Like countless men, I recently discovered the online lectures of Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who rose to Internet fame and notoriety in November of 2016. The obscure professor had posted videos to his small YouTube channel voicing opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity — a concept that can include “misgendering” people by refusing to refer to them by their preferred pronouns. Peterson denounced the postmodernist motivations of the law, whose totalitarian end game, he believed, was to criminalize free speech.
As things are wont to unfold on the Internet, Peterson’s videos and media coverage snowballed until he eventually caught the eye — and became a three-hour guest on — popular YouTube channels such as the Rubin Report and the Joe Rogan Experience. Peterson’s animated divertissements won instant fans through his particularly engaging mix of topics: free speech and political correctness, the history of totalitarianism, personality traits and psychological well-being, hero’s-journey mythology, and the stories of the Old Testament.
Peterson says his online audience is 90 percent male. These huge numbers of men, many of whom are willing to donate $5 or $10 per month, have embraced a 54-year-old paternal authority figure who tells them that they’re a mess and need to get their lives in order. It works because Peterson connects his message to something eternal, offering mytho-intellectual fatherly advice that men, especially Millennial men, are starved for in an age of perpetual and trivial digital distraction.
To use one of his own refrains, he has ascended to the top of the dominance hierarchy when it comes to motivating males in the digital age.
One of his popular lecture series, taken directly from his UT classroom, is called “Maps of Meaning,” also the title of his 1999 book. Peterson presents men a roadmap for dealing with their past, the unresolved alarms that discordantly sound in our minds clamoring to be attended to, but that we are all too keen to tune out. If you have a memory that’s more than 18 months old but still causes negative emotions, says Peterson, then it’s something you have yet to resolve. The brain needs to mark “case closed” on negative experiences to understand what went wrong so as to avoid making the same mistake in the future. That’s pretty intuitive when you’re five and learning to ride a bike, but it gets a lot harder the older you get.
I’d always thought I was a pretty well-adjusted person, free from things like petty envy or road rage. Sure I had problems, but I always thought they were worries about the future, not demons from my past. Then I discovered Peterson on YouTube, and he helped me understand that I share in the human condition, which is to say, I’m a mess.
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In this bleak midwinter, years into a midlife crisis, I received some bad news I didn’t take very well. I fell into my habit of aversion and avoidance, and in doing so built up a dragon in my mind that could torment me at will. After five days of subconscious alarms going off, unattended to, everyday life suddenly fell to pieces.
I became wracked with fear and sorrow, constantly weeping in a way I’d never experienced before. At one point — misguided by meditation teaching and wrapped up in knots about consciousness, thinking, and trying not to think about not thinking — I was ready to dial 911 for an ambulance to come sedate the torment away. But the idea of waking up in a New York mental institution with real loonies emboldened me to ride out the panic, which eventually subsided, as such episodes always do.
From that near crack-up things gradually improved as I clawed my way out of the dark place by tapping the instinct for self-preservation, and by seeking wisdom from a variety of books from different traditions — from Nietzsche’s thoughts on affirming life by viewing its sufferings as an aesthetic phenomenon, to James Allen’s classic 1903 self-help tome As a Man Thinketh, and to the surprisingly entertaining and enlightening 1948 book by Dale Carnegie called How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, which combined stories of everyday folks conquering their demons with wise words from the great minds of Western literature. Gradually my world inched back toward messy normalcy.
All this coincided with the rise of Jordan Peterson, whom I discovered as if by fate, and his words became a daily regimen. I joked to friends that I was “in therapy,” and that it was actually quite sophisticated in a ’70s Woody Allen kind of way. With “Dr. P’s” constant message of “sort yourself out,” each day the little epiphanies grew larger. There were times when Dr. P described my issues so precisely it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. This made me realize that all human problems are pretty much the same, and that it’s Peterson’s archetypal, big-picture approach that is resonating with men at this particular moment in time.
Although the medium he uses is cutting-edge, giving his “therapy sessions” near-infinite reach, what Peterson teaches is not new but timeless: 4,000-year-old Biblical tales, mythologies of the past two millennia, and ideas from 19th- and 20th-century figures such as Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Jung. Dr. P isn’t just a therapist for men at a time of masculine crisis; no, the man who draws so much on patriarchal archetypes is fast becoming YouTube’s new ideal male authority figure.
I joked to friends that I was “in therapy,” and that it was actually quite sophisticated in a ’70s Woody Allen kind of way.
Firm but caring, Peterson is not a rigid drill sergeant out to eradicate your knee-jerk adolescent revolt. That’s a different kind of self-help guru for a different kind of man. Instead, Dr. P encourages, which, as he points out, means to instill with courage. In cognitive therapy, removing fear doesn’t work. You don’t make the bad stuff go away be retreating to a safe space, to use a popular buzzword; you do so by making yourself stronger. Peterson doesn’t tell you what you should do, because only you can figure out your purpose — but he can point out a few places to look. In short, Peterson speaks the way I always wished my father had.
But we can’t choose our parents, and accepting them for who they are is another part of “sorting yourself out.” My own dad, kind and supportive as he’s been to his adult son, would score in the 99th percentile for conscientiousness (work, discipline, order) in the “Big Five” personality test that Peterson often mentions, and in single digits for openness (variety, intellectual curiosity, aesthetic sensitivity, in touch with feelings) — hardly the ideal for a writer son in search of wisdom and truth.
Imagine if you did everything you know you should be doing but aren’t, Dr. P says, and imagine what your life would be like in ten years. Then imagine the opposite, a complete cave-in to the worst of your tendencies. But change is so difficult as to seem impossible, as Dr. P himself says — and right on cue I found a lecture in which he tells the story of Noah. What do you do when your Great Flood comes along and destroys your sense of external identity, when you lose your job or your spouse leaves you? Why, you be like Noah, who had God’s favor for his ability to adapt, to reinvent himself as shipbuilder and captain in order to survive, and in so transforming himself saved the world.
You don’t wall yourself inside a safe space of ideology, territory, or experience. Learning — and what is a life well lived but constant learning? — requires the constant tearing down and transformative rebuilding of the boundaries of your experience as you acquire new information.
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Change starts with little things, which despite being little feel immovable from the density of their weight. For years I would rise, often from a restless night, and go directly to my desk, hoping for some good news on the computer to jump-start my day. I’d soon become distracted with all the trivialities of the news. Then, coffee ingested and ready to work, I’d find my back was a wreck from sitting too soon after rising, which I’d been told repeatedly by a chiropractor not to do.
With Dr. P’s voice in my head encouraging me to imagine what I could be if I stopped doing the things I know I shouldn’t be doing, and started doing the things I know I should, I wondered what to do first thing in the morning. I mean besides the obvious and necessary.
I settled on something embarrassingly banal, the kind of thing old folks do: I would take a walk around the block, and have my first impressions of the day come from outside rather than a computer screen.
This simple act of will kicked my brain’s positive emotions into overdrive. Doing something different makes you feel different, which makes you think different, and finally be different. The front stoops of my neighbors, which I had so often passed, averting my eyes to the red-brick eyesores, were suddenly radiant with the beauty of flowers. Birds and squirrels went about their business of daily survival, oblivious to human folly and existential dread. And then I beheld a tree I had never noticed before, covered with heart-shaped messages I assumed were there to commemorate the site of some tragic accident. But when I investigated, the messages turned out to be timeless quotes on happiness and friendship put there to inspire and uplift anyone willing to notice. And I never had. One of the Old Testament’s central messages, according to Peterson, is quite simple: pay attention.
The sheer numbers testify that he is the right man at the right time.
Pay attention. Sort out your past. Author your future. Take responsibility for something. Identify not with that part of you that can be shattered, but the part that rebuilds itself from shatters. Face your fears one step at a time, and note with each voluntary approach how you didn’t perish, but instead were strengthened.
I slept soundly last night and awoke with the sun. As I strolled on Day Two of the new walk-around-the-block routine, my mind was fertile and alert. What could come of this glorious day? When I eventually sat down at my desk, I began writing this.
Countless men are grateful to Jordan Peterson for having the courage to speak his mind on a contentious social matter. This temporal issue brought him many enemies, but his timeless messages earned followers that vastly outnumber them. The sheer numbers testify that he is the right man at the right time, someone capable of showing young men that cleaning up their room has cosmic significance, and that imposing a little order upon chaos is good for the soul, which in turn is good for the world.
— Christian Chensvold is a New York–based writer whose op-eds have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, among other places. He is the founder of Ivy-Style.com.