Jordan Peterson and the Unbearable Task

Jordan Peterson and the Unbearable Task May 25, 2019

Source: 123RF

It’s not every day that a man confesses his sins on Twitter, but I saw it happen the other day. “If we are going to be damned for eternity for all of the terrible things we’ve done, here is my proactive list,” wrote Chad Felix Greene. Then he launched into his litany.

Confession #1: Lying to his grandfather about using his credit card for a porn site.

Confession #2: Being a sex worker, including sex with multiple married men that exposed their wives to risk.

Confession #3: Unfairly shutting his blameless mother out of his life after being molested as a child.

The list went on. In a fight with his needy suicidal father, he told him everyone would be better off without him. When his father killed himself several years later, he abandoned the rest of his family to grieve without his comfort and support, including his little brother.

In high school, he embraced dark obsessions as a coping mechanism for his insecurities, actively trying to disturb his classmates and writing them into twisted horror stories. In his 20s, he wrote fake Satanic lit and porn to strew around the steps of churches for kicks.

Then the confession that perhaps haunts him most of all: “When I found out my sister was pregnant and her child tested for a missing chromosome I advised her to have an abortion.”

There was surely more he was forgetting, Greene said when the list was finally done. “But what matters more?” he asked. “Who I was or who I am now?”

“I am not a good person,” he continued in a fresh tweet. “I am a flawed man with dirty hands and dirty fingernails.” But for him, hope and redemption came by his own choice to dig his way out of the grave he’d made for himself, together with the undeserved love of other people who helped him.

“Did you make amends?” someone asked. Answer: “I tried very hard.”

While I’m not privy to what this process looked like in Greene’s personal life, I’ve seen some of it unfolding in his journalism. I’ve cited his work on the grim, predatory realities of the homosexual lifestyle, often calling out hypocrisy from people in “his” community. I’ve also cited his clear articulation of the pro-life position, including personal stories about young pregnant women he knew. Knowing now that he carries the guilt of advising his sister to abort lends the latter special poignancy. It’s uncomfortable to admit that a still openly gay (and gay married!) secular Jew is more forceful and consistently outspoken about this issue than some Christian pastors. But it’s the truth.

It’s easy to point out that from a Christian perspective, Chad’s confession is still incomplete by standards other than his own. Easy—but not very interesting.

By chance, on the same day Chad made his confession, I watched a new video of Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Dennis Prager. Prager took his time with his introduction. Channeling Harvey, he extolled the virtue of a good character over mere intelligence, then closed by saying that in Peterson, he believed he could detect both. “Everybody knows you’re bright. But I know you’re good.” The audience applauds, and Peterson interjects, “I have something to say about that.” He pauses before choosing his next words carefully: “See, I don’t think it’s true.”

It’s a rare man who can reject a high compliment to his character with not even a trace of false modesty. Peterson pulls it off by virtue of his commitment to sparing nobody the unvarnished truth of things, especially himself. He talks about how as a young man he came to understand people’s capacity for evil—and not just other people’s. “I would never claim to be good. I think it’s dangerous. But I did become terrified of how terrible I could be.” The best he could think to do in response was to “avoid the pathways that lead people to the dark places that they go.” And perhaps, he hopes, there’s something in that which might “approximate good.”

In the same interview, Peterson also explains his oft-given answer to the oft-asked question of whether he believes in God, “I act as if God exists.” He echoes what he also said in his forthcoming conversation with Bishop Barron: The reason he answers the question that way is that he is existentially terrified of what it would mean to say “Yes.” He becomes emotional as he asks rhetorically, “Who would have the audacity to claim that they believed in God if they examined the way they lived? Who would dare say that? … To have the audacity to claim that means that you live it out fully. And that’s an unbearable task, in some sense.”

But what if you truly believed? “God only knows what you’d be.” He repeats it a second time: “God only knows what you’d be if you believed.” And so, he concludes, “I try to act like I believe.” “But,” he adds forcefully, by now very emotional, “I’d never claim that I manage it. Because it’s too… it’s a lot to manage properly. And you have to be careful about claiming to manage things that you can’t manage.”

Has Peterson made amends for those times when he did not manage, when the terrible potential of evil inside of him was actualized? His litany may not be as lurid as Greene’s, but like Greene, no doubt he has one. And like Greene, no doubt he would say, “I tried very hard.”

What is the unbearable burden of being—the unbearable burden? Is it the pain we carry, or is it the pain we force others to carry? Is it our suffering, or our malevolence? And if it is our malevolence, how then shall this burden be lifted? How shall the damned spot be wiped out? How if we try very hard, as hard as we can, to tear off the dragon skin, and find more dragon skin beneath?

“I will pay,” you say. “I have paid, I am paying, and I will pay.”

Except you can’t. Because someone else already paid.

Your sorrowing parents and grandparents already paid.

Your wife already paid.

Your brother and sister already paid.

The unborn child who is not here already paid.

Our hand has rent the fabric of reality. A hand not ours must mend it. Our hand has stained the foundations of the earth. A hand not ours must wash it clean.

Here is the great good news: Not that we can pretend we can undo the deed. Not that we can pretend we can forget, even as we are forgiven. But still, we are forgiven.

Beneath this cross, how can we dare to stand? Before this throne, how can we dare to come? Shall we tarry til we’re better? Shall we ever come at all?

I believe. I believe I cannot manage. I cannot manage the unbearable task. I cannot bear the unbearable burden. I can only bear the burden that is left when the hand not mine has lifted it. And I believe that is enough.

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