Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Jordan Peterson Rule Six Redo: Strive to Improve the World While You Work on Yourself, Too

            Sometimes, perhaps too often, the Bible is read as if it was a casting call for what it takes to be a good Christian. For example, those readers who attend church have all heard preachers say things like we need to have to have faith as strong as Abraham’s, or passion for God as wide and deep as King David’s; we ought to dare to be Daniels and have the bravado of the Apostle Peter.

            Ironically, most Biblical heroes, including Abraham and David and Daniel and Peter, were actually deeply-flawed humans we really don’t want to emulate. I mean it.

            For all his faith, Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God when he told them that they would have a son. And, far worse, they sent Abraham’s eldest son Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, into the desert to die because Sarah was jealous of them. How’s that for a house in perfect order? Would you want to emulate Sarah or Abraham?

           When King David saw Bathsheba bathing, he knew he’d have to have her, no matter the price. And the price was steep. To hide his affair and her pregnancy, David had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah murdered in battle. That dysfunction set the pattern for the rest of David’s life. His eldest son Ammon raped his sister Tamar. Another son killed Ammon, and then staged a coup against David. Not a house in order. 

            And Peter? 

           Well it is fair to say that, at best, he had a rocky relationship with Jesus. That was never more on display, of course, than on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter screwed up the courage to follow Jesus’ armed guards to the High Priest’s house. Then, just inside the courtyard, by the fire, a servant girl asks if Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

            When a second woman asks Peter if he followed Jesus, Peter doesn’t merely claim ignorance, he flat out denies Jesus.  “I don’t know the man!” 

            Finally, a whole group of people standing round the fire notice that Peter is speaking with a Galilean accent. They figure he just has to be a follower of Jesus and say so. This time Peter calls down curses from heaven. “He swore,” says Matthew. And then, hearing the rooster crow, Peter goes off and weeps bitterly. Some rock. Some model for what it takes to be a good person, never mind a good Christian. 

            Now, all of these Biblical heroes, and many more: Abraham, Sarah, Daniel, Samson, Gideon, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Rahab, Jonah, Peter and the disciples stand as a warning against the idea of treating the Bible as a book full of heroes we should emulate. 

           Perhaps even more seriously, we can pass on trying to emulate Abraham or David or Peter because, in their failures we see ourselves. We are already like them. We are deeply flawed too. 

            Now, I am not going to pull out my former Calvinist doctrine of “total depravity,” here, and argue that we are all absolutely divorced from God and good. But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater either. We need to be honest not only about our strengths, but also our weaknesses.

            All of us—every last one of us—no matter how good a dad or mom we are, no matter whether we’ve earned millions or accolades at work, no matter whether we’ve won awards from governments or boards or NGOs—each of us, like every Biblical hero, each of us is also deeply flawed. 

          We all need new beginnings. Our tempers are short. We take the easy or expedient way out sometimes, rather than stand on principle. We hold grudges. We’re addicted to cigarettes or cigars, porn or praise, alcohol or the internet. We refuse to be vulnerable with our kids when it comes to our weaknesses or emotionally available for our spouses when they need us. We fudge on our income tax. We speed. We get angry too fast and apologize far too infrequently and slowly. We engage in petty white-collar crime. Not everyone of us does all these things, not by a long shot. As it is with most Biblical heroes, none of us has our house in perfect order, either. This just is the human condition. 

            It can be very depressing. But this is where Christianity can help us. Jesus freely offered an antidote to the reality of our flaws. The antidote is grace. In the big, cosmic picture, the gospel message is this: Try to be like Jesus. But when you or I sometimes fail, as we undoubtedly will, don’t give up, don’t freeze, don’t think of yourself as worthless. God, after all, is not keeping a scorecard. God always welcomes your new beginnings. 

            Jordan Peterson, on the other hand, says, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” And what I’d like to know is this. Who has ever set their house in perfect order? This “perfect order,” is a high bar. No one in the Bible, excepting—maybe—Jesus, has ever met it. 

            And yet. Abraham and Sarah managed—at least according to the myths—birth a nation. David made that nation an empire that eventually gave us the Law and Prophets. And Peter and his pals not only criticized their world, but went on to build a church that has now existed, for better or worse, for 2,000 years. None of these institutions or nations were or are perfect; but all have also made great contributions to human well-being through the centuries. These institutions, like the people who founded and support them, are flawed and need grace but have the capacity to do great things. 

            The thing us, we can criticize the world, and in fact (and even better), work to make the world a better place, even if we are flawed, because the grace Jesus preached, the clean slate we have with God or the cosmos or karma or whatever you want to call it—the grace Jesus preached is an invitation to keep trying to love neighbour, even when you fail; to keep striving against the injustices of the Roman Empire or the Religious Establishment, even if you are a coward. The grace Jesus preached is an invitation to new beginnings even when last year (or last night) was a bit of an embarrassment to you. Grace is your endless well of motivation to strive for better rather than worry about setbacks. Grace isn’t salvation from sin, it is rather, as John Caputo would say, God haunting our souls with the desire to do better; God whispering in our ears that our families, our churches, and our city and world—all of it deserves our best, if flawed, efforts. Grace is God’s prayer to us to give being God’s hands and feet a whirl, again and again.

            So no, Jordan Peterson, I don’t think it is “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” It should be, rather, “Strive to improve the world, while you work on yourself, too.” Working on ourselves and the world together is a single project. Grace makes doing both—working on the world, and working on yourself—plausible and possible, an antidote to our flaws. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Not Really About Jordan Peterson #5: Let Go But Don't Withdraw from Your Adult Children

            Jordan Peterson says, “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” It has a nice ring to it, and on the whole, Peterson makes some sense in this chapter—if you are talking about young children. 

            Mind you, what Peterson writes irks me sometimes. I don’t like what he says about hitting kids. He’s generally not for it, but makes exceptions. I disagree. I don’t like what he says about single parents, either. He thinks single parenting is a bad idea, while I think it’s a different idea with its own unique challenges and rewards.

            But Peterson is writing about parenting little kids, and when I was done the chapter, as a father of adult children myself, and as the son of an elderly parent, I wondered “but how does one parent adult children?”

Jordan Peterson doesn't write about older parents and
their adult children
            You know. These older kids are in their thirties or fifties. They are still tied to you by cords of love and affection, but those cords can fray and strain under pressure. You know what I mean.

            For example. Let’s say Peter and Joyce love their son Joe. What is more, the three of them share great memories together of Joe’s early years—memories of camping trips and dinner discussions, of hockey tournaments and family Christmases. Peter and Joyce gave Joe a close to ideal childhood.

            But then Joe grows up, goes to university, gets married—very happily—and he and his wife take a very different approach to dealing with life than Joe’s parents took. Joe lets his kids stay up all hours without supervision, until they fall in their tracks, exhausted. Joe and his wife don’t cook and feed the kids mostly pizza and McDonalds and Chinese take-out. Joe uses physical punishment on his children that he himself never experienced. Joe also turns out to be a poor money manager, and so he and his family have to live in a small apartment while juggling huge consumer debts. And yet Joe and his wife somehow find the money to drive a new Audi and take annual vacations in Italy or the Caribbean. Joe, unlike his dad, doesn’t dress for success, doesn’t go to his parents’ church or gym or barber anymore, and forgets his parents’ birthdays.

            Joe is a dramatic case, but he’s also a good example for how love does not solve every practical issue or potential arena for disagreement between parents and their adult kids. And while Joe is a sort of bumbling example of how children can choose a very different path than their parents did, it is also true that there actually are lots of potential areas of disagreement between older parents and their adult children. They can disagree about things like personal loans and their repayment, or not; different ideas about estate planning or charity; health and mental competency issues; how-close-to-live-to-each-other decisions; and even about the level of honest, emotional disclosure and sharing between older parents and their adult children.

            As I thought about this large reality, I also realized that there is very, very little—perhaps nothing—in the Bible about how parents should treat their adult children. There are some stories that involve the two. King David’s adult son Absalom staged a military coup against his father, and when Absalom died, David was so heartbroken and paralyzed over his rebellious son’s death that his loyal supporters were angered. An old prophet and priest named Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who stole from the tabernacle offerings. Eli didn’t know how to handle it so God took the priesthood away from Eli’s family and made little Samuel his next great prophet. King Solomon once threw a spear at his son Jonathan, in anger. Not a great role model. 

            The story that seems the most likely candidate for addressing the relationship between parents and their adult children is the parable of the prodigal son. The barely-adult child, here, asked for his inheritance and wasted it. When he came home a pauper, his older father received the foolish son back with open arms.

            But honestly, this parable is not about parents and adult children. This parable is about the shocking quality of God’s love. Because, you see, no parent of adult children would ever be as gracious as the divine father. That’s the whole point of the parable. Beyond this, there isn’t anything in the Bible explicitly meant as instruction for parents on how to parent adult children.

            In a way, this isn’t a surprise. During the Roman Empire era, it is estimated by demographers that of children alive at age ten, half would die by the age of fifty. There were many, many fewer older adults with adult children in Bible times than now; and even those elderly parents lived, on average, much shorter lives than we do. We sometimes forget what a profound impact modern medicine has had on our lifespans.

            So, how do we do it? Or better yet, since every situation is different and unique, are there at least some principles that we can use as guidelines for how we should parent adult children? I think there are—at least two of them. My Peterson-type rule would be “Let Go but Don’t Withdraw.”

            First, let go. Do not pursue your children. At marriage, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” While I’m not a literalist about such things, in general, parents should let go of their children, whether into marriage or into coupledom of another kind, or into adult singleness—children must be allowed to truly leave their first home behind. 

            And once they are gone, let them go. You raised them to become independent, you must risk letting them be so. Don’t pursue them. Don’t hover over them as if you were quarterbacking a powerplay. Don’t offer unsolicited advice about finances, about when to have children, about where to live, about how to treat siblings, or about how often to visit. Don’t nag your kids to get the results you want—don’t nag them about vacation locations or visit frequency or what they feed their kids or how late they stay up. Don’t compare how well you did at their age to how they’re doing—by any measure: financial, number of children, happiness, marital age. Don’t make snarky ironic or sarcastic remarks about their dress or jobs or cars or bank account or parenting. In Galatians 5:15, Paul says, to church members—the family of God, and so somewhat applicable to biological families too, “Don’t bite and devour one another. Take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Let them go. 

            This means, by the way, that you must also let go of the inevitable discomfort and even anger you will feel as your children reflect on whether or not you were a good parent in your day (and believe me, you were not perfect). Kids of all ages will always judge their parents, often with a very myopic view of their own parenting. Wise parents, in response, let it go . . . they don’t get angry or defensive; they apologize if apologies are asked for; and they continue trying to be good parents.

            Paul also says in Galatians 6 that we are “called to freedom.” Paul is referencing, here, the freedom we have in our hearts to follow Jesus no matter what governments or friends or employers or emperors or parents might say about it. This is the same freedom belongs to your children. Don’t pursue them beyond what their freedom to let you in invites.

            So, don’t pursue your children, but second, don’t withdraw, either. Love one another, says Paul, applying what Jesus said about how we should treat all people to how we should treat people who sit in the pews with us, and what certainly applies to how we should treat our adult children, too. Don’t use the letting go, the freedom, as an excuse to indulge yourself by letting go so completely that the love is no longer tangible. Let go, but don’t withdraw.

            Withdrawal is a refusal to nurture your relationship with adult children, and in extreme cases a decision to sever the relationship, to wash your hands of them. What does withdrawal look like? It is rarely or not ever inviting your kids into your life socially. It is a refusal to be there—as you are able—to help with things like doing renovations or a short-term loan or celebrating a promotion. Withdrawal is making shared arrangements for babysitting or visiting or birthday gatherings so difficult and opaque for your adult children to arrange so as to suggest you are really not interested. It is to keep secrets about your finances or wills or power of attorney wishes so that your children do not know your intentions and are forced to live in the dark, where mistakes are made and things go bump in the night. Withdrawal is to evince a total lack of curiosity about your children’s lives, their hopes, and dreams. It is to refuse to answer the phone; it is to go away without telling the kids where; it is to keep secrets about your health, or your relationships, or your problems, or your depression, so that kids who would help if asked, are never asked. 

            Listen—letting go while not withdrawing requires older parents of adult children to walk a fine line. I do not want to suggest for even one moment that knowing my two principles are a cure all for all the practical problems that older parents face with their adult children. And I have said nothing at all about the adult children’s responsibility in these relationships. Some adult children withdraw or cling unhealthily, no matter what their older parents try. But that is another blog for another time. 

            So finally, if you are in doubt about the fine line between letting go but not withdrawing, consider trying, at least, to talk to your children about it. Tell them you want to let go but stay in close touch. Sit and listen carefully as you give your children time to reflect on what you are saying, and respond. But as an older parent, be up front. Be open. Talk about it together, if you can. You are, after all, all adults.