12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
Intermittently, Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, in “12 Rules For Life,” warns that life is hard and suffering, and that humanity is in existential chaos. We are broken, flawed and prone to do bad things, not only to others but to ourselves. Responding to a newspaper query: what’s wrong with the world today, G.K. Chesterton wrote – Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours. Cutting a path in this chaotic world to get where we need to be, walls, railings and signposts are needed to keep us intentional. Peterson calls them “rules.” Just perhaps these rules may bring significance in our chaos, meaning in our suffering and illumination in our darkness.
With seamless confection of personal stories, professional experiences, social sciences, Eastern and Western philosophies, and the Bible, Peterson offers a deep and dense reflection into his foundational rules for Being. I am most impressed that he uses the Biblical texts as his content and contextual framework for his worldview. That is, his imagination of the world and humankind is informed by the Genesis creation stories, the Gospels of Jesus, and the prophets and apostles’ moral teachings. His is a theistic worldview. Peterson agrees that without a transcendent understanding of reality, it is futile to frame a formative view of the world.
Peterson posits 12 rules as his antidote for our painful and chaotic world. Human nature is difficult with complexities. Evincible aphorism cannot hope to codify its complex remedies. An old Jewish proverb quips that a person without rules is like a house broken into. Without rules, we are vulnerable to humanity’s discursive darkness. Only steadfast rules – not suggestions, nor hints – are able to goad and guard our Being through this chaotic world significantly, purposefully and courageously.
These chapters are not easy read. Oftentimes, the author encumbers his point(s) with long, cumbersome, detour-prone narratives that can be misconstrue for novellas. Some rules are self-evidence, like their headings: Rule 3 – Make friends with people who want the best for you; Rule 6 – Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Some are lifted from a kindergarten playbook: Rule 2 – Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping; Rule 8 – Tell the truth, or, at least, don’t lie. Some are just playfully cryptic: Rule 11 – Do not bother children when they are skateboarding; Rule 12 – Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Nor is this book for casual readers. Unpacking these rules can bring about bilious disturbances. They require patient openness – and an avidity for personal change of mind, soul and spirit. Andrew Solomon, in “Far From The Tree,” concludes that most members in family crises may hope for a better future but are not willing to change personally for the better. As a parish cleric, I also notice that many congregants may study the Bible and many more suffer through sermons, but few really contemplate changes in their lives from what they learned or heard.
Carl Rogers, the noted psychologist, believed that a therapeutic relationship can only be cultivated when the person in earnest wants to improve. That is, these rules can enlighten our darkness when our approach is impelled by a willingness to take responsibility for who we are, to uncover a better understanding of where we are and to discover a path toward where we need to be. Peterson’s counsel, “You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction.”