Monday, March 26, 2018

How to Have a Good Life


There are certain facts of life that are true: Life is hard. Bad things happen, even to good people. And how we face what happens to us matters, if we’re going to have a good life.

But it is possible to have a good life. So the question is, how?

That’s a big question. It’s probably one of those simple but difficult things. But I thought we’d do a little exploring of that big question today.

Some years ago we had a discussion with a thinker, one of a few mentors we’ve known, who was talking about the younger work force these days. He said something surprising that stuck with me. Those game players, the somewhat geeky ones who play games—what they really want, our friend told us, was to be the hero. To do something meaningful. If they couldn’t find that in real life, at least they could live it in the pretend world of a game. And that made them rather impatient with work in the real world that didn’t seem heroic enough.

I was reminded of this, doing what has become a common evening pastime: listening to Jordan Peterson interviews. There are hundreds of hours’ worth, so I’m just scratching the surface, but I think I’ve watched/listened to enough to qualify as a student of his, informally. Anyway, he talks about mythology, and stories, quite often. In one interview, posted a couple of weeks ago, he and host Richard Fidler on ABC Radio (in Australia) were talking about stories and their purpose: 

Dr. Jordan Peterson
screen shot from the interview

Stories map out how to live. And the question then becomes, well, what’s the story that maps out the proper way to live. And that story would have to contain a description of the environment, right? Just like a map has to map out the territory. The story would have to contain a description of the environment. And then it would have to contain a description of your role in the environment.
And so, the mythological landscape is something like this: It’s good and evil at the level of the individual. That’s the hero and the adversary. Everyone has to contend with that. The darkness and goodness in yourself, and in other individuals. Everyone contends with that. So it’s a universal truth.
And then, how is that individual encompassed within society? And society is the wise king and the tyrant. And it’s always the wise king and the tyrant. It’s both. Now, some societies are almost all tyrant, and some societies tilt quite nicely towards wise king. But, even if you grow up in a relatively benevolent society like ours, you’re still crushed by the mob into a certain conformity. And there’s a lot of pain and wastage that goes along with that. Now there’s benefits.
And then the last element of the mythological landscape is the terror and creative potential of nature. Well, that’s the mythological landscape. And a meaningful story guides you through that.
And he adds a minute later,

Well, if you get in a car without a map, you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. What good is that? All there is then is confusion and pain. So, yeah, the story is life. The story is, well, it’s the story of Rule 1[i]: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Stand up and confront the catastrophe of existence. Voluntarily. Move forward. Under your load. Discover new things. Share them with the people around you. Life is a call to adventure. And everything’s at stake. That’s the thing. It’s an all in game. So you might as well play it that way.
OK, so, stories are going to help. We want to have meaning in our life: logos. Victor Frankl faced the horrors of the concentration camp by finding meaning. Logotherapy, he called it. He wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, that if you have meaning, a higher purpose for your life, then you’re more likely to survive, and be able to move on afterward.

There’s something about recognizing the dialectic of good and evil, realizing your potential to go either way, and then make the conscious choice to choose the good. That’s even necessary, Dr. Peterson says, when you face malevolence (evil). This is his approach to PTSD:

If you’re a na├»ve person, and you encounter [malevolence] in someone else, or in yourself, it will produce post-traumatic stress disorder. Because post-traumatic stress disorder occurs when people are touched by evil. That’s not how it’s normally described clinically, because academics—I would say people in general—don’t really like to grapple with that sort of reality. But if you talk to military personnel who have post-traumatic stress disorder, and you start talking to them about a dialectic between good and evil, they’re instantly on board for that. They need a dialectic of good and evil to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bad stuff does happen. Some people experience worse things than others. But there are things we can choose to do to improve the chances of living a good life.

In another Jordan Peterson interview, this one published this past Saturday, with Roaming Millennial, Peterson says the key is simply the truth: 

Dr. Jordan Peterson
screen shot from the interview

You have to speak the truth, and listen to the people that are criticizing you so that you can improve the manner in which you’re formulating your arguments.
That’s the way to live. And, look, here’s why: As the religious sages have insisted throughout the ages, life is suffering. There’s no way around it. Because human beings are limited and vulnerable, and the universe is a very large place. You’re destined to suffer.
And so, then, you might say, well, what defenses do you have against that? And one is the armor of ideology, and rightness. But the other is the shield of truth. You know, just like in Sleeping Beauty, when the prince goes off to have combat with the dragon. And truth elevates your life. And enriches it.
He suggests an exercise to find out whether you’re speaking the truth:

This is, I think, one of the most useful psychological exercises that anyone could ever do. So, start with the assumption that many of the things you say and think aren’t yours, and that you don’t believe them. They’re just things that you’ve picked up for one reason or another as you’ve walked through life, and you’ve brandished them like markers of your status. But they’re not really you. Because, what’s really you is hard to figure out. So you have to start from that assumption.
Then start listening to what you say. And feeling what you say as well. And here’s the rule; it’s a very simple thing to try: Pay attention to whether the thing you say makes you feel stronger or weaker. If it makes you feel stronger, then you can keep saying it, but if it makes you feel weaker, then you should stop saying it. Stop saying it right away. And see if you can reformulate your words so that when you restate them, that feeling of integrity and strength reappears. And you can feel it, really, down the middle of your body
And, because, what happens if you’re saying something that is untrue is that you dissociate to some degree. A part of you agrees with it, and a part of you doesn’t. It’s like you’re splitting your psyche.
That’s interesting. I’m thinking about that, and trying to reconcile whether someone insisting, forcefully, and certainly, that what they say is right when I know it’s wrong—are they feeling the strength, or the split? I’m going to have to observe that for a while, and maybe only ever know for myself. But I do know, for me, I understand what the wholeness of truth feels like, and that’s why I seek it.

He’s certainly right that it takes paying attention. And he goes on to offer ways for people to figure out what they want, what a “heavenly” life would look like, as opposed to a “hellish” life they could certainly create; as he puts it, “how horrible your life could be if you let all your bad habits and foolishnesses and deceits get out of hand.” The program is at a website called SelfAuthoring.com. That program is having good effect on people in universities, lowering dropout rates by as much as 40% in a semester. Pretty effective.

I haven’t used his program, but I’ve been doing similar exercises in a couple of books: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, and Find Your Why, by Simon Sinek, with David Mead and Peter Docker.

The point is, it’s possible to choose the best possible life, in a world where things go wrong and bad stuff happens—if you don’t give up, if you don’t give in to nihilism or cynicism—if you figure out what a good life means for you, as a person you really care about (because you have to care about yourself, and some people haven’t had much practice doing that).

Dr. Peterson is talking about living a life that builds your character:

That’s the problem with being a materialist. You know, you think that you collect all these things around you, and that that’s going to protect you from the suffering that’s intrinsic to life. That isn’t what protects you. It’s your character that protects you. If you have your character intact, you can sleep at night with a good conscience, and you can take on the burdens of the day the next morning. And you can live without recrimination or regret. There’s nothing better than that.
It's almost as if he’s saying, the way to have a good life is to choose good and fight evil, in yourself and all around you. Become the good guy, by choice. Become the hero, by consistent practice and effort.

Yes, it did turn out to be one of those simple but difficult things. But worth it.

It probably doesn’t hurt to add that religion has been leading us to develop character all along. As the Ten Commandments tell us, love God—the source and definition of good. And honor life, family, property ownership, and honesty. And a further step is to love others as you love yourself—which requires starting with loving care for yourself.


[i] Referring to his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, here.

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