Jordan Peterson: Choose friends who “punish you carefully”

The third rule from Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is: Make friends with people who want the best for you.

It is a rather somber chapter during which he takes the reader to his small hometown of Fairview in northern Alberta where, he says, “it was no easy matter to stay innocently amused.” After acquainting his readers with what it’s like to live in a freezing climate with which most Canadians are already thoroughly familiar, he proceeds to recount anecdotes of friends he made in the ‘teenage wasteland’ where the two key activities included driving endlessly and partying nihilistically. 

He wonders about his childhood and teenage friends who got hooked on drugs, committed suicide, or lead otherwise miserable and instable lives.

Then, Peterson analyses what drives people to help (or attempt to save) people in distress. His promotes self-reflection:

Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible–and, perhaps, more likely–that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side-effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible.

That latter point is illustrated just beforehand with an excerpt from Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who admits:

… I had been humiliated, so I wanted to humiliate; I had been treated like a rag, so I wanted to show my power… That’s what it was, and you imagined that I had come there on purpose to save you. Yes? You imagined that? You imagined that?

Peterson says it’s easy to understand failure; success is the mystery. Often people will associate with those who are worse off than them in order to feel better about themselves. Clearly, this does not serve the person’s good. While he says there is no justification “for abandoning those in need to pursue your narrow, blind ambition”, he also thinks that you are not “morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. […] It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you.”

Like St. Paul said to the Colossians, “Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” That’s what Peterson means when he encourages finding friends “who will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness” and who will always call you to a higher standard.

It’s take humility to face up to a reality that reveals: ‘You could be more than you are.’ This is why great art poses a confrontation to the person who beholds it. We realize that we stand in judgment and that there really is a true measure by which things are compared, distinguished, diminished, and exalted.

I am reminded of the famous last lines of Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo“:

for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Peterson’s Rule #3: “Make friends with people who want the best for you” reminds me, again, of St. Paul. This time, in his exhortation to the Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Indeed, it takes audacity to face up to greatness and excellence. It’s what we’re made for, though. And we know it.



Published by Amanda Achtman

What matters to me is living in truth, taking responsibility, creating value & cultivating community.

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