The Second Dosage:
I put off reading more of Peterson’s !2 Rules for Life for a while, electing instead to run through a couple other books during my commutes on the metro. But, this morning I decided to read over the second rule he presents in his book: that you should treat yourself like someone you are responsible for. What followed was a promising premise, a detour through a tangent, and a return to a few statements about the aforementioned premise.
We Don’t Like Ourselves:
Peterson begins with noting how humans are much more apt to care for others, especially those for whom they are responsible (e.g. pets), than they are to care (properly) for themselves. He illustrates this with the following example. Someone takes their dog to the vet, and receives a prescription for medication they ought to administer to their pet. They follow the instructions to the letter. Prescribe that same person meds for their own ailment, and they go way off course. Irregular dosage, unfilled prescriptions, overdosage.
Great. Already the point is evident, hundreds of words before Peterson states it explicitly: people ultimately do not value themselves; they are ashamed and this paralyzes them.
What else is new?
A Long Tale of Order and Chaos:
Peterson continues onward with an exegesis of Taoist symbols and Judeo-Christian texts, discussing the duality of order and chaos. Along the way, he makes a number of insightful connections, though none seem immediately relevant to the topic at hand. ‘We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos’ (pp. 73). This goes on for a while.
Of course. We constantly utilize our cognitive capacities so that we might implement categorization and conceptualization upon the myriad stimuli around us, constructing narratives and meta-narratives in an effort to carve out a small space of the known, even if only by metaphor/metonymy/analogy, in the vastness of the unknown.
He does try to relate this to his rule in that he interprets the Genesis story, with the familiar props of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge, in such a way as to infer that the Fall was the moment when humankind obtained the ability to step out of chaos, to leave the natural flow around them, to categorize, delimit, and obfuscate behind concepts. And to become, most importantly, self-conscious.
The Handicapping Splendor of Self-Consciousness:
It is this very self-awareness which leaves so many people cripplingly aware of their short-comings. As he puts it, ‘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…and by withholding something that might do you good, you can punish yourself for all your failings’ (pp. 82). In a word, people are inhibited from properly caring for themselves due to self-loathing.
This idea of being painfully aware of one’s shortcomings is nothing new. In the early 1900s, the pioneering French psychologist, Alfred Adler, proposed the concept that all people are born with an innate sense of inferiority. But, the deciding factor was how the individual responded to this awareness of not being quite good enough. The healthy response is to utilize this sense of inferiority as a motivation to gain competence, to master that which one has yet to master. To step toward superiority through one gate of inferiority after another.
No One Wants to be Inferior:
We are quite disenfranchised with this word: inferiority. And we generally treat it as a disease, refusing to acknowledge that it is an intrinsic and crucial part of every person on this planet. Without a sense of inferiority, nothing would change toward a more superior state (albeit one yet inferior to an even further superior state, and so on and so on). The piano student plays scales until their fingers are numb so that they might transcend their current lack of skill. Claude Monet painted because until the canvas was filled, it was in a state of potentiality (i.e. inferiority). Inferiority is not a mire in which lag, but rather a gradation upon which we rest so that we might see the future gains we can achieve through effort and rises in competence.
The Spiral Into the Dark:
However, as both Adler and Peterson have noticed, countless people allow their feelings of inferiority to inundate them. Until all they can see within themselves is layer upon layer of brutal failure. Caring for someone so broken and weak then becomes unfathomable. ‘Why would I care for myself when I am such an unworthy jumble of flesh?’ one might ask oneself, even if only subconsciously. This failure to nurture growth in oneself then becomes yet another deposit in your mine of inferiority. Another unearthed gem to hold up to yourself and say, ‘See, more proof of my worthlessness.’
It is a fucking difficult cycle to break out of, as evidenced by the overwhelming amount of individuals who deal with this very issue. Peterson however fails to mention one extreme danger of this mindset, that one is more likely to lash out at others, in addition to abysmal self-neglect. The numbers of men frustrated with their impotence, rejected by women (for good reason) who follow Peterson’s ideas would do well to heed this rule of his, would do well to acknowledge that the road to self-acceptance is not one you can forge by self-delusion and denial, but only through acceptance of one’s current inferiority as a stepping stone along the path to a state of greater competence and self-development.
If it seems like pulling one up by one’s own bootstraps, that is not far off. However, Peterson is right in that the first step is to accept that limitations are ubiquitous. That being in a state of inferiority is not a failure in itself, but only insomuch as one allows oneself to remain there. Until you integrate this into your self-narrative, you will never learn that second language, you will not go back to get your degree, will not learn the violin, will not travel, will not find a fulfilling job, will not get out of a broken relationship, will not quit cigarettes…
Until one is in a state wherein one feels responsible for oneself, one is downright stuck. And life will be shit.
A Few Final Thoughts:
My spiel on inferiority aside, I’ll get back to Peterson. His obsession with mythological narratives takes center stage in this chapter, namely with the Judeo-Christian mythos as found in the first book of the Bible, and the Priestly and Yahwist accounts of creation and the Fall of Man. While I do suspect that these narratives do reveal a great deal about the underlying psychological states of early humans, Peterson goes to extremes in ascribing an analogous component to each of the objects within the story. He claims that nothing superfluous was included in these stories, but I have a hard time getting behind attaching psychological relevance to each event. However, the psychology of creation narratives not being a field into which I have poured a sufficient amount of time, I’ll leave it at this: Peterson really likes Genesis. I cannot myself say whether the years through which the Pentateuch have past have made it more honed in its metaphorical applications, or less so, corrupted through endless reiterations.
All that being said, is Rule 2 good? Undoubtedly. Self-loathing fuels aggression, hatred, and violence. Self-actualization, quite the opposite.
The People I Mentioned:
Alfred Adler (read about him here)
Links to Other Doses