Jordan Peterson’s Easter-themed book

Mark Milke, Calgary Herald, March 31 2018, A9
 

A professor friend who endures the inanity now routine at universities – (some) touchy, twenty-something totalitarians, or identity politics which makes ethnicity, skin colour and gender relevant instead of character, academic ability and aptitude - told me of how he first heard about Jordan Peterson: His University of Calgary colleagues were near-unanimous that Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist, was racist, sexist and beyond the pale.

Peterson became famous in late 2016 for opposing federal legislation to include artificial gender categories in the human rights code. Add to that Peterson's refusal to bend to his own university's diktats that he use made-up gender pronouns such as "zhe" in place of evolutionary-derived and fixed gender categories.

My friend checked out Peterson's work and discovered what most open-minded people find: His assertions are empirical and his beliefs liberal in the classic sense. Thus, Peterson found that males and females are biological realities (this, apparently, is news to some). Moreover, attempts to demand people say otherwise reeks of anti-science, mini-totalitarian impulses.

Peterson, originally from Fairview, Alberta, gained fame for that dispute. Our understanding of the celebrity professor can now be enlarged, thanks to his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. At its core, it is about an Easter theme: suffering.

In his book, Peterson mostly ignores the controversy that made him famous. Instead, Peterson zeros in on what he learned in three decades from clinical practice, friends, family and marriage: Akin to a summer thunderstorm, misfortune can appear without warning. Our reaction to the deluge can mean the difference between redemption and a possible good life, as the Greeks defined it (not the same as modern happiness), or a plunge into the abyss of lost hope.

Sometimes, anguish results from our own or others' capacity for meanness and evil; sometimes, suffering is accidental and for which one may, Job-like, accuse God of great neglect.

Peterson's own daughter, Mikhaila, struggled for years with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It crippled her ability to walk or do anything without pain, including even being carried by her dad. Things improved dramatically later, but only after years of suffering with frequency and intensity that would cause any parent to cry along with Christ at Golgotha: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

To grasp agony and wring out meaning is not a trite exercise. Most self-help books offer a one-two-three step process. Peterson's title may lead one to think his book is of the same ilk. Instead, his book draws on Dostoevsky, Freud, the Talmud, the New Testament and Taoism, as well as patients and students whom Peterson helped manoeuvre through life's unfair odds, their own choices, or both.

Peterson aims to help readers through misfortune's arrows in part by grounding us in the world's great faiths and sages. The author then asks us to be honest in the process - with our own hearts and heads, but also friends, children and spouses. Peterson observes that honesty produces genuine conflict that is "neither pleasant nor easy." It is, however, the only way to grow and not surrender to fakery or despair.

Elsewhere, Peterson poignantly observes that our human frailties, perhaps especially those we struggle to overcome, are where the love of others is called forth in our direction. "What can be truly loved about a person is inseparable from their limitations," writes Peterson, in a moving recounting of early childhood difficulties with his own son, Julian.

Such calls to clarity and actual compassion are why Peterson's words and work touch a nerve: Because Peterson starts with men, women and children as they are and the world as it is; he then adds honesty and demands non-safe spaces to critique ourselves and others, the only way we might improve either.

The truth may not immediately set you free; it will light up the proper path

 

Mark Milke