12 Rules for Life is the hugely popular “self-help” book by Jordan Peterson. But to be honest, the term self-help doesn’t really do the book justice at all – it’s the culmination of Peterson’s thinking and advice on life based on psychology, philosophy, religion & mythology, and insights from history and science.
If you like Peterson, you will love 12 Rules for Life; but if you don’t like him, then still it would not be a bad idea to read it. Peterson is a bit of a controversial figure (to put it mildly), but it’s very easy to criticize someone based on what you think he says or stands for. Reading through and actually understanding someone’s background and arguments makes everything much more nuanced, and Peterson is no exception to this.
Personally I don’t agree with everything Peterson states in the book, but 12 Rules for Life has the rare quality that it makes you think and wonder and reflect long after you’ve read the last page. Even if you don’t agree with everything, there is a lot to learn from this book.
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Book Summary & Notes
All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.
Foreword by Norman Doidge
“Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to “make the world a better place” before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within.”
Both are dangerous: ideologies because they are not true knowledge, and ideologues because, once they come to power, their simplifications cannot match with the complex reality. And once ideologues fail, which they inevitably do, they will not blame themselves but instead those who critique them or don’t believe in them.
The problem with excessive tolerance and not wanting to be judgmental is that people are afraid to judge right from wrong – after all, your moral values might not be the same as those of other people and cultures. But these moral lessons, or practical wisdom, is what guided people throughout the past. As a consequence:
“Millennials, often told they have received the finest education available anywhere, have actually suffered a form of serious intellectual and moral neglect. The relativists of my generation and Jordan’s […] chose to devalue thousands of years of human knowledge about how to acquire virtue, dismissing it as passé, “not relevant” or even “oppressive.” They were so successful at it that the very word “virtue” sounds out of date, and someone using it appears anachronistically moralistic and self-righteous.”
The issue is that most people cannot live properly without a moral compass, and with some ideal for their lives. In the vacuum left behind by morals and virtue, we find relativism (which offers no practical help), nihilism and despair (which doesn’t have a solution), but also ideologies that pretend to have the answers.
In order tos avoid ideologues, and the authoritarian regimes that come with them, on the one hand, and weak and purposeless individuals on the other, every individual must be willing to shoulder a burden. To take responsibility, be a hero, to tell the truth, and to repair or renew things that don’t work or that are outdated in society.
“We require rules, standards, values – alone and together. We’re pack animals, beasts of burden. We must bear a load, to justify our miserable existence. We require routine and tradition.”
“Perhaps, if we lived properly, we would be able to tolerate the weight of our own self-consciousness. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality, without the sense of aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we wouldn’t have to turn to totalitarian certainty to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our own insufficiency and ignorance. Perhaps we could come to avoid those pathways to Hell – and we have seen in the terrible twentieth century just how real Hell can be.”
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
The first rule start with the (now famous) comparison to lobsters, where the main idea is that humans and lobsters both have social hierarchies. Lobsters with high levels serotonin will act more confidently and more aggressively, and will thus be able to defend their territories and obtain the best mates.
If a lobster loses a battle, even if it behaved very aggressively, it will reduce the chances that it will fight again in the future. The lobster loses confidence – and, in extreme cases, a defeated dominant lobster can actually lose its brain. Then it grows a new subordinate brain; the original brain cannot handle “the transformation from king to bottom dog without virtually complete dissolution and regrowth.”
This dominance hierarchy is not a social or cultural construct, it’s a state under which humans have lived for a very long time. We cannot escape our nature simply by saying it’s a construct that we developed. “We were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones. There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.”
These hierarchies also show itself in daily life. Peterson states that the brain will determine your level of dominance by how others interact with you. If you’re at the bottom, every small unexpected event will be interpreted as negative. Every moment in the present is marked by panicked responses – “when you don’t know what to do, you must be prepared to do anything and everything”. “The physical demands of emergency preparedness will wear you down in every way.”
In contrast, if you have a high status, your brain assumes your niche is safe and that the chances of something happening are relatively low. The same unexpected events are not viewed as negative, but as an opportunity. You have high levels of serotonin, meaning you’re calm and confident – you’re not on constant high alert. As a consequence you can think about the future, and prepare for tomorrow.
“[W]hen once-naïve people recognize in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.”
Even if you have a “bad posture” currently due to events in your past (bad habits, unpopular in school, bullied, et cetera) it doesn’t mean you have to continue that way. “If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then you brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will makes you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself.”
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality”
“So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them – at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.”
And, as a result, people will start to assume you’re competent, you will be less anxious, more able to pay attention to social clues, and will increase the probability of good things happening
“Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.”
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Peterson starts this rule with the example of organ transplantation and that it often fails because people don’t (consistently) take the anti-rejection drugs after the operation. In contrast, if you take your pet to the vet, and it’s prescribed pills, people will make an effort to do it properly. “People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves.”
Chaos & Order:
“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. It’s the foreigner, the stranger, the member of another gang, the rustle in the bushes in the night-time, the monster under the bed, the hidden anger of your mother, and the sickness of your child. Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed. It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth, where the dragon and the gold it guards eternally co-exist. Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we are doing when we don’t know what we are doing. It is, in short, all those things and situations we neither know nor understand.”
“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. It’s the flag of the nation. It’s the value of the currency. Order is the floor beneath your feet, and your plan for the day. It’s the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in a school classroom, the trains that leave on time, the calendar, and the clock. Order is the public façade we’re called upon to wear, the politeness of a gathering of civilized strangers, and the thin ice on which we all skate. Order is the place here the behavior of the world matches our expectations and our desires; the place where all things turn out the way we want them to. But order is sometimes tyranny and stultification, as well, when the demand for certainty and uniformity and purity becomes too one-sided.”
Peterson describes chaos as feminine; we are born into the unknown. But he also relates it to sexual selection. Women are choosy, for example: on dating sites women rate 85% of men as below average in attractiveness; plus we’ve all had twice as many female ancestors as male.
So why do we treat ourselves so badly? “You know so much 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.”
What’s the difference between predators and humans? Self-consciousness – while predators operate according to their nature, humans are fully aware of any cruelty and suffering they cause. We know how and where we can hurt others, we can exploit them, or punish them. “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.”
Peterson relates all this to the story of Adam & Eve, original sin and fallen angels. “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.”
“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.”
To do that you need to know where you are currently, and which direction you are going:
“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 need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.”
“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.”
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for yourself
“Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth – or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives – they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better – so they don’t go looking for it. Or, perhaps, they don’t want the trouble of better. Freud called this a “repetition compulsion.” He thought of it as an unconscious drive to repeat the horrors of the past – sometimes, perhaps, to formulate those horrors more precisely, sometimes to attempt more active mastery and sometimes, perhaps, because no alternatives beckon.”
“Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble.” It’s too simple to assume that it’s all due to circumstances, plus by denying a person all agency in their past, present and future you remove the responsibility and power to improve their lives.
“It’s not the existence of vice, or the indulgence in it, that requires explanation. Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too. It’s easier not to shoulder a burden. It’s easier not to think, and not to do, and not to care. It’s easier to put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today, and drown the upcoming months and years in today’s cheap pleasures.”
“Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time. And once someone has spent enough time cultivating bad habits and biding their time, they are much diminished. Much of what they could have been has dissipated, and much of the less that they have become is now real. Things fall apart, of their own accord, but the sins of men speed their degeneration.”
“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 to their shoulders, where it belongs.”
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
“If the cards are always stacked against you, perhaps the game you are playing is somehow rigged (perhaps by you, unbeknownst to yourself). If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavours – or your life, or life itself – perhaps you should stop listening. If the critical voice within says the same denigrating things about everyone, no matter how successful, how reliable can it be? Maybe its comments are chatter, not wisdom. There will always be people better than you – that’s a cliché of nihilism, like the phrase, In a million years, who’s going to know the difference? The proper response to that statement is not, Well, then, everything is meaningless. It’s, any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters. Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.”
“Standards of better or worse are not illusory or unnecessary. If you hadn’t decided that what you are doing right now was better than the alternatives, you wouldn’t be doing it. The idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms. Value judgments are precondition for action. Furthermore, every activity, once chosen, comes with its own internal standards of accomplishment. If something can be done at all, it can be done better or worse. To do anything at all is therefore to play a game with a defined and valued end, which can always be reached more or less efficiently and elegantly. Every game comes with its chance of success or failure. Differentials in quality are omnipresent. Furthermore, if there was no better and worse, nothing would be worth doing. There would be no value and, therefore, no meaning. Why make an effort if it doesn’t improve anything? Meaning itself requires the difference between better and worse.”
Peterson talks about the internal critic: the voice that selects one random domain (power, fame) and considers it to be the only relevant one. Then, a comparison is made between someone who is absolutely amazing in that domain. This, of course, is making things too difficult for ourselves – life cannot be compared on a single arbitrary domain. Sometimes, the next step from the internal critic could be to use this comparison to declare life unfair, that’s there no point in doing anything. This, of course, is also counterproductive.
“Be cautious when you’re comparing yourself to others. You’re a singular being, once you’re an adult. You have your own particular specific problems – financial, intimate, psychological, and otherwise. Those are embedded in the unique broader context of your existence. Your career and job works for you in a personal manner, or it does not, and it does so in a unique interplay with the other specifics of your life. You must decide how much of your time to spend on this, and how much on that. You must decide what to let go, and what to pursue.”
“The future is like the past. But there’s a crucial difference. The past is fixed, but the future – it could be better. It could be better, some precise amount – the amount that can be achieved, perhaps, in a day, with some minimal engagement. The present is eternally flawed. But where you start might not be as important as the direction you are heading. Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak. Much of happiness is hope, no matter how deep the underworld in which that hope was conceived.”
Peterson recommends negotiating with the internal voice (or critic) – to focus on something can be set in order “voluntarily” and willingly. This can be small, and probably should be small when starting out, and there should be a reward in the end (to encourage good behavior).
“Realization is dawning. Instead of playing the tyrant, therefore, you are paying attention. You are telling the truth, instead of manipulating the world. You are negotiating, instead of playing the martyr or the tyrant. You no longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to aim low, and to be patient. You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself.”
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike themselves
In a way (perhaps not very nicely), children can be compared to dogs when it comes to upbringing: both need to be properly socialized before they can join ‘the pack.’ Socialization prevents a lot of issues, and has a lot of good as well:
“Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive attention as they are by abuse, mental of physical. This is damage by omission, rather than commission, but it so no less severe and long-lasting. Children are damaged when their “mercifully” inattentive parents fail to make them sharp and observant and awake and leave them, instead, in an unconscious and undifferentiated state. Children are damaged when those charged with their care, afraid of any conflict or upset, no longer dare to correct them, and leave them without guidance. I can recognize such children on the street. They are doughy and unfocused and vague. They are leaden and dull instead of golden and bright. They are uncarved blocks, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting-to-be.”
As a consequence, these un(der)socialized children are ignored by other children – they are not fun to be around and play with. Adults also tend to ignore these children because in a way the cost/benefit ratio of interacting with these children would be much lower.
“More often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents – if that – and parents are more, not less, than friends.” So parents should take appropriate corrective action because that is what counts on the long-term. “Parents are the arbiters of society. They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.”
“People often get the basic psychological questions backwards. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety. That’s not a mystery. How is that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery. We’re breakable and moral. A million things can go wrong, in a million ways. We should be terrified out of our skulls at every second. But we’re not.”
“Kids do this frequently. Scared parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying. Careful analysis of the musculature patterns of crying has confirmed this. Anger-crying and fear-or-sadness crying do not look the same. They also don’t sound the same, and can be distinguished with careful attention. Anger-crying is often an act of dominance, and should be dealt with as such.”
“Parents who refuse to adopt the responsibility for disciplining their children think they can just opt out of the conflict necessary for proper child-rearing. They avoid being the bad guy (in the short term). But they do not at all rescue or protect their children from fear and pain. Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment fare greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world – and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.”
Peterson describes two principles of discipline:
1. Limit the rules: “Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture or bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.”
2. Use the least force necessary to enforce these rules: “What is minimum necessary force? This must be established experimentally, starting with the smallest possible intervention. Some children will be turned to stone by a glare. A verbal command will stop another. A thumb-cocked flick of the index finger on a small hand might be necessary for some. Such a strategy is particularly useful in public places such as restaurants. It can be administered suddenly, quietly and effectively, without risking escalation.”
“A child who pays attention, instead of drifting, and can play, and does not whine, and is comical, but not annoying, and is trustworthy – that child will have friends wherever he goes. His teacher will like him, and so will his parents. If he attends politely to adults, he will be attended to, smiled at and happily instructed. He will thrive, in what can so easily be a cold, unforgiving and hostile world. Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational parents. Clear principles of discipline and punishment balance mercy and justice so that social development and psychological maturity can be optimally promoted. 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.”
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
“People who experience evil may certainly desire to pay it forward. But it is also possible to learn good by experiencing evil. A bullied boy can mimic his tormentors. But he can also learn from his own abuse that is wrong to push people around and make their lives miserable. Someone tormented by her mother can learn from her terrible experiences how important it is to be a good parent. Many, perhaps even most, of the adults who abuse children were abused themselves as children. However, the majority of people who were abused as children do not abuse their own children. […] That’s a testament to the genuine dominance of good over evil in the human heart.”
“One man’s decision to change his life, instead of cursing fate, shook the whole pathological system of communist tyranny to its core. It crumbled entirely, not so many years later, and Solzhenitsyn’s courage was not the least of the reasons why. He was not the only such person to perform such a miracle. Václav Havel, the persecuted writer who later, impossibly, became the president of Czechoslovakia, then of the new Czech Republic, comes to mind, as does Mahatma Gandhi.”
“This is life. We build structures to live in. We build families, and states, and countries. We abstract the principles upon which those structures are founded and formulate systems of belief. At first we inhabit those structures and beliefs like Adam and Eve in Paradise. But success makes us complacent. We forget to pay attention. We take what we have for granted. We turn a blind eye. We fail to notice that things are changing, or that corruption is taking root. And everything falls apart. Is that the fault of reality – of God? Or do things fall apart because we have not paid sufficient attention?”
“If you are suffering – well, that’s the norm. People are limited and life is tragic. If your suffering is unbearable, however, and you are starting to become corrupted, here’s something to think about”:
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 you could do, that would make things around you better?”
Have you cleaned up your life? “If the answer is no, here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is. Inopportune questioning can confuse, without enlightening, as well as deflecting you from action. You can know that something is wrong or right without knowing why. You entire Being can tell you something that you can neither explain nor articulate. Every person is too complex to know themselves completely, and we all contain wisdom that we cannot comprehend.”
“You can use your own standards of judgment. You can rely on yourself for guidance. You don’t have to adhere to some external, arbitrary code of behavior (although you should not overlook the guidelines of your culture. Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure out everything on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you).
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
“The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action). Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present – regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others – could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist. We began to inhibit, control and organize our immediate impulses, so that we could stop interfering with other people and our future selves. Doing so was indistinguishable from organizing society: the discovery of the causal relationship between our efforts today and the quality of tomorrow motivated the social contract – the organization that enables today’s work to be stored, reliably.”
“The tragedy of self-conscious Being produces suffering, inevitable suffering. That suffering in turn motivates the desire for selfish, immediate gratification – for expediency. But sacrifice – and work – serves far more effectively than short-term impulsive pleasure at keeping suffering at bay. However, tragedy itself (conceived as the arbitrary harshness of society and nature, set against the vulnerability of the individual) is not the only – and perhaps not even the primary – source of suffering. There is also the problem of evil to consider. The world is et hard against us, of a certainty, but man’s inhumanity to man is something even worse.”
“Once you become consciously aware that you, yourself, are vulnerable, you understand the nature of human vulnerability, in general. You understand what it’s like to be fearful, and angry, and resentful, and bitter. You understand what pain means. And once you truly understand such feelings in yourself, and how they’re produced, you understand how to produce them in others. It is in this manner that the self-conscious beings that we are become voluntarily and exquisitely capable of tormenting others (and ourselves, of course […])”
“We rebel against our own totalitarianism, as much as that of others. I cannot merely order myself into action, and neither can you.”
“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainty what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposed of that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.”
“It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency – your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produces the deaths of millions of people.”
“Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. That’s a state, and a state of mind, at the same time.”
“Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.”
Rule 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
“I began paying much closer attention to what I was doing – and saying. The experience was disconcerting, to say the least. I soon divided myself into two parts: one that spoke, and one, more detached, that paid attention and judged. I soon came to realize that almost everything said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things: I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practise only saying things that the internal voice would not object to. I started to practise telling the truth – or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.”
“A naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie. […] It’s just not a sustainable approach to later life. This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues. They adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls.”
“If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward. This is biological truth, as well as a conceptual truth. When you explore boldly, when you voluntarily confront the unknown, you gather information and build your renewed self out of that information.”
“If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no. If you ever wonder how perfectly ordinary, decent people could find themselves doing the terrible things the gulag guards did, you now have your answer. By the time no seriously needed to be said, there was no one left capable of saying it.”
“If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you find yourself doing terrible things.”
“The prideful, rational mind, comfortable with its certainty, enamoured of its own brilliance, is easily tempted to ignore error, and to sweep dirt under the rug. Literary, existential philosophers, beginning with Søren Kierkegaard, conceived of this mode of Being as “inauthentic.” An inauthentic person continues to perceive and act in ways his own experience has demonstrated false. He does not speak with his own voice.”
“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity.”
“Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else.” That is the voice of inauthenticity. It is not too far from there to “they should be stopped” or “they must be hurt” or “they must be destroyed.” Whenever you hear about something incomprehensibly brutal, such ideas have manifested themselves.”
“Someone power-hungry makes a new rule at your workplace. It’s unnecessary. It’s counterproductive. It’s an irritant. It removes some of the pleasure and meaning from your work. But you tell yourself it’s all right. It’s not worth complaining about. Then it happens again. You’ve already trained yourself to allow such things, by failing to react the first time. You’re a little less courageous. Your opponent, unopposed, is a little bit stronger. The institution is a little bit more corrupt. The process of bureaucratic stagnation and oppression is underway, and you’ve contributed, by pretending that it was OK. Why not complain? Why not take a stand? If you do, other people, equally afraid to speak up, may come to your defence. And if not – maybe it’s time for a revolution. Maybe you should find a job somewhere else, where your soul is less in danger from corruption.”
“What happens if, instead, we decide to stop lying? What does this even mean? We are limited in our knowledge, after all. We must make decisions, here and now, even though the best means and the best goals can never be discerned with certainty. An aim, an ambition, provides this structure necessary for action. An aim provides a destination, a point of contrast against the present, and a framework, within which all things can be evaluated. An aim defines defines progress and makes such progress exciting. An aim reduces anxiety, because if you have no aim everything can mean anything or nothing, and neither of those two options makes for a tranquil spirit. […]”
“Some reliance on tradition can help us establish our aims. It is reasonable to do what other people have always done, unless we have a very good reason not to. It is reasonable to become educated and work and fine love and have a family. That is how culture maintains itself. But it is necessary to aim at your target, however traditional, with your eyes wide open. You have a direction, but it might be wrong. You have a plan, but it might be ill-formed. You may have been led astray by your own ignorance – and, worse, by your own unrevealed corruption. You must make friends, therefore, with what you don’t know, instead of what you know. You must remain awake to catch yourself in the act. You must remove the beam in your own eye, before you concern yourself with the mote in your brother’s. And in this way, you strengthen your own spirit, so it can tolerate the burden of existence, and you rejuvenate the state.”
“Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain what they should be. The better your ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity. Knowing this, tie a rope to a boulder. Pick up the great stone, heave it in front of you, and pull yourself towards it. Watch and observe while you move forward. Articulate your experience as clearly and carefully to yourself and others as you possibly can. In this manner, you will learn to proceed more effectively and efficiently towards your goal. And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially to yourself.”
“Things fall apart. What worked yesterday will not necessarily work today. We have inherited the great machinery of state and culture from our forefathers, but they are dead, and cannot deal with the changes of the day. The living can. We can open our eyes and modify what we have where necessary and keep the machinery running smoothly. Or we can can pretend that everything is alright, fail to make the necessary repairs, and then curse fate when nothing goes our way.”
“Things fall apart: this is one of the great discoveries of humanity. And we speed the natural deterioration of great things through blindness, inaction and deceit. Without attention, culture degenerates and dies, and evil prevails.”
“If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise. Tell the truth. Or, at least, don’t lie.”
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
“People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare – just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world. Viewpoint One is an avatar in a simulated world. It has its own representations of past, present and future, and its own ideas about how to act. So do Viewpoints two, and Three, and Four. Thinking is the process by which these internal avatars imagine and articulate their worlds to one another. You can’t set straw men against one another when you’re thinking, either, because then you’re not thinking. You’re rationalizing, post-hoc. You’re matching what you want against a weak opponent so that you don’t have to change your mind. You’re propagandizing. You’re using double-speak. You’re using your conclusions to justify your proofs. You’re hiding from the truth.”
“[Carl Rogers] suggested that his readers conduct a short experiment when they next found themselves in a dispute: “Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: ‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’” I have found this technique very useful, in my private life and in my practice. I routinely summarize what people have said to me, and ask them if I have understood properly. Sometimes they accept my summary. Sometimes I am offered a small correction. Now and then I am wrong completely. All of that is good to know.”
“People organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individuals psyche. To put in another way: It takes a village to organize a mind.”
“The conversation of mutual exploration […] requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known.”
“You already know what you know, after all – and, unless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough. You remain threatened by disease, and self-deception, and unhappiness, and malevolence, and betrayal, and corruption, and pain, and limitation. You are subject to all these things, in the final analysis, because you are just too ignorant to protect yourself. If you just knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malevolence and evil. You would neither betray a friend, nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics or love. However, your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition […].”
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
“When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work and for us to get by. What we inhabit, then, is this “enough.” That is a radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world – and it’s almost impossible for us not to mistake it for the world itself. But the objects we see are not simply there, in the world, for our simple, direct perceiving. They exist in a complex, multi-dimensional relationship to one another, not as self-evidently separate, bounded, independent objects. We perceive not them, but their functional utility and, in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple for sufficient understanding. It is for this reason we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.”
“Everything is intricate beyond imaging. Everything is affected by everything else. We perceive a very narrow slice of a causally interconnected matrix, although we strive with all our might to avoid being confronted by knowledge of that narrowness. The thin veneer of perceptual sufficiency cracks, however, when something fundamental goes wrong. The dreadful inadequacy of our senses reveals itself. Everything we hold dear crumbles to dust. We freeze. We turn to stone. What then do we see? Where can we look, when it is precisely what we see that has been insufficient?”
“Chaos emerges in every household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. But no one says anything, as the shared society and negotiated order of the household reveals itself as inadequate, or disintegrates, in the face of the unexpected and threatening. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead. Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealously, frustration, hatred, boredom. Moment by moment, it’s easier to keep the peace. But in the background, in Billy Bixbee’s house, and in all that are like it, the dragon grows. One day it bursts forth, in a form that no one can ignore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Then it’s an affair, or a decades-long custody dispute of ruinous economic and psychological proportions. Then it’s the concentrated version of the acrimony that could have been spread out, tolerably, issue by issue, over the years of the pseudo-paradise of the marriage. Every one of the three hundred thousand unrevealed issues, which have been lied about, avoided, rationalized away, hidden like n army of skeletons in some great horrific closet, burst forth like Noah’s flood, drowning everything. There’s no ark, because no one built one, even though everyone felt the storm gathering.
Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.”
“Maybe it wasn’t sex. Maybe every conversation between husband and wife had deteriorated into boring routine, as no shared adventure animated the couple. Maybe that deterioration was easier, moment by moment, day by day, than bearing the responsibility of keeping the relationship alive. Living things die, after all, without attention. Life is in indistinguishable from effortful maintenance. No one finds a match so perfect that the need for continued attention and work vanishes (and, besides, if you found the perfect person, he or she would run away from ever-so-imperfect you in justifiable horror). In truth, what you need – what you deserve, after all – is someone exactly as imperfect as you.”
“When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it – often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.”
“Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the other, equally terrible things that might have happened – but did not. If you wake up in pain, you might be dying. You might be dying slowly and terribly from one of a diverse number of painful, horrible diseases. If you refuse to tell your doctor about your pain, then what you have is unspecified: it could be any of those diseases – and it certainty (since you have avoided the diagnostic conversation – the act of articulation) is something unspeakable. But if you talk to your doctor, all those terrible possible diseases will collapse, with luck, into just one terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into nothing. Then you can laugh at your previous fears, and if something really is wrong, well, you’re prepared. Precision may leave the tragedy intact, but it chases away the ghouls and the demons.”
“Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life. How could it be otherwise?
Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly.“
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
“When untrammeled – and encouraged – we prefer to live on the edge. There, we can still be both confident in our experience and confronting the chaos that helps us develop. We’re hard-wired, for that reason, to enjoy risk (some of us more than others). We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimize our future performance, while playing in the present. Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will.”
“Of course, culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality. The tyrannical king is a symbolic truth; an archetypal constant. What we inherit from the past is willfully blind, and out of date. It’s a ghost, a machine, and a monster. It must be rescued, repaired and kept at bay by the attention and effort of the living. It crushes, as it hammers us into socially acceptable shape, and it wastes great potential. But it offers great gain, too. Every word we speak is a gift from our ancestors. Every thought we think was thought previously by someone smarter. The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us, particularly in the West, is a gift from our ancestors: the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury, and the opportunity. Culture takes with one hand, but in some fortunate places it gives more with the other. To think about culture only as oppressive is ignorant and ungrateful, as well as dangerous. That is not to say […] that culture should not be subject to criticism.”
“Power is a fundamental motivational force […]. People compete to rise to the top, and they care where they are in dominance hierarchies. But […] the fact that power plays a role in human motivation does not mean that it plays the only role, or even the primary role. Likewise, the fact that we can never know everything does make all our observations and utterances dependent on taking some things into account and leaving other things out […]. That does not justify the claim that everything is interpretation, or that categorization is just exclusion. Beware of single-cause interpretations – and beware of the people who purvey them.”
“In societies that are well-functioning – not in comparison to a hypothetical utopia, but contrasted with other existing or historical cultures – competence, not power, is the prime determiner of status.” In Western societies the personality trait predictors of long-term success are intelligence (IQ), conscientiousness (industriousness & orderliness), or, for entrepreneurs and creative types, openness to experience.”
“Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability.”
“Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it, even though they may not approve of the harsh and contemptuous attitude that is part and parcel of the socially demanding process that fosters and then enforces that toughness. Some women don’t like losing their baby boys, so they keep them forever. Some women don’t like men, and would rather have a submissive mate, even if he is useless. This also provides them with plenty to feel sorry for themselves about, as well. The pleasures of such self-pity should not be underestimated.”
“The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is, therefore, no more friend to woman than it is to man. It will object, just as vociferously and self-righteously (“you can’t do it, it’s too dangerous”) when little girls try to stand on their own two feet. It negates consciousness. It’s antihuman, desirous of failure, jealous, resentful and destructive. No one truly on the side of humanity would ally him- or herself with such a thing. No one aiming at moving up would allow him or herself to become possessed by such a thing. And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of. Leave children alone when they are skateboarding.”
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
“My realization of the tight interlinking between vulnerability and Being was the best answer I had for her. I told her an old Jewish story, which I believe is part of the commentary on the Torah. It begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation.
If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. And it is for this reasons, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. It helped my client, too. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I don’t want to claim that this somehow makes it all OK. She still faced the cancer afflicting her husband, just as I still faced by daughter’s terrible illness. But there’s something to be said for recognizing that existence and limitation are inextricably linked.”
“Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations – in the depths – it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing things: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations. Of course, it’s complicated. You don’t have to be in love with every shortcoming, and merely accept. You shouldn’t be trying to make life better, or let suffering just be. But there appear to be limits on the path to improvement beyond which we might not want to go, lest we sacrifice our humanity itself.”
“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 dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a café that cares about their customers. 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. […] 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 then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”
“When you are arguing with someone, you want to be right, and you want the other person to be wrong. Then it’s them that has to sacrifice something and change, not you, and that’s much preferable. If it’s you that’s wrong and you that must change, then you have to reconsider yourself – your memories of the past, your manner of being in the present, and your plans for the future. Then you must resolve to improve and figure out how to do that. Then you actually have to do it. That’s exhausting. It takes repeated practice, to instantiate the new perceptions and make the new actions habitual. It’s much easier just not to realize, admit and engage. It’s much easier to turn your attention away from the truth and remain wilfully blind.
But it’s at such a point that you must decide whether you want to be right or you want to have peace. You must decide whether to insist upon the absolute correctness of your view, or to listen and negotiate. You don’t get peace by being right. You just get to be right, while your partner gets to be wrong – defeated and wrong.”
“Failure to make the proper sacrifices, failure to reveal yourself, failure to live and tell the truth – all that weakens you. In that weakened state, you will be unable to thrive in the world, and you will be of no benefit to yourself and others. You will fail and suffer, stupidly. That will corrupt your soul. How could it be otherwise? Life is hard enough when it is going well. But when it’s going badly? And I have learned through painful experience that nothing is going so badly that it can’t be made worse. This is why Hell is a bottomless pit. […] In the most awful of cases, the terrible suffering of unfortunate souls becomes attributable, by their own judgment, to mistakes they made knowingly in the past: acts of betrayal, deception, cruelty, carelessness, cowardice, and, most commonly of all, willfill blindness. To suffer terribly and to know yourself as the cause: that is Hell. And once in Hell it is very easy to curse Being itself. And no wonder. But it’s not justifiable. And that’s why the King of the Damned is a poor judge of Being.”
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