If you follow my blog, you’ll know that my book reviews are subverted by my ego. By that I mean I tend to inject my own impressions at the cost of the book. Rarely do I break down the plot of a novel under review or explore characters or theme. That’s because, for those interested, one can find an array of book reviews about any given book on Amazon alone. What matters to me, and hopefully to my readers, is not what a book means to someone else. What matters most is whether a book impresses or challenges or facilitates a change in me. Both fiction and non-fiction do this sometimes. The only time I care what someone else thinks about a given book is when a friend of mine has either read that same book or has a book recommendation of his own.
Books are a great vehicle for growth because they lend themselves to both self-discovery and self-improvement. At least potentially. This might explain why I became an autodidact decades ago – to learn all I could learn about what interested me most. Be it literature in general, writing, philosophy, psychology, history – interest in this stuff leads me back to my love for reading. I strive to learn new things, not only about myself but about the world around me.
I don’t mean merely increasing my vocabulary or boasting rights about classics I’ve read or becoming better at trivia. What I’m referring to is far more substantive. I won’t go into the many benefits to reading. I’ve discussed that in previous posts. Besides, fellow avid readers know. The less fortunate are left to guess.
As a result (a disquieting result), I don’t have many friends. I just don’t invest the time required to establish and maintain friendships. Why hang out with a friend who wants to watch television or talk about her dog or go play darts at a bar if I’m not into darts or when I can stay at home instead and read a book while listening to my favorite music or work on a new writing project?
Does this make me a snob? Probably. Does this make me a misanthrope? A hermit? Antisocial? Perhaps in a sense. Am I proud of this? No. These labels are mere derivatives of an isolated lifestyle, not titles to which I aspire. Still, I admit the result is the same.
Which is why, after years of this subdued regimen, I decided to change course somewhat. I wouldn’t abandon my joy of reading or the satisfaction I derived from writing. But I’d seek to strike a balance.
Following my blog you’ll know this began a couple years ago when I decided to pursue a spiritual path. Something that would better my heart, my soul. I explored faith. Catholicism to be exact. I began reading the Bible again. I added the Catechism of the Catholic Church to my reading regimen. I began praying the rosary. I did this for a host of reasons, one being because I thought it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t expecting the significant changes in my life this practice would produce. Miracles, you might say. I certainly call them that.
By doing this I discovered a great deal about myself. Shortly thereafter I talked with my doctor and received some startling news about my health. I decided to change my diet, lose weight, exercise.
So when I began reading Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The groundwork for change had already been laid. Consequently, my personal journey took on an intensified strain. Without knowing it, I’d embarked on a quest far more challenging than I’d anticipated. A complete transformation was on its way.
Open to instruction, I found myself changing so rapidly that I experienced moments of bewilderment. I lost track of my identity. My old self morphed so quickly that, metaphorically speaking (and due to the exercise and diet too) my new reflection in the mirror struck me as a distant relative. Who was this thinner, happier, younger looking clone standing before me, smiling?
Each chapter of Peterson’s book convicted me in unexpected ways. As a clinical psychologist, Peterson devotes much of his book to explaining how applying these rules leads to a good life and how failing to live these truths destroys the lives of those who would later come to him for help. While I can’t overstress the initial difficulty in applying these rules, I can’t overstress the life changing power or liberating qualities these maxims conferred either.
For example, Rule Two is “Treat Yourself Like Someone You’re Responsible for Helping.” This forced me to address myself as if I needed help. Turns out I did. I’d already quit smoking and playing video games. Now I dumped additional vices and minimized others. I began practicing difficult virtues such as forgiveness, charity, temperance, patience. In short, I became a better version of myself, kinder, more giving, more sympathetic.
Rule Four is “Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today.” This follows from Rule Two as a means by which to gauge your progress. I could track how much weight I’d lost, how much kinder I was to my fellow man, how much more productive I became both on and off work, etc. compared to the day or the week before. The rate at which I became a better me was chartable and consequently self-evident.
Rule Six is “Set Your Own House in Order Before You Criticize the World.” Put another way, look inward, not at what others have done to you, but at what you have done to others and, by extension, to yourself. A wise man once said, “The problems of this world begin here,” pointing to his heart. I’m reminded of the great wisdom of Socrates regarding the “unexamined life.” As a result, I engaged in some serious soul searching, an examination of my own life choices and behavior and, more importantly, how to stop doing (or at least minimize) what I knew to be wrong and do more of what I knew to be right. This prompted me to reach out to those I’d offended in the past. I apologized for my wrongdoing. A few forgave me and accepted me back into their fellowship. Others refused to respond.
Rule Eight is “Tell the Truth, or, at Least, Don’t Lie.” This might’ve been the most difficult of all the rules to adopt, primarily because it forced me to abandon the person I presented to others and to instead offer up the real me for either their praise or their scorn. Much to my surprise, incorporating Rule Eight set me free. The yolk of guilt fell from my shoulders. My deception dissolved. I dropped the false façade I’d maintained for years and became my true self. Finally, I could look others I’d deceived in the past in the eye, others I’d withheld my thoughts and feelings from. While this made me more vulnerable, the rewards were more pronounced, more palpable. Perhaps because they stemmed from honesty and sincerity and were thus genuine.
Ironically, this taught me two crucial things Peterson never mentioned. One, I have no right to decide what knowledge others are entitled to. Rather, I owe it those I know, especially to friends, to tell them exactly what I think and how I feel, not only about things in general but about them, too. It’s up to those friends to decide how to treat this knowledge. Whether they love or hate me as a result, embrace or reject me, is their call at that point, not mine. My only duty, my only obligation, is to be honest. Of course, true friendship includes other responsibilities, such as discernment and an effort to spare your friends’ feelings, but with regards to who you are, remember: truthfulness begets trust; honesty will set you, and potentially others, free.
Most of those I confessed my deep dark secrets to took it surprisingly well. In some cases, they were relieved. Others suspected the very things I’d thought I’d successfully concealed. My sense of guilt, remorse, and shame evaporated. The darkness cleared. The sun came out and shined brilliantly on this new path I tread.
Side bar: only one person took my confession about her poorly. She subsequently spun a tangled web of half-truths and falsehoods. Meanwhile, she shared my confession with at least one other, later denied it and accused the other of fabricating the whole thing, etc. It wasn’t pleasant. Gratefully, mutual others knew more about the situation, and about her, than I did. They verified that, yes, this is her nature, her character, her pattern. We’re no longer friends. But this is a good thing. Once I finally presented her with how I truly felt about her, I discovered something vital: exposing your true self to someone exposes them too. Pretense is often shared, and when one reveals one’s hand, the other’s tell or bluff is exposed.
As a result, my own feelings for this person dissolved. Sure. The initial pain smarted, but clarity is always best. I certainly don’t regret it. Presenting your true self and discovering whether that’s the sort of person the other person dislikes is a kind of emancipation. Both are spared the rigors of maintaining a deception, and that too is a good thing.
Which leads me to an earlier rule I skipped. Rule Three is “Make Friends with Those Who Want the Best for You.” Liars don’t want what’s best for you. Manipulators, gas-lighters, deceivers, are thinking first and foremost about themselves. Don’t waste your time with such people. Don’t resent them either. But detach yourself from their lives if possible. They will only use you otherwise. I should know; I used to be that person, too.
The second thing I learned by being honest, something Peterson never mentioned, something I lament somewhat, is that I can now often spot when others aren’t honest with me. The mannerisms – the shift in eye contact, the lilt or dive in pitch of voice – give them away. It’s like I’m wearing lie-detector lenses or magic ear pieces. I don’t begrudge them, of course. I used to do it too. But it keeps me on my toes. Call it discernment if you want, but I can’t help but grieve ever so slightly over this one byproduct. To be honest, and I can’t lie, sometimes I wonder whether I’d rather not know.