One Thousand Words or So

Happiness is Overrated

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos was the book I found myself cozying up with at teatime. The ten pages of the introduction (Peterson calls it the “Overture”) are marked with a dozen little Post-It Notes. I figured I’d try to deal here with the paragraphs that I marked, but I doubt I’ll get to all twelve. Two or three might be feasible.

Peterson uses the Overture to explain how he came to write the book, and it’s rather interesting. One circumstance piggybacked onto another and another and before you know it, he got a contract with Random House Canada. At one point along the line (in March of 2012), a literary agent contacted Peterson after hearing him speak on a radio show. The topic of his talk? That happiness as a goal in life is a pretty lousy idea. (By the way, how many times have you heard parents say about their children, “I just want them to be happy”?) In his presentation, Peterson shared some of what he learned through his deep dive into the history of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, noting that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that the ideology that humans are created for happiness is a pitiful one “done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel.”

It brings to mind A Gentleman in Moscow and young, idealistic Nina. (I wrote about her a few days ago). At this point in the book, Nina’s happiness and hope in communism has been done in by the train carrying her husband to Siberia.

Back to Peterson, though, and what he wrote:

In a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual. On the radio show, I suggested, instead, that a deeper meaning was required. I noted that the nature of such meaning was constantly re-presented in the great stories of the past, and that it had more to do with developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness.

Jane Eyre could have chosen happiness by running away with Mr. Rochester. Parzival could have given up on the Grail and indulged in sexual pleasure. Anne Shirley could have turned her back on Marilla and gone away to college. What would we think of them if they had? We’d likely pair Jane up with Emma Bovary, looking to the two of them whenever we need a reminder that “You Only Live Once” is really not the best plan of action for a satisfying and gratifying life. We might throw our hands up in the air and exasperatedly ask, “Not you, too, Parzival?” And with Anne? Yes, we might understand how she could have made the choice, but we’d still wish she had taken the harder path.

We cannot know the outcome of our actions. We can make the choice we think will bring us happiness, but there are no guarantees. How long does happiness even last? Until the novelty wears off? Until someone better comes along? Until we are asked to choose again?

In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle writes:

In our daily living the actions we choose, from within our own skins, as the best possible under the circumstances, may well turn out to have been the wrong ones. Something we regret at the time as abysmally stupid may well end up being the one thing needed under the circumstances. We are trapped in un-knowing. …

Literature deals with this inability to see around the corner, and the disastrous results when we play at being God. The Macbeths could have refused to heed the witch’s foreseeing that Macbeth would wear a crown. …

We don’t know. We can only make guesses, and our guesses may be wrong. Far too often in this confused world we are faced with choices, all of which are wrong, and the only thing we can do, in fear and trembling, is to choose the least wrong, without pretending to ourselves that it is right. As I look at all the great protagonists of literature, from Greek drama to the contemporary novel, and add up the results of the all the choices, and the motivation behind the choices, I keep coming back to that reason of my husband’s for turning down a lead role in a cheap play:

Do we want the children to see it? That’s as good a criterion as any I’ve found.

Okay, so that was one of the paragraphs I found of note in Peterson’s first ten pages. It looks like I have time and space for another.

Have I written in a previous post about Peterson’s assertion in Maps of Meaning that the world can be viewed either as a place of action or as a place of things and that the first is tied to art, mythology, literature, and the like, while the second deals with the realm of science? Yes. I did. It was here, in this post. Okay, well, here in 12 Rules, Peterson mentions this again:

I proposed in Maps of Meaning that the great myths and religious stories of the past, particularly those derived from an earlier, oral tradition, were moral in their intent, rather than descriptive. Thus, they did not concern themselves with what the world was, as a scientist might have it, but with how a human being should act. I suggested that our ancestors portrayed the world as a stage—a drama—instead of a place of objects. I described how I had come to believe that the constituent elements of the world as drama were order and chaos, and not material things.

Okay, it’s getting late, and I’m getting distracted. I need to end this here. Perhaps I’ll explore it more tomorrow, but I can give you no guarantees. All I know from day to day is that I need to get one thousand words onto paper or a screen and get one photo recorded and shared. That’s enough.

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