Jordan Peterson prescribed, both for himself and his audience, a life of meaning and responsibility as an antidote to chaos and despair.
Jordan Peterson has been through hell.
In mid-2019, Peterson disappeared from public life as he struggled with severe health problems stemming from a physical dependency on prescription tranquilizers.
“Absolute hell,” is how his daughter Mikhaila described what he went through.
Two weeks ago, Peterson reemerged on YouTube to announce that he has recovered enough to start releasing new content again.
“I’m alive, and I have plans for the future,” he reported.
Peterson is also ready to share what he’s learned from his ordeal.
“I’ve learned some things during that trying time, I suppose,” he said, “or at least I can tell you what kept me going during what was certainly the worst period of my life.”
A look at how Jordan Peterson escaped the underworld with his spirit intact may hold lessons for us all. But first let’s briefly trace how he got there, as he and Mikhaila related his journey in a video from June.
Descensus ad Infernos
Peterson’s descent began in April 2019 when his wife Tammy was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
At that moment, Peterson experienced something he has discussed extensively in his books and lectures: the collapse of order and the emergence of chaos.
In his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson described order as “explored territory”: the known and the expected in our lives. “Order,” for example, “is the stability of your marriage.”
Indeed, Jordan’s marriage to Tammy was a major source of order and stability in his life. In the acknowledgments section of 12 Rules, Peterson wrote that his wife Tammy, “...has been an absolute pillar of honesty, stability, support, practical help, organization and patience…”
But then, he was informed, that pillar was soon to fall.
“Chaos,” Peterson wrote,” is the new place and time that emerges when tragedy strikes suddenly…”
“It’s the new and unpredictable suddenly emerging in the midst of the commonplace familiar.”
“It’s the place you end up when things fall apart…”
And when things fall apart, it can throw us for a loop emotionally. As Peterson wrote in his much earlier book, Maps of Meaning, “When the world remains known and familiar… our emotions remain under control. When the world suddenly transforms itself into something new, however, our emotions are dysregulated…”
Faced with such terrible news, Peterson’s anxiety spiked. He had already long been taking prescription benzodiazepines for anxiety. After his wife’s diagnosis, his doctor increased the dosage. However, this only seemed to make the anxiety worse. Peterson realized that he had developed a dangerous physical dependency.
Tammy defied her diagnosis by recovering soon after. But Jordan’s ordeal was just beginning.
His doctor had him try to quit cold turkey by swapping meds. But this sent his anxiety levels soaring. Then he tried to taper off, but that too was unbearable. Worst of all was that he developed a condition called akathisia, which Peterson likened to being jabbed with a cattle prod non-stop for all his waking hours. The condition kept him in constant motion, as lying, sitting, or standing still was unbearable.
Then Jordan, along with Mikhaila and her husband, began a long (and controversial) quest, first in North America and ultimately in eastern Europe, for medical help that would get him off the benzos and help him recover from the neurological damage he had suffered.
At various points, Peterson suffered delirium, hallucinations, time distortion, and physical impairments such that he was unable to walk up stairs or get into bed.
“It’s no overstatement,” Peterson related, “to say that for me the consequences of benzodiazepine withdrawal were worse than death.”
“You know, you don’t want to say something like that lightly,” he continued, “but there were lots of times, plenty of times, when it would have been preferable, as far as I could tell, just not to be there than to experience what I was experiencing.”
There is good reason not to dismiss Peterson’s account as an exaggeration. For example, a 2017 research article in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found a link between major physical illnesses and suicide risk.
How, then, did Peterson manage to endure such acute suffering? His philosophy of life may have had something to do with it.
Of Suffering and Survival
“Life is suffering,” Peterson wrote in 12 Rules. “There is no more basic, irrefutable truth.”
“What in the world should be done about that?” he asked. “The simplest, most obvious, and most direct answer? Pursue pleasure. Follow your impulses. Live for the moment.”
But Peterson rejected the notion that the pursuit of happiness is the proper goal of life, citing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a survivor and documenter of the Soviet gulag system, who wrote,
“...that the ‘pitiful ideology’ holding that ‘human beings are created for happiness’ was an ideology ‘done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel.’”
“In a crisis,” Peterson explained, “the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual. ...a deeper meaning was required.”
“It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness,” Peterson elaborated in an interview with The Guardian, “but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”
In an interview with Dr. Oz, Peterson said of happiness: “It’s a shallow boat in a very rough ocean.”
And indeed, as Peterson related, it wasn’t happiness that got him through his health crisis. “The reason I did survive,” he said, “certainly wasn’t because I was enjoying my life.”
So what was the reason? What kind of life purpose is strong enough to withstand the overwhelming degree of suffering that can befall us in times of crisis and chaos? What “deeper meaning” will sustain the human spirit through a long, grinding sojourn in the underworld: through a bout of severe illness or a stint in a gulag?
For Peterson and Solzhenitsyn, the answer is responsibility.
As Peterson explained, Solzhenitsyn embraced radical responsibility and that was how he survived the gulag with his spirit, not only intact, but triumphant.
And Peterson credits his own survival to his attachment to his family (“The reason [I survived] was that I had family that I was very attached to…”) and his dedication to his work (“My work... was also extremely useful because I could sustain myself by producing and then culling through thoughts that were helpful, despite my anguish... and my lack of hope for the future.”).
Incredibly, Peterson managed to continue working on his next book throughout most of his health crisis.
“Responsibility: that’s what gives life meaning,” Peterson once said in a lecture. And, as he demonstrated in practice, a life of meaning is one that can weather a storm of suffering.
Peterson also credits his survival to the support of his family, which he described as “above and beyond the call of duty.” His daughter and his son-in-law were especially instrumental, as they took the lead in seeking and obtaining medical treatment for him, even as that quest took them into Russia in the dead of winter. “Yeah well, I wasn’t going to give up,” Mikhaila responded after Jordan, choked up with emotion, thanked her for her help.
This was especially poignant given that Peterson dedicated an entire chapter of 12 Rules to tell the story of Mikhaila’s own extremely painful lifelong battle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
The Peterson family moved heaven and earth to help Mikhaila, while being careful not to rob her of her own strength by fostering helplessness. And now the responsibility that Jordan embraced long ago has come back to bless him, as the daughter he raised and cared for undertook the burden of saving his life in return.
“I have seen my teenage daughter,” Peterson wrote, “live through the destruction of her hip and her ankle and survive two years of continual, intense pain and emerge with her spirit intact. I watched her younger brother voluntarily and without resentment sacrifice many opportunities for friendship and social engagement to stand by her and us while she suffered. With love, encouragement, and character intact, a human being can be resilient beyond imagining.”
Admitting His Mistakes
One of the ways Solzhenitsyn embraced radical responsibility was to uncover within his soul any blame he himself bears in producing his own plight.
Peterson emulated his hero in this way as well.
“It's quite shocking to me actually,” he confessed to his daughter, “that I didn't know—despite my professional specialty that I had no idea how catastrophic benzodiazepine use could be.”
Mikhaila pointed out for the audience that he’s not a psychiatrist, but a psychologist. And psychologists counsel but don’t prescribe medicine.
Yet Peterson refused to let himself off the hook, saying, “It's still useful to keep up on the relevant literature.”
Peterson is also seeking to redeem his mistakes and his suffering by spreading awareness of the dangers of benzodiazepine use. He also exemplified responsibility when he addressed head-on a criticism that some have levied against him:
“What's the old saying: ‘physician heal thyself,’ right? I wrote a self-help book. I'm a psychologist. It's like, ‘Well, why the hell didn't I see this coming?’ and ‘Why wasn't I more cautious?’ And I think those are reasonable questions. (...) Well, and then that's the next question is: why should people take anything I say seriously, because of that? And I guess what I would say is, if you're going to wait to learn from people who don't make mistakes, or don't have tragedy enter their life. You're going to spend a long time waiting to learn something. And the second thing I would say is, in my lectures and my writings, I've never suggested that I was anything other than one of the people who also needed to learn these lessons. So I included myself in the population of people who needed some moral improvement.”
And he’s not just saying that after the fact. Long before his illness, he told The Guardian:
“Also, [12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos] isn’t only written for other people. It’s a warning to me. I’m also saying: ‘Look the hell out because the chickens come home to roost.’”
Physician heal thyself? Where it counted most, Dr. Peterson did heal himself.
He prescribed, both for himself and his audience, a life of meaning and responsibility as an antidote to chaos and despair. That prescription saved his life. Someday, it might save yours and mine as well.