In his discussion of Rule 6 (“Abandon ideology”), Peterson talks about field-testing various topics during his live talks, monitoring how his audiences responded to different topics. He writes that the topic of responsibility consistently induced a quiet attentiveness in the audience. I think his observation is part of the reason why there is so much repetition across the chapters of this book, and why so much of that repetition is about work and responsibility. Out of the six chapters I discussed in the previous posts, five of them were directly or closely related to responsibility and work, and now we are turning to yet another rule about that same theme.
Rule 7: Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
I’d like to highlight parts of Peterson’s argument in this chapter. First, he writes that the mere act of commitment is more important than what you commit to. That’s because by making a commitment you set in motion your process of development with regard to a skill or an expertise. You’re putting yourself under pressure and constraint, which would help build your character.
I see his point, but at the same time I can think of several examples of commitment to plans that would be worse than not making any commitment at all. In my personal view, pursuing Islamic fundamentalism (in a social, cultural, scholarly, or any other form) is worse than leading a completely frivolous life. In fact, with those options alone, the life of frivolity is beautiful, maybe a rebellious choice, a choice that self-consciously aims to celebrate human freedom (from a pointless commitment). I am reminded of Anselm’s philosophical dialogues, where he addresses the correct and incorrect uses of will (i.e., the capacity for voluntary choice). To put it briefly, a correct exercise of will leads to its preservation (the ability to make future decisions), whereas the wrong exercise of will diminishes the capacity for future decisions. We should take this idea into account when making commitments. Peterson is correct that working on something is associated with becoming something, but that doesn’t mean that hard work on anything–or any method of becoming and cultivation–is unquestionably good. Similar to another (previous rule) about hard work, there is an implicit assumption of trust (in the organization, tradition, etc.) at work, and the strong sense of commitment is grounded in that trust. Is Peterson actually defending commitment and hard work, or is he defending trust in existing traditions?
With these considerations, we would have to revise Peterson’s Rule 7. Working hard on something shouldn’t be mindless. It should be accompanied by (at least) occasional reflections on whether it is worthwhile. There should be a place for rebellion and refusal.
Rule 8: Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.
I enjoyed this chapter (and the following chapter, Rule 9). So far, these were the only somewhat pleasant chapters of the book. In this chapter, he talks about the importance of art and poetry in bringing us into the present moment, in connecting us (or reconnecting us) to concrete experience, in helping us recognize the magic of being alive. There is a lot of beautiful poetry in the chapter, as well as autobiographical segments about his family life and his life as a professor (including one about furnishing his office at the university). I wish the whole book were written in this style, as an autobiography, free of advice, free of grandstanding, free of the amateur-theology-in-a-state-of-emergency that seems so difficult for Peterson to shake off.
What is puzzling about this chapter is that he prescribes a very specific relationship to the art, namely as a consumer. He doesn’t say: Become an artist; pursue some artistic and creative project, at least as a hobby; make a mess every once in a while. He says, instead: Buy a piece of art. Of course, we should support artists, as much as we can. But the consumerist relationship with art is limited. It is vain, distant, and easy. Isn’t making a mess an important part of having an active relationship with a creative domain? Rather than, “Buy a piece of art,” I could develop a relationship with an artist, maybe follow what they are up to, get to know them a little bit, and over time, buy several of their pieces. This is more active, in a personal way. Another way to be active is to attend a workshop, or a beginner’s class. This is not necessarily for the purpose of producing art, but for the purpose of developing a sensitivity. Some experience with painting, some experience with playing music, can change the way we see and listen. A similar sentiment applies to reading commentaries and criticism. A good commentary can reveal previously hidden aspect of a work of art, and seeking commentary and criticism is another way to be active! Although I enjoyed this chapter, I would encourage a more active relationship with artistic media.
Rule 9: If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely.
This has been, in my view, the best chapter in the book so far. And I think it’s because Peterson was best equipped to write it. He talks about his clinical clients, and his examples rich and instructive. For the first time, after reading eight other chapters, I felt like I am reading a book that is offering me something, and I am glad I persevered in reading the book until this point (thanks to my prior commitment to review the book in full).
This chapter is about the past, trauma, and our ability to come into a new relationship with the past and our past trauma. With some work, Peterson urges us, we could go from a low-resolution representation of a past event to a high-resolution representation of the event. It might be more helpful to say that we’d be moving beyond a view of the past event that is very closely tied to a specific perspective and a specific embodiment. Let’s say I am still disturbed by the time my father slapped me across the face, when I was a kid. If I don’t re-examine it, with the aim of a better understanding of what actually happened, I’d stay with that perspective–the perspective of a small and relatively helpless body. If I do examine the memory, I can bring to mind the fact that my father was–at the time of the event–a very young guy. In fact, he was younger than my current age. If I am angry or upset at someone, it would be directed at a young guy, trying to raise a family working three jobs. Besides, presently I am not a kid! I am a middle-aged man. And in my day to day life, I am tolerant and patient with young men (including the young students I see in my classes). With these re-examinations, I am producing a new understanding of the event, bringing it under a better view, a view that liberates me. Peterson writes how after reviewing an event several times, the time it takes to describe it from beginning to end shortens, which can be a sign that it’s now under better control. I think his distinction between re-living an experience, on one hand, (just expressing an emotion once again), and on the other hand, achieving a new interpretation of the experience is important and very useful. We might be unable to change the past, but we can create a new discourse (a new frame) about past events, and that might be as consequential as changing the past.