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Is Jordan Peterson right when he says that life is suffering?

[ 9 min read ]

Jordan B. Peterson is a well known Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

In his interviews and lectures he argues that life always has meaning, that the primary meaning of every woman’s life is to be a mother (and that because of that women have it better), that life is suffering, and that nowadays we’re living in a state of chaos. Generally speaking he has a rather gloomy image of life and our not so distant future should we fail to do something about ourselves (all of us), because we, human beings, are lost and when listening to him you can’t help having this impression that it’s all a downward spiral for us and that we’re heading into an abyss and that it’s happening really fast.

Of course he is influenced by other thinkers, psychologists and philosophers, and he often quotes his favorite ones (this is something most of us do — I do it too). We find something which we agree with and we steal it, or in reverse, we find something which we can’t agree with and we attack it.

Some people are attacked more than others. Usually those who get the worst beatings are the ones who challenge people’s longstanding beliefs (something which everybody were already convinced was the truth about the world and thus the case had been closed). All sorts of people get mad at those who demand that we reopen the case and who offer a different theory / idea. Gerta Keller, the paleontology and geology professor at Princeton University has endured decades of ridicule, hostility and fierce attacks by other scientists / professors (she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake”) for arguing that the extinction of dinosaurs was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions. Nicolaus Copernicus had waited at least 10 years before he finally published his revolutionary book (Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium) just before his death in 1543. About 1532 he had basically completed his work on the manuscript but despite urging by his closest friends, he resisted openly publishing his views, not wishing — as he supposedly confessed — to risk the scorn to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses.

And of late Peterson is also being viciously criticized and attacked for his views. Of course not all people attack him. He also has, what by now can be described as an army of supporters — well over 1M people subscribed to his YouTube channel (I’m one of them). But I will attack one of Peterson’s theories (viewpoints) nonetheless. I don’t want to attack him. I think he is a smart man and there are many things on which we agree (as I see it — he doesn’t even know I exist, I guess; but he is also 15 years older than I am so…).

I have no intention of changing any of his viewpoints. Those are not my viewpoints so I don’t even care what he believes or not. And I’m not the only one who respects Peterson, values his work, but disagrees with him on certain points.

The thing with Peterson is that he is fascinated (maybe even the word ‘obsessed’ would be more appropriate) with the idea of suffering. He, unlike most people, sees suffering as a normal part of life of every human being. And I couldn’t agree more. Yes, suffering is a normal part of life of every human being and believing that it shouldn’t be (a normal part of life of every human being) is perilous.

But Peterson’s obsession with the concept of suffering (probably because he wants to open people’s eyes to the fact that suffering, whether one likes it or not, is a normal part of life of every human being, and probably because his daughter was seriously ill as a child and teenager — she had rheumatoid arthritis and she and her parents went through a lot of suffering because of that) makes it seem like every life is all (or 100%) suffering.

I’m not quite sure if that’s Jordan Peterson’s conviction and if that’s the message he wants to send people. I assume it is his conviction — from the tone of his voice, expression on his face, his posture, and what he says. So whether he wants to send such message or not to people, he does it willy-nilly — at least that’s how I see it. To me his message sounds like “Life is nothing but suffering (in one form or another — everything can and should be reduced to the idea of suffering) and we need to prepare ourselves for that, understand that and learn to live with that, in other words, we need to brace ourselves for that.”

I don’t agree with such view of life. Doesn’t mean I’m claiming that Jordan Peterson is wrong and I’m right. Far from it. What I’m saying is that I don’t agree with such view of life. I think it’s not a legitimate view of life and I can’t imagine myself adapting or buying into such a skewed, in my opinion, view of life. I see no point in adapting this view of life. How the hell should it help me, I have no idea. I don’t think it would help me. I can’t imagine how it could help me. Hence this viewpoint doesn’t speak to me.

I acknowledge the existence of suffering in our lives, I believe it is a normal part of our lives, just like joy and other nice things, but I wouldn’t say that life is suffering. If I would say so it would mean that I acknowledge suffering as the only thing in life. It would mean that I, like probably Jordan Peterson, reduce everything which happens in my life (every experience) to the idea of suffering. And I don’t understand why it would be necessary to do such thing.

If I’m playing with my healthy child is it suffering? How can one reduce it to the idea of suffering, and what for?

If I’m having sex is it suffering? How can one reduce it to the idea of suffering, and what for?

If I’ve just become a world champion in something is it suffering? How can one reduce it to the idea of suffering, and what for?

If I’ve just learned that a person who is close to my heart escaped death (was cured of cancer) is it suffering? How can one reduce it to the idea of suffering, and what for?

This list could go on an on.

I view life differently.

What we call life doesn’t matter. Shit can happen anyway. Our plan that we will have a “good life” might fail.

When you got cancer (or someone in your family) got cancer or when you turned into a vegetable because of some accident, or when war broke out and ruined your youth, or rendered you mentally ill, or deprived you of your face, or you went to jail for 18 years for something you didn’t do (they sentenced the wrong person — happens all the time), can you speak of a “good life”? Of course you can, but will it make your life good?

Of course we can decide that we will never give up, always fight, and that we will be full of optimism no matter what happens in our lives (which, of course, can be a wishful thinking — we never really know how we would react until we’re faced with some really bad shit), but in this case it would be more appropriate if we spoke of a good attitude, not life.

Life is not good or bad. It just is. It’s a mix. Only we call the events in our lives good or bad (only we can label them this or that, depending on how they affect us). But objectively it is a mix of “good” and “bad” experiences (events) and we will never be able to have only good life.

We can list all good events (experiences) and next to it all bad events (experiences), then count both and make a judgement. But who decides which event is “good” or “bad”? We do it. If so this exercise will never tell us if the life of a certain human being was objectively good or bad. If I’m more optimistic I can conclude that my life was good (because I see the silver lining everywhere and am prone to interpret most events as beneficial), whereas a different person (someone who is a pessimist, who can’t see the silver lining no matter how hard he or she tries, and is prone to view most events as shitty) would look at the same two columns and conclude that it was a f*cked up life.

When we talk about good life (when we believe we should strive for it) we end up having certain expectations. We can’t help it. ‘Good’ has a certain meaning and it is the opposite of ‘bad’. Of course, it still is a matter of our interpretation, but most of us would find it very difficult (if not impossible) to label as ‘good’ the death of our child (due to a terminal illness, or school shooting, or some other shit), or the fact that our child has been raped, or the fact that we were drunk, sat behind the wheel and as a result killed someone.

Good life can mean that we do good and are good. But in and of itself it will not guarantee that we will be able to prevent shit from happening in our lives and that we will always do good and be good. We never really know what our reaction to something will be unless we’re actually faced with it, and human beings are not always nice creatures. We’re not 100% goodness, kindness, niceness and love. We’re never like that. We like to think about ourselves that we are like that (that we would never do the horrible things others did), and we like to say that those who committed such acts (crimes and other unethical behavior) are not human beings (they’re beasts, they stoped being humans), but it’s bullshit. It is bullshit because they are human beings and we’re like them (we just don’t know everything about ourselves because we never experienced what they experienced and we were parented differently and we grew up in a different culture and belong to a different culture). On the other hand, when we talk about problems like racism or social classes we eagerly and publicly declare that essentially we’re all the same — human beings. Isn’t it funny how we acknowledge something as far as one thing is concerned and deny it as far as something else is concerned? We like to believe that human beings are 100% goodness, kindness, niceness, love and we expect them to be like that.

So this plan might also fail.

So I guess it’s a good idea to ask ourselves what ‘good life’ actually means before we start talking about it. And it is far from being obvious.

It’s better still if we acknowledged the true nature of life and stopped being delusional. If we got rid of those unreasonable expectations that most of us have towards life (that there should / will be some idealistic order or harmony, peace and love all around us, lack of pain and suffering, etc.). If we do it, paradoxically we will be able to enjoy it a lot more.

The true nature of life (understood as the interval of time between birth and death) is that it is never 100% beautiful and cozy and hopeful and joyful and meaningful just as it isn’t 100% ugly and uneasy and hopeless and sad and meaningless or 100% average and boring and purposeless. It’s a mix of these and dozen of other things.

We will have things we like and we will have things we don’t like in our lives. That’s why smart parents (parents who themselves know it) don’t bullshit their children with fairy tales about steady or secure or easier life (or future). And many parents bullshit their children this way. They utter things like “securing / buying a better future / life”, “setting up for life”.

Then those children start their adult lives and quickly become disillusioned or even depressed. Promised was something different.

Those who, for whatever reason, have some idealistic (untrue) image of life often are disappointed with life. They have this idealistic, preferable image of life in their heads and can’t come to terms with the fact that the real image of life is different. They’re delusional. They suffer because they would prefer an easy life and, apparently, life doesn’t give a damn what they like or don’t like. Shit will eventually happen regardless.

People often say “I don’t have a life” or “I wish I could have a normal life”. You have a normal life (you have a life). Everyone does. That’s normal life, not this idealistic, preferable image that sits in your head.