The drive home

My dad’s funeral and memorial service were held a week ago Friday, and early Saturday morning I left my brother and sister to finish up the job of cleaning out his house (at their urging) and started the three-day drive home. I drove rather than flying because my dad had given my daughter Maggie one of his cars, an old (2001) but well-kept and low-mileage Honda Accord, and it needed to be brought home.

It was a good and uneventful trip. Along the way I stopped by Larry McMurtry’s bookstore, had a nice supper at a hole-in-the-wall Greek cafe in Wichita Falls, saw Jordan Peele’s excellent movie in Tulsa, and slept long and hard for two nights.

And listened to a lot of Jordan Peterson. I first encountered Peterson last November when a friend sent me a link to a lecture on virtue, a topic that interests me a lot. Since then the both of us have investigated Peterson’s work, exchange links to the best of it, and discussed it at length.

Peterson is in vogue right now due to taking a stand against his university’s efforts to enforce a certain type of political correctness, something that is only indirectly connected to his main work. And he is using his notoriety as a vehicle for getting his work in front of a much larger audience. We’ll see whether that turns out to be a devil’s bargain. But his work stands on its own, and is well documented through videos of lectures and a book he published in 1999, Maps of Meaning (available as a free PDF).

Shortly before my trip I discovered this page devoted to gathering audio-only versions of Peterson’s talks, so I downloaded most of the audios listed and spent perhaps 20 hours listening through the ones on his work. There’s no easy route into his work, but if you have 75 minutes to spare I recommend this recent talk given at the Ottawa Public Library, which includes some autobiography, a brief overview of his biggest ideas, some practical suggestions on how to apply them, and a few allusions to his recent troubles. What struck me the most in this talk is that Peterson has clearly devoted his life to the pursuit of an important idea (or cluster of ideas, really)—as he says, fifteen years laying the groundwork for his book Maps of Meaning, followed by fifteen years of figuring out how to speak to people clearly and concisely about the ideas it puts forth. Much different than the recent trend toward casting about for an idea that might catch on, then spending a year putting together a book that will hopefully launch a career.

Peterson has devoted himself to figuring out how to be a person in the world, assuming that patterns found in our oldest and most long-lived stories (e.g. Egyptian mythology, the Bible) can guide us in that quest. That route may not appeal to everyone, but I think he handles the material well. Maybe that’s because he comes to conclusions that are consistent with my own. In any case, here are some claims he makes that I think are correct and important. (These are off the top of my head, I haven’t yet made an effort to be systematic or thorough.)

  • The real world is chaotic
  • Order is something our minds impose on chaos (or, perhaps, extract from the chaos) in order to navigate it
  • Learning/growth takes place at the border between order and chaos, the place at which our understanding of reality begins to fail us
  • Too much order is boring, too much chaos is overwhelming, but there is a sweet spot where we can manage to steadily bring order out of chaos, i.e. revise our understanding to encompass more of reality—this is the place where life is lived meaningfully
  • Revising our understanding is painful and scary, and many choose instead to ignore mismatches between their understanding and reality
  • Detecting such mismatches is a matter of paying attention
  • Devoting oneself to detecting such mismatches and rectifying them is a devotion to developing the virtues/building character
  • One shouldn’t try to straighten out the world before getting one’s own affairs in order—and ordering one’s own affairs can all by itself contribute greatly to order in the world

All this fits in well with my own conviction that to seek God’s kingdom is to learn to live one’s life in ever greater harmony with God’s economy. In fact, Peterson cites “Seek ye first the kingdom of God …” as wisdom that supports his claims.

One thing that surprises me a bit in studying Peterson is that he doesn’t seem to have ventured very far into Buddhist thought, even though some of his key ideas (especially that life is suffering) are also key for the Buddhists and have been taken further by them. Regarding suffering, Peterson nods to the Buddhists but stops at the Stoic position that suffering is just a fundamental aspect of life and should be dealt with by overwhelming it, becoming so engaged in the living of life that the suffering is secondary. Buddhists go further, saying that suffering is the result of one’s attachments or cravings, and that those can be overcome, with suffering eliminated as a result.

Well, perhaps my own thinking has led me to misread Peterson. But it’s been a stimulating misreading!

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