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Jordan Peterson and Living with My Disability

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This article is more personal. I have some experience with Peterson’s description of suffering, and I believe that what he says is right.

Jordan Peterson is a “controversial figure,” which means that he says things some in the commentary class disagree with. His audience of supporters and haters is as polarized as our politics; his haters see no redeeming arguments or positions, while his most vehement supporters see no fault. Meanwhile, those like me who are supportive in some areas and critical in others feel slightly stuck. None of this is helped by the media. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many pieces out of mainstream outlets that actually wrote about or covered Peterson and his work in good faith. While most reviews and discussions of 12 Rules for Life have tended to be more general, this article is more personal. I have some experience with Peterson’s description of suffering, and I believe that what he says is right.

Putting aside the surface-level political controversies and the fabricated media storms, Jordan Peterson is arguably controversial because his core message is totally at odds with the “you’re okay as you are” self-esteem narrative. According to him, you’re not okay as you are, far from it; but you could be better, much better. The other thing is he speaks the truth about the fundamental reality of life: Suffering is inherent to life itself, and it can drag you down into resentment if you let it. Sometimes, suffering comes along and hammers you with no provocation, while in other cases you were the cause through your own arrogance or stupidity. Sometimes, you can conspire with the pain to make it all worse, and the worst part is that there’s a small piece of you that rejoices in the degeneration.

Some who hear what Peterson has to say might feel some resentment, hear a bitter inner voice grating, “Yeah, but it’s all very well for him to go on about suffering, he hasn’t experienced my suffering.” I’ve experienced a fair bit of pain and distress as a result of my disability. When I heard Peterson’s thoughts on what suffering is and why we experience it, the harsh clarity of the message was almost a relief. As I’ve grown, the realization dawned that, “Yes, I know what pain, suffering, and distress are like from experience, but that I do not have a monopoly on these things.”

Peterson’s attitude and explanation, in his own way, echoed this belief. I discovered that Peterson had a view of suffering that not only refused to accept pity and victimhood narratives. His view was bracing in its honest acceptance and in its call to move through it. All this talk of pain could sound morbid, and it is admittedly dark. It has a depth however, thanks to Peterson’s knowledge of psychology, biology, and myth that much of today’s therapeutic culture lacks in its discussion of what ails us. Peterson takes the reality of suffering and makes it solid, something that can be grappled with. All too often today, most who speak of pain do so in a way that conforms to our liquid modernity, encouraging us to drown in self-pity.

The last chapter in 12 Rules for Life, “Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street,” deals with his daughter Mikhaila and the torment of her juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis that she was diagnosed with aged 7. It affected around 37 joints, including her hip and her ankle. As a result, she had to have her hip replaced as a teenager. Her ankle was the most troubling, with no one seemingly able to offer a solution that would not involve a serious loss of quality of life.

As Peterson describes in the book and interviews, the pain was a constant series of peaks and small troughs. The trials of having a condition that is as all-consuming are laid bare; it is extremely hard and can come close to breaking the one in pain, while those around grieve because they cannot do what they want to do: which is remove the pain. The detail of the medication, the amount and its side effects, and the practical ramifications of Mikhaila’s condition, while from a different context, were familiar from my own experiences. So too the frustration at not being able to function and perform at the level she might have wished. The call from Peterson to be open to any small form of mercy, to pet a cat when you meet it in the street, also rings true. When you’re in hell, anything that lifts you out even a little bit, which stops it from becoming completely catastrophic, is a lifejacket that stops you from drowning.

This realism about the causes and the consequences of suffering extends to the remedy. There is no all-encompassing, immediate miraculous fix. It takes time to transcend the hell that one can be dragged down to. It takes longer if the reaction to whatever the situation was or is has made it worse. It is worse if you’ve allowed yourself to be pulled down, without resisting, or even enjoying the fall. It is worst of all if you’ve jumped.

The road out is hard, and can seem impassable. This alone can make it seem easier to continue to wallow in the all-embracing bitterness of the fatal familiarity of suffering. Why make the effort to move on out, when what’s out there could be worse? The thing is, it very well could be. Sometimes, the cause of the pain finishes you off. A fatal illness, mental health issues, family breakdown, redundancy, addiction, can all prove too much. Sometimes there is no up. But sometimes there is. When there is, the question over whether the journey up is worth it, is bearable, is one for each individual to answer.

The honesty about the frail condition of humanity and the ultimate choice between resentment and resurrection feels as honest as the prescription that alleviates it: Truth. Truth, spoken and carefully articulated, can enable us to transcend suffering. Personally, I’ve come to think that the more suffering one experiences the more truthful one has to strive to be, which is what I try to do in my writing. Lies, the tool of the snake in the Garden of Eden, do the exact opposite. They lead to the gas chamber, the Gulag, the mass execution ditch. Truth stops you falling down into what is worse and might enable you to reach something better. But it is a certainty that lies make everything worse. If nothing else, lies make you lose who you are at the worst possible time.

This is what Peterson is trying to get across: the answer to suffering is for the individual to find a source of meaning. He likes to quote Nietzsche, who said that, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” If you have no why to live for, how can you bear the how? I can say from my own experience that this is true. He (or she) who has a “why” not only has something to live for, to aim at and to work towards. It can also act as a reminder that life has something to offer, and most importantly, that we might have something to offer life.

The trail is rough and there are dangers along with it, but Peterson’s message that suffering can be alleviated through truth, meaning, and striving is a whole lot more hopeful than, “You’re okay as you are.” As an antidote to suffering and the temptations of bitter, nihilistic victimhood, I can think of nothing better.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. 

13 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson and Living with My Disability

  1. I couldn’t agree more with what you said.. It’s unfortunate how Peterson’s critics don’t see through his encompassing message about life and the realities of it.

    1. Anyone who understands Peterson will reject Marxism outright. They will also reject the Consumerism which leaves so many alienated and depressed. There is much power and money to be gained off people who have no meaning in their lives.

  2. Dear Henry George: You wrote: “I can count on the fingers of one hand how many pieces out of mainstream outlets that actually wrote about or covered Peterson and his work in good faith.” I have been looking for such pieces, but could not find any. Can you point me to what you did find? Thanks!

  3. I am a huge fan of Jordon Peterson but I have a huge problem with the way he uses “suffering” as the cornerstone of his ethics.

    If he said “everyone experiences suffering” or “life involves suffering” I would agree with him, but he insists that “life IS suffering” which is simply not true – and I’m the hugest fan of his rule about telling the truth.

    In Pol Pot’s Kampuchea life was suffering – but that couldn’t last more than four years. The dark ages lasted for a millennium – but the reason it is called dark, is that it was an aberration of life as it could and should be. A terrible illness can make suffering the norm for the inflicted person and his loved ones – but the reason we call it an illness and try to cure it is that it is not to be considered the norm for people in normal circumstances.

    I have no doubt that Peterson makes very pertinent and therapeutic psychological points about suffering and how to deal with it, but from a philosophic point of view, it is seriously wrong to make suffering the cornerstone of ethics.

    For a start, if it were literally true that: “life IS suffering”, the obvious
    solution would be to end it. And if it were literally true that “suffering is the norm”, what sort of sadist would you have to be to purposely bring a new child into a life (or more) sentence of suffering? To gain meaning by making the suffering somewhat less? How is that better than no suffering?

    You can’t derive a satisfactory hierarchy of values from any emotion, because emotions are derived from values (you get a positive emotion from gaining your value, a negative emotion from losing a value ) so you go in circles.

    A code of ethics requires a standard, against which you rank your values in a hierarchy. To establish what that standard should be rationally (rather than by faith or authority or revelation), you must first ask (said Ayn Rand) WHY you need values. In her Objectivist Ethics, she establishes why the standard of all values is: life. And why for human beings that means your primary virtue should be rationality, and why a particularly pernicious vice is the initiation of force against others.

  4. I don’t u derstand how truth alleviates suffering….I don’t get that. I wish someone would explain it to me. ….I’ve lived with daily chronic pain and little ability to stand or walk, for ten years, I don’t think of myself as a victim, except that life doles out stuff to all of us. I accept it. But I don’t wait anymore to get better. Gave up on that. I am 71. Perhaps if I were young, I’d still be looking for cure, would be determined to get better. Now, I’m trying to get ready for death, in case it comes soon, or maybe it won’t, whatever happens is ok. I do reach out to forces beyond the earth world…not sure if they’re there or not, but I reach out anyway. It helps me.

  5. Ah. Not to pick apart the analogy, but it was the snake in the garden that told the truth, not god. “If you eat from this tree, you will surely (immediately) die” god is said to have stated to Adam and Eve. “Then the serpent, who was the most cunning (wise) of all of God’s creations, said to Eve ‘Are you sure god said ‘You will surely die’ if you eat from the tree? I say to you, that you will not die, but that your eyes will be open and you will know good from evil.” So they eat from the tree. Guess what happens? They don’t die, and their eyes are open (consciousness) and they know good from evil. What is the first thing they do? They hide from god. Who lied? God or the serpent? Who is evil, and who is good? It was from God that they hid. Does one hide from that which is good or that which is evil? Further, what sort of god punishes them for a decision they made BEFORE they know what was evil and what was good? How can a 2 yr old child be at fault for breaking a vase? Did they know what they do? Then we are told “Adam lived a thousand years.” An entire epoch.

    1. It was never meant to be presumed that they would die immediately. God didn’t say that and He didn’t say it for a reason—it wasn’t true. He said “you will surely die,” and die they did. It wasn’t about right or wrong, good or evil. It was about trust. They had no reason not to trust God, God who had created them for no reason other than that He loved immensely and out of that love couldn’t help Himself but to create. The serpent says in full, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and /you will be like God/, knowing good and evil.” There lies the reason Adam and Eve ate of the fruit; they wanted to be like God. They extended their reach and leapt upward, attempting to rise to God’s level, attempting to BE God but they missed—of course they missed, they’re not God—and fell terribly. And so their eyes /were/ opened. And they became like God in the sense that they were conscious and knew good from evil. Just because the seroent’s words were truthful in the basest sense does mean that they were good. We ALL use truth for evil at times, whether it be to verbally harm others in revenge for hurting us, or to wield power over others, or any other list of evil reasons. The truth is a powerful, powerful tool. And it should never be sacrificed or warped for the sake of reducing pain, but neither should it be used with the intent to deceive. The early church father Saint Augustine of Hippo states: “But none doubts that it is a lie when a person willingly utters a falsehood for the purpose of deceiving.” The serpent certainly had a purpose of deceiving Adam and Eve. And he had this purpose because he desired to see their downfall. God had no such intention. He promised they would die. And so death came into the world. God cannot utter a falsehood, He IS truth, so as little as He wanted His children to die, they had to. For this reason the Son was sent and incarnate in Jesus Christ, to redeem the fall of man, to take death upon Himself and remove the penalty from humans, opening the gates of heaven and allowing the children of God to be reunited with Him once again in paradise. Truth is tricky, but you can always depend everythinf being delivered from God’s mouth to be true.

  6. Thank you for this article. It’s coming at a time of great need for me. I suffer with several chronic physical and mental conditions that I’ve had since I was a very small child. Often, life feels like an impossibility to me, and I often feel the word would be better off without me in it. I continue on though, with doctors and a small number of people in my life who care about me. Peterson has given me great inspiration with his videos and talks. I’ll be picking up 12 Rules for Life, as I think it’s the right time for me to give it a go. Thank you again, from one sufferer to another. One step at a time, is all we can do. :) You are not alone.

  7. Would you be willing to share the disability that you state you have? It may help us with like conditions. Some cause suffering all throughout the hour, day, week, month, year(s), even a lifetime. Perhaps some or all of the above. You could’ve potentially helped those of us with similar conditions, but instead chose a lie of omission of sorts, since we are speaking so highly of truth. I appreciate both Dr. Peterson’s and your own ideals, but as a fellow sufferer, some conditions are like trying to climb a slippery slope of 89 degrees. Thank you

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