25 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE | CHAPTER 2
AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS
Treat Yourself Like Someone You're Responsible For Helping
This is part 2 of my review for the book “12 Rules For Life” by Dr. Jordan B Peterson, who is a professor at the University of Toronto, and a clinical psychologist.
In this phenomenal book, Peterson journeys broadly; discussing discipline, freedom, adventure, and responsibility, distilling the world’s wisdom into 12 practical and profound rules for life. It shatters the modern commonplaces of science, faith, and human nature while transforming and ennobling the mind and spirit of its readers. This is self-help with smarts, an introduction to philosophy, mythology and the science of the mind, and a practical, engaging guide to a better life.
Short recap of chapter 1 (3:45)
The skillful integration of oppression and darkness
Begin part 2 (22:30)
Neglect of ourselves
The Oldest Story
How we view the Nature of the World
The Domain of What Matters
The nature of Chaos
What exactly is Order?
Female & Male personality archetypes (28:00)
Balance & Harmony
The Garden of Eden
A Spark of the Divine
Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?
The definition of “Self conscious” & “Evil” (41:36)
Human beings have a great capacity for wrongdoing (47:30)
What then is to be done? (52:45)
2 important lessons from Carl Jung (106:55)
Genuine and heartfelt admiration (109:30)
An ongoing miracle of fortitude and perseverance
Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction (115:55)
A burdensome privilege
Take personal responsibility
… The chapter opens with the wondering of why so many patients typically won’t take their prescribed medications and tend to care more for their pets than themselves. He suggests that shame is interfering with proper service to ourselves. He then describes an ancient story in the Book of Genesis—the first book in the Old Testament, to help find the answer to that perplexing question …
The scientific world of matter can be reduced, in some sense, to its fundamental constituent elements: molecules and atoms. However, the world of experience has primal constituents, as well. These are the necessary elements whose interactions define drama and fiction. One of these is chaos. Another is order. The third (as there are three) is the process that mediates between the two, which appears identical to what modern people call consciousness.
It is our eternal subjugation to the first two that makes us doubt the validity of existence—that makes us throw up our hands in despair, and fail to care for ourselves properly. It is proper understanding of the third that allows us the only real way out.
Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory. Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines.
Chaos is also the formless potential from which the God of Genesis called forth order using language at the beginning of time. It’s the same potential from which we, made in that Image, call forth the novel and ever-changing moments of our lives. And Chaos is freedom, dreadful freedom, too.
Order, by contrast, is explored territory. That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position and authority. That’s the structure of society. It’s the structure provided by biology, too—particularly insofar as you are adapted, as you are, to the structure of society. Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country. It’s the warm, secure living-room where the fireplace glows and the children play.
… He goes on to describe many everyday examples of what chaos and order look and feel like in life. He then explores the archetypes of male and female, in relation to order and chaos. The highlights are enlightening and serve to illustrate important context. It’s tempting to read from this section, but I’ll refrain and invite you to read it all …
We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them. We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal, transcendent environment of the living.
To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure.
When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice—it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.
Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you still need to know. Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged. That is where there is something new to master and some way that you can be improved. That is where meaning is to be found.
… He goes into some relevant dynamics about the Garden Of Eden story from the Bible that speaks to the futile attempts at forever banishing Chaos from Order. The proverbial Snake will always return with a vengeance …
It is through such millennia-long exercise of the imagination that the idea of abstracted moral concepts themselves, with all they entail, developed. Work beyond comprehension was invested into the idea of Good and Evil, and its surrounding, dream-like metaphor. The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will keep that out.
As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
There is simply no way to wall off some isolated portion of the greater surrounding reality and make everything permanently predictable and safe within it. Some of what has been no-matter-how-carefully excluded will always sneak back in. A serpent, metaphorically speaking, will inevitably appear.
This is the great Freudian Oedipal nightmare. It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.
And even if it were possible to permanently banish everything threatening—everything dangerous (and, therefore, everything challenging and interesting), that would mean only that another danger would emerge: that of permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness.
How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger? How dull and contemptible would we become if there was no longer reason to pay attention?
Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?
All the reasons we have discussed so far for taking a dim view of humanity are applicable to others, as much as to the self. They’re generalizations about human nature; nothing more specific. But you know so much more about yourself. You’re bad enough, as other people know you. But only you know the full range of your secret transgressions, insufficiencies and inadequacies. No one is more familiar than you with all the ways your mind and body are flawed. No one has more reason to hold you in contempt, to see you as pathetic—and by withholding something that might do you good, you can punish yourself for all your failings. A dog, a harmless, innocent, unselfconscious dog, is clearly more deserving.
But if you are not yet convinced, let us consider another vital issue. Order, chaos, life, death, sin, vision, work and suffering: that is not enough for the authors of Genesis, nor for humanity itself. The story continues, in all its catastrophe and tragedy, and the people involved (that’s us) must contend with yet another painful awakening. We are next fated to contemplate morality itself.
Dogs are predators. So are cats. They kill things and eat them. It’s not pretty. But we’ll take them as pets and care for them, and give them their medication when they’re sick, regardless. Why?
Why not? It’s simple. Unlike us, predators have no comprehension of their fundamental weakness, their fundamental vulnerability, their own subjugation to pain and death. But we know exactly how and where we can be hurt, and why. That is as good a definition as any of self-consciousness. We are aware of our own defencelessness, finitude and mortality. We can feel pain, and self-disgust, and shame, and horror, and we know it. We know what makes us suffer. We know how dread and pain can be inflicted on us—and that means we know exactly how to inflict it on others. We know how we are naked, and how that nakedness can be exploited—and that means we know how others are naked, and how they can be exploited.
We can terrify other people, consciously. We can hurt and humiliate them for faults we understand only too well. We can torture them—literally—slowly, artfully and terribly. That’s far more than predation. That’s a qualitative shift in understanding.
Only man could conceive of the rack, the iron maiden and the thumbscrew. Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate. Animals can’t manage that, but humans, with their excruciating, semi-divine capacities, most certainly can.
Human beings have a great capacity for wrongdoing. It’s an attribute that is unique in the world of life. We can and do make things worse, voluntarily, with full knowledge of what we are doing (as well as accidentally, and carelessly, and in a manner that is willfully blind). Given that terrible capacity, that proclivity for malevolent actions, is it any wonder we have a hard time taking care of ourselves, or others—or even that we doubt the value of the entire human enterprise? And we’ve suspected ourselves, for good reason, for a very long time.
After drawing conclusions such as that, how could we not question the value of our being, and even of Being itself? Who then could be faced with illness, in himself or another, without doubting the moral utility of prescribing a healing medicament? And no one understands the darkness of the individual better than the individual himself. Who, then, when ill, is going to be fully committed to his own care?
Perhaps Man is something that should never have been. Perhaps the world should even be cleansed of all human presence, so that Being and consciousness could return to the innocent brutality of the animal. I believe that the person who claims never to have wished for such a thing has neither consulted his memory nor confronted his darkest fantasies.
What then is to be done?
If we wish to take care of ourselves properly, we would have to respect ourselves—but we don’t, because we are—not least in our own eyes—fallen creatures. If we lived in Truth; if we spoke the Truth—then we could walk with God once again, and respect ourselves, and others, and the world.
Then we might treat ourselves like people we cared for. We might strive to set the world straight. We might orient it toward Heaven, where we would want people we cared for to dwell, instead of Hell, where our resentment and hatred would eternally sentence everyone.
It is easy to believe that people are arrogant, and egotistical, and always looking out for themselves. The cynicism that makes that opinion a universal truism is widespread and fashionable. But such an orientation to the world is not at all characteristic of many people. They have the opposite problem: they shoulder intolerable burdens of self-disgust, self-contempt, shame and self-consciousness.
Thus, instead of narcissistically inflating their own importance, they don’t value themselves at all, and they don’t take care of themselves with attention and skill. It seems that people often don’t really believe that they deserve the best care, personally speaking. They are excruciatingly aware of their own faults and inadequacies, real and exaggerated, and ashamed and doubtful of their own value. They believe that other people shouldn’t suffer, and they will work diligently and altruistically to help them alleviate it. They extend the same courtesy even to the animals they are acquainted with—but not so easily to themselves.
To sacrifice ourselves to God (to the highest good, if you like) does not mean to suffer silently and willingly when some person or organization demands more from us, consistently, than is offered in return. That means we are supporting tyranny, and allowing ourselves to be treated like slaves. It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.
I learned two very important lessons from Carl Jung, the famous Swiss depth psychologist, about “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “loving your neighbour as yourself.” The first lesson was that neither of these statements has anything to do with being nice. The second was that both are equations, rather than injunctions. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obliged to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. What good is that? It is much better for any relationship when both partners are strong.
Furthermore, there is little difference between standing up and speaking for yourself, when you are being bullied or otherwise tormented and enslaved, and standing up and speaking for someone else. As Jung points out, this means embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect.
Most individuals are dealing with one or more serious health problems while going productively and uncomplainingly about their business. If anyone is fortunate enough to be in a rare period of grace and health, personally, then he or she typically has at least one close family member in crisis. Yet people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortful tasks to hold themselves and their families and society together. To me this is miraculous—so much so that a dumbfounded gratitude is the only appropriate response.
There are so many ways that things can fall apart, or fail to work altogether, and it is always wounded people who are holding it together. They deserve some genuine and heartfelt admiration for that. It’s an ongoing miracle of fortitude and perseverance.
In my clinical practice I encourage people to credit themselves and those around them for acting productively and with care, as well as for the genuine concern and thoughtfulness they manifest towards others. People are so tortured by the limitations and constraint of Being that I am amazed they ever act properly or look beyond themselves at all. But enough do so that we have central heat and running water and infinite computational power and electricity and enough for everyone to eat and even the capacity to contemplate the fate of broader society and nature, terrible nature, itself.
Some people degenerate into the hell of resentment and the hatred of Being, but most refuse to do so, despite their suffering and disappointments and losses and inadequacies and ugliness, and again that is a miracle for those with the eyes to see it.
We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged 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. You may therefore have to conduct yourself habitually in a manner that allows you some respect for your own Being—and fair enough.
To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is, instead, to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.”
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?” You need to know where you are, so you can start to chart your course. You need to know who you are, so that you understand your armament and bolster yourself in respect to your limitations.
You must determine where you are going, so that you can bargain for yourself, so that you don’t end up resentful, vengeful and cruel. You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others’ taking inappropriate advantage of you, and so that you are secure and safe while you work and play. You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord.
Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being. As the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so brilliantly noted, “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”
Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.
You could begin by treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.
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