Główna 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
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Najbardziej popularne frazy
The book tells you how great an intellectual is Dr Peterson but let's talk about the book. One can have this book as a companion. Don't read this book just for the sake of completing it. The depth of knowledge in the book is quite deep so you may need some time to reflect upon what Dr Peterson has written in the book. Also Dr Peterson uses incidents from his life that makes the book quite lively otherwise people get put off while reading such books.
30 May 2021 (19:42)
My man Jo Peterson may be reverting to behaviorism and a both shaky and suspect use of Jung, but that doesn't make him a fascist. But, if you want to learn the secrets of fascism, and you want to move beyond mastering yourself and start mastering others, I would recommend How to Be a Motherfucking Pimp. Dazzle Razzle writes of a hyper applied version of Jordon Peterson. Thank me later
09 June 2021 (04:18)
Yet another completely ridiculous self-help book that uses pseudo-science and mumbo-jumbo to convince people of some eternal truths. Do yourselves a favour and read something better.
25 October 2021 (12:15)
This version's cover turn out well on kindle
11 November 2021 (15:39)
No, just no. This is complete rubbish
24 July 2022 (11:11)
Jordan Peterson is a quack. He admittedly suffers from bouts of depression, and his writing and interviews reflect his own mental health issues. His ideas are aimed at cel men, and should not be used as a roadmap to navigating intelligent society.
18 September 2022 (15:34)
[image: ] RULE 9 ASSUME THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE LISTENING TO MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON'T NOT ADVICE PSYCHOTHERAPY IS NOT ADVICE. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just shut up and go away. Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. If you weren’t so stupid, after all, you wouldn’t have your stupid problems. Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening, and talking—but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen. Sometimes if you listen to people they will even tell you what’s wrong with them. Sometimes they will even tell you how they plan to fix it. Sometimes that helps you fix something wrong with yourself. One surprising time (and this is only one occasion of many when such things happened), I was listening to someone very carefully, and she told me within minutes (a) that she was a witch and (b) that her witch coven spent a lot of its time visualizing world peace together. She was a long-time lower-level functionary in some bureaucratic job. I would never have guessed that she was a witch. I also didn’t know that witch covens spent any of their time visualizing world peace. I didn’t know what to make of any of it, either, but it wasn’t boring, and that’s something. In my clinical practice, I talk and I listen. I talk more to some people, and listen more to others. Many of the people I listen to have no one else to talk to. Some of them are truly alone in the world. There are far more people like that than you think. You don’t meet them, because they are alone. Others are surrounded by tyrants or narcissists or drunks or traumatized people or professional victims. Some are not good at articulating themselves. They go off on tangents. They rep; eat themselves. They say vague and contradictory things. They’re hard to listen to. Others have terrible things happening around them. They have parents with Alzheimer’s or sick children. There’s not much time left over for their personal concerns. One time a client who I had been seeing for a few months came into my office*1 for her scheduled appointment and, after some brief preliminaries, she announced “I think I was raped.” It is not easy to know how to respond to a statement like that, although there is frequently some mystery around such events. Often alcohol is involved, as it is in most sexual assault cases. Alcohol can cause ambiguity. That’s partly why people drink. Alcohol temporarily lifts the terrible burden of self-consciousness from people. Drunk people know about the future, but they don’t care about it. That’s exciting. That’s exhilarating. Drunk people can party like there’s no tomorrow. But, because there is a tomorrow—most of the time—drunk people also get in trouble. They black out. They go to dangerous places with careless people. They have fun. But they also get raped. So, I immediately thought something like that might be involved. How else to understand “I think”? But that wasn’t the end of the story. She added an extra detail: “Five times.” The first sentence was awful enough, but the second produced something unfathomable. Five times? What could that possibly mean? My client told me that she would go to a bar and have a few drinks. Someone would start to talk with her. She would end up at his place or her place with him. The evening would proceed, inevitably, to its sexual climax. The next day she would wake up, uncertain about what happened—uncertain about her motives, uncertain about his motives, and uncertain about the world. Miss S, we’ll call her, was vague to the point of non-existence. She was a ghost of a person. She dressed, however, like a professional. She knew how to present herself, for first appearances. In consequence, she had finagled her way onto a government advisory board considering the construction of a major piece of transportation infrastructure (even though she knew nothing about government, advising or construction). She also hosted a local public-access radio show dedicated to small business, even though she had never held a real job, and knew nothing about being an entrepreneur. She had been receiving welfare payments for the entirety of her adulthood. Her parents had never provided her with a minute of attention. She had four brothers and they were not at all good to her. She had no friends now, and none in the past. She had no partner. She had no one to talk to, and she didn’t know how to think on her own (that’s not rare). She had no self. She was, instead, a walking cacophony of unintegrated experiences. I had tried previously to help her find a job. I asked her if she had a CV. She said yes. I asked her to bring it to me. She brought it to our next session. It was fifty pages long. It was in a file folder box, divided into sections, with manila tag separators—the ones with the little colorful index-markers on the sides. The sections included such topics as “My Dreams” and “Books I Have Read.” She had written down dozens of her night-time dreams in the “My Dreams” section, and provided brief summaries and reviews of her reading material. This was what she proposed to send to prospective employers (or perhaps already had: who really knew?). It is impossible to understand how much someone has to be no one at all to exist in a world where a file folder box containing fifty indexed pages listing dreams and novels constitutes a CV. Miss S knew nothing about herself. She knew nothing about other individuals. She knew nothing about the world. She was a movie played out of focus. And she was desperately waiting for a story about herself to make it all make sense. If you add some sugar to cold water, and stir it, the sugar will dissolve. If you heat up that water, you can dissolve more. If you heat the water to boiling, you can add a lot more sugar and get that to dissolve too. Then, if you take that boiling sugar water, and slowly cool it, and don’t bump it or jar it, you can trick it (I don’t know how else to phrase this) into holding a lot more dissolved sugar than it would have it if it had remained cold all along. That’s called a super-saturated solution. If you drop a single crystal of sugar into that super-saturated solution, all the excess sugar will suddenly and dramatically crystallize. It’s as if it were crying out for order. That was my client. People like her are the reason that the many forms of psychotherapy currently practised all work. People can be so confused that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation. This is the bringing together of the disparate elements of their lives in a disciplined manner—any disciplined manner. So, if you have come apart at the seams (or if you never have been together at all) you can restructure your life on Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Rogerian or behavioural principles. At least then you make sense. At least then you’re coherent. At least then you might be good for something, if not good yet for everything. You can’t fix a car with an axe, but you can cut down a tree. That’s still something. At about the same time I was seeing this client, the media was all afire with stories of recovered memories—particularly of sexual assault. The dispute raged apace: were these genuine accounts of past trauma? Or were they post-hoc constructs, dreamed up as a consequence of pressure wittingly or unwittingly applied by incautious therapists, grasped onto desperately by clinical clients all-too-eager to find a simple cause for all their trouble? Sometimes, it was the former, perhaps; and sometimes the latter. I understood much more clearly and precisely, however, how easy it might be to instill a false memory into the mental landscape as soon as my client revealed her uncertainty about her sexual experiences. The past appears fixed, but it’s not—not in an important psychological sense. There is an awful lot to the past, after all, and the way we organize it can be subject to drastic revision. Imagine, for example, a movie where nothing but terrible things happen. But, in the end, everything works out. Everything is resolved. A sufficiently happy ending can change the meaning of all the previous events. They can all be viewed as worthwhile, given that ending. Now imagine another movie. A lot of things are happening. They’re all exciting and interesting. But there are a lot of them. Ninety minutes in, you start to worry. “This is a great movie,” you think, “but there are a lot of things going on. I sure hope the filmmaker can pull it all together.” But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the story ends, abruptly, unresolved, or something facile and clichéd occurs. You leave deeply annoyed and unsatisfied—failing to notice that you were fully engaged and enjoying the movie almost the whole time you were in the theatre. The present can change the past, and the future can change the present. When you are remembering the past, as well, you remember some parts of it and forget others. You have clear memories of some things that happened, but not others, of potentially equal import—just as in the present you are aware of some aspects of your surroundings and unconscious of others. You categorize your experience, grouping some elements together, and separating them from the rest. There is a mysterious arbitrariness about all of this. You don’t form a comprehensive, objective record. You can’t. You just don’t know enough. You just can’t perceive enough. You’re not objective, either. You’re alive. You’re subjective. You have vested interests—at least in yourself, at least usually. What exactly should be included in the story? Where exactly is the border between events? The sexual abuse of children is distressingly common.156 However, it’s not as common as poorly trained psychotherapists think, and it also does not always produce terribly damaged adults.157 People vary in their resilience. An event that will wipe one person out can be shrugged off by another. But therapists with a little second-hand knowledge of Freud often axiomatically assume that a distressed adult in their practice must have been subject to childhood sexual abuse. Why else would they be distressed? So, they dig, and infer, and intimate, and suggest, and overreact, and bias and tilt. They exaggerate the importance of some events, and downplay the importance of others. They trim the facts to fit their theory.158 And they convince their clients that they were sexually abused—if they could only remember. And then the clients start to remember. And then they start to accuse. And sometimes what they remember never happened, and the people accused are innocent. The good news? At least the therapist’s theory remains intact. That’s good—for the therapist. But there’s no shortage of collateral damage. However, people are often willing to produce a lot of collateral damage if they can retain their theory. I knew about all this when Miss S came to talk to me about her sexual experiences. When she recounted her trips to the singles bars, and their recurring aftermath, I thought a bunch of things at once. I thought, “You’re so vague and so non-existent. You’re a denizen of chaos and the underworld. You are going ten different places at the same time. Anyone can take you by the hand and guide you down the road of their choosing.” After all, if you’re not the leading man in your own drama, you’re a bit player in someone else’s—and you might well be assigned to play a dismal, lonely and tragic part. After Miss S recounted her story, we sat there. I thought, “You have normal sexual desires. You’re extremely lonely. You’re unfulfilled sexually. You’re afraid of men and ignorant of the world and know nothing of yourself. You wander around like an accident waiting to happen and the accident happens and that’s your life.” I thought, “Part of you wants to be taken. Part of you wants to be a child. You were abused by your brothers and ignored by your father and so part of you wants revenge upon men. Part of you is guilty. Another part is ashamed. Another part is thrilled and excited. Who are you? What did you do? What happened?” What was the objective truth? There was no way of knowing the objective truth. And there never would be. There was no objective observer, and there never would be. There was no complete and accurate story. Such a thing did not and could not exist. There were, and are, only partial accounts and fragmentary viewpoints. But some are still better than others. Memory is not a description of the objective past. Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why, then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not “to remember the past.” It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over. I thought, “I could simplify Miss S’s life. I could say that her suspicions of rape were fully justified, and that her doubt about the events was nothing but additional evidence of her thorough and long-term victimization. I could insist that her sexual partners had a legal obligation to ensure that she was not too impaired by alcohol to give consent. I could tell her that she had indisputably been subject to violent and illicit acts, unless she had consented to each sexual move explicitly and verbally. I could tell her that she was an innocent victim.” I could have told her all that. And it would have been true. And she would have accepted it as true, and remembered it for the rest of her life. She would have been a new person, with a new history, and a new destiny. But I also thought, “I could tell Miss S that she is a walking disaster. I could tell her that she wanders into a bar like a courtesan in a coma, that she is a danger to herself and others, that she needs to wake up, and that if she goes to singles bars and drinks too much and is taken home and has rough violent sex (or even tender caring sex), then what the hell does she expect?” In other words, I could have told her, in more philosophical terms, that she was Nietzsche’s “pale criminal”—the person who at one moment dares to break the sacred law and at the next shrinks from paying the price. And that would have been true, too, and she would have accepted it as such, and remembered it. If I had been the adherent of a left-wing, social-justice ideology, I would have told her the first story. If I had been the adherent of a conservative ideology, I would have told her the second. And her responses after having been told either the first or the second story would have proved to my satisfaction and hers that the story I had told her was true—completely, irrefutably true. And that would have been advice. Figure It Out for Yourself I decided instead to listen. I have learned not to steal my clients’ problems from them. I don’t want to be the redeeming hero or the deus ex machina—not in someone else’s story. I don’t want their lives. So, I asked her to tell me what she thought, and I listened. She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped, and neither did I. Life is very complicated. Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity—to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?”: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped. And someone would have had to be there to listen. I started the process, but circumstances made it impossible for me to finish. She left therapy with me only somewhat less ill-formed and vague than when she first met me. But at least she didn’t leave as the living embodiment of my damned ideology. The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think. Otherwise they wander blindly into pits. When people think, they simulate the world, and plan how to act in it. If they do a good job of simulating, they can figure out what stupid things they shouldn’t do. Then they can not do them. Then they don’t have to suffer the consequences. That’s the purpose of thinking. But we can’t do it alone. We simulate the world, and plan our actions in it. Only human beings do this. That’s how brilliant we are. We make little avatars of ourselves. We place those avatars in fictional worlds. Then we watch what happens. If our avatar thrives, then we act like he does, in the real world. Then we thrive (we hope). If our avatar fails, we don’t go there, if we have any sense. We let him die in the fictional world, so that we don’t have to really die in the present. Imagine two children talking. The younger one says, “Wouldn’t it be fun to climb up on the roof?” He has just placed a little avatar of himself in a fictional world. But his older sister objects. She chimes in. “That’s stupid,” she says. “What if you fall off the roof? What if Dad catches you?” The younger child can then modify the original simulation, draw the appropriate conclusion, and let the whole fictional world wither on the vine. Or not. Maybe the risk is worth it. But at least now it can be factored in. The fictional world is a bit more complete, and the avatar a bit wiser. People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare—just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world. Viewpoint One is an avatar in a simulated world. It has its own representations of past, present and future, and its own ideas about how to act. So do Viewpoints Two, and Three, and Four. Thinking is the process by which these internal avatars imagine and articulate their worlds to one another. You can’t set straw men against one another when you’re thinking, either, because then you’re not thinking. You’re rationalizing, post-hoc. You’re matching what you want against a weak opponent so that you don’t have to change your mind. You’re propagandizing. You’re using double-speak. You’re using your conclusions to justify your proofs. You’re hiding from the truth. True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener, at the same time. It involves conflict. So, you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So, you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts—even your perceptions of the world. Sometimes it results in the defeat and elimination of one or more internal avatar. They don’t like to be defeated or eliminated, either. They’re hard to build. They’re valuable. They’re alive. They like to stay alive. They’ll fight to stay alive. You better listen to them. If you don’t they’ll go underground and turn into devils and torture you. In consequence, thinking is emotionally painful, as well as physiologically demanding; more so than anything else—except not thinking. But you have to be very articulate and sophisticated to have all of this occur inside your own head. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent. A listening person tests your talking (and your thinking) without having to say anything. A listening person is a representative of common humanity. He stands for the crowd. Now the crowd is by no means always right, but it’s commonly right. It’s typically right. If you say something that takes everyone aback, therefore, you should reconsider what you said. I say that, knowing full well that controversial opinions are sometimes correct—sometimes so much so that the crowd will perish if it refuses to listen. It is for this reason, among others, that the individual is morally obliged to stand up and tell the truth of his or her own experience. But something new and radical is still almost always wrong. You need good, even great, reasons to ignore or defy general, public opinion. That’s your culture. It’s a mighty oak. You perch on one of its branches. If the branch breaks, it’s a long way down—farther, perhaps, than you think. If you’re reading this book, there’s a strong probability that you’re a privileged person. You can read. You have time to read. You’re perched high in the clouds. It took untold generations to get you where you are. A little gratitude might be in order. If you’re going to insist on bending the world to your way, you better have your reasons. If you’re going to stand your ground, you better have your reasons. You better have thought them through. You might otherwise be in for a very hard landing. You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to. If you’re in a rut, at least you know that other people have travelled that path. Out of the rut is too often off the road. And in the desert that awaits off the road there are highwaymen and monsters. So speaks wisdom. A Listening Person A listening person can reflect the crowd. He can do that without talking. He can do that merely by letting the talking person listen to himself. That is what Freud recommended. He had his patients lay on a couch, look at the ceiling, let their minds wander, and say whatever wandered in. That’s his method of free association. That’s the way the Freudian psychoanalyst avoids transferring his or her own personal biases and opinions into the internal landscape of the patient. It was for such reasons that Freud did not face his patients. He did not want their spontaneous meditations to be altered by his emotional expressions, no matter how slight. He was properly concerned that his own opinions—and, worse, his own unresolved problems—would find themselves uncontrollably reflected in his responses and reactions, conscious and unconscious alike. He was afraid that he would in such a manner detrimentally affect the development of his patients. It was for such reasons, as well, that Freud insisted that psychoanalysts be analyzed themselves. He wanted those who practiced his method to uncover and eliminate some of their own worst blind spots and prejudices, so they would not practise corruptly. Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him. But there are disadvantages to the detached and somewhat distant approach recommended by Freud. Many of those who seek therapy desire and need a closer, more personal relationship (although that also has its dangers). This is in part why I have opted in my practice for the conversation, instead of the Freudian method—as have most clinical psychologists. It can be worthwhile for my clients to see my reactions. To protect them from the undue influence that might produce, I attempt to set my aim properly, so that my responses emerge from the appropriate motivation. I do what I can to want the best for them (whatever that might be). I do my best to want the best, period, as well (because that is part of wanting the best for my clients). I try to clear my mind, and to leave my own concerns aside. That way I am concentrating on what is best for my clients, while I am simultaneously alert to any cues that I might be misunderstanding what that best is. That’s something that has to be negotiated, not assumed on my part. It’s something that has to be managed very carefully, to mitigate the risks of close, personal interaction. My clients talk. I listen. Sometimes I respond. Often the response is subtle. It’s not even verbal. My clients and I face each other. We make eye contact. We can see each other’s expressions. They can observe the effects of their words on me, and I can observe the effects of mine on them. They can respond to my responses. A client of mine might say, “I hate my wife.” It’s out there, once said. It’s hanging in the air. It has emerged from the underworld, materialized from chaos, and manifested itself. It is perceptible and concrete and no longer easily ignored. It’s become real. The speaker has even startled himself. He sees the same thing reflected in my eyes. He notes that, and continues on the road to sanity. “Hold it,” he says. “Back up. That’s too harsh. Sometimes I hate my wife. I hate her when she won’t tell me what she wants. My mom did that all the time, too. It drove Dad crazy. It drove all of us crazy, to tell you the truth. It even drove Mom crazy! She was a nice person, but she was very resentful. Well, at least my wife isn’t as bad as my mother. Not at all. Wait! I guess my wife is actually pretty good at telling me what she wants, but I get really bothered when she doesn’t, because Mom tortured us all half to death being a martyr. That really affected me. Maybe I overreact now when it happens even a bit. Hey! I’m acting just like Dad did when Mom upset him! That isn’t me. That doesn’t have anything to do with my wife! I better let her know.” I observe from all this that my client had failed previously to properly distinguish his wife from his mother. And I see that he was possessed, unconsciously, by the spirit of his father. He sees all of that too. Now he is a bit more differentiated, a bit less an uncarved block, a bit less hidden in the fog. He has sewed up a small tear in the fabric of his culture. He says, “That was a good session, Dr. Peterson.” I nod. You can be pretty smart if you can just shut up. I’m a collaborator and opponent even when I’m not talking. I can’t help it. My expressions broadcast my response, even when they’re subtle. So, I’m communicating, as Freud so rightly stressed, even when silent. But I also talk in my clinical sessions. How do I know when to say something? First, as I said, I put myself in the proper frame of mind. I aim properly. I want things to be better. My mind orients itself, given this goal. It tries to produce responses to the therapeutic dialogue that furthers that aim. I watch what happens, internally. I reveal my responses. That’s the first rule. Sometimes, for example, a client will say something, and a thought will occur to me, or a fantasy flit through my mind. Frequently it’s about something that was said by the same client earlier that day, or during a previous session. Then I tell my client that thought or fantasy. Disinterestedly. I say, “You said this and I noticed that I then became aware of this.” Then we discuss it. We try to determine the relevance of meaning of my reaction. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s about me. That was Freud’s point. But sometimes it is just the reaction of a detached but positively inclined human being to a personally revealing statement by another human being. It’s meaningful—sometimes, even, corrective. Sometimes, however, it’s me that gets corrected. You have to get along with other people. A therapist is one of those other people. A good therapist will tell you the truth about what he thinks. (That is not the same thing as telling you that what he thinks is the truth.) Then at least you have the honest opinion of at least one person. That’s not so easy to get. That’s not nothing. That’s key to the psychotherapeutic process: two people tell each other the truth—and both listen. How Should You Listen? Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.”159 He knew that listening could transform people. On that, Rogers commented, “Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people, and that you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that your listening has not been of the type I have described.” He suggested that his readers conduct a short experiment when they next found themselves in a dispute: “Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: ‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’” I have found this technique very useful, in my private life and in my practice. I routinely summarize what people have said to me, and ask them if I have understood properly. Sometimes they accept my summary. Sometimes I am offered a small correction. Now and then I am wrong completely. All of that is good to know. There are several primary advantages to this process of summary. The first advantage is that I genuinely come to understand what the person is saying. Of this, Rogers notes, “Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.” More salutary words have rarely been written. The second advantage to the act of summary is that it aids the person in consolidation and utility of memory. Consider the following situation: A client in my practice recounts a long, meandering, emotion-laden account of a difficult period in his or her life. We summarize, back and forth. The account becomes shorter. It is now summed up, in the client’s memory (and in mine) in the form we discussed. It is now a different memory, in many ways—with luck, a better memory. It is now less weighty. It has been distilled; reduced to the gist. We have extracted the moral of the story. It becomes a description of the cause and the result of what happened, formulated such that repetition of the tragedy and pain becomes less likely in the future. “This is what happened. This is why. This is what I have to do to avoid such things from now on”: That’s a successful memory. That’s the purpose of memory. You remember the past not so that it is “accurately recorded,” to say it again, but so that you are prepared for the future. The third advantage to employing the Rogerian method is the difficulty it poses to the careless construction of straw-man arguments. When someone opposes you, it is very tempting to oversimplify, parody, or distort his or her position. This is a counterproductive game, designed both to harm the dissenter and to unjustly raise your personal status. By contrast, if you are called upon to summarize someone’s position, so that the speaking person agrees with that summary, you may have to state the argument even more clearly and succinctly than the speaker has even yet managed. If you first give the devil his due, looking at his arguments from his perspective, you can (1) find the value in them, and learn something in the process, or (2) hone your positions against them (if you still believe they are wrong) and strengthen your arguments further against challenge. This will make you much stronger. Then you will no longer have to misrepresent your opponent’s position (and may well have bridged at least part of the gap between the two of you). You will also be much better at withstanding your own doubts. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out what someone genuinely means when they are talking. This is because often they are articulating their ideas for the first time. They can’t do it without wandering down blind alleys or making contradictory or even nonsensical claims. This is partly because talking (and thinking) is often more about forgetting than about remembering. To discuss an event, particularly something emotional, like a death or serious illness, is to slowly choose what to leave behind. To begin, however, much that is not necessary must be put into words. The emotion-laden speaker must recount the whole experience, in detail. Only then can the central narrative, cause and consequence, come into focus or consolidate itself. Only then can the moral of the story be derived. Imagine that someone holds a stack of hundred-dollar bills, some of which are counterfeit. All the bills might have to be spread on a table, so that each can be seen, and any differences noted, before the genuine can be distinguished from the false. This is the sort of methodical approach you have to take when really listening to someone trying to solve a problem or communicate something important. If upon learning that some of the bills are counterfeit you too casually dismiss all of them (as you would if you were in a hurry, or otherwise unwilling to put in the effort), the person will never learn to separate wheat from chaff. If you listen, instead, without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking—and with very little deceit. People will tell you the most amazing, absurd, interesting things. Very few of your conversations will be boring. (You can in fact tell whether or not you are actually listening in this manner. If the conversation is boring, you probably aren’t.) Primate Dominance–Hierarchy Manoeuvres—and Wit Not all talking is thinking. Nor does all listening foster transformation. There are other motives for both, some of which produce much less valuable, counterproductive and even dangerous outcomes. There is the conversation, for example, where one participant is speaking merely to establish or confirm his place in the dominance hierarchy. One person begins by telling a story about some interesting occurrence, recent or past, that involved something good, bad or surprising enough to make the listening worthwhile. The other person, now concerned with his or her potentially substandard status as less-interesting individual, immediately thinks of something better, worse, or more surprising to relate. This isn’t one of those situations where two conversational participants are genuinely playing off each other, riffing on the same themes, for the mutual enjoyment of both (and everyone else). This is jockeying for position, pure and simple. You can tell when one of those conversations is occurring. They are accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment among speakers and alike, all who know that something false and exaggerated has just been said. There is another, closely allied form of conversation, where neither speaker is listening in the least to the other. Instead, each is using the time occupied by the current speaker to conjure up what he or she will say next, which will often be something off-topic, because the person anxiously waiting to speak has not been listening. This can and will bring the whole conversational train to a shuddering halt. At this point, it is usual for those who were on board during the crash to remain silent, and look occasionally and in a somewhat embarrassed manner at each other, until everyone leaves, or someone thinks of something witty and puts Humpty Dumpty together again. Then there is the conversation where one participant is trying to attain victory for his point of view. This is yet another variant of the dominance-hierarchy conversation. During such a conversation, which often tends toward the ideological, the speaker endeavours to (1) denigrate or ridicule the viewpoint of anyone holding a contrary position, (2) use selective evidence while doing so and, finally, (3) impress the listeners (many of whom are already occupying the same ideological space) with the validity of his assertions. The goal is to gain support for a comprehensive, unitary, oversimplified world-view. Thus, the purpose of the conversation is to make the case that not thinking is the correct tack. The person who is speaking in this manner believes that winning the argument makes him right, and that doing so necessarily validates the assumption-structure of the dominance hierarchy he most identifies with. This is often—and unsurprisingly—the hierarchy within which he has achieved the most success, or the one with which he is most temperamentally aligned. Almost all discussions involving politics or economics unfold in this manner, with each participant attempting to justify fixed, a priori positions instead of trying to learn something or to adopt a different frame (even for the novelty). It is for this reason that conservatives and liberals alike believe their positions to be self-evident, particularly as they become more extreme. Given certain temperamentally-based assumptions, a predictable conclusion emerges—but only when you ignore the fact that the assumptions themselves are mutable. These conversations are very different from the listening type. When a genuine listening conversation is taking place, one person at a time has the floor, and everyone else is listening. The person speaking is granted the opportunity to seriously discuss some event, usually unhappy or even tragic. Everyone else responds sympathetically. These conversations are important because the speaker is organizing the troublesome event in his or her mind, while recounting the story. The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind. Much of what we consider healthy mental function is the result of our ability to use the reactions of others to keep our complex selves functional. We outsource the problem of our sanity. This is why it is the fundamental responsibility of parents to render their children socially acceptable. If a person’s behaviour is such that other people can tolerate him, then all he has to do is place himself in a social context. Then people will indicate—by being interested in or bored by what he says, or laughing or not laughing at his jokes, or teasing or ridiculing, or even by lifting an eyebrow—whether his actions and statements are what they should be. Everyone is always broadcasting to everyone else their desire to encounter the ideal. We punish and reward each other precisely to the degree that each of us behaves in keeping with that desire—except, of course, when we are looking for trouble. The sympathetic responses offered during a genuine conversation indicate that the teller is valued, and that the story being told is important, serious, deserving of consideration, and understandable. Men and women often misunderstand each other when these conversations are focused on a specified problem. Men are often accused of wanting to “fix things” too early on in a discussion. This frustrates men, who like to solve problems and to do it efficiently and who are in fact called upon frequently by women for precisely that purpose. It might be easier for my male readers to understand why this does not work, however, if they could realize and then remember that before a problem can be solved it must be formulated precisely. Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to—even questioned—to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved. (It should also be noted first that too-early problem-solving may also merely indicate a desire to escape from the effort of the problem-formulating conversation.) Another conversational variant is the lecture. A lecture is—somewhat surprisingly—a conversation. The lecturer speaks, but the audience communicates with him or her non-verbally. A surprising amount of human interaction—much of the delivery of emotional information, for example—takes place in this manner, through postural display and facial emotion (as we noted in our discussion of Freud). A good lecturer is not only delivering facts (which is perhaps the least important part of a lecture), but also telling stories about those facts, pitching them precisely to the level of the audience’s comprehension, gauging that by the interest they are showing. The story he or she is telling conveys to the members of the audience not only what the facts are, but why they are relevant—why it is important to know certain things about which they are currently ignorant. To demonstrate the importance of some set of facts is to tell those audience members how such knowledge could change their behaviour, or influence the way they interpret the world, so that they will now be able to avoid some obstacles and progress more rapidly to some better goals. A good lecturer is thus talking with and not at or even to his or her listeners. To manage this, the lecturer needs to be closely attending to the audience’s every move, gesture and sound. Perversely, this cannot be done by watching the audience, as such. A good lecturer speaks directly to and watches the response of single, identifiable people,*2 instead of doing something clichéd, such as “presenting a talk” to an audience. Everything about that phrase is wrong. You don’t present. You talk. There is no such thing as “a talk,” unless it’s canned, and it shouldn’t be. There is also no “audience.” There are individuals, who need to be included in the conversation. A well-practised and competent public speaker addresses a single, identifiable person, watches that individual nod, shake his head, frown, or look confused, and responds appropriately and directly to those gestures and expressions. Then, after a few phrases, rounding out some idea, he switches to another audience member, and does the same thing. In this manner, he infers and reacts to the attitude of the entire group (insofar as such a thing exists). There are still other conversations that work primarily as demonstrations of wit. These also have a dominance element, but the goal is to be the most entertaining speaker (which is an accomplishment that everyone participating will also enjoy). The purpose of these conversations, as a witty friend of mine once observed, was to say “anything that was either true or funny.” As truth and humour are often close allies, that combination worked fine. I think that this might be the intelligent blue-collar worker’s conversation. I participated in many fine bouts of sarcasm, satire, insult and generally over-the-top comedic exchange around among people I grew up with in Northern Alberta and, later, among some Navy SEALs I met in California, who were friends of an author I know who writes somewhat horrifying popular fiction. They were all perfectly happy to say anything, no matter how appalling, as long it was funny. I attended this writer’s fortieth birthday celebration not too long ago in LA. He had invited one of the aforementioned SEALs. A few months beforehand, however, his wife had been diagnosed with a serious medical condition, necessitating brain surgery. He called up his SEAL friend, informed him of the circumstances, and indicated that the event might have to be cancelled. “You think you guys have a problem,” responded his friend. “I just bought non-refundable airline tickets to your party!” It’s not clear what percentage of the world’s population would find that response amusing. I retold the story recently to a group of newer acquaintances and they were more shocked and appalled than amused. I tried to defend the joke as an indication of the SEAL’s respect for the couple’s ability to withstand and transcend tragedy, but I wasn’t particularly successful. Nonetheless, I believe that he did intend exactly that respect, and I think he was terrifyingly witty. His joke was daring, anarchic to the point of recklessness, which is exactly the point where serious funny occurs. My friend and his wife recognized the compliment. They saw that their friend knew they were tough enough to withstand that level of—well, let’s call it competitive humour. It was a test of character, which they passed with flying colours. I found that such conversations occurred less and less frequently as I moved from university to university, up the educational and social ladder. Maybe it wasn’t a class thing, although I have my suspicions it was. Maybe it’s just that I’m older, or that the friends a person makes later in life, after adolescence, lack the insane competitive closeness and perverse playfulness of those early tribal bonds. When I went back up north to my hometown for my fiftieth birthday party, however, my old friends made me laugh so hard I had to duck into a different room several times to catch my breath. Those conversations are the most fun, and I miss them. You have to keep up, or risk severe humiliation, but there is nothing more rewarding than topping the last comedian’s story, joke, insult or curse. Only one rule really applies: do not be boring (although it is also very bad form to actually put someone down, when you are only pretending to put them down). Conversation on the Way The final type of conversation, akin to listening, is a form of mutual exploration. It requires true reciprocity on the part of those listening and speaking. It allows all participants to express and organize their thoughts. A conversation of mutual exploration has a topic, generally complex, of genuine interest to the participants. Everyone participating is trying to solve a problem, instead of insisting on the a priori validity of their own positions. All are acting on the premise that they have something to learn. This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living. The people involved in such a conversation must be discussing ideas they genuinely use to structure their perceptions and guide their actions and words. They must be existentially involved with their philosophy: that is, they must be living it, not merely believing or understanding it. They also must have inverted, at least temporarily, the typical human preference for order over chaos (and I don’t mean the chaos typical of mindless antisocial rebellion). Other conversational types—except for the listening type—all attempt to buttress some existing order. The conversation of mutual exploration, by contrast, requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known. You already know what you know, after all—and, unless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough. You remain threatened by disease, and self-deception, and unhappiness, and malevolence, and betrayal, and corruption, and pain, and limitation. You are subject to all these things, in the final analysis, because you are just too ignorant to protect yourself. If you just knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malevolence and evil. You would neither betray a friend, nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics or love. However, your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition—radically, fatally insufficient. You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of convincing, oppressing, dominating or even amusing. You must accept this before you can tolerate a conversation where the Word that eternally mediates between order and chaos is operating, psychologically speaking. To have this kind of conversation, it is necessary to respect the personal experience of your conversational partners. You must assume that they have reached careful, thoughtful, genuine conclusions (and, perhaps, they must have done the work that justifies this assumption). You must believe that if they shared their conclusions with you, you could bypass at least some of the pain of personally learning the same things (as learning from the experience of others can be quicker and much less dangerous). You must meditate, too, instead of strategizing towards victory. If you fail, or refuse, to do so, then you merely and automatically repeat what you already believe, seeking its validation and insisting on its rightness. But if you are meditating as you converse, then you listen to the other person, and say the new and original things that can rise from deep within of their own accord. It’s as if you are listening to yourself during such a conversation, just as you are listening to the other person. You are describing how you are responding to the new information imparted by the speaker. You are reporting what that information has done to you—what new things it made appear within you, how it has changed your presuppositions, how it has made you think of new questions. You tell the speaker these things, directly. Then they have the same effect on him. In this manner, you both move towards somewhere newer and broader and better. You both change, as you let your old presuppositions die—as you shed your skins and emerge renewed. A conversation such as this is one where it is the desire for truth itself—on the part of both participants—that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, vital, interesting and meaningful. That sense of meaning is a signal from the deep, ancient parts of your Being. You’re where you should be, with one foot in order, and the other tentatively extended into chaos and the unknown. You’re immersed in the Tao, following the great Way of Life. There, you’re stable enough to be secure, but flexible enough to transform. There, you’re allowing new information to inform you—to permeate your stability, to repair and improve its structure, and expand its domain. There the constituent elements of your Being can find their more elegant formation. A conversation like that places you in the same place that listening to great music places you, and for much the same reason. A conversation like that puts you in the realm where souls connect, and that’s a real place. It leaves you thinking, “That was really worthwhile. We really got to know each other.” The masks came off, and the searchers were revealed. So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom. It is for this reason that the priestess of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth. She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t. *1 Here, again, I have disguised many of the details of this case, to maintain the privacy of those involved, while attempting to maintain the central meaning of the events. *2 The strategy of speaking to individuals is not only vital to the delivery of any message, it’s a useful antidote to fear of public speaking. No one wants to be stared at by hundreds of unfriendly, judgmental eyes. However, almost everybody can talk to just one attentive person. So, if you have to deliver a speech (another terrible phrase) then do that. Talk to the individuals in the audience—and don’t hide: not behind the podium, not with downcast eyes, not by speaking too quietly or mumbling, not by apologizing for your lack of brilliance or preparedness, not behind ideas that are not yours, and not behind clichés. [image: ] RULE 12 PET A CAT WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER ONE ON THE STREET DOGS ARE OK TOO I AM GOING TO START THIS CHAPTER by stating directly that I own a dog, an American Eskimo, one of the many variants of the basic spitz type. They were known as German spitzes until the First World War made it verboten to admit that anything good could come from Germany. American Eskimos are among the most beautiful of dogs, with a pointed, classic wolf face, upright ears, a long thick coat, and a curly tail. They are also very intelligent. Our dog, whose name is Sikko (which means “ice” in an Inuit language, according to my daughter, who named him), learns tricks very rapidly, and can do so even now that he’s old. I taught him a new stunt, recently, when he turned thirteen. He already knew how to shake a paw, and to balance a treat on his nose. I taught him to do both at the same time. However, it’s not at all clear he enjoys it. We bought Sikko for my daughter, Mikhaila, when she was about ten years old. He was an unbearably cute pup. Small nose and ears, rounded face, big eyes, awkward movements—these features automatically elicit caretaking behaviour from humans, male and female alike.208 This was certainly the case with Mikhaila, who was also occupied with the care of bearded dragons, gekkoes, ball pythons, chameleons, iguanas and a twenty-pound, thirty-two-inch-long Flemish Giant rabbit named George, who nibbled on everything in the house and frequently escaped (to the great consternation of those who then spied his improbably large form in their tiny mid-city gardens). She had all these animals because she was allergic to the more typical pets—excepting Sikko, who had the additional advantage of being hypo-allergenic. Sikko garnered fifty nicknames (we counted) which varied broadly in their emotional tone, and reflected both the affection in which he was held and our occasional frustration with his beastly habits. Scumdog was probably my favorite, but I also held Rathound, Furball and Suck-dog in rather high esteem. The kids used Sneak and Squeak (sometimes with an appended o) most frequently, but accompanied it with Snooky, Ugdog, and Snorfalopogus (horrible though it is to admit). Snorbs is Mikhaila’s current moniker of choice. She uses it to greet him after a prolonged absence. For full effect, it must be uttered in a high-pitched and surprised voice. Sikko also happens to have his own Instagram hashtag: #JudgementalSikko. I am describing my dog instead of writing directly about cats because I don’t wish to run afoul of a phenomenon known as “minimal group identification,” discovered by the social psychologist Henri Tajfel.209 Tajfel brought his research subjects into his lab and sat them down in front of a screen, onto which he flashed a number of dots. The subjects were asked to estimate their quantity. Then he categorized his subjects as overestimators vs underestimators, as well as accurate vs inaccurate, and put them into groups corresponding to their performance. Then he asked them to divide money among the members of all the groups. Tajfel found that his subjects displayed a marked preference for their own group members, rejecting an egalitarian distribution strategy and disproportionately rewarding those with whom they now identified. Other researchers have assigned people to different groups using ever more arbitrary strategies, such as flipping a coin. It didn’t matter, even when the subjects were informed of the way the groups were composed. People still favoured the co-members of their personal group. Tajfel’s studies demonstrated two things: first, that people are social; second, that people are antisocial. People are social because they like the members of their own group. People are antisocial because they don’t like the members of other groups. Exactly why this is so has been the subject of continual debate. I think it might be a solution to a complex problem of optimization. Such problems arise, for example, when two or more factors are important, but none cannot be maximized without diminishing the others. A problem of this sort emerges, for example, because of the antipathy between cooperation and competition, both of which are socially and psychologically desirable. Cooperation is for safety, security and companionship. Competition is for personal growth and status. However, if a given group is too small, it has no power or prestige, and cannot fend off other groups. In consequence, being one of its members is not that useful. If the group is too large, however, the probability of climbing near or to the top declines. So, it becomes too hard to get ahead. Perhaps people identify with groups at the flip of a coin because they deeply want to organize themselves, protect themselves, and still have some reasonable probability of climbing the dominance hierarchy. Then they favour their own group, because favouring it helps it thrive—and climbing something that is failing is not a useful strategy. In any case, it is because of Tajfel’s minimal-conditions discovery that I began this cat-related chapter with a description of my dog. Otherwise, the mere mention of a cat in the title would be enough to turn many dog people against me, just because I didn’t include canines in the group of entities that should be petted. Since I also like dogs, there is no reason for me to suffer such a fate. So, if you like to pet dogs when you meet them on the street, don’t feel obliged to hate me. Rest assured, instead, that this is also an activity of which I approve. I would also like to apologize to all the cat people who now feel slighted, because they were hoping for a cat story but had to read all this dog-related material. Perhaps they might be satisfied by some assurance that cats do illustrate the point I want to make better, and that I will eventually discuss them. First, however, to other things. Suffering and the Limitations of Being The idea that life is suffering is a tenet, in one form or another, of every major religious doctrine, as we have already discussed. Buddhists state it directly. Christians illustrate it with the cross. Jews commemorate the suffering endured over centuries. Such reasoning universally characterizes the great creeds, because human beings are intrinsically fragile. We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically, and we are all subject to the depredations of aging and loss. This is a dismal set of facts, and it is reasonable to wonder how we can expect to thrive and be happy (or even to want to exist, sometimes) under such conditions. I was speaking recently with a client whose husband had been engaging in a successful battle with cancer for an agonizing period of five years. They had both held up remarkably and courageously over this period. However, he fell prey to the tendency of that dread condition to metastasize and, in consequence, had been given very little time to live. It is perhaps hardest to hear terrible news like this when you are still in the fragile post-recovery state that occurs after dealing successfully with previous bad news. Tragedy at such a time seems particularly unfair. It is the sort of thing that can make you distrust even hope itself. It’s frequently sufficient to cause genuine trauma. My client and I discussed a number of issues, some philosophical and abstract, some more concrete. I shared with her some of the thoughts that I had developed about the whys and wherefores of human vulnerability. When my son, Julian, was about three, he was particularly cute. He’s twenty years older than that now, but still quite cute (a compliment I’m sure he’ll particularly enjoy reading). Because of him, I thought a lot about the fragility of small children. A three-year-old is easily damaged. Dogs can bite him. Cars can hit him. Mean kids can push him over. He can get sick (and sometimes did). Julian was prone to high fevers and the delirium they sometimes produce. Sometimes I had to take him into the shower with me and cool him off when he was hallucinating, or even fighting with me, in his feverish state. There are few things that make it harder to accept the fundamental limitations of human existence than a sick child. Mikhaila, a year and a few months older than Julian, also had her problems. When she was two, I would lift her up on my shoulders and carry her around. Kids enjoy that. Afterwards, however, when I put her feet back on the ground, she would sit down and cry. So, I stopped doing it. That seemed to be the end of the problem—with a seemingly minor exception. My wife, Tammy, told me that something was wrong with Mikhaila’s gait. I couldn’t see it. Tammy thought it might be related to her reaction to being carried on my shoulders. Mikhaila was a sunny child and very easy to get along with. One day when she was about fourteen months old I took her along with Tammy and her grandparents to Cape Cod, when we lived in Boston. When we got there, Tammy and her mom and dad walked ahead, and left me with Mikhaila in the car. We were in the front seat. She was lying there in the sun, babbling away. I leaned over to hear what she was saying. “Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy.” That’s what she was like. When she turned six, however, she started to get mopey. It was hard to get her out of bed in the morning. She put on her clothes very slowly. When we walked somewhere, she lagged behind. She complained that her feet hurt and that her shoes didn’t fit. We bought her ten different pairs, but it didn’t help. She went to school, and held her head up, and behaved properly. But when she came home, and saw her Mom, she would break into tears. We had recently moved from Boston to Toronto, and attributed these changes to the stress of the move. But it didn’t get better. Mikhaila began to walk up and down stairs one step at a time. She began to move like someone much older. She complained if you held her hand. (One time, much later, she asked me, “Dad, when you played ‘this little piggy,’ with me when I was little, was it supposed to hurt?” Things you learn too late…). A physician at our local medical clinic told us, “Sometimes children have growing pains. They’re normal. But you could think about taking her to see a physiotherapist.” So, we did. The physiotherapist tried to rotate Mikhaila’s heel. It didn’t move. That was not good. The physio told us, “Your daughter has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.” This was not what we wanted to hear. We did not like that physiotherapist. We went back to the medical clinic. Another physician there told us to take Mikhaila to the Hospital for Sick Children. The doctor said, “Take her to the emergency room. That way, you will be able to see a rheumatologist quickly.” Mikhaila had arthritis, all right. The physio, bearer of unwelcome news, was correct. Thirty-seven affected joints. Severe polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). Cause? Unknown. Prognosis? Multiple early joint replacements. What sort of God would make a world where such a thing could happen, at all?—much less to an innocent and happy little girl? It’s a question of absolutely fundamental import, for believer and non-believer alike. It’s an issue addressed (as are so many difficult matters) in The Brothers Karamazov, the great novel by Dostoevsky we began to discuss in Rule 7. Dostoevsky expresses his doubts about the propriety of Being through the character of Ivan who, if you remember, is the articulate, handsome, sophisticated brother (and greatest adversary) of the monastic novitiate Alyosha. “It’s not God I don’t accept. Understand this,” says Ivan. “I do not accept the world that He created, this world of God’s, and cannot agree with it.” Ivan tells Alyosha a story about a small girl whose parents punished her by locking her in a freezing outhouse overnight (a story Dostoevsky culled from a newspaper of the time). “Can you just see those two snoozing away while their daughter was crying all night?” says Ivan. “And imagine this little child: unable to understand what was happening to her, beating her frozen little chest and crying meek little tears, begging ‘gentle Jesus’ to get her out of that horrible place!… Alyosha: if you were somehow promised that the world could finally have complete and total peace—but only on the condition that you tortured one little child to death—say, that girl who was freezing in the outhouse…would you do it?” Alyosha demurs. “No, I would not,” he says, softly.210 He would not do what God seems to freely allow. I had realized something relevant to this, years before, about three-year-old Julian (remember him? :)). I thought, “I love my son. He’s three, and cute and little and comical. But I am also afraid for him, because he could be hurt. If I had the power to change that, what might I do?” I thought, “He could be twenty feet tall instead of forty inches. Nobody could push him over then. He could be made of titanium, instead of flesh and bone. Then, if some brat bounced a toy truck off his noggin, he wouldn’t care. He could have a computer-enhanced brain. And even if he was damaged, somehow, his parts could be immediately replaced. Problem solved!” But no—not problem solved—and not just because such things are currently impossible. Artificially fortifying Julian would have been the same as destroying him. Instead of his little three-year-old self, he would be a cold, steel-hard robot. That wouldn’t be Julian. It would be a monster. I came to realize through such thoughts that what can be truly loved about a person is inseparable from their limitations. Julian wouldn’t have been little and cute and lovable if he wasn’t also prone to illness, and loss, and pain, and anxiety. Since I loved him a lot, I decided that he was all right the way he was, despite his fragility. It’s been harder with my daughter. As her disease progressed, I began to piggy-back her around (not on my shoulders) when we went for walks. She started taking oral naproxen and methotrexate, the latter a powerful chemotherapy agent. She had a number of cortisol injections (wrists, shoulders, ankles, elbows, knees, hips, fingers, toes and tendons), all under general anaesthetic. This helped temporarily, but her decline continued. One day Tammy took Mikhaila to the zoo. She pushed her around in a wheelchair. That was not a good day. Her rheumatologist suggested prednisone, a corticosteroid, long used to fight inflammation. But prednisone has many side effects, not the least of which is severe facial swelling. It wasn’t clear that this was better than the arthritis, not for a little girl. Fortunately, if that is the right word, the rheumatologist told us of a new drug. It had been used previously, but only on adults. So Mikhaila became the first Canadian child to receive etanercept, a “biological” specifically designed for autoimmune diseases. Tammy accidentally administered ten times the recommended dose the first few injections. Poof! Mikhaila was fixed. A few weeks after the trip to the zoo, she was zipping around, playing little league soccer. Tammy spent all summer just watching her run. We wanted Mikhaila to control as much of her life as she could. She had always been strongly motivated by money. One day we found her outside, surrounded by the books of her early childhood, selling them to passersby. I sat her down one evening and told her that I would give her fifty dollars if she could do the injection herself. She was eight. She struggled for thirty-five minutes, holding the needle close to her thigh. Then she did it. Next time I paid her twenty dollars, but only gave her ten minutes. Then it was ten dollars, and five minutes. We stayed at ten for quite a while. It was a bargain. After a few years, Mikhaila became completely symptom-free. The rheumatologist suggested that we start weaning her off her medications. Some children grow out of JIA when they hit puberty. No one knows why. She began to take methotrexate in pill form, instead of injecting it. Things were good for four years. Then, one day, her elbow started to ache. We took her back to the hospital. “You only have one actively arthritic joint,” said the rheumatologist’s assistant. It wasn’t “only.” Two isn’t much more than one, but one is a lot more than zero. One meant she hadn’t grown out of her arthritis, despite the hiatus. The news demolished her for a month, but she was still in dance class and playing ball games with her friends on the street in front of our house. The rheumatologist had some more unpleasant things to say the next September, when Mikhaila started grade eleven. An MRI revealed joint deterioration at the hip. She told Mikhaila, “Your hip will have to be replaced before you turn thirty.” Perhaps the damage had been done, before the etanercept worked its miracle? We didn’t know. It was ominous news. One day, a few weeks after, Mikhaila was playing ball hockey in her high school gym. Her hip locked up. She had to hobble off the court. It started to hurt more and more. The rheumatologist said, “Some of your femur appears to be dead. You don’t need a hip replacement when you’re thirty. You need one now.” As I sat with my client—as she discussed her husband’s advancing illness—we discussed the fragility of life, the catastrophe of existence, and the sense of nihilism evoked by the spectre of death. I started with my thoughts about my son. She had asked, like everyone in her situation, “Why my husband? Why me? Why this?” My realization of the tight interlinking between vulnerability and Being was the best answer I had for her. I told her an old Jewish story, which I believe is part of the commentary on the Torah. It begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack?211 The answer? Limitation. If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being. It helped my client, too. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I don’t want to claim that this somehow makes it all OK. She still faced the cancer afflicting her husband, just as I still faced my daughter’s terrible illness. But there’s something to be said for recognizing that existence and limitation are inextricably linked. Though thirty spokes may form the wheel, it is the hole within the hub which gives the wheel utility. It is not the clay the potter throws, which gives the pot its usefulness, but the space within the shape, from which the pot is made. Without a door, the room cannot be entered, and without its windows it is dark Such is the utility of non-existence.212 A realization of this sort emerged more recently, in the pop culture world, during the evolution of the DC Comics cultural icon Superman. Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In the beginning, he could move cars, trains and even ships. He could run faster than a locomotive. He could “leap over tall buildings in a single bound.” As he developed over the next four decades, however, Superman’s power began to expand. By the late sixties, he could fly faster than light. He had super-hearing and X-ray vision. He could blast heat-rays from his eyes. He could freeze objects and generate hurricanes with his breath. He could move entire planets. Nuclear blasts didn’t faze him. And, if he did get hurt, somehow, he would immediately heal. Superman became invulnerable. Then a strange thing happened. He got boring. The more amazing his abilities became, the harder it was to think up interesting things for him to do. DC first overcame this problem in the 1940s. Superman became vulnerable to the radiation produced by kryptonite, a material remnant of his shattered home planet. Eventually, more than two dozen variants emerged. Green kryptonite weakened Superman. In sufficient dosage, it could even kill him. Red caused him to behave strangely. Red-green caused him to mutate (he once grew a third eye in the back of his head). Other techniques were necessary to keep Superman’s story compelling. In 1976, he was scheduled to battle Spiderman. It was the first superhero cross-over between Stan Lee’s upstart Marvel Comics, with its less idealized characters, and DC, the owner of Superman and Batman. But Marvel had to augment Spiderman’s powers for the battle to remain plausible. That broke the rules of the game. Spiderman is Spiderman because he has the powers of a spider. If he is suddenly granted any old power, he’s not Spiderman. The plot falls apart. By the 1980s, Superman was suffering from terminal deus ex machina—a Latin term meaning “god from a machine.” The term described the rescue of the imperilled hero in ancient Greek and Romans plays by the sudden and miraculous appearance of an all-powerful god. In badly written stories, to this very day, a character in trouble can be saved or a failing plot redeemed by a bit of implausible magic or other chicanery not in keeping with the reader’s reasonable expectations. Sometimes Marvel Comics, for example, saves a failing story in exactly this manner. Lifeguard, for example, is an X-Man character who can develop whatever power is necessary to save a life. He’s very handy to have around. Other examples abound in popular culture. At the end of Stephen King’s The Stand, for example (spoiler alert), God Himself destroys the novel’s evil characters. The entire ninth season (1985–86) of the primetime soap Dallas was later revealed as a dream. Fans object to such things, and rightly so. They’ve been ripped off. People following a story are willing to suspend disbelief as long as the limitations making the story possible are coherent and consistent. Writers, for their part, agree to abide by their initial decisions. When writers cheat, fans get annoyed. They want to toss the book in the fireplace, and throw a brick through the TV. And that became Superman’s problem: he developed powers so extreme that he could “deus” himself out of anything, at any time. In consequence, in the 1980s, the franchise nearly died. Artist-writer John Byrne successfully rebooted it, rewriting Superman, retaining his biography, but depriving him of many of his new powers. He could no longer lift planets, or shrug off an H-bomb. He also became dependent on the sun for his power, like a reverse vampire. He gained some reasonable limitations. A superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He’s nothing specific, so he’s nothing. He has nothing to strive against, so he can’t be admirable. Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, perhaps, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. That is only possible for something limited. Fair enough. But what about the suffering caused by such limits? Perhaps the limits required by Being are so extreme that the whole project should just be scrapped. Dostoevsky expresses this idea very clearly in the voice of the protagonist of Notes from Underground: “So you see, you can say anything about world history—anything and everything that the most morbid imagination can think up. Except one thing, that is. It cannot be said that world history is reasonable. The word sticks in one’s throat.”213 Goethe’s Mephistopheles, the adversary of Being, announces his opposition explicitly to God’s creation in Faust, as we have seen. Years later, Goethe wrote Faust, Part II. He has the Devil repeat his credo, in a slightly different form, just to hammer home the point:214 Gone, to sheer Nothing, past with null made one! What matters our creative endless toil, When, at a snatch, oblivion ends the coil? “It is by-gone”—How shall this riddle run? As good as if things never had begun, Yet circle back, existence to possess: I’d rather have Eternal Emptiness. Anyone can understand such words, when a dream collapses, a marriage ends, or a family member is struck down by a devastating disease. How can reality be structured so unbearably? How can this be? Perhaps, as the Columbine boys suggested (see Rule 6), it would be better not to be at all. Perhaps it would be even better if there was no Being at all. But people who come to the former conclusion are flirting with suicide, and those who come to the latter with something worse, something truly monstrous. They’re consorting with the idea of the destruction of everything. They are toying with genocide—and worse. Even the darkest regions have still darker corners. And what is truly horrifying is that such conclusions are understandable, maybe even inevitable—although not inevitably acted upon. What is a reasonable person to think when faced, for example, with a suffering child? Is it not precisely the reasonable person, the compassionate person, who would find such thoughts occupying his mind? How could a good God allow such a world as this to exist? Logical they might be. Understandable, they might be. But there is a terrible catch to such conclusions. Acts undertaken in keeping with them (if not the thoughts themselves) inevitably serve to make a bad situation even worse. Hating life, despising life—even for the genuine pain that life inflicts—merely serves to make life itself worse, unbearably worse. There is no genuine protest in that. There is no goodness in that, only the desire to produce suffering, for the sake of suffering. That is the very essence of evil. People who come to that kind of thinking are one step from total mayhem. Sometimes they merely lack the tools. Sometimes, like Stalin, they have their finger on the nuclear button. But is there any coherent alternative, given the self-evident horrors of existence? Can Being itself, with its malarial mosquitoes, child soldiers and degenerative neurological diseases, truly be justified? I’m not sure I could have formulated a proper answer to such a question in the nineteenth century, before the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth were monstrously perpetrated on millions of people. I don’t know that it’s possible to understand why such doubts are morally impermissible without the fact of the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges and Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward.215 And I also don’t think it is possible to answer the question by thinking. Thinking leads inexorably to the abyss. It did not work for Tolstoy. It might not even have worked for Nietzsche, who arguably thought more clearly about such things than anyone in history. But if it is not thinking that can be relied upon in the direst of situations, what is left? Thought, after all, is the highest of human achievements, is it not? Perhaps not. Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations—in the depths—it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations. Of course, it’s complicated. You don’t have to be in love with every shortcoming, and merely accept. You shouldn’t stop trying to make life better, or let suffering just be. But there appear to be limits on the path to improvement beyond which we might not want to go, lest we sacrifice our humanity itself. Of course, it’s one thing to say, “Being requires limitation,” and then to go about happily, when the sun is shining and your father is free of Alzheimer’s disease and your kids are healthy and your marriage happy. But when things go wrong? Disintegration and Pain Mikhaila stayed awake many nights when she was in pain. When her grandfather came to visit, he gave her a few of his Tylenol 3s, which contain codeine. Then she could sleep. But not for long. Our rheumatologist, instrumental in producing Mikhaila’s remission, hit the limit of her courage when dealing with our child’s pain. She had once prescribed opiates to a young girl, who became addicted. She swore never to do so again. She said, “Have you tried ibuprofen?” Mikhaila learned then that doctors don’t know everything. Ibuprofen for her was a crumb of bread for a starving man. We talked to a new doctor. He listened carefully. Then he helped Mikhaila. First, he prescribed T3s, the same medication her grandfather had briefly shared. This was brave. Physicians face a lot of pressure to avoid the prescription of opiates—not least to children. But opiates work. Soon, however, the Tylenol was insufficient. She started taking oxycontin, an opioid known pejoratively as hillbilly heroin. This controlled her pain, but produced other problems. Tammy took Mikhaila out for lunch a week after the prescription started. She could have been drunk. Her speech was slurred. Her head nodded. This was not good. My sister-in-law is a palliative care nurse. She thought we could add Ritalin, an amphetamine often used for hyperactive kids, to the oxycontin. The Ritalin restored Mikhaila’s alertness and had some pain-suppressing qualities of its own (this is a very a good thing to know if you are ever faced with someone’s intractable suffering). But her pain became increasingly excruciating. She started to fall. Then her hip seized up on her again, this time in the subway on a day when the escalator was not working. Her boyfriend carried her up the stairs. She took a cab home. The subway was no longer a reliable form of transportation. That March we bought Mikhaila a 50cc motor scooter. It was dangerous to let her ride it. It was also dangerous for her to lack all freedom. We chose the former danger. She passed her learner’s exam, which allowed her to pilot the vehicle during the day. She was given a few months to progress towards her permanent licence. In May her hip was replaced. The surgeon was even able to adjust for a pre-existent half centimetre difference in leg length. The bone hadn’t died, either. That was only a shadow on the x-ray. Her aunt and her grandparents came to see her. We had some better days. Immediately after the surgery, however, Mikhaila was placed in an adult rehabilitation centre. She was the youngest person in the place, by about sixty years. Her aged roommate, very neurotic, wouldn’t allow the lights to be off, even at night. The old woman couldn’t make it to the toilet and had to use a bedpan. She couldn’t stand to have the door to her room closed. But it was right beside the nurses’ station, with its continual alarm bells and loud conversations. There was no sleeping there, where sleeping was required. No visitors were allowed after 7 p.m. The physio—the very reason for her placement—was on vacation. The only person who helped her was the janitor, who volunteered to move her to a multi-bed ward when she told the on-duty nurse that she couldn’t sleep. This was the same nurse who had laughed when she’d found out which room Mikhaila had been assigned to. She was supposed to be there for six weeks. She was there three days. When the vacationing physio returned, Mikhaila climbed the rehab-centre stairs and immediately mastered her additional required exercises. While she was doing that, we outfitted our home with the necessary handrails. Then we took her home. All that pain and surgery—she handled that fine. The appalling rehab centre? That produced post-traumatic stress symptoms. Mikhaila enrolled in a full-fledged motorcycle course in June, so she could continue legally using her scooter. We were all terrified by this necessity. What if she fell? What if she had an accident? On the first day, Mikhaila trained on a real motorcycle. It was heavy. She dropped it several times. She saw another beginning rider tumble and roll across the parking lot where the course was held. On the morning of the second day of the course, she was afraid to return. She didn’t want to leave her bed. We talked for a good while, and jointly decided that she should at least drive back with Tammy to the site where the training took place. If she couldn’t manage it, she could stay in the car until the course finished. En route, her courage returned. When she received her certificate, everyone else enrolled stood and applauded. Then her right ankle disintegrated. Her doctors wanted to fuse the large affected bones into one piece. But that would have caused the other, smaller bones in her foot—now facing additional pressure—to deteriorate. That’s not so intolerable, perhaps, when you’re eighty (although it’s no picnic then either). But it’s no solution when you’re in your teens. We insisted upon an artificial replacement, although the technology was new. There was a three year-waiting list. This was simply not manageable. The damaged ankle produced much more pain than her previously failing hip. One bad night she became erratic and illogical. I couldn’t calm her down. I knew she was at her breaking point. To call that stressful is to say almost nothing. We spent weeks and then months desperately investigating all sorts of replacement devices, trying to assess their suitability. We looked everywhere for quicker surgery: India, China, Spain, the UK, Costa Rica, Florida. We contacted the Ontario Provincial Ministry of Health. They were very helpful. They located a specialist across the country, in Vancouver. Mikhaila’s ankle was replaced in November. Post-surgery, she was in absolute agony. Her foot was mispositioned. The cast was compressing skin against bone. The clinic was unwilling to give her enough oxycontin to control her pain. She had built up a high level of tolerance because of her previous use. When she returned home, in less pain, Mikhaila started to taper off the opiates. She hated oxycontin, despite its evident utility. She said it turned her life grey. Perhaps that was a good thing, under the circumstances. She stopped using it as soon as possible. She suffered through withdrawal for months, with night sweating and formication (the sensation of ants crawling upside down under her skin). She became unable to experience any pleasure. That was another effect of opiate withdrawal. During much of this period, we were overwhelmed. The demands of everyday life don’t stop, just because you have been laid low by a catastrophe. Everything that you always do still has to be done. So how do you manage? Here are some things we learned: Set aside some time to talk and to think about the illness or other crisis and how it should be managed every day. Do not talk or think about it otherwise. If you do not limit its effect, you will become exhausted, and everything will spiral into the ground. This is not helpful. Conserve your strength. You’re in a war, not a battle, and a war is composed of many battles. You must stay functional through all of them. When worries associated with the crisis arise at other times, remind yourself that you will think them through, during the scheduled period. This usually works. The parts of your brain that generate anxiety are more interested in the fact that there is a plan than in the details of the plan. Don’t schedule your time to think in the evening or at night. Then you won’t be able to sleep. If you can’t sleep, then everything will go rapidly downhill. Shift the unit of time you use to frame your life. When the sun is shining, and times are good, and the crops are bountiful, you can make your plans for the next month, and the next year, and the next five years. You can even dream a decade ahead. But you can’t do that when your leg is clamped firmly in a crocodile’s jaws. “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof”—that is Matthew 6:34. It is often interpreted as “live in the present, without a care for tomorrow.” This is not what it means. That injunction must be interpreted in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, of which it is an integral part. That sermon distills the ten “Thou-shalt-nots” of the Commandments of Moses into a single prescriptive “Thou shalt.” Christ enjoins His followers to place faith in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and the truth. That’s a conscious decision to presume the primary goodness of Being. That’s an act of courage. Aim high, like Pinocchio’s Geppetto. Wish upon a star, and then act properly, in accordance with that aim. Once you are aligned with the heavens, you can concentrate on the day. Be careful. Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. It is possible that you can manage, if you are careful. People are very tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost. Dogs, Again—But Finally, Cats Dogs are like people. They are the friends and allies of human beings. They are social, hierarchical, and domesticated. They are happy at the bottom of the family pyramid. They pay for the attention they receive with loyalty, admiration, and love. Dogs are great. Cats, however, are their own creatures. They aren’t social or hierarchical (except in passing). They are only semi-domesticated. They don’t do tricks. They are friendly on their own terms. Dogs have been tamed, but cats have made a decision. They appear willing to interact with people, for some strange reasons of their own. To me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being that looks at human beings and approves. When you meet a cat on a street, many things can happen. If I see a cat at a distance, for example, the evil part of me wants to startle it with a loud pfft! sound—front teeth over bottom lip. That will make a nervous cat puff up its fur and stand sideways so it looks larger. Maybe I shouldn’t laugh at cats, but it’s hard to resist. The fact that they can be startled is one of the best things about them (along with the fact that they are instantly disgruntled and embarrassed by their overreaction). But when I have myself under proper control, I’ll bend down, and call the cat over, so I can pet it. Sometimes, it will run away. Sometimes, it will ignore me completely, because it’s a cat. But sometimes the cat will come over to me, push its head against my waiting hand, and be pleased about it. Sometimes it will even roll over, and arch its back against the dusty concrete (although cats positioned in that manner will often bite and claw even a friendly hand). Across the street on which I live is a cat named Ginger. Ginger is a Siamese, a beautiful cat, very calm and self-possessed. She is low in the Big Five personality trait of neuroticism, which is an index of anxiety, fear and emotional pain. Ginger is not at all bothered by dogs. Our dog, Sikko, is her friend. Sometimes when you call her—sometimes of her own accord—Ginger will trot across the street, tail held high, with a little kink at the end. Then she will roll on her back in front of Sikko, who wags his tail happily as a consequence. Afterward, if she feels like it, she might come visit you, for a half a minute. It’s a nice break. It’s a little extra light, on a good day, and a tiny respite, on a bad day. If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe you will see a little girl dancing on the street because she is all dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a café that cares about their customers. Maybe you can steal ten or twenty minutes to do some little ridiculous thing that distracts you or reminds you that you can laugh at the absurdity of existence. Personally, I like to watch a Simpsons episode at 1.5 times regular speed: all the laughs; two-thirds the time. And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. P.S. Soon after I wrote this chapter, Mikhaila’s surgeon told her that her artificial ankle would have to be removed, and her ankle fused. Amputation waited down that road. She had been in pain for eight years, since the replacement surgery, and her mobility remained significantly impaired, although both were much better than before. Four days later she happened upon a new physiotherapist. He was a large, powerful, attentive person. He had specialized in ankle treatment in the UK, in London. He placed his hands around her ankle and compressed it for forty seconds, while Mikhaila moved her foot back and forth. A mispositioned bone slipped back where it belonged. Her pain disappeared. She never cries in front of medical personnel, but she burst into tears. Her knee straightened up. Now she can walk long distances, and traipse around in her bare feet. The calf muscle on her damaged leg is growing back. She has much more flexion in the artificial joint. This year, she got married and had a baby girl, Elizabeth, named after my wife’s departed mother. Things are good. For now. OVERTURE THIS BOOK HAS A SHORT history and a long history. We’ll begin with the short history. In 2012, I started contributing to a website called Quora. On Quora, anyone can ask a question, of any sort—and anyone can answer. Readers upvote those answers they like, and downvote those they don’t. In this manner, the most useful answers rise to the top, while the others sink into oblivion. I was curious about the site. I liked its free-for-all nature. The discussion was often compelling, and it was interesting to see the diverse range of opinions generated by the same question. When I was taking a break (or avoiding work), I often turned to Quora, looking for questions to engage with. I considered, and eventually answered, such questions as “What’s the difference between being happy and being content?”, “What things get better as you age?” and “What makes life more meaningful?” Quora tells you how many people have viewed your answer and how many upvotes you received. Thus, you can determine your reach, and see what people think of your ideas. Only a small minority of those who view an answer upvote it. As of July 2017, as I write this—and five years after I addressed “What makes life more meaningful?”—my answer to that question has received a relatively small audience (14,000 views, and 133 upvotes), while my response to the question about aging has been viewed by 7,200 people and received 36 upvotes. Not exactly home runs. However, it’s to be expected. On such sites, most answers receive very little attention, while a tiny minority become disproportionately popular. Soon after, I answered another question: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” I wrote a list of rules, or maxims; some dead serious, some tongue-in-cheek—“Be grateful in spite of your suffering,” “Do not do things that you hate,” “Do not hide things in the fog,” and so on. The Quora readers appeared pleased with this list. They commented on and shared it. They said such things as “I’m definitely printing this list out and keeping it as a reference. Simply phenomenal,” and “You win Quora. We can just close the site now.” Students at the University of Toronto, where I teach, came up to me and told me how much they liked it. To date, my answer to “What are the most valuable things…” has been viewed by a hundred and twenty thousand people and been upvoted twenty-three hundred times. Only a few hundred of the roughly six hundred thousand questions on Quora have cracked the two-thousand-upvote barrier. My procrastination-induced musings hit a nerve. I had written a 99.9 percentile answer. It was not obvious to me when I wrote the list of rules for living that it was going to perform so well. I had put a fair bit of care into all the sixty or so answers I submitted in the few months surrounding that post. Nonetheless, Quora provides market research at its finest. The respondents are anonymous. They’re disinterested, in the best sense. Their opinions are spontaneous and unbiased. So, I paid attention to the results, and thought about the reasons for that answer’s disproportionate success. Perhaps I struck the right balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar while formulating the rules. Perhaps people were drawn to the structure that such rules imply. Perhaps people just like lists. A few months earlier, in March of 2012, I had received an email from a literary agent. She had heard me speak on CBC radio during a show entitled Just Say No to Happiness, where I had criticized the idea that happiness was the proper goal for life. Over the previous decades I had read more than my share of dark books about the twentieth century, focusing particularly on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great documenter of the slave-labour-camp horrors of the latter, once wrote that the “pitiful ideology” holding that “human beings are created for happiness” was an ideology “done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel.”1 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. This is part of the long history of the present work. From 1985 until 1999 I worked for about three hours a day on the only other book I have ever published: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. During that time, and in the years since, I also taught a course on the material in that book, first at Harvard, and now at the University of Toronto. In 2013, observing the rise of YouTube, and because of the popularity of some work I had done with TVO, a Canadian public TV station, I decided to film my university and public lectures and place them online. They attracted an increasingly large audience—more than a million views by April 2016. The number of views has risen very dramatically since then (up to eighteen million as I write this), but that is in part because I became embroiled in a political controversy that drew an inordinate amount of attention. That’s another story. Maybe even another book. 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. 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. The state of Order is typically portrayed, symbolically—imaginatively—as masculine. It’s the Wise King and the Tyrant, forever bound together, as society is simultaneously structure and oppression. Chaos, by contrast, is where—or when—something unexpected happens. Chaos emerges, in trivial form, when you tell a joke at a party with people you think you know and a silent and embarrassing chill falls over the gathering. Chaos is what emerges more catastrophically when you suddenly find yourself without employment, or are betrayed by a lover. As the antithesis of symbolically masculine order, it’s presented imaginatively as feminine. It’s the new and unpredictable suddenly emerging in the midst of the commonplace familiar. 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). Order and chaos are the yang and yin of the famous Taoist symbol: two serpents, head to tail.*1 Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black, feminine counterpart. The black dot in the white—and the white in the black—indicate the possibility of transformation: just when things seem secure, the unknown can loom, unexpectedly and large. Conversely, just when everything seems lost, new order can emerge from catastrophe and chaos. For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way. And that’s much better than happiness. The literary agent I referred to listened to the CBC radio broadcast where I discussed such issues. It left her asking herself deeper questions. She emailed me, asking if I had considered writing a book for a general audience. I had previously attempted to produce a more accessible version of Maps of Meaning, which is a very dense book. But I found that the spirit was neither in me during that attempt nor in the resultant manuscript. I think this was because I was imitating my former self, and my previous book, instead of occupying the place between order and chaos and producing something new. I suggested that she watch four of the lectures I had done for a TVO program called Big Ideas on my YouTube channel. I thought if she did that we could have a more informed and thorough discussion about what kind of topics I might address in a more publicly