📙 Beyond Order
Author: Jordan B. Peterson
Full Title: Beyond Order
For each person is in truth an unfathomable enigma. With care, you might keep rediscovering, in the person you have chosen, enough residual mystery to maintain the spirit that first brought you together. With care, you can avoid stowing each other away in a conveniently sized box, punishment at hand should either of you dare to emerge, and contempt for the consequent predictability you both now face lurking not so far beneath the surface.
If you are fortunate, you might rekindle that glimpse you had when you first were attracted to each other, of what your life could be like if you were better people than you are. That is what happens two people fall under the spell of love. For a while, both become better than they were, and see that, but then that magic fades away. Both receive that experience as a gift. Both have their eyes open and can see what is visible to no one else. Such love is a glimpse of what could be, if the relationship remained true. It is delivered as a gift initially, from fate, but requires tremendous effort to realize and maintain. And once that is understood, the goal is clear.
Unfortunately, desire is not something that can be managed in isolation: “Let us fix our sex life” is a resolution too narrow in ambition to fulfill its aim. There must be a broader, relationship-wide strategy in place to maintain romance with your partner across time.
Trust between people who are not naive is a form of courage, because betrayal is always a possibility, and because this is consciously understood. This applies with particular force within the confines of an intimate relationship. To trust is to invite the best in your partner to manifest itself, with yourself and your freely given trust as the enticement. This is a risky business, but the alternative is the impossibility of true intimacy, and the sacrifice of what could have been two minds in dialogue working in tandem to address the difficult problems of life for a single mind striving in solitude.
The entire biological course of our destiny, since reproduction progressed past the mere division of cells, appears driven by the fact that it was better for two dissimilar creatures to come together to produce a comparatively novel version of themselves than to merely clone their current embodiment.
You meet people, usually young, unwise but laden with the unearned cynicism that substitutes for wisdom in youth, and they say, categorically—even pridefully—“I do not want children.” Plenty of nineteen-year-olds say that, and that is acceptable, in some sense, because they are nineteen, and they have time, and what do they know at nineteen, anyway? And some twenty-seven-year-olds say that, but not so many, particularly if they are female and the least bit honest with themselves. And some forty-five-year-olds say the same thing, in the past tense, and some of them, perhaps, are telling the truth; but most are celebrating closing the barn door after the cattle have bolted. No one will speak the truth about this. To note outright that we lie to young women, in particular, about what they are most likely to want in life is taboo in our culture, with its incomprehensibly strange insistence that the primary satisfaction in the typical person’s life is to be found in career (a rarity in itself, as most people have jobs, not careers). But it is an uncommon woman, in my clinical and general professional experience, regardless of brilliance or talent, training, discipline, parental desire, youthful delusion, or cultural brainwashing who would not perform whatever sacrifice necessary to bring a child into the world by the time she is twenty-nine, or thirty-five, or worse, forty.
Whose career is going to take priority? When and why? How will the children be educated and disciplined, and by whom? Who does the cleaning? Who sets the table? Takes out the garbage? Cleans up the bathroom? How are the bank accounts set up and managed? Who shops for groceries? Clothes? Furniture? Who pays for what? Who adopts responsibility for the taxes? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Two hundred things, perhaps, to run a Household properly—as complex a problem as running a business, with the additional difficulty of trying to manage it with a Family member, much of it repeated daily. Your life is, after all, mostly composed of what is repeated routinely. You either negotiate responsibility for every single one of these duties or you play push and pull forever, while you battle it out nonverbally, with stubbornness, silence, and half-hearted attempts at “cooperation.” That is not going to do your romantic situation any good. It is of vital necessity, in consequence, to place the domestic part of the Household economy on firm ground.
The next thing you have to do—I know this from both my clinical and marital experience (thirty years of each)—is actually talk to your partner for about ninety minutes a week, purely about practical and personal matters. “What is happening to you at work?” “What is going on, as far as you are concerned, with the kids?” “What needs to be done around the house?” “Is there anything bothering you that we can address?” “What do we have to do that is necessary to keep the wolf from the door next week?” Just pure, practical communication: partly because you have a story, your partner has a story, and you have a joint story. To know your story, you must tell it, and, for your partner to know it, he or she must hear it.
If you dip below ninety minutes a week, you generate a backlog, and your mutual story begins to unwind. At some point, that backlog is so large that you do not know who you are yourself, and you certainly do not know who your partner is, and you become mutually alienated. Your relationship loses its coherence. That is a bad situation.
When I am helping someone straighten out their marriage, let us say, we do very mundane things. I am not interested in vacations, special occasions, or anything that happens that is out of the ordinary. It is not that those things are unimportant, but they are not vital in the same sense that daily routines are vital. It is the latter that must be set right. I want to know what interrelationships constitute the bulk of your typical day.
You wake up together, perhaps; you eat together. You do such things every day. Maybe waking up, preparing for the day, and eating make up five hours a day. That is a third of your waking time and, therefore, a third of your life. It is thirty-five hours every seven days—a whole workweek; an entire career. Get it right. Ask yourself and each other: How do we want these times to be structured? How can we make the morning awakening pleasant? Can we attend to each other politely and with interest and perhaps without electronic distractions while we eat? Could we make our meals delicious and the atmosphere welcoming?
Does somebody meet you at the door and indicate a certain degree of happiness to see you, or are you ignored because everyone is using their smartphones, or met with a litany of complaints? How would you like to organize that, so you do not dread the moment you arrive at home? There are things you do together that are mundane things; those things you do every day. But they are your whole life.
Romance is play, and play does not take place easily when problems of any sort arise. Play requires peace, and peace requires negotiation. And you are lucky even then if you get to play.
My observation has been that the typical adult couple—when they have a job, children, and the domestic economy we just discussed, and all that worry and responsibility and concern—might manage once or twice a week, or even three times a week (not likely), for a reasonable romantic interlude. That frequency, if handled well, seems to work out acceptably for both partners. I have observed that twice is better than once, but once is much better than zero. Zero is bad.
“What is it going be, dear? Tuesday and Thursday? Wednesday and Friday? Monday and Saturday?” You think, “Oh, God. That is so cut and dried. That is so mundane and planned. That is so scheduled, predictable, bourgeois, antiromantic, and robotic. It is demeaning and constricting, and it just turns sex into a duty. Where is the fun? Where is the spontaneity, the light jazz, cocktails, and excitement of sudden unexpected attraction? Where is the tuxedo and the little black dress?” That is what you expect? Even unconsciously, in your foolish fantasies? How often did you manage that when you were dating? Ever? And (remember, we are adults talking here) you want two jobs (two careers, two incomes), two kids, a reasonable standard of living—and spontaneity?
If you want to become invaluable in a workplace—in any community—just do the useful things no one else is doing.
Under reasonable circumstances, picking up the excess responsibility is an opportunity to become truly invaluable. And then, if you want to negotiate for a raise, or more autonomy—or more free time, for that matter—you can go to your boss and say, “Here are ten things that were crying out to be done, each of them vital, and I am now doing all of them. If you help me out a bit, I will continue. I might even improve. And everything, including your life, will improve along with me.”
It appears that the meaning that most effectively sustains life is to be found in the adoption of responsibility. When people look back on what they have accomplished, they think, if they are fortunate: “Well, I did that, and it was valuable. It was not easy. But it was worth it.”
People need meaning, but problems also need solving. It is very salutary, from the psychological perspective, to find something of significance—something worth sacrificing for (or to), something worth confronting and taking on. But the suffering and malevolence that characterize life are real, with the terrible consequences of the real—and our ability to solve problems, by confronting them and taking them on, is also real. By taking responsibility, we can find a meaningful path, improve our personal lot psychologically, and make what is intolerably wrong genuinely better.
Confront the possibility that manifests in front of you every second of your life with the desire to make things better, regardless of the burden you bear, regardless of life’s often apparently arbitrary unfairness and cruelty. All other approaches merely deepen the pit, increase its heat, and doom those who inhabit it to continual worsening of their already serious problems. Everyone knows it. Everyone’s Conscience proclaims it. Everyone’s true friend or loved one observes it and despairs when they see someone for whom they care failing to do what needs to be done.
Let us agree, to begin with, that you have a minimum moral obligation to take care of yourself. Maybe you are just selfishly interested in taking care of yourself. But then the questions arise: What do you mean by “care”? Which “yourself” are you talking about?
The mere fact that something makes you happy in the moment does not mean that it is in your best interest, everything considered. Life would be simple if that were the case. But there is the you now, and the you tomorrow, and the you next week, and next year, and in five years, and in a decade—and you are required by harsh necessity to take all of those “yous” into account. That is the curse associated with the human discovery of the future and, with it, the necessity of work—because to work means to sacrifice the hypothetical delights of the present for the potential improvement of what lies ahead.
Here is what the future means: If you are going to take care of yourself, you are already burdened (or privileged) with a social responsibility. The you for whom you are caring is a community that exists across time. The necessity for considering this society of the individual, so to speak, is a burden and an opportunity that seems uniquely characteristic of human beings.
You are stuck with yourself. You are burdened with who you are right now and who you are going to be in the future. That means that if you are treating yourself properly, you must consider your repetition across time.
It is for this reason, among others, that a strictly individualist ethic is a contradiction in terms. There is in fact little difference between how you should treat yourself—once you realize that you are a community that extends across time—and how you should treat other people.
What might serve as a more sophisticated alternative to happiness? Imagine it is living in accordance with the sense of responsibility, because that sets things right in the future. Imagine, as well, that you must act reliably, honestly, nobly, and in relationship to a higher good, in order to manifest the sense of responsibility properly. The higher good would be the simultaneous optimization of your function and the function of the people around you, across time, as we have discussed previously. That is the highest good.
Imagine that you make that aim conscious, that you articulate that aim as an explicit goal. Then a question arises: “What is the consequence of that psychologically?”
“What is a truly reliable source of positive emotion?” The answer is that people experience positive emotion in relationship to the pursuit of a valuable goal.
I have never met anyone who was satisfied when they knew they were not doing everything they should be doing. We are temporally aware creatures: We know that we are continually and inescapably playing an iterated game from which we cannot easily hide.
There is a proper way to behave—an ethic—and you are destined to contend with it. You cannot help but calculate yourself across time, and everyone else across time, and you are reporting back to yourself, inevitably, on your own behavior and misbehavior. What works across multiple time frames and multiple places for multiple people (including yourself)—that is the goal. It is an emergent ethic, hard to formulate explicitly, but inescapable in its existence and its consequences, and an ineradicably deep part of the game of Being.
If you attend to your Conscience, you will begin to determine that some of the things you are doing are wrong. More precisely: if you are alerted to the possibility of your own wrongdoing by your Conscience, and you then begin to engage in a true dialogue with that same agent, you will begin to develop a clear picture of what is wrong—and, by implication, of what is right.
So, you reconsider, perhaps, and you confront your discomfort. You note your disunity and the chaos that comes with it. You ask yourself—you pray to discover—what you did wrong. And the answer arrives. And it is not what you want. And part of you must therefore die, so that you can change.
And then you determine to start acting in accordance with your Conscience. You decide that it is a partner, despite its adversarial form. You put all that you have discovered to be right into action, and you begin your ascent. You start to monitor yourself, ever more careful to ensure you are doing the right thing—listening to what you say, watching yourself act, trying not to deviate from the straight and narrow path. That becomes your goal.
An idea begins to take shape: “I am going to live my life properly. I am going to aim at the good. I am going to aim at the highest good I can possible manage.” Now, all the parts of you taking care of your future self are on board. You are all aimed in one direction. You are no longer a house divided against itself.
There is a high goal, a mountain peak, a star that shines in the darkness, beckoning above the horizon. Its mere existence gives you hope—and that is the meaning without which you cannot live.
It is necessary to lift your eyes above the horizon, to establish a transcendent goal, if you wish to cease being a puppet, under the control of things you do not understand and perhaps do not want to understand. Then all the subsystems or subpersonalities that might otherwise be pursing their own limited fulfillment will join together under the aegis of the truly ideal, and the consequence of that will be an engagement that approximates the ultimate or total. Under such conditions, all the parts of you are going to be on board. That is the psychological equivalent of Monotheism. That is the emergence of the higher self that might be the true servant of God, in whatever metaphysical reality potentially underlies what is obvious to our blind and limited mortal selves.
The sense of meaning is an indicator that you are on that path. It is an indication that all the complexity that composes you is lined up within you, and aimed at something worth pursuing—something that balances the world, something that produces harmony. It is something you hear made manifest in music, and the profound sense of meaning that music intrinsically produces.
You are possessed of an instinct—a spirit—that orients you toward the highest good. It calls your soul away from hell and toward heaven.
It is the call to the action and adventure that make up a real life.
I have become known for encouraging people to clean up their rooms. Perhaps that is because I am serious about that prosaic piece of advice, and because I know that it is a much more difficult task than it appears.
I have been unsuccessfully cleaning up my room, by the way—my home office (which I generally keep in relatively pristine condition)—for about three years now. My life was thrown into such chaos over that period by the multitude of changes I experienced—political controversies, transformation of career, endless travel, mountains of mail, the sequence of illnesses—that I simply became overwhelmed.
There is a meme floating around the internet, accusing me of hypocrisy on account of this: a still taken from a video I shot in my office, with a fair bit of mess in the background (and I cannot say that I look much better myself). Who am I to tell people to clean up their rooms before attempting to fix the rest of the world when, apparently, I cannot do it myself? And there is something directly synchronistic and meaningful about that objection, because I am not in proper order at that moment myself, and my condition undoubtedly found its reflection in the state of my office. More piled up every day, as I traveled, and everything collected around me. I plead exceptional circumstances, and I put many other things in order during the time my office was degenerating, but I still have a moral obligation to get back in there and put it right. And the problem is not just that I want to clean up the mess. I also want to make it beautiful: my room, my house, and then, perhaps, in whatever way I can manage, the community. God knows it is crying out for it.
Making something beautiful is difficult, but it is amazingly worthwhile. If you learn to make something in your life truly beautiful—even one thing—then you have established a relationship with beauty. From there you can begin to expand that relationship out into other elements of your life and the world. That is an invitation to the divine.
Buy a piece of art. Find one that speaks to you and make the purchase. If it is a genuine artistic production, it will invade your life and change it. A real piece of art is a window into the transcendent, and you need that in your life, because you are finite and limited and bounded by your ignorance.
It is for such reasons that we need to understand the role of art, and stop thinking about it as an option, or a luxury, or worse, an affectation. Art is the bedrock of culture itself. It is the foundation of the process by which we unite ourselves psychologically, and come to establish productive peace with others.
I am simply not there in my adult neighborhood the same way I was as a child in my hometown. I am separated from the reality of the world. And a very deep feeling of belonging is missing in some important way because of that.
If we went for a walk, I wanted to know exactly where we were going, just how long it would take to get there, and precisely when we were going back. This is no attitude to adopt when trying to have a pleasant and reasonable time with Toddlers. Not if you want to immerse yourself in the experience. Not if you want to watch and participate in the pleasure they take in their timeless discovery. Not unless you want to risk missing something of crucial import.
It was very difficult for me to relax and focus on the present and watch my little kids pursue their meandering route through the neighborhood, with no particular destination, purpose, or schedule in mind, engaging themselves deeply in an encounter with a local dog, bug, or earthworm, or in some game they invented on the way. Now and then, however, I could snap briefly into that same frame of reference (that is one of the wonderful gifts provided by young children) and see the pristine world they inhabited, still untrammeled by practiced and efficient memory, capable of producing pure joy in the newness of everything. But I was still possessed enough by my future concerns to be involuntarily pulled back into intense preoccupation with getting the next thing done.
To perceive Van Gogh’s painting Irises—from which the illustration that begins this chapter is derived—is, for example, to gaze through a window back into the eternity that our perceptions once revealed, so that we can remember how awe inspiring and miraculous the world really is, under the mundane familiarity to which we have reduced it. To share in the artist’s perception reunites us with the source of inspiration that can rekindle our delight in the world, even if the drudgery and repetition of daily life has reduced what we see to the narrowest and most pragmatic of visions.
It is frightening to perceive the shells of ourselves that we have become. It is frightening to glimpse, even for a moment, the transcendent reality that exists beyond. We think we border our great paintings with luxurious, elaborate frames to glorify them, but we do it at least as much to insist to ourselves that the glory of the painting itself ends at the frame. That bounding, that bordering, leaves the world we are familiar with comfortably intact and unchanged. We do not want that beauty reaching out past the limitations imposed on it and disturbing everything that is familiar.
You inhabit the land you know, pragmatically and conceptually. But imagine what lies just outside of that. There exists an immense space of things you do not know, but which other people might comprehend, at least in part. Then, outside of what anyone knows, there is the space of things that no one at all knows. Your world is known territory, surrounded by the relatively unknown, surrounded by the absolutely unknown—surrounded, even more distantly, by the absolutely unknowable. Together, that is the canonical, archetypal landscape.
I bought the Soviet pieces on eBay from Ukrainian junk dealers specializing in Soviet-era artifacts. At one point, I had a network of about twenty people in the Ukraine sending me photographs of whatever paintings they had scrounged from the ruins of the Soviet bureaucracy. Most were awful. But some were amazing. I have a great painting, for example, of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, standing in front of a rocket and a radar installation, and another from the 1970s of a lonesome soldier writing his mother in front of a large radio.
After I was transferred from an office I had already put some work into, the same artist who helped redesign the interior of our house (and from whom I also purchased many large paintings, which also hang in our house) tried to help me transform my new factory-like, fluorescent-lit catastrophe of a 1970s sealed-windows hellhole office into something that someone with some sense could sit in for thirty years without wanting to die.
Hell is a place of drop ceilings, rusted ventilation grates, and fluorescent lights; the dismal ugliness and dreariness and general depression of spirit that results from these cost-saving features no doubt suppresses productivity far more than the cheapest of architectural tricks and the most deadening of lights saves money.