26 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE | CHAPTER 3
AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS
MAKE FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE WHO WANT THE BEST FOR YOU
This is part 3 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. This is an introduction to philosophy, mythology and the science of the mind, and a practical, engaging guide to a better life.
How it was growing up in Fairview Alberta (3:50)
Rescuing The Damned (7:35)
Down is a lot easier than up (13:15)
You’re associating with people who are bad for you because it’s easier (16:54)
Before helping someone, find out why that person is in trouble. Otherwise, you might deny that person all agency and strip them of all power. (23:26)
A Reciprocal Arrangement (35:15)
Meditations on integration (40:20)
The 4 Agreements (52:25)
Don’t take anything personally (56:22)
Don’t make assumptions (57:55)
Always do your best (101:15)
… The chapter opens with Peterson remembering how things were for him growing up around the endless flat of the Northern prairie in Fairview, Alberta …
Because we were so far north, the bitterly cold winters were also very dark. By December, the sun didn’t rise until 9:30 a.m. We trudged to school in the pitch black. It wasn’t much lighter when we walked home, just before the early sunset. There wasn’t much for young people to do in Fairview, even in the summer. But the winters were worse. Then your friends mattered. More than anything.
Cable TV, video games and internet did not exist. It was no easy matter to stay innocently amused way up there, when long stretches of forty-below days and even colder nights were the norm. The world is a different place when it’s cold like that. The drunks in our town ended their sad lives early. They passed out in snowbanks at three in the morning and froze to death.
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.
People create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. Faulty tools produce faulty results. Repeated use of the same faulty tools produces the same faulty results. It is in this manner that those who fail to learn from the past doom themselves to repeat it. It’s partly fate. It’s partly inability. It’s partly…unwillingness to learn? Refusal to learn? Motivated refusal to learn?
Rescuing the Damned
People choose friends who aren’t good for them for other reasons, too. Sometimes it’s because they want to rescue someone. This is more typical of young people, although the impetus still exists among older folks who are too agreeable or have remained naive or who are willfully blind. Someone might object, “It is only right to see the best in people. The highest virtue is the desire to help.”
But not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise, although many do, and many manage it. Nonetheless, people will often accept or even amplify their own suffering, as well as that of others, if they can brandish it as evidence of the world’s injustice. There is no shortage of oppressors among the downtrodden, even if, given their lowly positions, many of them are only tyrannical wannabes. It’s the easiest path to choose, moment to moment, although it’s nothing but hell in the long run.
… He then tells a short story about a supervisor at a workplace transferring an under-performer to a department where the team members have already been doing well at their jobs. The consequence wasn’t that the under-performer improved to raise his bar and get in sync with the high performance standards. What happened was that the team degenerated. That’s because the delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up …
Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible—and, perhaps, more likely—that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will.
Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible. Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.
You’re associating with people who are bad for you not because it’s better for anyone, but because it’s easier. You know it. Your friends know it. You’re all bound by an implicit contract—one aimed at nihilism, and failure, and suffering of the stupidest sort. You’ve all decided to sacrifice the future to the present.
You don’t talk about it. You don’t all get together and say, “Let’s take the easier path. Let’s indulge in whatever the moment might bring. And let’s agree, further, not to call each other on it. That way, we can more easily forget what we are doing.” You don’t mention any of that. But you all know what’s really going on.
Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It’s the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable. In my experience—clinical and otherwise—it’s just never been that simple. Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.
It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty. Perhaps that should even be your default assumption, when faced with such a situation. That’s too harsh, you think. You might be right. Maybe that’s a step too far. But consider this: failure is easy to understand. No explanation for its existence is required. In the same manner, fear, hatred, addiction, promiscuity, betrayal and deception require no explanation. 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.
Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live. Maybe your willingness to suffer in failure is inexhaustible, given what you use that suffering to prove. Maybe it’s your revenge on Being. How exactly should I befriend you when you’re in such a place? How exactly could I?
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. And then comes the flood.
I am not saying that there is no hope of redemption. But it is much harder to extract someone from a chasm than to lift him from a ditch. And some chasms are very deep. And there’s not much left of the body at the bottom.
If I stay in an unhealthy relationship with you, perhaps it’s because I’m too weak-willed and indecisive to leave, but I don’t want to know it. Thus, I continue helping you, and console myself with my pointless martyrdom. Maybe I can then conclude, about myself, “Someone that self-sacrificing, that willing to help someone—that has to be a good person.” Not so. It might be just a person trying to look good pretending to solve what appears to be a difficult problem instead of actually being good and addressing something real.
Maybe instead of continuing our friendship I should just go off somewhere, get my act together, and lead by example.
And none of this is a justification for abandoning those in real need to pursue your narrow, blind ambition, in case it has to be said.
A Reciprocal Arrangement
Here’s something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself?
You might say: out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse.
If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner.
People who are not aiming up will do the opposite. They will offer a former smoker a cigarette and a former alcoholic a beer. They will become jealous when you succeed, or do something pristine. They will withdraw their presence or support, or actively punish you for it. They will over-ride your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. Maybe they are trying to test you, to see if your resolve is real, to see if you are genuine. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.
It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge. Michelangelo’s great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: “You could be more than you are.”
When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life’s horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on to their shoulders, where it belongs.
Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgment, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.
Make friends with people who want the best for you.
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