Sunday, August 19, 2018

Jordan Peterson Rule Four: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday; Not to Who Someone Else Is Today

            Some readers of this blog will know my wife, Irene. She is pretty amazing. Which is wonderful, most of the time. There are challenges. You see, I can’t help but compare myself to her.

            Who cleans the house more often and more thoroughly? Irene or me? Irene.

            Who shops most often, and for the least amount of cash, and yet brings home the freshest and healthiest produce? Irene.

            Who has more structured play ideas for the grandkids, more energy for them before bedtime? Irene.

            Who knows how to dress me so that I don’t look like something pulled out of the broom closet? Irene.

            Who phones the kids more often, keeps up on their birthdays and anniversaries, and insists that we visit regularly? Irene.

            I know all this. I live with her after all. Irene is smarter than I am. More attractive than I am. More gracious than I am. She works harder than I do.

            The truth is, when I compare myself to the love of my life, I fall short. Ultimately, I don’t mind, of course, since I truly am in love, and adore everything about Irene.

            My problem is that I also compare myself to other people, besides Irene. To people who I don’t necessarily adore like I adore Irene. And when compare myself to some of these people, I again find myself lacking, and I find that irritating. Such comparisons weigh on me, like the dark.

            I compare myself to newly published novelists and doubt that I’ll ever be as good a writer as they are. So, I struggle with insecurity.

            I compare myself to the other sixty-year old men in the gym—many of them lithe and muscular, and I realize that compared to them I’m a jelly donut. I struggle with body image. 

            I compare myself to some of my activist-minister colleagues—you know, the ones who have time to show up at every demonstration on behalf of a good cause, who blog and organize for the environment or against racism—I compare myself to some of my activist-minister colleagues, and I feel as if I just don’t have the energy, the get up and go, the time to do likewise. 

            I compare myself to some of my classmates from the PhD program in Communication Theory that I was part of many moons ago, and I’m a bit jealous that I didn’t go for a cushy tenured teaching job like some of them did. 

            I compare myself to members of my congregation, too, sometimes. It is hard not to. There are, among them, some very successful, very wealthy people. I’m not wealthy, and if the truth be told, it can be hard, or confusing, or even a bit scary negotiating the pastoral do’s and don’ts of being a minister in that kind of context. There are some members in my church who have been recognized nationally for their charitable or business achievements. I have not been so recognized. There are some LPCC members who feel comfortable walking the halls of power in the city, province, or even nationally. Not me. It can be humbling to be a minister in this sort of context, where there are so many accomplished people all about. I think it could be the occasion for some jealousy on my part, or even, more darkly, resentment. I don’t think it has been--not yet, at least--but I think most of the parishioners in my congregation can understand the temptation.

            By the same token, when I compare myself to others in the churches I have served, I can sometimes feel unaccountably and improperly privileged or accomplished. Some people still look up to ministers, and that can feel--special. Not everyone in my churches has published hundreds of magazine and journal articles or two books, like me. Not everyone has kids as amazing as mine. Such thoughts can be the occasion for some crowing on my part. I try to keep it in check, because these kinds of comparisons are actually very self-serving, but I think most of you can understand the temptation. 

            Listen. When we compare ourselves to some people, we all feel as if we come up short, so we compare ourselves to others and perhaps then we feel a bit better. It’s like we’re in a race—a rat race maybe—straining and failing to catch up to some ahead but looking over our shoulders with a self-satisfied smile at others we have surpassed.

            Comparing ourselves to others, however, is to turn them into benchmarks and it is to miss their essential humanity. You usually don’t see the spirit or light that lives in people you compare yourself to; you only see their adornments, their possessions, their certificates and Facebook Likes or the lack of such honors—which means you never come to really know such people at all, which leads to your own loneliness and alienation. Spending too much time comparing yourself to others invites at least three of the deadly sins into your life: Pride, because I’m not like them. Envy, because I don’t have what they have and I don’t like them for it. And greed too, an unaccountable passion to acquire as much as them, or more, when actually I have quite enough. Like I said, comparing yourself to others is a rat race, and if you are focused on such comparisons, you will suffer the dark of depression, of loneliness, of meaninglessness.

            For all these sorts of reasons, the Apostle Paul, in Galatians 6, urges Church members to take pride in carrying their own loads, and in helping others carrying their heavy loads, and in that way letting their light shine. Then we can take pride in ourselves, rather than comparing ourselves to others.  

            Now, Peterson suggests that the best way deal with the temptation of comparing ourselves to others is to focus on comparing ourselves to who we were yesterday. It just seems like very reasonable advice. 

            But I want to add something to what Peterson says. I’d like to suggest that comparing yourself to others or even to yourself can get in the way of something even more essential, more precious, more desirable. Instead of being focused on comparing, why don’t we focus on letting our light shine? Even if it is just a little light compared to everyone else’s? 

            A year ago, there was a big alt-right, Nazi, Klan demonstration in Charlottesville. One protestor drove down counter protestors with his car, and killed somone? Thirty people were injured.

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou (l) with fellow-clergy singing
"This Little Light of mine."
            Rev. Osagyefo Sekou was there, and he remembers how amped up the protesters were becoming. “The Nazis were marching past us,” he said, “in these various battalions, cursing and yelling—mostly homophobic slurs—at us.”

            So, rather than stick to the plan, which was to give silent witness to nonviolence and peace and compassion, Rev. Sekou started singing. He broke into “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let It Shine.” Sekou and his fellow protesters drowned out the racist cries of the Nazis, who were shouting, “you will not replace us.” 

            “The tension went down,” said Sekou, “and it shook the Nazis. They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”

A Neo-nazi Sekou and friends sang to.
            Listen, comparing yourself to others—or even to who you were yesterday, is to go rooting about for darkness—the darkness that belittles you, shames you, makes you feel inadequate or jealous or not up to snuff. Peterson is right about that. Don’t let the darkness, the "better than" or "worse than," have the last word. Focus, instead, on letting your little light shine. For we all have the light of Christ within, if we only dare let it shine.

            And when I add my light to your light to his or hers and theirs; when our lights shine in community the little becomes big. Don’t compare, instead, carry one another’s loads, says Paul. That will remake us into church, refresh our city, maybe even shake the world.

            Let’s shine our little lights together. When we sponsor refugees. When we bring clothes to the New Circles charity for redistribution. When we build cabins for Camp Scugog and its inner-city kids. When we reach out to our elected officials. When we feed the hungry. When we beautify the church and neighbourhood with flowers and gardens and music. When we say thank you to volunteers. When we open the church doors to community seven days a week. When we sing as one and lift our voices together to insist that what is wrong in the world does not have the last word, but Jesus’ way, whether lived by believers or doubters, Muslims or atheists—Jesus’ way, loving our neighbours—that is our light and we shine together. 

            Don’t spend too much time comparing yourself to others. You would do better, as Peterson suggests, to compare yourself to whoever you were yesterday. But what we really, really ought to do is focus on the light, being the light. Let your little light shine with mine. Don't compare, but dispel the dark instead.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Jordan Peterson, Rule Three: Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You."

            In “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You,” Jordan Peterson actually offers up mostly cautionary stories from his own youth about acquaintances who didn’t want the best for him.

            Chris was a kid who—seriously—made a hobby out of crashing his truck and hating his dad. He tragically died by suicide after suffering a psychotic break. Chris’s cousin Ed, on his first-ever trip out of his village, to Edmonton, spent the weekend in a seedy hotel smoking weed. Peterson’s other acquaintances brandished shotguns, insulted women, fell out of trees half drunk, and spent hours driving their cars in circles around Fairview, Alberta. None amounted to anything, at least by Peterson’s measures.

           And, in his one literary example, Peterson describes how the hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground damned himself by having fun saying, “No, I won’t help you,” to a prostitute, Liza, even though he had earlier given her reason to believe he was a friend. 

            With so-called friends like these—stoners, truck crashers, drunks, and sadistic Johns—with friends like these, who needs enemies? 

            It’s odd. In a chapter entitled “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You,” Peterson spends most of his energy describing a bunch of toxic losers, but never describes true friendship. Peterson does echo warnings you find in the book of Proverbs: “A righteous person is cautious in friendship.” Or again, “A person of many companions may come to ruin; but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." Except that in Peterson’s chapter, it’s all about ruinous companions with nothing about the friend who sticks.

            The little Peterson does say about friends is all implied in the chapter’s title: “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You.” Or, to put it as plainly as I can, “Make friends if they come with benefits.” 

            This is an oddly self-centered, almost narcissistic approach to friend-making, one that is so pragmatic about costs and benefits that it empties friendship of all beauty, ideals, and mystery.

            But when it comes to friendship, that’s about par for the course these days. Friendship has fallen on hard times. We don’t reflect much on it, aspire to make it a life goal, or spend lavishly on it for the pleasure of it. For most of us friendship is an occasional diversion. In life's banquet, we consume friendship like an appetizer. We don’t dwell on it or deeply value it. For example, if your roommate came home late from a date and you asked her if she was late because she had been out with someone special, she might well reply, "Oh, no. He's just a friend." Just a friend. Nothing special.

            The Biblical picture of friendship is quite different. Friendship is actually a kind of love. Here’s the context. The Bible describes at least three kinds of love. There is eros, erotic love, like the love Adam and Eve shared when they were naked and not ashamed; or the love the young man has for a black Shunamite woman in Song of Songs: “How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.” 

            Second, the New Testament emphasizes agape, agapic love. This is the unconditional love for one’s neighbour, as in, “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

            And finally, in the Bible, there is philia, friendship love. Philia is agapic love not for all your neighbours, but for the neighbour who walks with you, shoulder to shoulder, in some shared pursuit or pastime. It is, in other words, unconditional love focussed, over time, on one person. For example, when Jonathan died, David sang, "You were very dear to me Jonathan, my brother.  Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." Proverbs says "A friend loves at all times, but a brother is born for adversity." In John 14, Jesus links love and friendship when he says, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends." How is that for a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of friendship?

            But it isn’t only the Bible that so lavishly values friendship. In the classical and medieval worlds philia love—friendship—was thought of as a higher-level love because it is freely chosen rather than commanded by God or biologically necessary for procreation or desired for sexual pleasure. Both Aristotle and Plato (he of Platonic friendship) wrote extensively about friendship—what it was, why it mattered, and so on. In a world without Facebook and toys, friendship was one of the only games going. And so, it was deeply sought after and cherished.

            Such friendship begins when you join a person in pursuit of a shared goal or vision, and it grows as you discover that the sharing is a pleasure. The thing shared might be as simple as stamp-collecting, or tennis, or even a glass of wine and conversation. But when, either purposely or surprisingly, the shared walk grows into mutual regard, and then into a mutual love of both being-with and being-for another person, that’s friendship. Friendship is agapic love not for every neighbour but for the one you have chosen to walk with.

            Please note. Not just anyone you grow up with, or golf with, or work with is a friend in this sense. Just a few of your two or three hundred or more Facebook friends are friends in this sense. It takes more than liking a post, more than being together; friendship takes a shared sense of a mutual goal or vision that leads to mutual regard that grows over time. 

           The Old Testament story about Job, told in a book with the same title, is mostly there  to help the reader understand—or at least come to grips with the impossibility of understanding—suffering. The story is told, however, as the tale of a couple of friends who try, at least, to be there for each other in a mutual, loving way while in pursuit of a shared goal.

            The hero is Job. In chapter one of his story we learn that he had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, seven sons and three daughters. 

            Then Satan—in the book of Job Satan is one of God’s esteemed cabinet members, and not the demon we’ve made of him since—one day Satan makes a bet with God. Satan says, “you know, if you took everything away from Job—took away his sheep and oxen and children and wealth—Job would curse you rather than worship you.”

            God says, “You’re on.” And so, Satan sends evil Sabeans to run off with Job’s donkeys and oxen and slaughter Job's hired hands. Chaldeans rustle his camels. A storm destroys the house his children are partying at and kills them all. And finally, in chapter 2, Job comes down with leprosy. 

            Job tears his clothes. He shaves his hair. He scratches himself with broken pieces of pottery. Job’s wife says to him, “Hey, why don’t you just curse God and die?” 

            But no. Instead, Job says, rather philosophically, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I’m not sure I like the theology here, but it’s what Job believed.

            So, Job lost everything. Everything, except his friends.

            According to the story told in the Bible, Eliphaz Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite heard of their friend’s misfortune, and so went to visit. When they saw him, they wept aloud, tore their clothes, put sand and ashes in their hair. Then they sat down with Job for seven days and nights without saying a word. Sat silently. “For they saw that Job’s suffering was great.”

            Well, I’ve heard of dropping by a friend’s house when he or she needs a hand. I’ve heard of going to the hospital for twenty-minute visits when someone has surgery. I’ve heard of travelling across the country to go to a friend’s wedding or funeral. I’ve even heard of travelling around the world with a friend, for months on end, to have fun. 

            But to sit a week, silently, to share a friend’s suffering while trying to understand it--that’s not anything like the toxic acquaintances Peterson warns against, nor is it anything like his “friends with benefits,” notion of seeking out friendships only after doing a cost-benefit analysis to make sure the friendship will leave you a net-profit-of-some-sort benefit.

            After a week of silence, Job and his friends spend forty more chapters discussing the meaning of Job’s suffering, trying to understand a misfortune that all humans must sometimes face. Like many friends, Job’s pals didn’t agree about the subject of their talking together. But they did share in this pursuit, this love of truth, while continuing to express their deep regard for Job. Remember, philia is agapic love for someone who walks with you, shoulder to shoulder, in some shared pursuit or pastime—perhaps a pursuit for truth or pleasure, but in Job’s case even the reality of shared suffering.

            Peterson entitles his chapter “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You.” I’d say, instead, make friends with people you enjoy walking with, sharing with, and who you hold in high regard. Along the way, you will discover that this sort of philia grows into its own kind of love, a love not subject to cost-benefit analysis before anything else—but a love that is very, very good all on its own.