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With Peterson’s personal disaster comes a horde of vicious haters using it as an opportunity to tear him down. When he was well, they twisted his words. And now that he’s sick, they’re using it as a chance to launch a new type of offensive. They rejoice in his suffering, and ask what they consider to be a slam-dunk question: “If Peterson can’t keep his own life together, then why should we listen to his life advice?”
I was once a regular customer at a cafe in my area. It was a lonely time in my life, where I spent my days enveloped in depression. Nearly everyday I would drive to that cafe and spend hours studying while drinking green tea. There was a particular employee that I was always happy to see. Although I was in a very introverted state at the time, he managed to consistently engage me in a way that met me where I was and helped me find a little bit of brightness in life. Eventually I moved on and stopped going to that cafe. A few years later I returned and I was told that he had walked into a forest with a revolver and ended his life.
What’s the lesson here? People who go through hardship in life build tools designed to address those hardships. People who journey through Hell learn how to survive Hell. But sometimes these people never quite build something powerful enough to save themselves in the end. Struggling with depression for years, the employee at the cafe had a lot of practice developing a way of being that would address depression in himself and others. I found talking to him cathartic. His tools were powerful enough to help me at the time and help him in the short term, but they weren’t powerful enough to save him when everything in his life came to a head.
Peterson has suffered from severe depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health problems for his entire life. He’s had profound difficulty keeping his mind and body in one piece. Throughout his life, he’s built a deeply woven system of philosophical and psychological insight designed to help himself and others. The power of his tools are in proportion with the depth of his struggles. Whether or not he’s able to save himself in the end, he will have helped millions through his effort to educate.
Besides, Peterson took every last ounce of strength that he created in himself by applying his insights to his own life and reinvested everything into more thinking, more speaking, and more writing. He pushed himself to the absolute limit of intellectual performance and social communication. With such a powerful system of self-improvement, he could have slowed down in life, taken it easy, and had a simple life of happiness, health, and order. But instead he put everything on the table in a way that few ever do, and he pushed so hard that he finally fell apart.
Most people criticizing him couldn’t say the same thing about themselves. They might note that their lives are more orderly and less chaotic than Peterson’s, but what does that prove? Imagine the stupidity and arrogance you would need to make fun of a professional athlete who sustains a career-ending injury while they’re pushing the limits of their sport, simply because you, sitting on your sofa at home eating chips and watching TV, never would have hurt yourself that way. Peterson walked a fine line between order and chaos. In his mission he pushed the limits of the human spirit, and for that we can only be forever grateful. From day one it was clear that he was prepared to sacrifice everything and pay the ultimate price. As he said himself at the height of his great run, “I’m surfing a 100-foot wave, and generally what happens if you do that is that you drown.”
The happy and healthy rarely become philosophically minded intellectuals who spend 80 hours per week for 30 years thinking about profound concepts. People like Peterson are born out of torment. Rather than criticize him for falling headlong into perhaps the greatest chaos of his life, let’s be grateful for the sacrifices he’s made for the betterment of humanity.