After A Long Dosage Hiatus
I took a break from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos for a while. A lot of stuff was going on, and I for one reason or another just couldn’t bring myself to get started on the series again. I was in the middle of a grueling theory class for my MA, went on a trip across northeast Europe, visiting Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, and returned to Moscow to begin full time work, all while also working on another novel and finding time to get quick sesh of Hollow Knight in. Well, the theory class is over, I’m at a stall with the novel, my Switch is powered off, and I don’t have anything else to do for the next hour, so I decided to return to the book and check out the fifth rule:
Rule 5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them
First a Rant About Why I Don’t Want Kids
Let me start by saying that, to me, the idea of having a kid is horrifying. Utterly. Partially this is because I understand that I can barely take care of myself, let alone be responsible for the proper and effective (and I emphasize effective here) upbringing of something so complex as another human being. How people are content to have children without being aware of the nuances of human psychological development, without studying for years in preparation, is beyond me. Well, perhaps not really. The urge to reproduce is one helluva drug, after all. But still. Lord.
Another part that contributes to this position of mine is that I am, simply and unabashedly, selfish. I don’t want to spend time caring for something else. Time that could be spent experiencing the surgical precision of Maugham’s writing, going on a carefree stroll through a new city in a country I visited on a whim, enjoying a late night with a crisp beer and a session of Breath of the Wild, writing paragraphs about how I don’t want children…just to name a few. I don’t want to be responsible for feeding anyone other than myself, don’t want to have to drag a creature around with me that shits itself every couple hours, and I really, really want to avoid sleepless nights. I hardly like even letting myself tell myself what to do, let alone having a combination of oxytocin and infant howls provoking me to care for my offspring. Sorry, I’ll pass.
As such, I myself would not have a difficult time adhering to this rule. That is, were I to have a child, I would likely dislike it, and as such, I plan to avoid letting my child cause me to dislike it by simply not having it in the first place. We both win. Some soul avoids being pulled into this world of meat and MAGA, and I get enough sleep to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to continue on with life.
Enough about me.
Competence, Plain and Simple
A recurring theme I’ve found with Peterson is the value he places on competence. In this aspect I am in full agreement with him. I place a higher value on competence than on any other trait displayed by human beings. That is not to say I do not value other traits, only that I’d rather be competent than not. Unfortunately, competency (in any field or area of life) requires hours upon hours of effort. And this movement toward competency must begin in childhood. Peterson makes an argument for how it is the parent’s unavoidable responsibility to equip their offspring with the tools (social, mental, internal) to integrate into society effectively. Looking at the chapter, there is so much I would like to respond to, but I’ll limit myself to a few of his points, a note on some criticism of him, and a third section noting an observation I have made of his work in general.
A Failure to Delimit
Let’s begin with the following quote: ‘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’ (147). In other places in the chapter he points out that children are constantly exploring boundaries, looking for how far they can push in any given direction. If walls and limitations are not set by the parent, then they will be set by other means, many of which are much less pleasant, often by society (think prison). Children are curious and exploratory, to a boundless degree, but they cannot truly learn something until they run up against it. Tell a child fire is hot and they will still try to get as close as possible, to see where that limit is for themselves, by moving their finger ever closer, until the threshold is passed…and then they know it. And this is the parent’s job in plenty of sectors of the kid’s life. When they reach a boundary in their behavior, notify them. Not with a limp No right before your eyes go back to your Netflix binge, but with a methodology that effectively demonstrates the barrier. Whatever that system might be, so long as it is systemic and consistent in demarcating the boundaries. In a word or two: you’ve made a kid, fucking raise it.
One small lack in this chapter is the emphasis placed on the parents. There are plenty of children who are raised by thoroughly incompetent parents, but develop into functional humans. However, there is an undeniable association with parental involvement and psychological development.
After the Side Note
We’ve all heard of the parenting styles (permissive, authoritarian, authoritative), and there is a damn slew of literature backing up why it is best to raise a child in an authoritative way. Provide reasonable, systemic boundaries for them to operate within, and, personal temperament aside, they will at least have a path along which they can develop into individuals who can interact with others in meaningful ways. Essentially, I think his points on how to raise children in this chapter are all quite valid. I won’t list them all. But I will sum it up as follows: make a conscious, reasoned effort toward providing a child with a functional disciplinary regime, one that is fair and ‘not revenge for a misdeed’ but is a formulation of ‘just and compassionate strategies’ (148). You can not ‘wing it’ with kids. In procreating you have signed up for a task that requires a grueling effort to do it right. And my friends wonder why I don’t want kids?
The Quiet Lullaby and Chaos
One criticism I’ve seen of Peterson’s book around the web is that he is overly dramatic. That he paints pictures of societal dragons and abysmal pitfalls lurking in everyday life. That the subtitle of the book ‘An Antidote to Chaos’ is melodramatic at best. In this chapter he notes that ‘horror and terror lurk behind the walls provided so wisely by our ancestors’ (144). While such an assertion may have theatrical wording, I think to dismiss it as such is sophomoric. One’s life situation is actually rather precarious, and minor shifts can have massive repercussions. One might find it easy to dismiss worries about chaos while reading Peterson’s book from the comfort of an air-conditioned flat with Wi-Fi and a fridge full of food, but everything is a house of cards. Life might appear unchaotic, but only out of sheer momentum. The moment you sit down and think about it too much, letting things reveal themselves as they are, you can end up with something like Sartre’s Nausea. Cognition is fragile and imperfect, but also great at convincing yourself that it is neither of those.
Age Old Hardware
We are operating on millennia-old mental hardware developed for a very different milieu. And as such, we must keep this in mind if we are to maintain it in working order. This is patently Peterson’s approach, from what I gather. He acknowledges that there are severe flaws and restrictions to our mental states, and that if we are to avoid jumbling them up, there are certain ways to live. You might not need these ways to live in order to avoid chaos (read: depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc.), but I assume any number of individuals are not in such a state, and for them life is indeed a mess of unintelligible social relations, expectations, responsibilities, and possibilities.
Danger in Being Sometimes Right
My final thought on this rule is that I see how a chapter like this is what can make Peterson potentially dangerous. He states valid point after valid point, acute observation after acute observation, and this can lull his audience into a general acceptance of his less airtight assertions (a great example being his misrepresentation of the effectiveness of psilocybin on smoking cessation). While erudite and refreshingly objective in some ways, he can purport unsound ideas at other times, and this can undermine the positive effect his better efforts might otherwise be able to have. As with anyone and anything else, attention must be given to the information so that one might be able to glean from it the useful, and do away with the chaff.
On a closing note…
I found that a quote from Henry Thoreau came to mind while reading this chapter. I’ve copied it below for your perusal.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.