What kind of book is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life?
Is it self-help, or is it a book about faith? Does it prescribe self-reliance or does it point to Christ as the means of salvation – as the antidote to chaos?
I haven’t yet finished the book, so I hesitate to return my own verdict on that question, but I must say that I was struck by the similarity or symmetry I saw between Peterson’s first chapter and the fifth chapter of the Book of Galatians.
The first chapter in 12 Rules has to do with lobsters, sort of. Lobsters, you see, are territorial creatures that battle one another for the best lobster real estate.
Peterson writes about what happens to a lobster contending for territory when he wins the fight. As you might imagine, victory is a real shot in the arm for the winner. The juices (serotonin – the chemical for confidence and good mood) really start to flow. The conquering lobster gains confidence and his posture straightens up and he becomes the cock of the walk, so to speak. In the lobster world the winners get all the girls: “A flexed lobster extends its appendages so that it can look tall and dangerous, like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western.” . The losers just keep on losing in every way.
Peterson says that our brains are like those of the lobsters in that we react to victory or defeat in much the same way. Our battles are more subtle, though. Rather than a single, physical wrestling match making all the difference, our brains have in them – at the very bottom, so low that we are unaware of it – a “calculator” that keeps track of where we are in the social hierarchy. It measures our ranking by the way other people treat us.
I don’t find that hard to believe at all. Here is a very mundane example. If I have a conversation with a stranger in the gym and the next time I see that guy he calls me by my name, it’s a tiny rush for me. I can kind of feel the calculator turning in a positive direction. I matter. I made an impression. How about that? On the other hand, when I see someone who I have known a long time and he greets me in a way that suggests he’s forgotten my name, the calculator spins the other way.
When your inner calculator assigns you a low social rank, it restricts the flow of serotonin in the brain. This leads to all kinds of bad consequences. You become quick to perceive anything as a threat. Your brain assumes that you are “operating at the bottom” where:
Even the smallest unexpected impediment might produce an uncontrollable chain of negative events, which will have to be handled alone, as useful friends are rare indeed, on society’s fringes.
You are constantly on the lookout for some shoe to fall somewhere and this hyper alertness uses up energy that might have been otherwise productively applied. This is stress. Even your immune system is overtaxed now, and you are more vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.
What’s more, your system becomes so convinced that your possibilities for anything good are so very limited that:
You will jump, for example, at any short-term mating opportunities, or any possibilities of pleasure, no matter how sub-par, disgraceful or illegal
And you will accordingly be more vulnerable to”
the dangerous temptations of drugs and alcohol, which are much more rewarding if you have been deprived of pleasure for a long period.
You know if you read this blog regularly that I am a fan of Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, known as The Message. No, that’s not quite right. I am a fan of some of his translation – particularly the translations of the Epistles and most particularly his translation of the book of Galatians. I heard somewhere that Eugene Peterson translated the book of Galatians first and that’s how the whole Bible translation project got started. If that’s true, then I think his first work was his best. I love his translation of the fifth chapter. Here’s how he translates verses 19 and following in describing what life is like outside of Christ:
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic show religion; paranoid loneliness . . . . the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions
Is it just me, folks, or is the similarity between the low-serotonin life that Jordan Peterson describes and the life outside of Christ that Eugene Peterson, translating the Apostle Paul, describes just staggering?
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin – the winners.
When our societal rank score is high, the calculator releases the good stuff – serotonin – and all kinds of good things follow. Jordan Peterson tells us that your brain is confident that:
Your niche is secure, productive and safe, and that you are well buttressed with social support. It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can safely be discounted. Change might be opportunity, instead of disaster.
. . . It is worthwhile to think in the long term and plan for a better tomorrow. You don’t need to grasp impulsively at whatever crumbs come your way, because you can realistically expect good things to remain available. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.
What a wonderful life! Now look at Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Apostle Paul’s description of the life in Christ:
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart . .. . We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.