12 Rules for Life – Part 3 of 3

I’ve decided to share these quotes in the order they appear in the book, plus occasional commentary. All quotes are from the 2018 hardcover edition.

Key:

  • plaintext – Worthy quotes
  • bold – Favorite quotes
  • italics – Quotes I disliked

12 Rules for Life: Best and Worst Quotes

The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism.  It’s not communism, either, for that matter . . . We (the sovereign we, the we that has been around since the beginning of life) have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time. (p. 14) – Agreed, seems pretty self-evident.

. . . the familiar Western images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male dual unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ.  (p. 42) – “traditional insistence on the androgyny,” what is he talking about?

You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. (p. 62)

. . . a villain who despairs of his villainy has not become a hero.  A hero is something positive, not just the absence of evil.  (p. 78) – Exactly!

. . . winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult.  You might be winning, but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning.  (p. 88)

Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight?  Could you, and would you, fix that one thing that announces itself humbly in need of repair?  (p. 94)

What would your life look like, if it were better?  (p. 100)

The Old Testament Israelites and their forebears knew that God was not to be trifled with, and that whatever Hell the angry Deity might allow to be engendered if he was crossed was real.  Having recently passed through a century defined by the bottomless horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we might realize the same thing.  (p. 105) – This is a terrible example of conflating all evils with “judgment from God.”  It’s not biblical (see Job).  Granted, Peterson here is speaking of the “Old Testament God” as a concept, not necessarily as a real Person.  But this kind of thing is what I meant by “repurposing the Bible” to fit a philosophy.

. . . if  you look close enough, the biggest of lies is composed of smaller lies, and those are composed of still smaller lies – and the smallest of lies is where the big lie starts. (p. 228)

People think they think, but it’s not true.  It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking . . . Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world. (p. 241)

The past is not necessarily what it was, even though it has already been. (p. 267) – On second reading, I’m not exactly sure this makes logical sense, but I get the gist of it, and it’s a hard truth.

Assume ignorance before malevolence. No one has a direct pipeline to your wants and needs – not even you.  (p. 320) – Good advice for managing conflict.

When [boys] told off the teachers, they were pushing against the authority, to see if there was any real authority there – the kind that could be relied on, in principle, in a crisis. (p. 331) – Yeah, I’m not really buying that one.  Backtalk is backtalk, let’s not romanticize it.

Maybe the environmental problem is ultimately spiritual. If we put ourselves in order, perhaps we will do the same for the world. (p. 364)

12 Rules for Life – Part 2 of 3

A solzhenitsin
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by Evstafiev
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“No one could stand up for communism after The Gulag Archipelago – not even the communists themselves.” (12 Rules for Life, p. 310)

I would like to think that’s true.  Unfortunately, admiration for Joseph Stalin is, by all appearances, far from dead.  The mass murderer has been rebranded as a WWII hero first and dictator second. While not all Russians subscribe to that narrative, there are some who are nostalgic for the USSR.

I once briefly dated someone who felt that way.  It wasn’t apparent on first impressions, but, as we got to know each other better, I learned he was an ardent Stalinist, fully heroizing Stalin and believing all the bad to be exaggerations, lies, or American propaganda, or (barring all that) nothing any worse than what U.S. presidents had done.  Though born in a former Soviet republic, he was not really old enough to remember life in the Soviet Union, yet to him it seemed to be a Golden Age he’d missed out on.

There is really no arguing with someone so dogmatic about their beliefs.  In a certain sense, I can empathize.  I have very strongly anti-communist views, and they are shaped by my family’s background just as, I am sure, his beliefs were cemented by his background.

Chaos, Order, and Communism

There is one place in 12 Rules for Life where Peterson refers to the atrocities of the 20th century as being central to his motivation for formulating his philosophy.  He wanted to know why and how such things could happen.  Throughout the book, he calls out Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China as examples of what can go wrong when, in his viewpoint, you don’t successfully walk the fine line between Chaos and Order.

What are Chaos and Order?  From the Overture (aka introduction):

Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative.  It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity . . .

Chaos, by contrast is where – or when – something unexpected happens . . .  It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture, is simultaneously birth and demise). (p. xxviii)

He adds that Order is symbolically masculine and Chaos is symbolically feminine.

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s no coincidence.  True to his fame, Peterson draws largely upon mythology and Easter and Western religions in this book, including Yin and Yang.  It would be an understatement to say that Peterson uses these narratives as mere analogies.  More on that later…

It’s hard to argue against what seems to be self-evident: the world (both civilizations and uncultivated nature) is essentially binary or polar, in everything from hot vs. cold, north vs. south, and theft vs. charity.  Which is not to say there is no room for nuance or gradients.  It’s just that we live in a world where contrast is the framework upon which everything else hangs.  While, through a Christian lens, I see the moral contrast as being instead Good vs. Evil (and without a gender, symbolic or otherwise), Peterson’s case for Chaos vs. Order – neither one innately immoral unless taken to excess – is a compelling stance.

He always goes back to the Cold War as an example of when Things Fall Apart.  Some may find this repetitive, but I have to say this really hit home with me.  My dad fled a communist country when he was a teenager.  My closest college mentor was a Soviet dissident, and in his case, he escaped a sentence to hard labor.

One of the worst things anyone ever said in my presence was “I’m interested in communism,” with the same nonchalance that you might say “I might want to take up golf.”  It’s a nonchalance that doesn’t understand the broken families, trauma, and unspeakable hardships brought on by that ideology.  I’ll take my former friend’s dogma over nonchalance any day; a casual treatment of the subject is doubly offensive.  (To be fair to the speaker, they didn’t know my personal backstory.  I could have said something, but the context of the conversation was too frivolous to even go there.)

Peterson, at least, gets it, and he takes it seriously.

The Bible References – A Christian Perspective

The biggest complaint I see about this book is the “Bible talk.”  And yes, there are a LOT of biblical references in 12 Rules.

Peterson starts out in the first chapters by retelling the Genesis story of Creation, including Cain and Abel and Original Sin, and later on in the book talks about Jesus’s life and death as well.  You’ll often see mentions of God, or what might be more accurate, “god” with a capital “G.”

To go by his writing, Peterson does not seem to be a Christian.  He has identified as Christian in the recent past (2017), but truthfully, that label doesn’t mesh with the way he talks about God in this book.  At times I found it actually offensive, nothing like the “preachiness” other readers may be expecting as they flip through the pages.

He doesn’t seem to take the Bible as holistic truth, as a Christian does, but rather as a book of universal truths, formulated by humans.  He retells Bible stories in a way I had heard of but had never read before – in the most symbolic and broad sense.  God is symbolic, Adam and Eve are symbolic, etc.  Once in a while, some of his commentary made me look at a passage in a different light, for the better.  Most of the time, though, I was either upset with his handling of the Scripture or just about laughing over it.  Watching him try to condense and stuff the Bible into his philosophy was like watching someone stumble around in shoes two sizes too small.

For a Christian, this is a very serious problem with the book.  In order to sort out the gems from the duds, you have to read it critically, because Peterson, if nothing else, is a persuasive and authoritative writer.  If you are a Christian who holds him in very high esteem, you’re going to be disappointed by what is not even theology, but a general repurposing of the Bible for his philosophy.  It’s as if Hollywood made a movie about your family member and changed their whole personality.  It’s not ok.

I struggle with whether to purchase books like this.  Due to its scope and some really good parts, it is one I wish to re-read, but I’m not sure I’d like to display it on my bookshelf when much of it is so problematic.

The Book He Should Have Written

After finishing the book, I stand by my first impression.  Peterson should have written a memoir, or a novel.

The personal anecdotes are not many, but each one was fascinating, from his run-ins with his friend Chris to his daughter’s struggle with childhood arthritis.  I also enjoyed the scenarios from his clinical practice and hearing about advice he had given various patients, and the thought processes that go into being a psychologist.

Peterson certainly has an appreciation for literature.  I loved the references to The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, and Disney’s Little Mermaid.  It made me want to go back and read those books and find things I’d missed.

In the next part, I’ll share the best and worst quotes.  There’s quite a few, and mostly good ones.

The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank lacht naar de schoolfotograaf

…I seem to have everything, except my one true friend.  All I think about when I’m with friends is having a good time.  I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things.  We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem.

As I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, two things really struck me.  The first was that humans, ordinary humans, can turn cruel so quickly and completely.  The second was that, even as an adult, I could see pieces of my own life in Anne’s, because her writing, in so many ways, is ageless.

It’s one of the most famous memoirs of all time, so many people know the story: a Jewish family in Holland is compelled to go into hiding after the Nazi takeover, and the youngest daughter records their experiences in her diary.  I had heard much about the book but put off reading it, due to my emotional experience with similar memoirs (The Hiding Place, Night, and From the Ashes of Sobibor).  Though different in scope and perspective from those other books, The Diary is every bit as emotional and, while difficult to put down, cannot be read lightly.

Anne’s first entries show the Frank family before they went into hiding, making the best life they could under an increasingly oppressive police state.  When she was about twelve, Anne and her sister were forced to transfer to the Jewish Lyceum school due to segregation by Nazi mandate.  Always intent to be cheerful, she writes joyfully of her friends and admirers at the new school.  Of the discrimination against Jews – from harsh curfews to exclusion from public transportation – she writes very matter-of-factly, in a bluntness that carries through the rest of the diary.

Even at thirteen, when she began writing, Anne seemed to have a sense for what was important to record; later, she told her imaginary friend “Kitty” that she wanted to become a writer or journalist when she grew up.  What results is a fascinating combination of personal (even intimate) anecdotes and journalistic writing about the family’s day-to-day activities and the progress of the war. 

The Frank family was not alone; they shared the “Secret Annex” with the van Daan family and a middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Dussel.  For two years, the eight people were cooped up together in the tiny hidden rooms, fearful of making noise or being seen by the outside world.  Understandably, tempers often ran high.  Much of the book covers the conflict between Anne and everyone else, as it seems (at least from her perspective) she was frequently the target of the grown-ups’ frustrations.  In the Definitive Edition which I read, even the arguments between Anne and her mother are included.  The whole dynamic is extremely believable, and I would imagine the situation caused the majority of the friction between people who would otherwise have got along pretty well.

What is most enduring to me about Anne’s diary is just that: its honesty.  There’s the day-to-day dramas, traumas, and bathroom jokes, which make the characterizations so real.  Then there’s the introspection, self-analysis, and over-analysis which ring true for a girl in her early teens.  Anne’s desire to be taken seriously and understood is something I could so well relate to at that age, and reading it now was like a flashback to my own diary.  Less relatable for me was her enthusiasm about puberty and “growing up,” but I think a lot of other readers would be able to relate to that.

There were many great quotes, but I wanted to end with one that I found especially insightful, as well as chilling:

I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists.  Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago!  There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.  And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

The Frank family, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel were eventually captured on August 4, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot were separated from their parents and, within about six months, had been murdered through the terrible conditions in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor.

As I remember Anne Frank and her family, I also pray for those who are suffering persecution today, such as Pastor Wang Yi.  We shouldn’t forget that history is repeating itself, even today, all over the world.

Falling in Love with Fiction

Occasionally you stumble across some historical story so weird it could only have happened in in real life.  Exhibit A: the mysterious lover of Nikolay Gumilyov.

Ngumil
Nikolay Gumilyov

Who was Nikolay Gumilyov?  Born in 1886, he grew up well educated and began writing poetry at a young age, becoming first published, in fact, at around age 16.  Gumilyov spent much of his life as a man of letters and established poet, but he also served in the Russian cavalry in WWI.  He was executed in 1921 on suspicions of being part of a monarchist conspiracy. 

When he was still a young man and writing for a journal called Apollon, he fell in love with the author of some poems which had been submitted for publication.  Here I quote Wikipedia:

In August 1909, the famous Russian artistic periodical Apollon received a letter with verses on a perfumed paper with black mourning edges, signed only by a single Russian letter Ch. The verses were filled with half-revelations about its author—supposedly a beautiful maiden with dark secrets . . . Over the next few months, publications of the newfound poetic star were the major hit of the magazine, and many believed that they had found a major new talent in Russian poetry. The identity of the author was slowly revealed: her name was Baroness Cherubina de Gabriak, a Russian-speaking girl of French and Polish ancestry who lived in a very strict Roman Catholic aristocratic family, who severely limited the girl’s contacts with the outside world because of an unspoken secret in her past. Almost all of Apollon’s male writers fell in love with her, most of all the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov. He wrote a series of passionate love letters to her and received quite passionate answers.

The mystery of the newfound genius was short-lived. In November it was discovered that the verses were written by a disabled schoolteacher, Elisaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva, with the participation of a major Apollon contributor and editor, the poet Maximilian Voloshin. 

Apparently, Voloshin and Dmitrieva came up with this scheme as a sort of publicity stunt in order to get her published.  Gumilyov, as you can imagine, was not amused.  The fallout between him and Voloshin eventually led to a duel, which (fortunately) did nothing to help sore feelings but at least resulted in no casualties, as Gumilyov missed and Voloshin couldn’t handle a gun.

Elisaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva, AKA
Cherubina de Gabriak

You can read more about the love triangle here.  It’s quite a soap opera and makes the Charlotte Bronte’s “Currer Bell” seem mild by comparison!

No-No Boy and What It Means to Be American

Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? 
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?  

No-No Boy follows the post-war lives of two young Seattleites: Ichiro Yamada and Kenji Kanno.  Published in 1957, John Okada’s only novel takes a raw cross section of Japanese-American society and examines it through the eyes of these characters who made very different choices.

When called to the draft, Ichiro followed his mother’s guidance and answered “no” to both “loyalty questions,” resulting in imprisonment.  After two years, he is released from prison to a community which abhors him for his decision, almost as much as he hates himself.  Kenji, on the other hand, volunteered for combat, with the hesitant support of his father.  He returns to Seattle as a hero, yet carrying an infected wound that is eating away at his life.

This was a tough book to get through because it is dark, ugly, and depressing.  There are endless descriptions of hatred and bitterness among family members, friends, and strangers.  Nearly every character is conscious of a hideous silence in their lives and attempts to fill it with noise like alcohol, foul language, and random hookups.  Bleak is an understatement; I was almost compelled not to finish it.

Still, you’re haunted by the impression it rings true.  Okada lived through the events he described; he was a student at the UW when his family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho and, like Kenji, he went on to serve in the U.S. military, translating commands to surrender (p. 256).  Each character is so vividly painted, they must have some origin in real life – even, maybe, Ichiro’s mother, whose belief in Japanese victory drives her insane.

The best parts of the book are Ichiro’s internal monologues, where he wonders whether society will ever forgive him for being a “no-no boy” and allow him to live a normal life; whether the Japanese-American community will recover from its divisions; whether one day all he will see is “people” and not different races mistreating each other.  He alternates between despair and hope.

. . . in time there will again be a place for me. I will buy a home and love my family and I will walk down the street holding my son’s hand . . . it will not matter about the past, for time will have erased it from our memories and there will be only joy and sorrow and sickness, which is the way things should be. (p. 52)

It is hard to give No-No Boy a rating.  It’s truly a unique novel, being (as far as I know) the first of its kind and maybe the only novel on this particular aspect of the Japenese-American experience in WWII.  There’s some moments of true brilliance, leading me to think Okada could have become a famous 20th-century author.  However, apart from the overwhelmingly grim atmosphere, I found the ending to be disappointing.  There were one or two potential plot twists that never came to fruition, so Ichiro’s character arc made little progress in the end.  I’ll settle on a middle-of-the-road rating: 3 stars.