In the introduction to his new manual on how to live a meaningful life, Jordan Peterson sets the tone by recounting the hellish sequence of health crises that afflicted his family during 2019 and last year. They included his wife’s diagnosis with a rare and usually lethal form of kidney cancer, and his own downward spiral from severe anxiety and dangerously low blood pressure into benzodiazepine dependency and an acute withdrawal response, near total insomnia, pneumonia in both lungs, and “overwhelming thoughts of self-destruction,” culminating in his waking from a medically induced coma in a Russian intensive care unit with no memory of the foregoing weeks.
Conventional wisdom might envisage little appetite for a self-help book so relentlessly focused on what Peterson calls “the catastrophe of life” and “the horror of existence.” But then conventional wisdom wouldn’t have predicted many takers for his 2018 book, 12 Rules for Life, with its demanding message that readers stop blaming others and assume responsibility for their problems instead. Yet it made the Canadian psychologist world famous, and established him as a substitute father for many rudderless young men.
The culture wars over identity politics, social justice and free speech that helped fuel his rise have only grown more entrenched since then. The result is that the Peterson vilified by his critics, and celebrated by his more reprehensible supporters, bears ever less resemblance to the one encountered in his books. He comes across in writing, for instance, as a recognizable kind of self-help sexist, with a tendency to over-interpret the data regarding personality differences between women and men; but there seems little reason to condemn him as a virulent misogynist. Likewise, his outlook leans conservative — but if the distressed employee of his Canadian publisher who recently accused him of “causing [a] surge of alt-right groups” has any evidence for that claim, I haven’t been able to locate it.
Amid all this discord, it’s jarring to open Beyond Order to be reminded that Peterson isn’t best understood as a debater of politics or culture, but as a sui generis kind of personal trainer for the soul. He is stern, sincere, intolerant of fools, sometimes hectoring, fond of communicating harsh truths by means of Bible stories, ancient mythology, the works of JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien and lengthy flights of Jungian-tinged abstraction about the Dragon of Chaos, the Benevolent Queen, the Wise King and assorted other archetypes. Hari Kunzru’s description of reading Peterson’s last book — “like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong” — has yet to be surpassed.
Beyond Order is presented as a counterweight to 12 Rules for Life, offering a dozen new rules organized (loosely) around the idea that as well as fighting the chaos that constantly threatens to engulf our lives, we must find ways to live with it, too; the book, Peterson writes, is an attempt to explain “how the dangers of too much security and control might be profitably avoided.” In fact the prescription turns out to be similar to last time: assume responsibility for your situation, dig deep to discover your capacity for self-discipline and face life’s inevitable awfulness as unflinchingly as you can.
FRIENDSHIPS AND MARRIAGE
The main difference is a less individualistic approach, with more focus on friendship, marriage and parenting, as if Peterson’s trials had underscored for him the degree to which we can only make it through life together. Human beings “outsource the problem of sanity,” he writes: a meaningful life is impossible in isolation, so we must take responsibility for reaching out to others, and getting along with them. (Rule 10: “Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.”) We need courage in order to face the terrors of mortal existence, but we need love too. And love takes work.
The confused public conversation about Peterson arises, if you ask me, from the fact that there are two main kinds of suffering. There is the kind that results from power disparities between groups: racism, sexism, economic inequality. Then there is the universal kind that comes with being a finite human, faced with a limited lifespan, the inevitability of death, the unavoidability of grief and regret, the inability to control the present or predict the future and the impossibility of ever fully knowing even those to whom we’re closest. Modern progressives rightly focus much energy on the first kind of suffering. But we increasingly talk as if the second kind barely counts, or doesn’t even exist — as if everything that truly matters were ultimately political. Peterson, by contrast, takes the second sort of suffering very seriously indeed.
If the result sometimes borders on the banal — Peterson advises readers to make lasting romantic commitments; to allow themselves to be vulnerable with their partners; to keep beautiful objects in their homes; and to deal with distressing memories by writing them down — that’s partly because the best ways to cope with the darkness of life have been evolving since the beginning of civilization. By this point, some of them are bound to sound familiar.
The widespread reluctance among progressives to see life as anything but a matter of power struggles helps explain, among many other examples, why a writer for Vox might perceive Peterson to be telling his followers that “the world can and should revolve around them and their problems.”
He isn’t; but he does write as if each reader had a moral responsibility to treat their own situation, and the development of their own character, as a matter of life and death for them, because it is. His worst fans (whom Peterson could certainly do more to disown) make a similar mistake. The resentful whiners of the men’s rights movement imagine he’s taking their side in an identity-based fight, when in fact he reminds them — incessantly, on page after page after page — that resentment and the nursing of grievances are a direct road to psychological hell. (Rule 11: “Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful or arrogant.”)
Peterson’s biggest failing as a writer is one he shares with many of his loudest critics: the absence of a sense of humor. He takes the agonizing human predicament seriously — but boy does he also take it seriously. This is understandable, in light of what he’s endured; but the effect is to deny his readers another essential tool for coping with life. We need courage and love, but it also helps to find a way to laugh at the cosmic joke. It’s often been observed that Peterson has a religious attitude toward life. But he is, you might say, overly Protestant and insufficiently Jewish about the whole business; he has none of the wry forbearance in the face of pain of the man in the Henny Youngman joke, helped on to a stretcher after a car crash. Paramedic: “Are you comfortable?” The injured man, shrugging: “I make a living.”
Still, in the end, it’s a good thing that there’s space on the self-help shelves for a book as bracingly pessimistic as this one. Ours is a culture dedicated to a belief in the perfectibility of social institutions, in our limitless capacity to know the world, and to bring it under our control, and in the infallible rightness of present day moral judgments.
Peterson offers an invaluable reminder that we’re finite and inherently imperfect; that we can’t control everything, or even very much — and that every generation of humans since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia has thought itself morally unimprovable. Above all, we can’t escape suffering, or, as Peterson puts it with characteristic extravagance, “anxiety, doubt, shame, pain and illness, the agony of conscience, the soul-shattering pit of grief, dashed dreams and disappointment, the reality of betrayal, subjection to the tyranny of social being and the ignominy of aging unto death.”
And our only hope of making it bearable lies in facing it, alongside others, as fully as we can.
Peterson’s final rule is to “be grateful in spite of your suffering.” This carries the implication that you ought to accept your lot in life — which is an offensive thing to say, of course, to someone fighting the impact of poverty, sexism or racism. But it’s very wise advice for anyone facing the universal catastrophe of having been born. Even if we managed to achieve the utopia of justice and equity, we’d still be stuck with the pain of being human. And courage and love — plus the laughter you won’t find in the pages of this book — really are the only ways to cope with that.
By Jordan Peterson
Over a million years in the making, the outdoor playground that is Kaohsiung’s Shoushan (壽山), commonly known as “Monkey Mountain,” is a rich geological and ecological resource that visitors to the city should be sure not to miss. Many are familiar with the area’s hiking trails and resident monkey population, but even locals may be surprised to learn of the extensive system of caves here, full of classic examples of speleothems like stalactites, stalagmites, draperies and flowstones, as well as cave-dwelling fauna. These caves are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of erosion slowly dissolving the mountain’s limestone.
April 12 to April 18 Hsieh Hsueh-hung (謝雪紅) stuffed her suitcase with Japanese toys and celebrity photos as she departed from Tokyo in February 1928. She knew she would be inspected by Japanese custom officials upon arrival in Shanghai, and hoped that the items would distract them from the papers hidden in her clothes. Penned with invisible ink on thin sheets, it was the charter of the Taiwanese Communist Party (台灣共產黨, TCP), which Hsieh and her companions would launch on April 15 under the directive of the Soviet-led Communist International with the support of their Chinese, Japanese
The Brave Girls were losing courage just weeks ago, on the verge of breaking up and abandoning their dreams of K-pop stardom after years of going nowhere. Then a pseudonymous YouTuber called Viditor uploaded a compilation of them performing on South Korean army bases — and saved their careers. Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’/I am waiting for you/Babe just only you, they chant, as wildly enthusiastic uniformed conscripts dance and wave glow-sticks. It went viral and struck millions of chords across the country. Less than a month later the song reached number one in South Korea and topped the Billboard K-pop 100 in
It’s official: Trees are good for the mental health of city dwellers. According to a study published in Scientific Reports at the end of last year, individuals living within 100m of a high density of street trees in Leipzig, Germany, were prescribed antidepressant prescriptions at a lower rate than those who didn’t have many trees in their neighborhood. The study noted that more distant clusters of street trees didn’t appear to have any impact on antidepressant use, and that, even at 100m, the correlation was merely “marginally significant.” However, the researchers found, for individuals with low socio-economic status, trees no more