Jordan Peterson Confronts the Problem of Pain

Jordan Peterson is admired by many, but this tortured father of a suffering child, like many of his readers, is still searching.

Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017
Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017 (photo: Adam Jacobs, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Jewish ophthalmologist I know is a leading specialist on a rare condition that can cause blindness, and it was that expertise that led him to the Catholic faith. 

Over time, as scores of anxious patients came to him for final confirmation of their awful diagnosis, he saw that some responded to the news of their impending blindness in a distinctive and inspiring way. They did not react with anger, depression or even surreal denial. Instead, they seemed to come to grips with their changed circumstances, and during the examination he learned that many of these particular patients were Catholic. 

Their faith, in some way, both prepared them for the inevitability of suffering, but also stirred their resilience and hope as they contemplated the future. 

I recalled the ophthalmologist’s striking conversion story while finishing Jordan Peterson’s best-seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which ends with a harrowing account of his daughter’s long battle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. 

A psychologist based at the University of Toronto, Peterson has become a social media sensation and a target of progressive critics, who claim his brand of self-help guidance justifies patriarchal values and panders to alienated young white males searching for a sense of purpose.

After first exhorting his readers to stand up straight and pull their shoulders back, take personal responsibility for their fate, choose orderly lives, promote the common good, and avoid lies, 12 Rules for Life finally arrives at the central problem that has surely fueled Peterson’s search for enlightenment: the inescapable reality of human suffering. 

In this final chapter, the author describes his daughter Michaela’s long, harrowing battle with severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. He recounts his initial failure to notice Michaela’s halting gait and then, after her diagnosis, the dawning realization that his treasured child faced a life defined by long stretches of pain and physical constraints.

“How can reality be structured so unbearably? How could this be?” he asks as he catalogues Michaela’s multiple surgeries and treatments, her Sisyphean effort to lead a normal teenage life, and her brief collapse into incoherence, after acute pain overwhelms her spirit.

Why does the author share his experience with the many young men who stand in line to attend his lectures, and the millions who watch his popular videos on YouTube? 

In part, it’s because those who do suffer need to know they are not alone. 

“Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live. Peterson has filled the gap,” David Brooks explains in The New York Times.

“But what’s most interesting about Peterson’s popularity, especially the success of his new book, 12 Rules for Life, is what it says about the state of young men today. The implied readers of his work are men who feel fatherless, solitary, floating in a chaotic moral vacuum, constantly outperformed and humiliated by women, haunted by pain and self-contempt.”

Anxious, often overprotected millennials need to know that suffering is part of life, and they must prepare for it if they are to survive and even thrive.

To this end, Peterson offers some practical advice for anyone faced with chronic pain or imminent tragedy. He advises his audience to set aside time to discuss the crisis and developments related to it, and then drop the topic for another day. 

He also exhorts his readers to look up, toward the heavens, unload their burden and so gain strength to endure.

“When the sun is shining and times are good, and the crops are bountiful, you can make your plans for the next month. …You can even dream a decade ahead. But you can’t do that when your leg is clamped firmly in a crocodile’s jaws,” he says, before turning, as he often does, to an appropriate verse from Holy Scripture.

“Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof,” (Matthew 6:34). This passage, he says, “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 [which] distills the 10 ‘thou shalt nots’ of the Commandments of Moses in to 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 assume the primary goodness of being,” he adds, describing this step as “an act of courage” that will also revive our energies and build hope. 

“Once you are aligned with the heavens, you can concentrate on the day.”

Accommodating the agnostics and atheists in his audience, Peterson also describes the Christian impulse to hand over troubles to God as “wishing on a star,” as Jiminy Cricket exhorts his puppet friend in Disney’s Pinocchio. The Canadian psychologist often punctuates his meditations with cultural references because he believes in the power of myth and of stories, whether they originate in the Bible, the imagination of great novelists like Dostoyevsky, or Tinseltown.

But his meditations on suffering have become all the more urgent because the psychologist sees a close connection between the modern flight from the reality of human suffering and nihilistic explosions of violence unleashed in the world, from Hitler’s Final Solution to Columbine-style school shootings. 

“Perhaps as the Columbine boys [believed] ... it would be better not to be at all. Perhaps it would be even better if there was no being at all,” he writes.

“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 are consorting with the idea of the destruction of everything. They are toying with genocide.”

As Peterson examines his own struggle to make sense of his daughter’s suffering, he sees the appeal of violent actions designed to obliterate all existence-at least symbolically. 

“What is a reasonable person to think when faced with a suffering child? How could a good God allow such a world as this to exist?” he asks, giving voice to his own spiritual meditations.

His initial answer to this question is practical. Acts that reject the goodness of being, of creation “serve to make a bad situation even worse. … There is ... no good in that, only the desire to produce suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the very essence of evil.” 

What then, is the alternative?

In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust and the gulags of the Soviet Union, Peterson has concluded that “thinking” alone will not answer this timeless question.

Instead, he asks his readers to notice, as he has, that when “you love someone it is not despite their limitations, it is because of their limitations.”

“People are very tough … but to persevere they must see the good in being. If they lose that they are truly lost.”

These observations shine like beacons in the darkness because the young are so hungry for direction and desperate to establish some clarity about the steps they should take and those that they should avoid at all costs, those that lead to disaster. Parents, educators, and, pastors have failed to provide this vital information in a compelling manner, and Peterson has filled this vacuum.

“What critics and fans alike miss is just how unlikely a guru Peterson is,” writes Matthew Schmitz in First Things. “Though he brims with sympathy for the confused, he is uncertain about where they should go. …He believes in the importance of religion, but he doesn’t quite have one.”

Peterson strives to communicate the truth that suffering is a part of life and cannot be avoided, and this message will surely help his readers to set aside their grievances and move on with life, as best they can. His message will also serve as a warning for alienated young men who could be seduced by the Columbine cult’s nihilistic impulses. 

But his sorrowful gaunt face does not radiate the joy of a peace that passes all understanding, the joy that my ophthalmologist friend experienced in his newfound communion with the Lord.

“Knowing that people must bear a load is not the same as receiving a yoke that is easy and a burden light,” writes Schmitz.

“Young men look to Peterson for answers,” but this tortured father of a suffering child, like many of his readers, is still searching. 

When a reporter asked him to name his “target audience,” noted Schmitz, Peterson replied, “Partly me.”