Summer Reading Group: 12 Rules for Life, Chapters 1 & 2

This is the second post of Spectrum’s 2019 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

Jordan Peterson has stirred quite a bit of discussion by presenting his views in podcast form and in his latest book, 12 Rules for Life. In my comments on his first two chapters, I will be focusing on what I can take from his work and apply to my own life in a meaningful way. In the beginning of the book, he avoids some of his most controversial topics and so I’ll leave it to others to critique Peterson for where his work falls short. I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, but I appreciate his ability to spark discussion on topics worth talking about. So whether you love him or hate him, I encourage you to at least hear his ideas and then decide for yourself what is helpful for your life.

In chapter one, Peterson challenges his readers to “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” He delves into the human condition at length acknowledging the pain of existence and how that can beat us down. He concludes his argument by saying that when we value ourselves, other people will start to treat us differently and this can give us confidence to continue to put our voice forward in the world.

When I consider that Peterson is writing to a largely young and very likely non-religious audience, I appreciate what he is trying to do in this chapter and throughout the book. He understands that if someone has no spiritual framework to guide their steps, they may end up falling into the pit of despair. This results from the inevitable pain that comes along with the gift of life. When people suffer, they tend to feel shame, blaming themselves for their pain and dragging themselves down. And sadly, it is human nature to kick people while they are down, especially when they are down on themselves. I have experienced this first hand.

I went through an experience of suffering in my life that brought me to a very low point. This resulted from some poor choices on my part and some painful conflict with people at work. I was very down on myself and when I interacted with others, most people treated me as I felt I deserved to be treated — poorly. Then as I reached out and got some much needed help and support during my trial, I discovered that I could have compassion on myself for what I was going through.

I was auditing a psychology class at the time and I’ll never forget the exercise that we went through. Half the class assumed a frozen position as shamers: index fingers pointing at us in judgment and anger. I was in the other half of the class that assumed a frozen position of being shamed. I stood slumped with my head down turned away from my accusers. Then the teacher said to us, “Now stand in the position that you would like to take with your shamers.” I stood up strait with my shoulders back. It felt great. One woman in my class had even more courage than I did. She walked right up to our shamers, less than a foot away, and stood strait and tall and looked them in the eye with complete serenity and compassion. I told myself that is exactly how I wanted to deal with anyone who judged me from then on.

What was so exciting for me in this exercise is how well it worked in real life. I began to have compassion on myself and I valued myself, refusing to let shame define me. This gave me the ability to hold my head high. And guess what happened? Everyone started treating me better. They were compassionate and respectful in return. I began to realize that my internal state of being was always sending out a silent but powerful signal to other people, cuing them how to treat me. When the signal was a negative one, filled with shame, I was shamed and judged in return. When the signal was positive, I was treated with respect and kindness in return. As a Jesus-follower, I hold my head high because of the value that God’s love places on my soul. But whatever motivates you to stand up straight, I encourage you to do it. You will soon notice that almost everyone you come in contact with will treat you differently.

This leads to Peterson’s second rule which is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” His argument that people generally take better care of their pets than themselves is hard to refute. In fact, I’ve seen it firsthand and while my cat appreciated the benefits, I suffered. I believe our culture is much to blame here. We label care of self as “selfishness” and praise the person that will give “the shirt off of his own back” to someone else.

But when we paint in such broad strokes, we miss some essential distinctions. Of course the kind of selfishness that completely ignores the needs of all other human beings is bad. But self-care is good. It is more than that — it is essential. Without self-care, we will continually have less and less to give others. Over time, poor self-care will cause us to die long before our time. This is a moral issue for me. If we want to do the most good in the world, then good people need to be around as long as possible.

This takes us back to the issue of shame. If I am down on myself and believe that I don’t deserve to be taken care of, then I’m in trouble. I will push and push myself desperately trying to prove my value to myself and to others. I have done this in the past. There are times when I pushed myself so hard that I forgot to eat or drink or even breathe deeply. This of course caused physical and emotional distress. As long as my hard work was rewarded, I continued my craziness. But when others didn’t appreciate my sacrifice, I began to question my commitment to my workaholism. I discovered through that process that I generally did not take very good care of myself. This was a difficult realization to admit. But it changed my life.

Since that time, I have learned to care for myself like I would another person… or my cat. As a result, I am much healthier mentally and physically. I also feel like I have more to give others. This helps me better achieve my personal mission statement which is simply “to love God and to love others.” (See Matthew 22:37-40.) So I appreciate Peterson’s practical advice. He and I might reach our conclusions through different means, but no matter how you get there, these two rules can be helpful to anyone who will practice them.

Will Johns has a doctorate in ministry from Denver Seminary. He currently serves as the campus pastor of the Tech Road Campus (a recent church plant) of the Beltsville Adventist Church in Silver Spring, MD.

Book cover image courtesy of Random House.

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Lobsters and snakes!

Like you, Will, I found the two basic principles Peterson lays out in the first two chapters to be insightful. I found the way he justifies them to be fascinating–a mix of evolutionary biology, psycho-analytic theory, and Biblical exegesis. (Seems like the real driver is the second, a la Carl Jung.)

Peterson argues that the hierarchical ordering of society is ancient and unavoidable and a way of relating to each other that humans share with other animals, i.e. lobsters. Peterson accepts this as an unchangeable reality. This means many, if not most individuals, are bound to end up lower on some hierarchy, which affects the way they are treated, which affects their bio-chemistry (serotonin levels), which affects they comport themselves, which affects the way they are treated–a vicious feedback loop. On one level, the observation that life is hard/unfair and, in light of this, the advice that one should courageously face this reality with dignity seems sound to me. Yet, it also seems to only partially address the issue. What about the possibility of becoming part of a community whose members relate to each other differently? What about the possibility of changing/challenging/transforming the human tendency to dominate others? Does Peterson have any advice for those who dwell at the top of the food chain?

Yes, humans are animals, perhaps at times exhibiting crustacean tendencies, but we are also rational (and spiritual) animals…

On to snakes. I found Peterson’s reading of Genesis 1-3 to be an insightful interpretation of these passages that go beyond the debates many of us are familiar with in our community–a compelling and clear-eyed explanation of the human condition and depravity that will resonate with contemporary readers. Will be drawing on this in the future to share with students.


Zane, your questions get to (one of) my (many) problem(s) with Peterson. His existentialist approach focuses on individual transformation so that as each of us learns to play by the rules better the world becomes better. He seems to treat societal order with its norms, hierarchies, and rules as essential and dangerous to even question because this leads to chaos. I on the other hand wonder if there are better rules.

I’m not really sure that he would agree that Existentialism is limited by the rules of the world. After all, we fly in large aluminum cans as we attempt to bend these rules, and we project into the future, and we select and crossbreed plants and animals to our advantage.

So, I don’t think he’d argue that simply because we find some embedded behavior in some natural order, then therefore we must follow it. Quite the opposite. Existentialism allows one to formulate structural relationships that can both accommodate certain natural flow of reality, and those that allows us to channel, modify, or even swim against that flow for our collective benefit. I think he objects to reducing human relationships to abstractions that have little to no basis in our biological reality.

George @GeorgeTichy and Kim @cincerity I’m closing my psychiatric practice. The secret is out and soon the patient referrals will dwindle down.

Adios amigos.


You still might get some referrals from those who are sending out the wrong “signals”. :wink:


No Elmer, you can’t do that. It would be a betrayal of those people who are counting on you to help them at the time of the GC-2020. There will be so many needing you that you will be excessively busy. TW’s re-election will trigger major distress in many “believe me, believe me”… LOL


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