Suffer Better: What Jordan Peterson’s Pain Says About Your Future

It takes a brave spirit to confront the world like Dr. Jordan Peterson. Well, brave or insane.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a psychologist. An author. A dad. A husband. An instigator. A philosopher. A businessman. An activist. And a professor. But above all, love him or hate him; he’s a truth-teller — a Snow Lion on the distant glaciers of Tibet who doesn’t fit society’s acceptable behavior.

Peterson’s rare brand of honesty is often confused with fearlessness. But actually, I think he’s terrified of being who he is and the resulting consequences. So terrified, in fact, he’s literally become sick of himself.

As you may have heard, Peterson has been devastatingly ill recently, forcing him into unfamiliar, pain-filled territory.

How sick is Peterson, or precisely what’s wrong with him, I don’t know. But I do know it’s all-consuming. On a recent podcast with Tim Ferriss, Peterson explains how his latest book, ‘Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.’ kept him alive.

“The last chapter,” Peterson begins, “is Be Grateful in Spite of Your Suffering. I’ve had a real struggle with that. So although I know perfectly well that resentment, regardless of the cause, is not productive, it’s certainly understandable.”

“Viktor Frankl talks about the desire to finish his book as one of the sources of meaning that got him through the concentration camps,” Ferriss counters. “Did your book, and I don’t know the timeline for having worked on it, serve a similar purpose over the last 18 to 24 months?”

“Yeah, absolutely. It was a life raft. I have the book to anchor myself while I was so ill. And it was invaluable — and still is, for that matter.”

That’s one hell of a statement, especially from a guy who literally wrote the book on suffering. Almost hypocritical, after all, shouldn’t Peterson be bouncing off the walls for the chance to practice his very own rule 12? An opportunity to be grateful no matter how indisposed he is?

Can you imagine the apostle Paul doing the podcasting circuit today?

“How did it feel writing all those epistles from jail,” the interviewer would ask? “It sucked,” Paul would undoubtedly say. “It’s a freaking dungeon full of darkness, confusion, torture, and danger. And snakes. I hated every second of It.”

But it wouldn’t end there. Paul, forlorn and contemplative, would eventually add something like, “I’m grateful for my time in the Dungeon.”

Because without suffering, there is no story. Without pain, there is no purpose. We just can’t see it when we’re in it.

Peterson, like I imagine Paul was despite his radical conversion on the road to Damascus, is in the Dungeon, questioning, confused and hurting. And somehow, and this is the crucial part, finding the strength to keep going. Where might he be going? A place where suffering no longer exists, perhaps? No, that’s reserved for when we die. Instead, I believe Peterson is headed to the single most profound time in life, a time when suffering simply doesn’t matter.

“It seems to me that the purpose of life,” Peterson says, “is to find a mode of being that is so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.”

In Peterson’s previous book, ’12 Rules for life, an Antidote to Chaos,’ he says in rule eight to “tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.” And here, live for everyone to see, is the man doing precisely that. Unabashed and vulnerable, on display, totally honest, scary truthful. A man struggling with his own rules. Not because he’s a hypocrite, but rather because he’s actually aligning himself with his beliefs. A set of standards that, while simple, are nothing short of world-changing.

It’s quite heartening, really — in a sick sort of way — that even a man as intellectually superior as Jordan Peterson can be reduced by suffering. Particularly when that man is so good at helping others overcome theirs. A man who’s quoted as saying, “the purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.” It makes me feel kind of dirty, but if I’m honest, it also gives me hope to know that I’m not alone. That even JP wrestles with life.

You get the feeling Peterson was prothetic all along, writing a blueprint of how to act for his future self. A diagram remarkably similar to how a hero acts in the face of danger.

Peterson is a myth guy, similar to author Joseph Campbell. A hero worshipper of sorts, who spends much of his time delving into tales of our best and brightest. From biblical accounts to Disney classics, Greek myths, and operatic overtures of virtue and philosophy, Peterson uses stories to insulate his existence. Fantastic and innate tales of wonder that confirm a simple truth; we all have Dragons. And they’re not going away.

This is why we have the hero’s journey and why we will keep playing it out for the rest of time. Because Dragons don’t die, they transform. And it’s our duty if we’re to survive, to transform with them. To become a bigger and badder hero, and move onto the next flying, fire breathing serpent, who or whatever that may be. And while it sounds crazy, maybe even appreciate each Dragon for helping make us who we are.

Iron sharpens iron and all that.

Take the Judas paradox, for example. Judas was just about the most dangerous Dragon to have ever lived, right? I mean, what’s a Dragon if not the guy who killed the Savior? But without Judas, salvation could not come to the rest of the world. Therefore, Judas is a Dragon that forced transformation, the most significant transformation ever recorded, and should be revered as such. Or at the very least, appreciated for having carried out his role.

While that may not be easy to swallow, it doesn’t make it any less accurate. We need Dragons to make us become better heroes. And we need the hero’s journey retold a million different ways to guide us through each and every battle of our lives. We need avatars we can send forth before we head into battle ourselves.

Journalist, author, and maybe Buddhist, Dan Harris, does a great job of explaining just how vital these Dragons are and why defeating them isn’t the goal.

“Instead of slaying those dragons, which by the way will only make them stronger,” Harris says, “if you hug them, if you give them a high five and a seat at the table and a party hat, they will quiet down, and you can then make a better, smarter decision.”

The particular Dragon that Peterson is hugging, I can’t say. But I can say this, only heroes pursue their purpose despite the pain. Only the genuinely Herculean amongst us take on the 12th labor after already having endured the eleven. Only the toughest keep returning from the Underworld, complete with the lesson to prevent the same mistakes from happening again. A way to help us suffer better.

So kudos to you, JP, for being mostly brave and maybe a little insane. You are appreciated, sir!

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