hierarchy is older than the trees – as old as the lobster’s response to make itself appear larger when it wins a fight due to a serotonin rush – Peterson takes this as indication that the dominance hierarchy is not a social construct. Lobsters have a simple nervous system, which makes them easy to study, and they share some hormonal activity with humans. The drop in serotonin when a lobster loses a fight causes it to shrink, similar to the way a human slouches when depressed. The lobster is then more susceptible to losing again the next time. If given anti-depressants the lobster will expand, open up and fight to win next time. This is a good reason to ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back’ because you, like a lobster will be more highly regarded and potentially more successful if you bravely open yourself up to the world. Presenting yourself in a way that disgraces you, like slouching and mumbling causes negative responses, thereby creating pain and emotional dis-regulation.

This rule of course can be found in yoga: a straight spine allows for full breathing, open ribs and diaphragm. It keeps you ready and alert, vertebrae stacked with potential energy. It encourages you to speak clearly and the truth, which people respond well to. It also turns you into an antenna for direct download from universal wisdom. Peterson is a reader of Jung and often cites universal unconscious as a force to be reckoned with. He also studied great clinicians such as Adler, Freud, Maslow and behaviouralists such as BF Skinner. The lobster analogy came from his close reading of the science orientated animal behaviouralists and neuro scientists such as Jeffrey Gray, whose book The Neuropsychology of Anxiety Peterson cites, and Yak Panksepp from whose book Affective Neuroscience he takes the example of rats giggling when they are tickled. 

Peterson is fascinated by this, because it shows that there’s a psychobiological basis for play in mammals. They have a play circuit. Of course we always knew this, you only have to observe your dog or cat, or see how complex the play of dolphins is. Their play is so sophisticated that they trick each other with practical jokes and can laugh with each other. For Peterson the rats giggling example is huge because essentially Panksepp discovered a circuit in the brain we didn’t know existed (well, we did, but science hadn’t proved it yet). Rough and tumble play is absolutely essential for human and mammal psychological development. On many levels. It develops risk taking abilities, closeness, physical confidence, psychological balance and play response, alertness and sense of humour. Awareness of effect that your bodily stance has on the other person being the most relevant to this chapter.

Almost all social animals arrange themselves in hierarchies. Peterson said ‘almost’ so like anthropologists who find tribes working on completely different systems, we need to stay aware of other systems in play. Almost all, and this system is 350 million years old, so the idea that hierarchy is a socio-cultural construct, says Peterson, is incorrect. We have a neuro-chemical system that modulates our understanding of those hierarchies. The counter that you share with lobsters that rates you in terms of your hierarchical position determines the ratio of negative emotion to positive emotion that you feel. This is huge, says Peterson because it changes the way your entire system responds in the world. Also there is a tight relationship between your belief system and your dominance hierarchy position. Peterson agrees that it is more accurate now to call it a competence hierarchy because the human hierarchy now is scaled by competence. In other words what predicts success today is cognitive ability, prefrontal and cognitive function, conscientiousness and intelligence. A given hierarchy is influenced in its structure by socio-cultural conditioning, but the hierarchy itself really was on the planet before trees were.

                

Back to posture, so directly related to serotonin and emotional regulation. People will take you more seriously, you can confront the world in a courageous manner, confront things that frighten you forthrightly and with courage. it’s a good measure of success, so stand up straight!

This book is proving a joy to read, Peterson’s style is compelling and full of diverse examples. Chapter 2 tomorrow.