Life is hard: Jordan Peterson and the nature of suffering
The Canadian professor's old-school message is why many started listening to him.
- The simplicity of Peterson's message on suffering echoes Buddha and Rabbi Hillel.
- By bearing your suffering, you learn how to become a better person.
- Our suffering is often the result of our own actions, so learn to pinpoint the reasons behind it.
The main reason I came to appreciate Buddhism is its elegant simplicity. Sure, thousands of mythologies grew from the tradition: hungry ghosts, rebirth, dharmapala, heaven and hells. Buddhist metaphysics will make your head spin. At heart, the sage from modern-day Nepal taught a universal message applicable to everyone, everywhere: we find life unsatisfactory and so we suffer.
Here we are, two-and-a-half millennia later, still reeling in pain. An unprecedented opioid epidemic signaling our intolerance for pain — physical and emotional pain are related; religious and populist fervor infecting social discourse; increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, especially among the young; tragic upticks in obesity, metabolic diseases, and cancer; Twitter.
We live in a time of plenty, a time of excess, but human nature intervened so that the few stole the plenty and left the many to war over the scraps. Self-obsession, the fuel behind the insecurities causing us to lash out any time our race/gender/sexual orientation is remotely challenged, infects our echo chambers. Pity the fool who dare enter with a divergent idea.
Buddha knew the inability to see beyond suffering was the result of mindset. His program, The Noble Path, was a means for escaping this fate and changing your mind. It took — it takes — a lot of work because we're conditioned to act reflexively, to fear the other, to defend our territory at any cost necessary, even if that territory is a screen that can't shout back. We forgot (or don't care) that those daggers pierce the other side when thrown.
Another religion, Judaism, is similar to Buddhism, in a metaphysical sense, and can be brilliantly summed up in a singular thought, presented by the first century BCE teacher, Hillel. When asked to teach the entirety of the Torah on one leg, he replied, "That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go forth and study."
Jordan Peterson - Life is suffering, so get your act together!
Such can also be said of Buddhism: we suffer when misperceiving the nature of reality. There is a way out of suffering in many ways similar to Hillel's philosophy, except with more meditation — keeping in mind that meditation predominantly meant "contemplation." Closing your eyes to focus is a skill we can all use more of in the Age of Screens.
The screen is also a metaphor long employed by Buddhists, as in: we see the world as if through a screen. Remove it and reality becomes clear.
We're all products of our environment. Mine was slightly militaristic. My father is a veteran. His four years in the Navy heavily influenced his relationship to time (he's always early, a quality passed along to me, much to the chagrin of my wife) and his by-the-bootstraps mentality. As part of the Silent Generation he put his head down and worked, first serving the country, then in computer operations for nearly a half-century at Dupont.
Life was never about being happy; it was survival. You did what you could do to get by. When moments of happiness arrive, embrace them, but don't hold on too tightly — they are fleeting. Very Buddhist upbringing in that sense, even if my father's agnosticism turned into my atheism. We agree on the basics.
Which is what interested me about Jordan Peterson's work. I've written a number of pieces about the Canadian professor on this site, some championing parts of his messages, others contesting them — I discuss that balance here — but what drew me in, as it has so many others, is his willingness to admit that life is quite the challenge. If you're not ready to face that, you're going to suffer. Or, as he phrases it,
Pick up your damn suffering, and bear it, and try to be a good person so you don't make it worse.
Dr. Jordan Peterson | 10 Things That Will Change Your Life Immediately
Life is, as he also puts it, unfair. The 26 richest people in the world control as much wealth as the bottom 3.75 billion people. That's not the result of successful business practices. It's stealing. Such an occurrence could never happen in small, tribal societies. But certain people figured out how to exploit globalism and took everyone for a ride. More importantly, there's nothing metaphysical or divinely sanctioned about it. It is what it is. Look at it, turn it over, turn it around, but look at it. Then figure out how to address the issue because — as Buddha and Hillel and Peterson would say— the issue is in your head.
How you act when facing this fact is your challenge. There are reasons each of us suffer; what unites us is that we suffer. Or we've moved past it, which is the point where you help others through empathy and understanding. Getting bogged down in the pain, yours or others, isn't helping anyone. Or, as Peterson expresses in 12 Rules For Life:
"Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn't merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It's the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable. In my experience — clinical and otherwise — it's just never been that simple. Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power."
Bootstraps, even if that analogy always was a bit weird.
Because in a time of excess, where so many own more than ever before even with such income disparity, the complaints people have are hard to handle. Reality television and social media unleashed in public the awful fact that too many of us take ourselves way too seriously, unable to see beyond the tiny bubble allowed onto their screen.
In the face of actual suffering — as in, global displacement due to climate change, the major consequence of our excess — we'll see how we really fare. At this point it's not looking good. That said, as wistful and petty as humans can be, we're also resilient and courageous when called upon. When you don't have time to contemplate suffering, when you're thrown in the midst of challenge with no escape, you come face to face with who you really are.
As those uncanny Zen Buddhists like to riff on their teacher's legacy, whose face will appear then?
To create wiser adults, add empathy to the school curriculum.
- Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
- Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
- Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now
To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.
The future of education and work will rely on teaching students deeper problem-solving skills.
- Asking kids 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' is a question that used to make sense, says Jaime Casap. But it not longer does; the nature of automation and artificial intelligence means future jobs are likely to shift and reform many times over.
- Instead, educators should foster a culture of problem solving. Ask children: What problem do you want to solve? And what talents or passions do you have that can be the avenues by which you solve it?
- "[T]he future of education starts on Monday and then Tuesday and then Wednesday and it's constant and consistent and it's always growing, always improving, and if we create that culture I think that would bring us a long way," Casap says.
These Jurassic predators resorted to cannibalism when hit with hard times, according to a deliciously rare discovery.
- Rare fossil evidence of dinosaur cannibalism among the Allosaurus has been discovered.
- Scientists analyzed dinosaur bones found in the Mygatt-Moore Quarry in western Colorado, paying special attention to bite marks that were present on 2,368 of the bones.
- It's likely that the predatory carnivore only ate their already-dead peers during times when resources were scarce.
As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner.