Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want the Best For you
I will be honest, once I realized the first half of this chapter was Dr. Peterson talking about his childhood friends in his frigid hometown in Canada, I skimmed and skimmed. I understood the illustration he was working toward, and decided to get to the gist of it, the actual advice section. No need to read about how it was so cold your eyelashes would freeze together…I live in Moscow, and I don’t want to be reminded of the winter that I’ll face once again later this year.
Now, this chapter exemplifies one of the reasons that self-help books leave me with a cringe of sorts when I consider them. The first two rules Peterson puts forth are common sense, but perhaps the psychosomatic reasons for their relevance are not known to the general public. The neurotransmitter feedback systems related to posture, and the psychological pathologies underlying self-loathing might not be known to those who have not been previously exposed to such information. In such cases, there is an educational element to the advice.
The Third Dosage:
With this third one, the proper behavior ought to be self-evident. Peterson himself offers the following: ‘If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend…why would you have such a friend yourself?’ (pp. 110). Geeze. I had thought it nearly a priori knowledge that you shouldn’t be friends with someone who makes you feel like refuse. The whole chapter could be condensed to the above quote.
The obvious aside, Peterson does mention a few aspects of human behavior and relationships that might not be immediately salient on their own. Specifically, he brings to light some important notions regarding those individuals whom one ought not befriend: the damned. That is, those whom one might be tempted to ‘rescue’ from their own cozy crevice of self-destruction.
Adages Old and New:
One of Peterson’s popular sayings is that an individual should learn first how to make their own bed before trying to go out and change the world, to get their own house in order before attempting to implement any positive effect on one’s more circumscribed environment. This sentiment is ages old; I even recall a passage in the New Testament of the biblical canon that prescribes the individual a removal of the plank in one’s own eye before worrying about the speck in his brother’s eye. Yeshua also says the blind should not lead the blind, lest pits find themselves with new visitors.
While the sanitary benefits of making one’s bed are dubious, and most pits are nowadays safely sectioned off, the notion holds clear: how can you expect to have a positive effect on others before you have placed your own self within a reasonably functional structural paradigm and behavioral routine? Matthew Inman over at The Oatmeal demonstrates a similar concept via comic: a one-half idiot paired in a group with another one-half idiot does not add up to a fully functional, normal person, but rather results in a multiplicative increase of idiocy.
Spiraling is Easy, Building Isn’t:
I suspect the same goes for relationships. Put two individuals together, each with their own pathologies, and they will not be a crutch for one another, allowing for growth, but rather will tear down the efforts each other has made or strives to make. ‘The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up’ (pp. 106-107). This also applies even if one of the two does indeed have a well-adjusted psyche. Rather than the healthy person saving and bolstering the unhealthy, the negativity can be all too contagious, with the previously hale person now at risk of exposure to that which they had previously made grand efforts not to be.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, and I am sure that a number of people have devoted their lives successfully and competently toward helping others achieve a state of stability. However, as Peterson points out, the motivation for engaging an unstable person is highly variegated, and difficult to ascertain without substantial reflection and vigilant evaluation. You need to be careful if it is instigated by a messiah complex (and the example Peterson provides of the spiteful narrator from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is a prime case of this), or if it is a genuine effort to utilize one’s own efficacy toward increasing the overall functionality of society by way of providing succor to one who needs it and can make constructive use of it.
Change, Invariably, Must Start From Within:
Peterson puts forth the idea that if one feels drawn to a desire for helping the downtrodden reach a better state, one should employ a discretionary calculus of sorts. That is, you must be ready to and capable of recognizing individuals who simply refuse to improve, whose situations of destitution are what they ultimately want, at least at that point in their lives (as internal states are indeed malleable things prone to flux). The author cites the psychologist Carl Rogers’ belief that you cannot convince someone to improve themselves, that if an individual truly desires progress, then a precondition for this is a willingness to change, and not just ostensibly.
If you are to befriend and maintain a friendship with individuals who are in need of setting themselves in order, you must be careful that their misery is not ‘a demand placed on me so that I fail too, so that the gap you so painfully feel between us can be reduced, while you degenerate and sink’ (pp. 109). The phrase that misery loves company is all too often true; what a person who is lingering in the abyss frequently prefers is that those above in the light come down to their level, where it is easy to remain in a mire of immutable failure. After all, ‘to fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time’ (pp. 109). The sight of someone peering over the rim of your hell, silhouetted by the brilliance above, does not always inspire action to climb up and out, but rather a spiteful effort to pull down to your stage one who dares aspire to something more than a life of envy, shame, and guilt, to remove this demonstration of your own inadequacy.
Discernment Above All Else:
In a culture where the Judeo-Christian narrative has played such a formative role in the dissemination of our collective social morality, such a viewpoint as Peterson here presents can be seen as cold, calculated, and even heartless. I myself find it to be quite the opposite, a rational, benevolent approach to achieving a higher level of fulfillment for those who engage in interpersonal relationships. My interpretation of his advice is not that we should abandon relationships with individuals because of their shortcomings; we all have those, we are all broken in some way or another, our minds are too complex to not have a few cracks, even in the best of us. But, what I think he is getting at is that one should simply be aware of whether or not one’s own weaknesses are being exacerbated by those with whom one associates, whether the shards of someone else’s broken psyche are digging into your own skin. To recognize when a friend is someone who complements you, rather than someone with whom you are merely playing a mentally abrasive game of see-saw.
A Final Thought:
I hold that any friendship or relationship will grow toxic (to various degrees) if those within the relationship are not content with the opposite state, of being on one’s own. Humans are social creatures, and the drive toward forming relationships with others in our species is entirely natural, even healthy. However, if you are not capable of being alone, if you are dependent upon others in order to feel good about yourself…I worry this is a dangerous state to be in. That your relationships run the risk of focusing too much on what you get from the other person, rather than what you two can share together, as two powerfully sentient beings working to greater self-actualization.
Links to Other Doses: