If you thought about what has catapulted psychologist Jordan Peterson to fame, you might point to his verbiage: an immense vocabulary, knowledge base, and unique lecture style. Interesting, though, Vocal Coach Darren McStay, analyzing Jordan Peterson’s vocal style, identifies significant weaknesses. When he speaks, Peterson does not breathe adequately to support his words causing his voice to wobble and crack. McStay comments, “He’s more thoughtful than physical.”
Now that’s interesting. Sometimes people achieve success in one domain because they are physically adept, uniquely wired to accomplish in that sphere. Barbra Streisand, for example, was born with perfect pitch; also with the vocal range that subsumes both alto and soprano. That is rare. And her breathing technique is ideal. Wannabes work to emulate what she achieves – with no prior training.
What do we make of the fact that Peterson’s speaking style betrays weakness while his content – and popularity – betrays strength. Might we be in the realm of paradox? Along those lines, I’m going to call Peterson more ‘walkative’ than talkative. Let me explain.
In Judaism, the metaphor for forward movement is walking. The Hebrew word for Jewish law is Halacha, derived from the verb Holech, to walk. Jewish law purports to tell Jews how to move forward progressively and purposefully, one step at a time.
But what is walking, anyway? Walking is the deliberate sequence of movement that engages the right side of the body and the left, simultaneously and in sync, in order to achieve purposeful progress.
Jewish mysticism understands that the right side of the human frame embodies our instinct to affiliate, the address of ‘love’. The left side, in contrast, is pegged as the address of judgement and discipline, fear-based attributes. Mysticism tells us that we are each, then, a living paradox. At times we must mobilize and exert expansive impulses so we can connect with others. At other times we must mobilize the attributes that govern jurisprudence and discipline, deploying, then, contractive tendencies.
Perhaps you are thinking of your car: gas pedal on the right, brake on the left. These design features mirror our own cosmic design. The art of life has us deploying the capacities we find within, functional polar opposite tendencies, in a way that moves things forward. Judaism calls that “walking.”
Peterson rightly teaches us that while we each have both capacities, each person tends to favor one side of the continuum or the other. Judaism associates the right side with a drive towards exploration, creativity, an impulse to connect. Peterson calls this trait ‘openness’. Those who are weighted in this direction are entrepreneurs and creative’s who advance the cause of innovation. Those who put a premium on obedience, structure and convention, though, associate with what Judaism locates on the left side of the body. Peterson calls this trait “conscientiousness.”
Again and again, Peterson wants us to master both – urging us to identify which trait represents our area of dominance, then working to cultivate the inferior function. Further, Peterson points out imbalances playing out in society, at large. He calls out critics of society who fail to balance complaints about what isn’t working in society with an equal dose of gratitude for what does work. Only by deploying both polarities can we find a middle ground while also, personally, achieving a measured perspective that bespeaks wisdom versus stridency. When we avoid polarized thinking, we are better able to inch things forward, better able to find centrist solutions, better able to attract allies from the other side of the aisle.
And while Peterson hammers away, reminding us to be grateful in spite of our suffering, or explaining the need to have one foot in the realm of order, the other in the realm of chaos, we can remember that many of his teachings are nothing but reissued learnings from yesteryear. The prophet Micha, after all, was asked to summarize Judaism in a New York minute. His answer?
“Love kindness, live justly and walk with humility before the L-rd, your G-d.”
A few thousand years later, Jordan Peterson is a mouthpiece for kitchen table wisdom that dates back to antiquity. When Peterson isn’t walking his beat, the streets of Toronto, going on daily two hour walks to manage his health, he’s helping others calibrate, helping them become more ‘walkative’.
Each person who gets a leg up with his help, is one more who can help bridge the great divide; somebody who can uncover the unity within a world that, otherwise, seems characterized by dueling opposites; somebody who can take us one step closer to a messianic ideal wherein the lion will lie with the lamb. One by one, we discover that mastering life comes down to a pretty simple concept. AA Milne – remember Winnie the Poo? – nailed it: “It’s ever so ‘portant how you walk.”
Remember all this the next time you register Peterson’s voice, with its unusual inflections. Peterson’s presence and input in our lives, in a myriad of ways, is unlikely, almost impossible. He bears the stamp of paradox all the while teaching us how to host the paradox he – and we – live. He role models: we can transcend personal limitations when we anchor to a unity frame. He leads with a limp, metaphorically speaking. You can, too.