I was inclined to pre-hate Jordan Peterson from the moment I first heard of him. This once-obscure Canadian academic has become a kind of spiritual scout leader of angry young men the world over with sweeping pronouncements such as: "Consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time."
Some young men, threatened by changing gender and class hierarchies, seem to find Peterson's spit-spot-toughen-up-sonny-boy approach reassuring. Finally! I imagine them sighing as they open his book. A white guy who has the answers to everything: Like receiving an Auckland Grammar Old Boys newsletter that had gone astray in the post.
Peterson's bestselling book is called 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos. I was looking forward to jeering at his edicts of self-reliance and individualism: "stand up straight" and "clean your room". (Peterson sometimes sounds like the kind of guy who leaps up straight after sex to put on a load of washing.) But annoyingly, when I started to read his book I found a lot of it quite inoffensive and not even all that dodgy. Who can argue with advice such as "tell the truth" and "always pat a cat when you encounter one on the street?"
I'm not so sure about "Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them". All kids are obnoxious little devil spawn sometimes. But you can still love them even when you want to wring their necks. (This is object constancy: The ability to tolerate ambiguity; to see that both the "good" and the "bad" are a part of the same person.)
But Peterson says the book wasn't only written for other people, but as a reminder for himself. So instead of critiquing him, I've decided to ignore his rules and write my own.
ONE: Make peace with chaos
Life is more fun if you can tolerate a certain level of disarray. I like to think of my scrappy life, not as a hot mess, but as wabi-sabi. (Traditional Japanese aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfections.)
Becoming a good listener is a challenge for me but I'm working on it. Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don't.
THREE: It's okay if…
These three words are helpful in many settings. It's okay if…this is a rubbish column. It's okay if…some people don't understand me. It's okay if…I get some things wrong. ("Mum, you're not writing anything controversial this week are you?")
FOUR: Today don't get out of your pyjamas, or try "being before doing."
You need to know how to "be" before you know how to "do". Legendary thinker on child development Donald Winnicott calls this "going-on-being", and stresses the importance of the capacity to just let a child just exist, rather than making them do things ("How are little Marcelline's cello lessons going?") This rule also applies to adults, of course, as we are all every age we have ever been.
FIVE: Don't try to be someone.
Being focused on a quest for identity paradoxically stops us doing the very thing that would give us one, because identity is created by connecting with other people and when we are too busy angsting about ourselves it gets in the way of forming authentic relationships.
SIX: Sometimes it's more helpful to have an intention than a goal.
I learned this from yoga. The intention could simply be to clean up the cat spew with love. Or do the rush-hour commute with softness. Having an intention is more gentle than a to-do list. Strangely, by leaving room for screwing up, I seem to get more done.
SEVEN: Stop asking for permission.
You are not Dobby the house elf. You don't need to wait for someone to give you a sock.
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something that people take and people are as free as they want to be. (James Baldwin)
EIGHT: There is gold in your shadow.
Your shadow is not just dark and monstrous (which seems to be Peterson's view). It also contains unacknowledged strengths and abilities. Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. (Jung).
NINE: Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.
Good to remember.
TEN: Cherry blossom
We have some very nice cherry trees in this country but we don't pay as much attention to them as they do in Japan (again) where everyone makes a special trip to see them. (It's a multibillion-dollar industry). Try to be aware of the cherry blossom, or other small pleasures you might not normally notice.
ELEVEN: Be like Statler and Waldorf.
Remember the cantankerous old hecklers in the Muppets? Statler and Waldorf take pleasure in being pessimistic. It's a relief not to have to look on the bright side all the time. We get miserable not because things are necessarily so awful but because they fall short of the standard we have demanded. To anticipate the worst, is curiously, a cheering attitude. Life isn't singling us out, it is fundamentally difficult for everyone.
TWELVE: There are actually no rules. Sorry.