There Is a Richness and Complexity That Is Completely Inexhaustible Right at Hand
Published: Jul 20, 2020 • Updated: Nov 14, 2021
The following is an excerpt from a Jordan Peterson lecture.
I had an interesting experience the other day. I went to The Keg. I go there because I have food allergies and they’re very careful with people who have food allergies. The waiter took me to the table and he said that he had been watching my lectures and that’s a very common experience. He was happy about that and he said that he had had 2 promotions at The Keg in the last 4 months because he’d been watching my lectures.
I really found that an affecting experience because, you know, you might say, “Well he’s working as a waiter at The Keg and there’s nothing particularly heroic about that”, and I disagree with that actually. I don’t care where you’re located, you can do a hell of a job, and I mean that literally. You can take whatever job you have and you can make it a real nice piece of absolute misery. Or you can act like a civilized human being and notice that no matter where you are there is a richness and a complexity that is completely inexhaustible right at hand.
Then you can take that seriously. And you can say, “Well I happen to be a waiter at The Keg”, and he’s a young guy, and perhaps that isn’t where I want to end up, but it’s not nothing. It’s a rich environment and I can make it a lot better if I want to. I can get along properly with my coworkers and not gossip behind their back. And I can treat my customers properly and if an opportunity comes my way I can take it and I can see what happens.
So, he said that’s what he started doing. And that things were working out much better for him. He was in a much better job than he was 3 months ago. And 3 months, that’s nothing, right, I mean that’s a nice trajectory, it’s an uphill trajectory. That’s what you want really. An uphill trajectory is even better than being somewhere good as far as I’m concerned. Because one of the things that really makes your life meaningful is the clear realization that you’re headed somewhere better than you are now. Then it’s even better that you also understand that there’s a direct causal relationship between the things that you’re doing and the steepness of that incline.
So, I get a lot of letters from people like that. And they say, “I’ve been listening to these lectures and I’ve decided that I’m going to try to take responsibility for my life and I’ve started to stop doing all the stupid things that I know that are stupid that I know that I shouldn’t be doing. And I’ve started doing some of the things are aren’t stupid and I know I should be doing”. Which seems pretty obvious really if you think about it. But obvious though it may be, that isn’t necessarily what people do. And then they write and say that you can’t believe what difference that makes. They’re trilled about it. So, I’m thrilled about it when I get letters like that.
I really don’t experience anything as better than a letter like that or a message like that. It’s so good to see things that aren’t so good replaced by something better. I really do think it’s an open question, I truly believe it’s an open question: to what degree we could make things better if that’s what we actually aimed at doing? Well there’s two modes of being in the world, right. There’s one where you adopt the responsibility for living properly, for being properly, and you make the sacrifices necessary for doing that. Then everything will flourish properly. And the other one is a pathway of resentment, bitterness, rejection, murder, genocide. That just seems exactly right to me.
So, if the positive path beckons, if you can actually see what it is, if you can lower yourself enough to see what it is… Carl Jung said once that modern people didn’t see God because they didn’t look low enough. It’s a phrase I really, really like because people denigrate the opportunities that are right in front of them. Because what’s right in front of you is the majesty of being. That’s what’s right in front of you. Its inexhaustibly complex and full of potential. And there’s no reason to assume that wherever you happen to be isn’t as good a starting place as anywhere else.
Now, I know that some people have terrible, terrible lives. They’re in situations that are absolutely unbearable. But I do know that even situations like that can be make a hell of a lot worse by the worse kind of attitude. So anyways that’s where you are. You’re in a damaged structure. But at least it’s got some walls. You know, you’re not being fed to the lions on a regular basis. So that’s a good thing. You can emerge forward heroically to confront the chaos that constantly threatens the structure within which you live. And you can free something as a consequence of that. You can learn something. You can strengthen yourself.
That’s the other thing, because what you’re actually made of in many ways. what informs you, is what you encounter when you voluntarily encounter the unknown. So, the more you voluntarily encounter the unknown, the more you get made of. The more you get made of, the more there is to you. Then the more you get good at encountering the unknown and calling forth proper order out of the potential of being.
God, you got to think, why wouldn’t you do that, since you can do that. It’s an endless mystery. I think part of it is that people don’t aspire to the highest good because they’re deeply ashamed of themselves, their weaknesses, and their insufficiencies. That’s not the only reason. I mean there’s the desire to avoid responsibility. And there’s all the negative motivations as well like resentment and hatred and the desire to make things worse. I don’t want to give us too much of break. But it’s something like that.
It’s okay to not be in a very good place if what you’re trying to do with that not very good place is make it better. The fact that things aren’t exactly the way they should be at least gives you something to do. And maybe something great to do. Because there’s no shortage of suffering and trouble that besets the world that you could conceivably ameliorate in some way. The utility of that and the intrinsic meaning of that is self-evident.
It also makes me curious about nihilism and despair because I understand those emotions. I understand them deeply, and the intellectual mindset that goes along with it. They just seem beside the point to me in some sense because there are so many things that need doing that all you really have to do it open your eyes then decide you’re going to do something about them. You might think, “Well what’s within my scope of influence is so trivial that it’s not worth doing”. It’s like, it won’t stay trivial for long if you do it. Not at all. I don’t think its trivial to begin with. I really don’t believe that anything done right is trivial. My experience in my life has been that anything I actually did paid off. It didn’t pay off necessarily in the way that I expected it to pay off. That’s a whole different story. But if it was genuine commitment to do something, even if it went sideways and the outcome was really something other than what I expected, the net consequence over time was nothing but good
So, every new frontier that can be conquered is an advance forward and there is no shortage of frontier because we’re surrounded by the unknown. We’re surrounded by our own ignorance. We can continually move into that domain, into the domain of chaos, or we can restructure pathological order, and that’s the secret of proper being. And so, then you encounter chaos that way and then you can regard yourself as the sort of entity that, despite insufficiency, has the ability to conquer chaos. Despite the danger of that, because the fact that you’re fragile is actually a pre-condition to your heroism. Because if you weren’t fragile then there’d be nothing heroic about doing something difficult. Right, because if you couldn’t be hurt or damaged or defeated or end up in failure, then where is the moral courage in the endeavor?
It has to be that fragility is built into the courage. So, it’s not a reason not to engage in it at all. In fact, quite the contrary. Well, so, what do you do? Well you put the city back together. And maybe the way you want it so it’s functional and efficient and beautiful. So that people can flourish there. And flourish in a manner that makes them feel that the unbearable catastrophe of being is worth it for the experience. That’s what you’re aiming at. And it’s not an impossibility. It’s not an impossibility.
Then not only that. Not only do you repair the city when you do that. You make yourself the sort of thing that continually repairs the city. And that’s even better. That’s the end goal. Because it’s not the repair of the city that’s the goal. It’s the transformation of yourself into the thing that continually repairs the city. There’s just no reason for that not to happen. And the more it can happen the better.