This is the second post of Spectrum’s 2019 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
Jordan Peterson has stirred quite a bit of discussion by presenting his views in podcast form and in his latest book, 12 Rules for Life. In my comments on his first two chapters, I will be focusing on what I can take from his work and apply to my own life in a meaningful way. In the beginning of the book, he avoids some of his most controversial topics and so I’ll leave it to others to critique Peterson for where his work falls short. I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, but I appreciate his ability to spark discussion on topics worth talking about. So whether you love him or hate him, I encourage you to at least hear his ideas and then decide for yourself what is helpful for your life.
In chapter one, Peterson challenges his readers to “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” He delves into the human condition at length acknowledging the pain of existence and how that can beat us down. He concludes his argument by saying that when we value ourselves, other people will start to treat us differently and this can give us confidence to continue to put our voice forward in the world.
When I consider that Peterson is writing to a largely young and very likely non-religious audience, I appreciate what he is trying to do in this chapter and throughout the book. He understands that if someone has no spiritual framework to guide their steps, they may end up falling into the pit of despair. This results from the inevitable pain that comes along with the gift of life. When people suffer, they tend to feel shame, blaming themselves for their pain and dragging themselves down. And sadly, it is human nature to kick people while they are down, especially when they are down on themselves. I have experienced this first hand.
I went through an experience of suffering in my life that brought me to a very low point. This resulted from some poor choices on my part and some painful conflict with people at work. I was very down on myself and when I interacted with others, most people treated me as I felt I deserved to be treated — poorly. Then as I reached out and got some much needed help and support during my trial, I discovered that I could have compassion on myself for what I was going through.
I was auditing a psychology class at the time and I’ll never forget the exercise that we went through. Half the class assumed a frozen position as shamers: index fingers pointing at us in judgment and anger. I was in the other half of the class that assumed a frozen position of being shamed. I stood slumped with my head down turned away from my accusers. Then the teacher said to us, “Now stand in the position that you would like to take with your shamers.” I stood up strait with my shoulders back. It felt great. One woman in my class had even more courage than I did. She walked right up to our shamers, less than a foot away, and stood strait and tall and looked them in the eye with complete serenity and compassion. I told myself that is exactly how I wanted to deal with anyone who judged me from then on.
What was so exciting for me in this exercise is how well it worked in real life. I began to have compassion on myself and I valued myself, refusing to let shame define me. This gave me the ability to hold my head high. And guess what happened? Everyone started treating me better. They were compassionate and respectful in return. I began to realize that my internal state of being was always sending out a silent but powerful signal to other people, cuing them how to treat me. When the signal was a negative one, filled with shame, I was shamed and judged in return. When the signal was positive, I was treated with respect and kindness in return. As a Jesus-follower, I hold my head high because of the value that God’s love places on my soul. But whatever motivates you to stand up straight, I encourage you to do it. You will soon notice that almost everyone you come in contact with will treat you differently.
This leads to Peterson’s second rule which is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” His argument that people generally take better care of their pets than themselves is hard to refute. In fact, I’ve seen it firsthand and while my cat appreciated the benefits, I suffered. I believe our culture is much to blame here. We label care of self as “selfishness” and praise the person that will give “the shirt off of his own back” to someone else.
But when we paint in such broad strokes, we miss some essential distinctions. Of course the kind of selfishness that completely ignores the needs of all other human beings is bad. But self-care is good. It is more than that — it is essential. Without self-care, we will continually have less and less to give others. Over time, poor self-care will cause us to die long before our time. This is a moral issue for me. If we want to do the most good in the world, then good people need to be around as long as possible.
This takes us back to the issue of shame. If I am down on myself and believe that I don’t deserve to be taken care of, then I’m in trouble. I will push and push myself desperately trying to prove my value to myself and to others. I have done this in the past. There are times when I pushed myself so hard that I forgot to eat or drink or even breathe deeply. This of course caused physical and emotional distress. As long as my hard work was rewarded, I continued my craziness. But when others didn’t appreciate my sacrifice, I began to question my commitment to my workaholism. I discovered through that process that I generally did not take very good care of myself. This was a difficult realization to admit. But it changed my life.
Since that time, I have learned to care for myself like I would another person… or my cat. As a result, I am much healthier mentally and physically. I also feel like I have more to give others. This helps me better achieve my personal mission statement which is simply “to love God and to love others.” (See Matthew 22:37-40.) So I appreciate Peterson’s practical advice. He and I might reach our conclusions through different means, but no matter how you get there, these two rules can be helpful to anyone who will practice them.
Will Johns has a doctorate in ministry from Denver Seminary. He currently serves as the campus pastor of the Tech Road Campus (a recent church plant) of the Beltsville Adventist Church in Silver Spring, MD.
Book cover image courtesy of Random House.
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