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.