On Hanging Out With Losers (And Other Existential Detours)
I have a dirty, shameful secret to confess. It’s a secret that will likely lay waste to my credentials as a pastor of integrity and compassion, a thinker of anything resembling depth and insight, a citizen with more or less centre-left politics, or even a reasonably decent and upstanding human being. It’s a secret that I do not expose to the light of day lightly. Truth be told, it would be far safer to keep it consigned to the murky shadows. No matter. My sins must be expunged.
My secret? Last week, I read a book by Jordan Peterson.
I’ll give you a moment to either, a) click away in horror and disgust and vow never to read a thing I write again; or, b) snap to attention in gleeful anticipation of my finally being set straight by someone who knows the score. I know that in theory these two options should not exhaust the list of potential responses but, well, it’s Jordan Peterson. And I’m writing on the internet. So, probably not.
(If you don’t know who Jordan Peterson is, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to the mercy of Google. People tell me—rightly, no doubt—that I am too wordy on this blog, so I can’t afford to spend too many words on setting the stage.)
The book in question was Peterson’s bestseller 12 Rules for Life. It’s sold over a million copies, apparently. The man and his message are in demand. I think I requested the book at my local library back in spring (it was likely after some Peterson conflagration in the news) and, honestly, I had pretty much forgotten about it. When I picked it up the library, the librarian looked at me with a sideways glance and a raised eyebrow. Well, this one is certainly… in demand. I felt guilty as I took the book from her, like I was a twelve-year-old sneaking a dirty magazine or something. I smiled, thanked her, slid the book into my coat and beat a hasty retreat.
All I can say in my meager defense is that I am a curious person. Peterson is a lightning rod for our cultural moment. He says things that enrage or inspire people (there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground). He has little patience for political correctness or identity politics or victimhood culture. He says what he thinks (and, apparently, what many people want to say but are afraid to say). If nothing else, I figured it’s worth trying to understand why someone like this is popular now? I do not, as it happens, find explanations like, “Because _____-phobes and white supremacists and sexists are taking over the world” or “Because all those squishy liberals are finally getting a dose of the truth” terribly persuasive or compelling, so I thought I would try something radical and actually read him for myself.
And what of the book? Well, I suppose I would characterize my reaction to it as “mixed.” Peterson’s writing is, in my view, mediocre. He meanders a lot and makes sweeping generalizations that are relatively easy to poke holes in. He essentializes too much. He has some ideas about gender roles and the “dominance hierarchy” that supposedly constrain and dictate human behaviour that I don’t buy. He seems a little too fond of himself, at times. I guess that’s an occupational hazard when you’re a YouTube sensation and a bestselling author.
But I was surprised by how much of the book I found reasonably insightful. Or, at the very least, interesting. If I had to sum up its central message, it would be, “Grow up, take responsibility for yourself, live a life of meaning and dignity.” He tells his readers to project confidence into the world, to be careful who they associate with, to measure success in personal terms (am I a better person today than I was yesterday?) rather than those dictated by the media we consume (am I as popular or influential as person x that I see on Facebook?). He is convinced that there is meaning to be wrested out of the chaos of suffering and temporality that defines existence. There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about any of this—this is practical wisdom, and these are ancient paths. But he says it in ways that clearly resonate with people who have lost the way and can’t see the path any more.
I came to the book with senses heightened, on high alert to find a monster. Instead, I found a man with concerns that often map on to my own. How do we live well? Where is meaning to be found? What is the purpose of a human life? Even if I don’t agree with all of his answers, I cannot but affirm the questions he asks.
As I closed the book, and as I pondered the 12 rules it contained, a number of objections occurred to me. What about those who start the race of life with a deficit? What about those entrenched in systems of injustice and pain? Not everyone can just roll up their sleeves and start making better choices after all! Questions like these piled up, one on top of another. But then another one occurred to me. Would I want my young adult kids to (mostly) follow Peterson’s 12 rules? I ran through a few of them in my head. Stand up straight (be confident that you have something to contribute to the world). Take responsibility for your choices. Hang out with people who want what’s best for you. Measure yourself according to the best version of you, not some ideal life on social media. Tell the truth. Use your speech well. Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient. And then I thought, well, yeah, I probably would.
Having expressed a sort of measured appreciation for some aspects of Peterson’s project, I must also confess that I can’t embrace the whole package. This is largely for Christian reasons. Peterson sees Jesus as a kind of heroic archetypal individual who had the courage to wrest order and meaning out of chaos. This may be partly true, but Jesus embodied a far deeper and more profound ethic than that.
Jesus relentlessly drives those who would follow after him into precisely the places that Peterson would have us escape. In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls “blessed” those that Peterson would call “losers” or “occupants of the bottom of the dominance hierarchy.” Jesus would have me believe that mourning with those in pain, hungering after a righteousness that transcends classical virtue, embracing meekness and poverty of spirit, and seeking the way of peace (as opposed to the ladder up the dominance ladder) is the way to genuine human flourishing. Where Peterson might see me spinning my wheels with unpromising people and situations that are hampering my progress, Jesus might just see something like faithfulness.
Peterson wants me to stand up tall, face the chaotic existential void, and be a heroic individual. Jesus invites me to discover my humanity in impractical love directed outward (and, inconveniently, downward). Peterson has some decent strategies for making our way in a world dominated by hierarchies. Jesus turns those hierarchies upside down and trains me to value things differently.
I can go with Peterson part of the way, but only because I know that Jesus is there to catch and correct, rehabilitate and redirect me when I and those around me fall.
The feature image above is taken from the 2018-19 Christian Seasons Calendar. It was created by Robert Gilroy and is called, “To Serve with Love.” It’s sort of a visual reminder to me that Jesus hung out with a lot of losers and that this sort of hindered his ascent in the dominance hierarchy.