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Jordan Peterson confronts suffering

24 November 2023

His view that life is tragic but good draws him close to Christian faith, says Richard Harries


“LIFE is suffering. That’s clear,” Jordan Peterson says more than once in his book 12 Rules for Life (Books, 9 November 2018). Leave aside for a moment what he has written or said on contentious subjects, such as masculinity. Leave aside, also, the many helpful points that he makes about living better; for, at the heart of this book, and his whole approach to living, is a profound sense that life is tragic. It is what he says about this that I wish to examine here.

As a young man, Peterson was obsessed by the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse; and, as a psychiatrist, he has, of course, treated scores of patients in dire straits. But his concern with suffering is more personal than that. For all of her childhood, his daughter, Mikhaila, suffered from an excruciatingly painful illness. Peterson writes about this vividly and movingly. In addition to this, you get the sense, reading him, that he has had to grapple hard with his own inner demons. One sign of this, perhaps, is the way in which he became addicted to benzodiazepine and had to seek emergency detox treatment.

We might sum this up by saying that Peterson is a deeply troubled man — and I mean this as a compliment: troubled by the suffering of the world; troubled by the mental and physical pain of those he know and loves; and troubled by the powerful forces at work within himself.

So agonising is this suffering in some people that they think that it would be better if they, and everyone else, simply did not exist. Peterson looks at mass killers of innocent children and quotes one as saying: “The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing . . . nothing means anything any more.” He also quotes Tolstoy: “Life is evil and people know it.” Few people are strong or logical enough to act on this knowledge, but, as Tolstoy continues, they, “seeing that the blessings of the dead are greater than those of the living and that it is better not to exist, they act and put an end to the stupid joke; and they use any means of doing it; a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart, a train.”

This feeling leads not just to suicide, but to mass murder followed by suicide. By June 2016, there had been 1000 mass killings (defined as four or more people shot in a single incident excluding the shooter) in the United States in 1260: one event every five or six days, for three years.

Such feelings, Peterson thinks, may be understandable and logical. But we should not act on them. Why? “Hating life, despising life — even for the genuine pain that life inflicts — merely serves to make life itself worse, unbearably worse. There is no genuine protest in that. There is no goodness in that, only the desire to produce suffering, for the sake of suffering. That is the very essence of evil.”

WE NOTICE, at this point, two interesting assumptions: that we should not make life worse, and that we are right to protest against the suffering of life. Both presume a moral consciousness, and a sense that there is a good and its opposite.

Peterson thinks that there is no way in which we can think our way out of our dilemma as humans; no logical answer to the question why we should go on living; and no answer to the question why a good God, if there is one, might allow such a world as ours. It is not thinking, he says, but noticing that enables us to go on. Even on a bad day, we can notice little sights that lift the spirit, such as a girl dancing in the streets, or a good cup of coffee in a café that cares about its customers. It was this that kept him going during the worst nightmare of his daughter’s illness. At such times, we are to put our trust in God’s Kingdom, and the truth. “That’s a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of being.”

Peterson is reported as saying that he does not believe in God, but he is afraid that he might exist (News, 1 April 2021). He often quotes the scriptures, however, and, in some respects, he comes close to a Christian view of life. He draws deeply on the well of Christian truth without quite being able to drink the water himself.

Yet, his focus on the suffering of life, and his concern whether being, existence itself, your life and mine is, despite everything, good, is surely the key question. It is why he is drawn to Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, for whom it was also central. It is perhaps surprising that he does not quote Camus, who put the issue with particular clarity. Camus wrote: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest . . . comes afterwards.”

PETERSON focuses not only on the key question: he suggests a positive answer, which is to make “a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of being”. This is surely an act of faith. If he were able to drink the water of life, able to take that assumption into account more consistently, it would shift his perspective in several ways.

Take, for example, what he writes about life always dividing up between those who dominate and those who are dominated. He says some helpful things about those who tend to be dominated, urging them to stand up for themselves more often. But, if we presume the fundamental goodness of being, this means that I have worth, and am of value, whoever I am and wherever I am situated in the dominate/dominated spectrum. This should liberate the person to value themselves as they are, and free them to pursue their own goals, whatever they might be, without bothering about where they stand. So, as Jesus pointed out, the dominant ones make others feel the weight of their authority, but “it shall not be so amongst you.”

That is possible if you trust the fundamental goodness of being, starting with your own being.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book is Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Queen Elizabeth II is published by SPCK (Books, 8 September).

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