I settled into my seat just a few rows back in the mezzanine and surveyed the crowds surging across the performance hall. As I had expected, the audience was composed largely of young adult males, though there was a substantial number of women, older folks, and even a few children present. The man sitting next to me (who had driven nine hours from Missouri for the show) assured me that, while the speaker never gave quite the same talk twice, I would enjoy it. I was fairly convinced I would, too.
As the lights dimmed, a young woman stepped out from the wings and introduced the speaker. Speaking highly of him (which she could not but do, being his daughter), she thanked us all for attending, then gestured to her right and asked us to welcome her dad.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, clinical psychologist, former University of Toronto professor, and internationally known writer and speaker, took the stage.
His gaunt but impressive figure immediately drew all eyes as he began to speak. Knowing his audience, he started off with some good old denigration of the current “ideological nonsense” running rampant through the culture. My philosophical sensibilities perked up as he articulated the Principle of Noncontradiction for everyone, noting how it’s no wonder non-Western countries think we’ve lost our minds when a woman can’t define what a woman is.
Seeking to expose what we seem to have lost in our society, Peterson launched into an in-depth explanation of stories. Calling them “verbal descriptions of maps,” he said we are drawn to stories because they tell us how to act in the world. These stories are more than fact, because in the process of crafting and relating them, they force us to answer the question “Which facts matter?”—which at its core is an ethical decision. It is in this sense that “fiction isn’t untrue; it’s more than true. It’s the distilled truth.”
Stories, according to Peterson, combine to form a cultural lens through which we see the world. For him, the biblical stories are at the center of that lens. This “corpus of texts,” with the Bible at its core, forms an idea in us, a sense of the ideal, which functions as the “hallmark of our judgment” (reminiscent of the natural law, in my opinion) in analyzing our lives and making decisions. With such an emphasis on the biblical foundations of our common worldview, it was no surprise when Peterson started to analyze a couple of familiar biblical stories in detail.
Beginning with the fall of Adam, he highlighted the moment when Adam stopped walking with God (Gen. 3:7–10). He pointed out that when Adam “wakes up” and realizes he’s flawed, shame enters the picture and he loses the motivation to continue in God’s way. This is a story about the “dawn of self-consciousness.” For Peterson, self-consciousness is linked with an orientation toward work, because in seeing the flaws and weaknesses in ourselves, we are spurred to “prepare for the eventuality of catastrophe.”
This is where Peterson’s somewhat notoriously negative outlook struck me as incomplete. While there is an element of preparing for an unknown future that contributes to the distinctively human inclination to work (and the biblical narrative does reflect this), there is a broader understanding of work that sees man as co-creator with God in his labors, reflecting his elevated dignity as a rational being (and there is a biblical basis for this as well). Self-consciousness plays an essential role, but the motivation to work is not limited to a fearful reaction at the sight of the fragility of one’s nature.
I think Peterson hit a little nearer the mark when he asserted the fundamentally human principle that “if you make the proper sacrifices, you will improve your life.” This is the instinct that underlies the “entrepreneurial spirit” that moves someone to take on risk in order to create profit, but I appreciated Peterson’s broader application of it to the general realm of human decision-making. Peterson then commented on what is meant by “the proper sacrifices” in relation to the story of Cain and Abel.
Quoting a translation that may have been his own, Peterson focused on Cain brooding over the perceived injustice of his rejected sacrifice and drew out the sexual connotation of the word “brood.” He described sin as “having a desire” for Cain, and when it was invited in by him, joined with him in a procreative manner to produce bitterness and resentment. Peterson’s point was that we all have a choice in our response to injustice, real or perceived, and that response will always bear fruit in either a beneficial or a destructive way. Cain chose to sow the wind and reap the whirlwind, which culminated in the murder of his brother.
So what, Peterson queried, does our shared lens tell us is the proper response to suffering, the “proper sacrifice”? It is gratitude. Gratitude is the offering of Abel in faith, a decision to choose against bitterness even if it is not justified by the evidence. Given the reality of sin in this world, one that Peterson’s stark realism acknowledges as “pretty damn brutal,” there is no question that we all have reasons to be bitter about our suffering. But Cain shows us the dangers of that path. The alternative is to make an act of faith, that gratitude instead of bitterness has greater value and mysteriously makes our lives better.
Peterson touched on both the psychological and religious views of gratitude. He described a common method of treating phobias in his clinical experience, which is to help the patient “look at what you’re afraid of and so become braver.” Gratitude involves this psychological decision to stand up and face the suffering in your life. Underscoring the deeper spiritual level, however, Peterson declared that the ultimate example of choosing gratitude over bitterness in the face of indescribable suffering is the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The fruit born of Christ’s self-gift of love to his Father, with no trace of resentment toward his persecutors, was nothing less than eternal life itself.
What struck me as significant is that this serious-minded Canadian, who is famous for emphasizing the reality of adulthood and the necessity of growing up and embracing responsibility, has espoused a response to suffering that is startlingly childlike. Gratitude, in its essence, is a posture of dependence, a recognition of a lack of control and an orientation toward another from whom you receive everything as a gift. Children do not have self-consciousness that spurs them to work for fear of future catastrophe. Children do not brood over injuries. Children open their arms and their hearts to receive and respond with love to those who give to them without measure.
This is not to say that maturity and gratitude are opposed, or that Peterson is switching tacks from his “aim up,” responsibility-focused mentality. The point is that real maturity comes when we persevere in the trusting response of gratitude even in the face of injustice and trial. In the blend of rational, rhetorical, and religious language used by our foundational cultural texts, and in the story Peterson is telling, there is room for both.
Ultimately, then, “Be Grateful in Spite of Your Suffering” (rule #12 in Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life) means “to strive to accept as your destiny the endeavor to hold the moral high ground … in spite of the fact that you have ample reason to be bitter and vengeful.” As we enter into meditation on the Passion in this last week before Easter, pondering this childlike posture of gratitude in the figure of the suffering Christ is something we can all embrace.