It’s an old Jewish joke: Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, reaches its climactic moment. The Rabbi, in front of the congregation, throws himself down on hands and knees, an ultimate act of self-abnegation. He cries out to his Creator, “Before You, I am nothing!” The Cantor, on cue, jettisons down, sobbing with animation: “Before You, I am nothing!”
Mr. Schwartz in the first row is so moved, so inspired, so galvanized, that he dives down, landing on hands and knees, and yells out, “Before You, I am NOTHING!”
Registering the kerfuffle in the first row, the Rabbi looks over to the Cantor. Dripping with sarcasm, he says (Yiddish intonation, please): “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
I often remember that line when I hear the tone of some of the criticisms of Jordan Peterson. Some time ago, an article was published in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, critiquing Peterson’s discussion of historical facts regarding World War II; also challenging Peterson’s lack of specific mention of the Holocaust in some of his lectures about that time in history and disputing Peterson’s notions about the psychology of evil.
Some readers forwarded the article, wondering, I suppose, whether, as a Jew blogging about Peterson on a Jewish platform, the issues discussed flagged my concern. In fact, that and other articles disputing Peterson’s conceptualizations have merit, bringing perspectives to light that need to be aired. But, in my mind, such articles often omit a context that is important.
There is one trait that is central to the life task which would have us cultivate an ever deepening insight into the complexities of the world. It is similarly essential to the task of dialogue, like the discussions we embark on to clarify ideas and test out worldviews. That trait is humility, a trait Peterson role models, prescribes and successfully seeds among many who work with his ideas.
If you have heard Peterson speak, you are familiar with his frequent qualifiers: “as far as I can see,” “as best as I can tell,” “it seems to me.” If you know his material, you know that he discusses ‘the map of meaning’, the worldview that one harbors implicitly, a map borne within that we constantly tweak over our lifetimes so as to better understand the contours of reality and order the chaos and confusion that otherwise peppers our lives.
We are lifelong learners. We must constantly overturn yesterday’s map as we encounter new ideas. We are to read deeply, to debate, to learn from everybody in our midst. Learning necessarily involves humility. Your knowledge base is always, necessarily, incomplete. That awareness inspires you to pick up the next book so as to fill in gaps of knowledge: ask an expert, visit a website, access more information.
Think about it. Even the act of reading involves massive amounts of humility. Pick up a book, one that requires commitment and focus. There is a part of you that keeps wanting to check the phone. Any new email? There’s something in you that agitates for a snack. There is another part of you that’s bored. Humility is the act which subjugates the ego, as it pushes and pulls, literally making oneself nothing, an empty repository, the vessel within that makes room for new ideas to land. We train ourselves to be recipients of knowledge; it takes landscaping.
Humility is the compost that allows information to take hold. Humility is the acknowledgement that I may not get it all exactly right, but if I articulate what I understand, that discourse will help me – and others – refine our respective maps, inching us all a little closer to an all-encompassing conceptualization that we can’t hope to achieve but mustn’t stop trying. We keep conversing, keep reading, keep arguing, keep engaging with the unknown.
Peterson would like the old Jewish expression, “Don’t fall in love with your own real estate.” He wants us to cross-pollinate, to reach into new domains of knowledge and to take a stab at defining something intrinsically true about the world.
Peterson’s premise is that reality does have defined parameters and he is ready to state his current understanding of what they are, to argue about it. He’s happy to be proven wrong, so he can adapt his map. His curious mind has him reading widely: literature, science, history or politics. He continues to metabolize all the information he accesses, trying to come up with an integrated system of knowledge, one that will be subject to continuous revision.
He’s a dilettante, surveying huge swaths of data. I think he assumes that he might miss the mark when it comes to some of the details. By his next book, you may very well see that he has shed some of his thoughts, reformatted ideas. As he says, information ‘forms’ us; the word, itself, implies as much.
Don’t be surprised, then, when Peterson followers tell you that their brush with his ideas seeded humility and wreaked havoc with their life maps in ways that are, at once, clarifying and shocking.
One Lobster’s Story
Diana Black, is a 53 year old a retired Air Force veteran and married lesbian, who described herself as militantly liberal, at least in the near past. An item in the news got her online where she found interviews Peterson had given, sometimes with journalists who were fairly antagonistic to his worldview. Black was impressed with Peterson: “I saw him as being utterly unflappable, thoughtful and articulate.” She thought that Peterson responded to every attack, “with nuance, data and in good faith.”
Watching the journalists, some of them seemed to be driven by a very specific ideology, “speaking as if through a narrow tunnel.” To her discomfort, the ideology they discussed reminded her of someone: Herself! This was a wake-up call.
Black now wanted to better understand her own “mental bubble of assumptions and beliefs.” She had awakened to what Peterson calls ‘the map of meaning’. What was on the map she harbored within? Says Black, “we don’t realize we are in a bubble until we spot a problem with it; up to that point, our mental bubble of assumptions and beliefs is indistinguishable from reality.”
She undertook self-enquiry. At the heart of this project: a quest for humility. Where did she land? She describes her current modus operandi:
My way forward now involves actively seeking out my own ideological thinking and assumptions and interrogating them. The more I realize that I only think I know things but have no way of knowing for certain, the more I shun the arrogant certainty that was once my default and move towards cultivating intellectual humility. That is, the more I realize how much I don’t know, what I don’t know, the easier it is to not take a hard stance and presume to tell others what The Truth is, so my focus has shifted from trying to fix the world to, well, cleaning my own room. This shift alone is transforming me into a kinder, more accepting, compassionate person than I was capable of being before.
On her current progress, she reflects:
I still struggle to hear other people when they disagree with me; my instinct is to argue, to fight. My body tenses when I am contradicted, and I’m teaching myself to relax and interrogate “why am I so defensive about somebody else’s beliefs?” I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I think I’m still walking in the right direction.
Becoming more immersed in the talks and writings of Peterson has changed her lifestyle. She reports,
My wife is also into Peterson. In the colder months, we knit for hours and watch lectures and discuss the thoughts they provoke. Along the way, we’ve changed our lives and Peterson deserves some of the credit.
Until about 18 months ago, we drank and ate out a lot; it was easy entertainment, albeit expensive and ultimately unfulfilling. We were fat and happy in the moment, but emotionally empty.
We adopted a frugal lifestyle a year ago which catapulted us to a simple, sober lifestyle in which we work on projects together and drink or eat out very rarely. We are trim and fit, happy and fulfilled. We’ve largely taken control of our lives and are making positive progress toward our intermediate and long-term plans. And we like ourselves.
In my experience, this trajectory is par for the course for many who do a deep dive into Peterson’s materials. The issue here is not moving toward or away from one politic or another. It’s about humility, a life predicated on – in a certain way – nothingness: less indulgence, less certainty, more listening, more emptiness. How can that be bad?
The problem with Peterson’s critics is not that they address areas of his work with which they disagree. Ideas should be debated. As the saying goes, sunshine disinfects. The problem is a deficiency of humility which infuses articles titled “Exposing Jordan Peterson’s Barrage of Revisionist Falsehoods about Hitler, the Holocaust and Nazism,” or “Why Jordan Peterson Is Always Wrong.”
They want to decimate his ideas, grind his opus into nothing. Little do they know their “look who thinks he’s nothing” is entirely misdirected. They reveal themselves as ambassadors of the rigid thinking that Peterson calls out and they fail to engage with the very readers they would hope to reach, those who take Peterson’s ideas seriously.
What can help those who effectively shut down the very conversation they would hope to advance? Diana Black would recommend Peterson’s 6th rule: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”
How about a good clean? Decluttering, sorting the garbage, helps you reclaim the value of . . . well, nothing. Access more spaciousness, more emptiness and, lo and behold, you may change your tune, finding a better voice that will engage others.
Don’t have time to clean? Take counsel from a bumper sticker: “I always use words that are soft and sweet, just in case I need to eat them.”
Still too long? I can get it down to five words: “Before You, I am Nothing.”