It’s a tough thing to watch people you care about running in to walls, repeating self-defeating patterns over and over again, confused at why they’re not getting the kind of results they think they should be getting, given their actions. The impulse to correct someone else’s behavior and ideas is a pretty tough one to resist.
Fortunately, perhaps, it’s an effectively impossible task to change someone else. They have to do it themselves, or at least be intentionally receptive to the idea, in order for it to work. It’s why, I suspect, Alcoholics Anonymous has such a dismal success rate. Psychiatric treatment is predicated on the patient seeking out the treatment to begin with (compulsory therapy is remarkably unsuccessful.)
Now let’s leave aside the purity of intention with regards to the desire to change someone else, because it’s pretty much always suspect and that gets deep fast and wasn’t really where I was going.
You can’t grab someone and shake them hard enough to force new information into their head. Learning something new and deciding to change who we are as people is a very dangerous prospect. You can’t REALLY learn something new without unlearning something you already know. And the idea of having someone else try to change you intentionally is almost laughable in its naivete.
So we can’t really even talk about changing someone else, since it requires that person to actually do the work of unlocking doors and taking out the trash. Or at least, I can’t. There are smart people out there who I’m sure can address the topic.
But this is something Peterson hits pretty hard. If you realize you’re wrong about something, you have to unmake a part of your identity in order to internalize the new information. Otherwise…well there is no “otherwise.” In fact, once you’ve realized you’re wrong about something you’ve already taken a step in fragmenting your identity, if not the fundamental reality of who you are.
There are of course people who hold on to ideas they know to be wrong with both hands, creating a schism in their own mind. I’ve watched this happen with people and it’s really quite frightening to behold. When someone knows they’re wrong but have SO much invested in a particular idea that they can’t let go of it. I suppose it overlaps with cognitive dissonance.
But to really complete that progression you’ve got to let yourself go. You HAVE to stop identifying with your identity. The amount of yourself that you identify with has to necessarily shrink. It’s a strange process “Oh, that’s not ME. That’s just something I think now.”
I’ve gone through that cycle enough that I know what it feels like. I get angry in direct proportion to the strength with which I hold an idea to be true because I literally consider said idea as a part of who I am. I remembered this starkly and recently a few years ago when I read both Mike Cernovich’s “Gorilla Mindset” and Robert Glover’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” They made me angry as hell. I sulked and grumbled and whined to myself. Then I sat with those ideas fuming around in my skull for…shit it was probably months.
I realize now that I was cutting off what I thought was a mental limb from my body. But when I realized they were right about at least most of what they were talking about.
I’ve had a lot of hard lessons in my life that have resulted in sharp direction and identity reassessments. But I think this was the moment where I learned the meta-lesson, which I’d been exposed to a hundred hundred times before, that I’m not my thoughts, that I’m something much smaller in diameter yet much larger in scope than I could possibly have imagined.
I know I learned it because upon internalizing it, the lesson was a peaceful and reassuring one. And it’s not an inexorable step forward. I backslide into the convenience of resting my soul on the hatrack of interesting sounding ideas from time to time. But it’s with much less strength each time.
So now when I talk with my mother, as a poignant example, about not watching the news and she says “But how do you know what to believe?” I can look at her and say “Why believe any of it? Why would you pay any attention to people who are paid to make you think and feel something?”
I had a friend, who seems to have retreated entirely who, at the depth of a bender sat me down at my side of the bar and after some conversational foreplay said “Hey man, I have a question.”
“Sure dude, what’s up?”
“You seem to be…” He wobbled drunkenly as he groped for the word “…a discerning person.”
“I like to think so.”
“Well…how do you know you’re right?” It was really out of left field and at first I wasn’t at all sure what he meant.
But he went on to try and sell Socialism and some of his favorite thinkers on the topic, pointing me to some website I wrote down in a notebook someplace, quite dishonestly, crowing about their elocution and how they handled every argument against socialism with aplomb. He claimed they’d thought of and countered every objection. Except, apparently, reality.
“Man, ever heard of The Marquis de Sade?”
“Wasn’t he that sadist?”
“Yeah that’s where the word comes from. Anyway in a former life I read a LOT of de Sade’s work.” He looked a little shocked. Fair enough. I don’t seem the type who knows much about ‘The Divine Marquis’. “He wrote a piece that was a refutation of the existence of Christian God.” He nodded, wide eyed. Superficially familiar territory for a 28 year old socialist wannabe.
“So it’s an argument between a hedonist and a priest in prison and it ends with the priest abdicating his beliefs and almost certainly diving face first into a babble of young girls. At the time I thought it was brilliant. But here’s the thing…he wrote both sides of the argument. Of course it was going to go the way he wanted it to go. He planned the whole thing that way and made himself look smart in the process.”
He teetered in his chair as he sank another glass of whiskey.
“You can’t go to one source of information for anything. And even if you do, you have to consider strong arguments outside of their contrived context. Do they hold together in day to day life? Are they USEFUL arguments? Do they have exceptions? What kind? Does that invalidate the truth of them? You have to be able to do this with all the information you hear. So beware the temptation to become enamored of a thinker or a speaker, owing to his elegance and erudition. Even…ESPECIALLY if their arguments seem to hold true across the board. And if you have access to them as people, watch them. Watch them closely to see if they behave in concert with their espoused beliefs.”
Well, who the hell knows if I said all of that. But I ranted thus on the topic for some time. I was half in the bag myself.
“But how do you know you’re RIGHT?” He said with some pleading in his voice. And I had a V8 moment as I realized quite suddenly he hadn’t been arguing with me this whole time, but looking for help in his ongoing argument with himself. He’d taken half a step off the cliff.
“I’ve been exactly where you are, philosophically and developmentally, and I know there isn’t anything I can say that can help bring you out of it or through it. The best I can do is tell you to be courageous with yourself and be a complete bastard when it comes to your safe ideas. Invite Kali into your life. You have to sacrifice yourself. IF you’re right you’ll come out all the stronger for it. If you aren’t, well… you’re pretty damned smart and you can break through it.”
Well, he liked the implicit compliment but was otherwise unsatisfied. He’s a good person with a refreshing mind among a world of dullards. But I haven’t heard from him since.
I can’t save you man. I can’t even save myself.
I don’t know where I heard this. I can’t imagine for a moment it’s original. But I’ve no recollection of having ever heard anyone else say it and I don’t remember having read it anyplace. Probably just a selective self-serving failing of my memory. But there’s a way you can help people IF they’re poised to receive help (that includes yourself of course.)
“Ask yourself this question: If you were wrong, how would you know? Don’t answer me, because that’s fraught with social difficulties, egos and such. People are inclined to tell you what they think you want to hear. But in your heart of hearts ask yourself what would have to be true for you to be wrong. There’s only one wrong answer: But I’m not. Because if you ask, and you have to really ask, you’ll come up with something. That starts you on the path to discovery.”
It’s one of only two gateways to the underlying wiring of my head I’ve been able to successfully employ with any consistency (the other being journaling.) Watch your mind. Are there things about yourself and what you think that you won’t even ask about, where you can’t even form the question? Ah…begin there. Well…okay, maybe don’t begin there. That’s pretty rough on the ego. Begin with something innocuous so you can get used to the process.
We treasure our identities. We love who we think we are. It’s the closest thing to a real home we have for ourselves. The thing is, even when you put that at risk and abandon some of those thoughts and facets, you still HAVE an identity. You still HAVE a home in your mind that is you. Sure, it’s not what you thought it was. But that doesn’t make it less you. It doesn’t make it less of a home. Hell, it makes it more of one because you’ve cut away some of the dead weight of what you thought you were.
It’s quite like dispensing with friends who drag you down; the bucket crabs and narcissists. Get rid of 80% of your “friends” who serve your life ill and the other 20% do more than take up the rest of that space. Those friendships improve, have more value and you gain some pride in having standards, really being who you are. All this entirely independent of the benefit from cutting away the draw down on your life.
There’s so much coming at us all the damned time from all quarters: People, ideas, marketing, products. And we unthinkingly take on so much that we become mired in this horseshit, literally unable to recognize ourselves in the media and mimetic soup. And I’m not convinced, not at all convinced that the only defense to it isn’t to add to yourself by subtraction of the superfluous and dangerous, but I repeat myself.