24 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE: CHAPTER 1
AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS
Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back
This is part 1 of my review for the book “12 Rules For Life” by Dr. Jordan B Peterson.
In it, 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.
Dr. Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and the author of the million-plus selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which has been a Number 1 bestseller in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands and Brazil, and which is now slated to be translated into 40 languages.
Dr. Peterson’s YouTube channel features his university and public lectures, responses to the polarizing political crises of today, and interviews. As of June 2018, the channel has 300+ videos, 1,250,000 subscribers, and 60 million views. He has now talked about personal responsibility, truth and meaning in life with more than 100,000 people at live events.
Forward by Dr. Norman Doidge, MD
Biological and neurological similarities between lobsters
Full spectrum communication
Serotonin’s function within the body
Passive people and being bullied
Maybe you are a loser
Get some more sleep
Self esteem and respect
Accepting the terrible responsibility of life with eyes wide open
Attend carefully to your posture
Lead by example
Make the world a better place
Dr. Norman Doidge, MD, author of The Brain That Changes Itself
Without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions—and there’s nothing freeing about that.
In this book Professor Peterson doesn’t just propose his twelve rules, he tells stories, too, bringing to bear his knowledge of many fields as he illustrates and explains why the best rules do not ultimately restrict us but instead facilitate our goals and make for fuller, freer lives.
Sometimes these rules are demanding. They require you to undertake an incremental process that over time will stretch you to a new limit. That requires, as I’ve said, venturing into the unknown. Stretching yourself beyond the boundaries of your current self requires carefully choosing and then pursuing ideals: ideals that are up there, above you, superior to you—and that you can’t always be sure you will reach.
But if it’s uncertain that our ideals are attainable, why do we bother reaching in the first place? Because if you don’t reach for them, it is certain you will never feel that your life has meaning.
And perhaps because, as unfamiliar and strange as it sounds, in the deepest part of our psyche, we all want to be judged.
Reflecting upon a dream he had …
How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.
We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything. But the alternative—the horror of authoritarian belief, the chaos of the collapsed state, the tragic catastrophe of the unbridled natural world, the existential angst and weakness of the purposeless individual—is clearly worse.
I hope that these rules and their accompanying essays will help people understand what they already know: that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life.
If we each live properly, we will collectively flourish. Best wishes to you all, as you proceed through these pages.
RULE 1: STAND UP STRAIT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK
Speaking of biological and neurological similarities between lobsters and humans …
All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence—and the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism, either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense.
It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence. We (the sovereign we, the we that has been around since the beginning of life) have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time. 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.
The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental.17 It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions. It powerfully affects every aspect of our Being, conscious and unconscious alike. This is why, when we are defeated, we act very much like lobsters who have lost a fight. Our posture droops. We face the ground. We feel threatened, hurt, anxious and weak. If things do not improve, we become chronically depressed.
Under such conditions, we can’t easily put up the kind of fight that life demands, and we become easy targets for harder-shelled bullies. And it is not only the behavioural and experiential similarities that are striking. Much of the basic neurochemistry is the same.
… Speaking of serotonin’s function within the body
(What is serotonin anyway? We could perceive it basically as a calmative agent) ...
The body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue. It is for this reason that routine is so necessary. The acts of life we repeat every day need to be automatized. They must be turned into stable and reliable habits, so they lose their complexity and gain predictability and simplicity.
This can be perceived most clearly in the case of small children, who are delightful and comical and playful when their sleeping and eating schedules are stable, and horrible and whiny and nasty when they are not.
It is for such reasons that I always ask my clinical clients first about sleep. Do they wake up in the morning at approximately the time the typical person wakes up, and at the same time every day? If the answer is no, fixing that is the first thing I recommend. It doesn’t matter so much if they go to bed at the same time each evening, but waking up at a consistent hour is a necessity. Anxiety and depression cannot be easily treated if the sufferer has unpredictable daily routines. The systems that mediate negative emotion are tightly tied to the properly cyclical circadian rhythms.
Speaking of passive people and being bullied …
Psychological forces are never unidimensional in their value, and the truly appalling potential of anger and aggression to produce cruelty and mayhem are balanced by the ability of those primordial forces to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty and danger.
With their capacity for aggression strait-jacketed within a too-narrow morality, those who are only or merely compassionate and self-sacrificing (and naïve and exploitable) cannot call forth the genuinely righteous and appropriately self-protective anger necessary to defend themselves.
If you can bite, you generally don’t have to. When skillfully integrated, the ability to respond with aggression and violence decreases rather than increases the probability that actual aggression will become necessary. If you say no, early in the cycle of oppression, and you mean what you say (which means you state your refusal in no uncertain terms and stand behind it) then the scope for oppression on the part of oppressor will remain properly bounded and limited. The forces of tyranny expand inexorably to fill the space made available for their existence.
People who refuse to muster appropriately self-protective territorial responses are laid open to exploitation as much as those who genuinely can’t stand up for their own rights because of a more essential inability or a true imbalance in power.
Naive, harmless people usually guide their perceptions and actions with a few simple axioms: people are basically good; no one really wants to hurt anyone else; the threat (and, certainly, the use) of force, physical or otherwise, is wrong. These axioms collapse, or worse, in the presence of individuals who are genuinely malevolent.27 Worse means that naive beliefs can become a positive invitation to abuse, because those who aim to harm have become specialized to prey on people who think precisely such things. Under such conditions, the axioms of harmlessness must be retooled.
No one likes to be pushed around, but people often put up with it for too long. So, I get them to see their resentment, first, as anger, and then as an indication that something needs to be said, if not done (not least because honesty demands it). Then I get them to see such action as part of the force that holds tyranny at bay—at the social level, as much as the individual.
When naive people discover the capacity for anger within themselves, they are shocked, sometimes severely. A profound example of that can be found in the susceptibility of new soldiers to post-traumatic stress disorder, which often occurs because of something they watch themselves doing, rather than because of something that has happened to them.
They react like the monsters they can truly be in extreme battlefield conditions, and the revelation of that capacity undoes their world. And no wonder. Perhaps they assumed that all of history’s terrible perpetrators were people totally unlike themselves. Perhaps they were never able to see within themselves the capacity for oppression and bullying (and perhaps not their capacity for assertion and success, as well).
I have had clients who were terrified into literally years of daily hysterical convulsions by the sheer look of malevolence on their attackers’ faces. Such individuals typically come from hyper-sheltered families, where nothing terrible is allowed to exist, and everything is fairyland wonderful (or else).
When the wakening occurs—when 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.
Maybe you are a loser. And maybe you’re not—but if you are, you don’t have to continue in that mode. Maybe you just have a bad habit. Maybe you’re even just a collection of bad habits. Nonetheless, even if you came by your poor posture honestly—even if you were unpopular or bullied at home or in grade school—it’s not necessarily appropriate now. Circumstances change, and so can you.
If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself.
… This leads to a downward spiral of negativity toward, loneliness, poverty, drug abuse, abstract addictions, sickness, dementia, death, and a world of absolute pain …
Some of the positive feedback loops instantiated by body language can occur beyond the private confines of subjective experience, in the social space you share with other people. If your posture is poor, for example—if you slump, shoulders forward and rounded, chest tucked in, head down, looking small, defeated and ineffectual (protected, in theory, against attack from behind)—then you will feel small, defeated and ineffectual. The reactions of others will amplify that.
People, like lobsters, size each other up, partly in consequence of stance. If you present yourself as defeated, then people will react to you as if you are losing. If you start to straighten up, then people will look at and treat you differently.
Standing up physically also implies and invokes and demands standing up metaphysically. Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily. You respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe.
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. People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able (or at least they will not immediately conclude the reverse).
Doing so will not only genuinely increase the probability that good things will happen to you—it will also make those good things feel better when they do happen. Thus strengthened and emboldened, you may choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement.
Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.
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