When I read Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s new book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” last fall, it read like a bestseller-to-be. Well-written, insightful, and best of all, practical.
Since its release in January, it has sat atop the Amazon bestseller chart. And thank God.
Peterson’s book occupied my mind for weeks after I finished it. His points, or “rules,” of personal conduct — surround yourself with people who want the best for you; pursue meaning, not expedience; speak precisely and deliberately — are universally invaluable.
It re-entered my consciousness following the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students, teachers, coaches — murdered. Fourteen others wounded — a word that insufficiently captures the horror of a bullet fired out of a rifle pulverizing whatever tissue or bone or organ it strikes.
All because of one loser who this publication will, appropriately, not name. One 19-year-old nothing who, in seven minutes, destroyed 17 worlds and permanently damaged countless more.
He, like every one of America’s other young, school shooters since Columbine, is male. And like many, he grew up without a father present, is not socialized, is a loner, is not religious, sees himself as a victim, is angry and depressed, wants to get even, is attracted to violence, and meticulously planned his final, redemptive, act of chaos.
Peterson shows how the prototypical school shooter’s contempt of existence itself — and thus, logically, of humans — is illustrated well by Cain. The firstborn man was so angry at God for not accepting his sacrifice, so resentful toward Abel for receiving God’s favor, that he murdered his own brother and sneered at God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Parkland killer, just like the one at Columbine and Newtown and Virginia Tech, and Cain, is not a coward. A villain, yes. Evil, certainly. But not a coward.
“He was a powerful, consistent, fearless actor,” Peterson writes of Carl Panzram, an early 20th century serial killer and rapist who was institutionalized and brutalized as a delinquent juvenile. “He had the courage of his convictions. How could someone like him be expected to forgive and forget, given what had happened to him?”
Peterson recounts how author Leo Tolstoy, at the apex of his career, questioned “the value of human existence.”
In Tolstoy’s mind, life was too painful to justify rationally. And faith, which can justify suffering, denied reason.
“The people in this category know that death is better than life,” Tolstoy said, discussing suicide. “Only unusually strong and logically consistent people act in this manner.”
But, of course, if death is better than life, murder, mass murder, is even better than suicide. In the mass killer’s world, bad is good.
“Everyone says, ‘We don’t understand,’” Peterson writes. “How can we still pretend that? Tolstoy understood, more than a century ago. The ancient authors of the biblical story of Cain and Abel understood, as well, more than twenty centuries ago … murder done consciously to spite the creator of the universe. Today’s killers tell us the same thing, in their own words.”
Of course we understand why the Parkland killer did it. Man’s heart is filled with evil. And this man didn’t have a conscience standing in evil’s way.
America is in the midst of a well-documented crisis of young males.
Many, especially those without a father present, feel lost, aimless, isolated. For some, this can lead to envy and resentment. Hopelessness and depression can follow. Maybe it stops there. Or maybe not. Maybe desperation and anger come next, with fantasies of violence and revenge. And then, well . . .
Most lost and angry men don’t become criminals, or murderers, or school shooters. But most criminals, murderers, and school shooters are lost and angry men. So, anything that can make lost and angry men less lost and angry is a good thing.
Enter Peterson’s “antidote to chaos.”
His cerebral, sober, and darkly humorous style has struck a chord with his growing audience. Many of his fans are, like me, young men. Many of his fans, like me, appreciate his paternal qualities in a culture with few male public figures who are also admirable role models.
Peterson’s advice, if acted upon, will save some young readers from the “chaos” of the “underworld,” where everything is “uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing,” Peterson writes.
Everyone has been to the underworld at some point. Some live in it.
How to avoid it? How to live with “one foot in what you have mastered and understood” — order — “and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering” — chaos?
First, have something to aim at. All forward movement comes from having a target. Growth is the pursuit of that target, whether or not it is reached.
“Ask yourself: Is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight?” Peterson writes. “Five hundred small decisions, five hundred tiny actions, compose your day, today, and every day. Could you aim one or two of these at a better result?”
And the aim of your life, Peterson argues, should not be happiness.
He does not belittle it as a worthy pursuit among many, but “in a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.”
Instead, he says, be more concerned with “developing character in the face of suffering.” A feat that, no doubt, would improve the odds of personal happiness, anyways.
But how to develop character?
“Toughen up, you weasel.”
“Clean up your life.”
“Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong.”
“Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is.”
Recognize and explore your own resentments, which, if left unattended, will devour you, and maybe those around you, too. Maybe violently, especially if you’re male, which means you have “the capacity for mayhem and destruction” and “the seeds of evil and monstrosity” that can transform resentment “into the most destructive of wishes.”
“If you think tough men are dangerous,” Peterson warns, “Wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”
“Boys are suffering in the modern world,” Peterson writes.
Competition, disobedience, disagreeableness, pushing limits. When harnessed and integrated, these traits are to our benefit. See Elon Musk.
But to those who control the language of our culture, these distinctly male traits are to our detriment.
Thus “toxic masculinity.”
“When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues,” Peterson says, “hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination.”
One of his rules, “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” is as much parenting advice as a note of caution.
Do not make boys ashamed of their masculinity.
Do not push them to feminize, lest they push back and become machismo.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding, or else . . .
“When the boys were spinning donuts, they were also testing the limits of their cars, their ability as drivers, and their capacity for control, in an out-of-control situation,” Peterson recounts of his childhood in rural, frigid, Fairview, Alberta. “When they told off the teachers, they were pushing against authority, to see if there was any real authority there — the kind that could be relied on, in principle, in a crisis.”
But what should adults do when boys cross the line? Surely there is a limit to “let boys be boys.”
It’s called parenting.
“Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,” reads Peterson’s fifth rule.
Because if you dislike them, just imagine how much strangers — who don’t love your children — will dislike them. How much society will punish their misbehavior.
“The vital process of socialization prevents much harm and fosters much good,” Peterson writes. “Children must be shaped and informed, or they cannot thrive.”
Socialization begins in the home. Children act, and by observing their parents reactions, learn which behaviors are desirable, and which are unacceptable.
Parents who properly employ discipline act as loving “proxies for the real world.”
They “use threat and punishment when necessary to eliminate behaviors that will lead to misery and failure.”
But not too much threat and punishment. Limit the rules, Peterson says, and use “minimum necessary force.”
This is tricky business. Many parents, therefore, neglect it. Easier, they believe, naively, to give their child full autonomy, absent consequences — a false reality that vanishes when their little monster walks out the front door.
“Modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason,” Peterson says. “They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents—if that.”
The combination of a toxic culture and broken homes has produced millions of anxious, confused, and even angry, teenage and young adult males.
A miniscule, statistically-near-zero percentage of these men are responsible for Columbine and Newtown and Parkland.
Maybe would-be mass shooters can’t be helped. Or maybe some can. Maybe all we can do is deter them, or remove them from society, or make guns so hard to obtain that these young men’s violent outbursts would have limited consequences. Or maybe we should have more armed security.
There isn’t one answer. It’s complex.
But for all the lost, young men who can be helped — and that’s most of them — “12 Rules for Life” is a handy compass.