I’ve been bothered lately by war. I feel closer to it than I’d like, through my location amid the bland-yet-menacing military-industrial office parks of Washington suburbia, and due to my job. And like a borderline conspiracy theorist, I begin to see trappings of ubiquitous war everywhere in our politics and society.
Annoyed and anxious, I look forward to a world wherein war is not always simmering at a low level, forgettable, stable, unpopular and yet generally uncontested.
Is this my desire to bury my head in the sand, to pretend the world is a different place than it can ever be? Am I simply naive? Or is my peace-seeking a virtue?
It’s November, as you might have noticed. As a writer who exists on the Internet, I know that November can be a time of great pressure and great disappointment. November is “National Novel Writing Month,” abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, and many hundreds of thousands or maybe billions of people (who knows, really?) participate by pledging to write a full novel in a month. For NaNoWriMo purposes, a full novel is anything 50,000 words or longer. It does not have to be, and indeed is probably not even supposed to be, “good.” It’s just supposed to get us out of our perfectionistic delay and onto the keyboard.
Several times, including his year, I’ve half-committed to doing NaNoWriMo. This has produced a few stunted partial novels in previous years, books I had semi-planned but which I didn’t have nearly enough juice to complete, especially when there’s a target of at least 1,667 words every day to stay on track. If you skip a day or two, the writing debt piles up and the lure of a blurry, Thanksgiving-induced tryptophan oblivion becomes too much to resist.
1,667 words a day is a lot. When I was writing Book One, a good day was 500, and an incredibly good day was 1,000. So 1,667 is basically inconceivable, like an ultramarathon or a layer cake. A blinding effort that’s just going to make me sleepy to consider.
Nevertheless, I’ve been trying (until the last few days, when things have gotten away from me, as they have a tendency to do). Sometimes it’s good to push toward a difficult goal, and other times it is good to relax into enjoying what’s already present, and maybe the real work is in figuring out which times are which.
Anyway. I’m thinking about writing again, so here’s an update:
Book One is sitting in limbo at the moment, but at some point in the not-too-distant future I think I’ll do another round of edits on it and then start shopping it around to various literary agents. People on the writing internet call this upcoming stage the “trenches,” which feels a tad overdramatic even as someone who wrote a book involving a higher-than-average amount of literal trench warfare (and, after all, it’s Veteran’s/Armistice Day, to boot). But I haven’t been there yet, so what do I know?
Seeking publication, whether through the traditional course (finding an agent who sells to editors and publishers) or self-publishing, is inherently about self-promotion. So this, shoving my words into the world, is practice. Thank you for being present as I practice.
Speaking of which, here I am—writing. Over the past three or so months, I’ve written something north of 25,000 words here, which basically means if I keep this up for a year I’ll have written 100,000 words—a hefty novel’s length. What is this blog? Why is it? We’re still not sure. But that’s okay for now. Whatever it is I’m heading for, I’m practicing for it, I suppose.
And then there’s Book Two, the one I’m sort of trying to NaNoWriMo my way through. Until a few days ago, despite the gremlin who had been plaguing me previously, the draft was flowing fast out of me. I was writing a ton of words without terribly much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which is pretty ideal. It’s a low-stakes, low-drama endeavor, and it’s something I don’t really ever expect to do anything with. So that makes it easy to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and just keep at it (which, coincidentally, is as close as I have to a life philosophy at the moment).
There are times when I get a little tipsy on self-pity during my commute or my work day and I wish I could just be a book person all the time. But then I shake myself and realize: I am. Through tremendous fortune, I am able to read and write constantly, both for leisure and at my day job. And I go home in the evening and work on my novels and write this blog. In what way am I not a book person? It’s so easy to see the lack, even in the midst of abundance. Ain’t that always the way.
And here’s the thing: you’re probably a writer, too. Compared to any of your ancestors, even as recently as your parents, you write all the time. You write emails, and texts, and maybe tweets and Facebook comments, and Google reviews and who knows what all else? As linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes in the very worthwhile examination of online language Because Internet, we’re all writers now. We’re all experts in tone and nuance, learning together in a worldwide, real-time experiment when periods are passive-aggressive and when lowercase letters are ironic. We are all creative, producing brand-new combinations of words all the time, fresh additions to the English corpus. (McCulloch suggests an experiment: Google the last text message you sent containing more than ten words, and put quote marks around the whole thing. You’ll likely find no results, meaning you more or less invented that particular sentence).
Any one of us can coin a word or compose a sentence that has never been said before, and it now exists in the language as soon as we utter it, whether it winks in and out for a single moment or whether it catches on and endures in the minds of people yet unborn.
McCulloch, “Because Internet,” 269
So say it with me: you’re a writer. I’m a writer. We’re all doing it.
As is probably evident from the content of this blog, I’ve gotten in pretty deep with self-improvement-type topics. My Instagram feed is increasingly full of coaches, therapists, and spiritual writers. It’s a positive, empowering space (peppered with the occasional millennial-despair meme account I still follow).
But it is impossible to even glance at this cozy corner of the internet and not notice the glaring truth that it’s populated mostly by women. It’s not anywhere near an even split. Men are an endangered species around there.
Now, perhaps it’s not surprising that women are more drawn than men are to internet spaces for reflection, self-improvement, empowerment, for reasons we needn’t bother going into here. But don’t men need something like it?
I mean, glancing generally at the news and the unfiltered spaces of the Internet, you might well ask: are men okay?
Jordan Peterson is fairly well-known for a clinical psychologist. He’s also a voluminous YouTuber/podcaster, posting lengthy lectures about Jungian psychology and how to apply ancient wisdom from the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh to modern life.
He’s also famous for some political stands he’s taken in recent years against what he sees as the creeping dangers of rabid progressivism. Google it if you’re interested.
His star rose due to the political stands (because ADD LINK conflict pays, y’all), but he would rather think of himself first and foremost as a public professor. On the basis of his heightened name recognition, he published 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. As it promises, it’s 12 rules that Peterson believes are the key to developing character and living a worthy life.
As a whole, I found the book (like Peterson himself) full of contrasts. Deeply embarrassing, but also kind of sweet and avuncular. Fascinating and challenging but also terribly dense, as though he’s missing a chunk of every point he’s trying to make.
In the grand scheme of things, his rules, once he gets around to listing them, are great:
Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
Make friends with people who want the best for you.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Be precise in your speech.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
We could meditate on those alone and have a good time. Except for the skateboarding one, on which more later, the rules make sense on their face, and all seem like pretty good guideposts for living a good life.
But of course, he doesn’t stop there. Each chapter contains Peterson’s explanation of what he means by a rule, in prose that is personal and rambling and cerebral. He alternatively gives his evidence in the form of personal memories, clinical anecdotes, and Jungian interpretations of stories from the Bible. Sometimes it takes many pages for him to explain what he’s getting at. It’s tons of generalizing and much of it would be tagged  on Wikipedia. But for all that griping, the book had me fully engaged and thinking the whole time, typing notes out on the silly little Kindle keyboard, and that’s got to count for something.
What we have, by the end, is a guide for how to be a particular kind of good person: one who stands up for what he believes in, who works hard and succeeds at his endeavors, who maintains a pragmatically positive outlook, who is honest and unafraid to probe his own flaws and improve them. Who takes care of himself and those around him. Who demands excellence of himself, as a moral duty.
Why do I use male pronouns? It all strikes me as such masculine—even macho—self-help. Which isn’t to denigrate it, but just to wonder: is this the men’s version of my self-improvement internet? Is this what the fellas turn to when they feel a need to grow and change?
If it is, Peterson doesn’t know it. I’ve heard him say (in my own  moment, I can’t be arsed to find the link) that it is a mystery to him why his following is so crowded with young men, and not with women. But he must know how unbalanced his ideas are, if attracting a mixed crowd is his goal. Right out of the gate in Rule 1 (“Stand up straight with your shoulders back”) he comes out swinging with anecdotes about how lobster brains work, how dominance hierarchies are embedded into them, how subduing or being subdued by another male lobster will, through the workings of serotonin, change the lobster brain, rendering loser lobsters depressed and laconic. All this to say that you, human reader, will have a better life if you stand up straight with your shoulders back, like a serotonin-rich alpha lobster.
Oof. Is this what men like? I wouldn’t say it resonated with me (as they say on my side of the Internet gender partition).
I don’t begrudge men this, for a moment. Even if we can’t share our wellness spaces (and even if it’s because they actively stay away from my side of the therapy economy), God knows they need something.
But here’s the rub. Peterson can’t stop himself, even when he’s ahead, even when he’s ten rules deep and going strong, and we’ve learned a good deal about how one might interpret the story of the Garden of Eden, and we’ve convinced ourselves to treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect. No, he has to get into it. The conflict. Just as you get the sense he’s convinced himself that he deserves to be famous for his depth psychology and not for those shouty viral videos…he does a thing.
Rule 11, purportedly about not bothering children while they are skateboarding, is about how we ought to think about “patriarchy” so as to better the lives of both men and women, both boys and girls. I dare to summarize it thusly: adults (read: women, as women are all the examples he gives) do far more harm than good by attempting to protect children (that is, evidently, boys) from the suffering and danger inherent in a life worth living. Moreover, the feminism Peterson imagines, the one that demands the diminishment of masculinity to make room for the empowerment (masculinization, he coughs) of women, ends up harming women in the long run: it fills the world with bad men.
This chapter is Peterson at his dense worst. He doesn’t bother to understand what he’s refuting. But worse, it reminds you, just as you begin to trust him, that even though Peterson was doing Jung and the Bible for years, it’s taking a public stand against progressives that made him a star. Again, conflict, deployed well, is a ticket to success. Even if he fancies himself the reasonable guru, his numerous followers found him on the parts of YouTube with all the all-caps titles. No matter how much he pretends it isn’t the case, he is a star because of the brand of male resentment that burbles everywhere these days. All that to say: it’s a little hard to take him seriously when he tries to don the hat of objective critic of gender relations.
This brings up something that troubles me about therapy for the fellas: has it always got to resist women? My female corner of the wellness internet has nothing negative to say about men. But it feels to me, in my casual (and very much ) observation, that men’s self-improvement, self-actualization, whatever have you, always boils down to being about not women. As though men were the negative space made up of whatever is not feminine, and their very existence depends on separating from the feminine. (Although Peterson would be the first to tell you that it is the feminine that is typically represented as the dark, the night, the passive. Again, I say, gesturing generally at all of this citation needed.)
All that aside for now. If it weren’t for rule 11, and for Peterson’s reputation in general, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book. Not to say that it’s without its flaws, but it’s a thought-provoking read all the way through, even if you end up tearing at your hair a bit. I think we have to understand this moment that Peterson is a big part of.
But we might be able to understand it a little more concisely from Olive, a sturdy character from Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel City of Girls:
“The field of honor is a painful field,” Olive went on at last, as though Peg had not spoken. “That’s what my father taught me when I was young. He taught me that the field of honor is not a place where children can play. Children don’t have any honor, you see, and they aren’t expected to, because it’s too difficult for them. It’s too painful. But to become an adult, one must step into the field of honor. Everything will be expected of you now. You will need to be vigilant in your principles. Sacrifices will be demanded. You will be judged. If you make mistakes, you must account for them. There will be instances when you must cast aside your impulses and take a higher stance than another person—a person without honor—might take. Such instances may hurt, but that’s why honor is a painful field. Do you understand?”
I think Peterson would understand Olive, even if it would be slightly ironic, all things considered, that a lesbian character from a book called City of Girls basically could scoop him in a paragraph.
Perhaps as is evident from my current fixation on the Enneagram, I’m drawn to personality metrics, and all kinds of explanatory models for why people act so damn different from each other (which is to say, from me) all the time.
One fascinating one is the “moral foundations” quiz (link below), which is based on the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt is a psychologist who studies the psychology of morality, and if that seems a little odd to you, then I’d highly recommend his book The Righteous Mind. It is completely fascinating.
When I read it in 2017, it blew my mind–essentially because I had become so unaccustomed to hearing the word “morality” used in a secular context. I think many of us have a strong distaste for that word, preferring a term like “ethics,” which seems a little more civilized and rational, a little less feral, than “morality.” But the book forces you to look right at that word, and to examine what your own morality might be. “Haven’t got one,” I thought, slightly tongue-in-cheek, for the first hundred pages or so. But I was wrong.
Haidt identifies six moral foundations, which he calls “tastebuds.” Each of us cares more or less about each of the six, resulting in our own individual morality which we use constantly, unconsciously, to evaluate the world. Each of the six is a set of concepts, as follows:
The degree to which each person feels each of those concepts strongly will determine how they evaluate a situation. For example, most of us can readily understand care vs. harm. Just imagine a situation in which someone or something vulnerable–a child or a puppy–is in need of care, or worse, is being mistreated. The feeling that stirs in you or the action it might drive you to, so the theory goes, shows your care/harm tastebud activating. And if the bare mention of the idea that such a thing could happen got you squirming, congratulations: your care/harm tastebud is alive and well.
But what about the others? The one that fascinates me the most is sanctity vs. degradation, also known as “purity.” The most obvious applications of this tastebud are in sexual morality. But it’s also about food, and personal hygiene. Imagine a clean, cool glass of water. Now imagine someone drops a harmless, sterile cockroach in it. Would you drink it? Your rational mind may accept that the cockroach is sterilized, but your sanctity/degradation tastebud will violently protest if you try to drink it. Even though that may not sound like “morality” at first, consider how religions have almost always set standards for cleanliness of body and of food. We must conclude that food and cleanliness can be deeply moral to humans. If Haidt is right, this tastebud demonstrates the influence of purity on your morality, even at an unconscious level, and even when the tastebud reacts to circumstances that don’t appear to have a moral component at all, like the cockroach.
In the last portion of The Righteous Mind, Haidt goes on to apply his findings about the moral tastebuds to the modern* political climate. He found experimentally that American liberals and American conservatives have recognizable patterns that show up in their tastebuds: liberals tend to weigh care/harm and fairness/cheating very highly, and weigh the rest of the tastebuds less strongly. Conservatives weigh all six somewhat evenly, meaning that their care/harm and fairness/cheating tastebuds come out a little lower than liberals’ did, but the others are higher.
You can easily imagine how that would play out in a political argument: person A might be making excellent points about how Policy X will harm someone, while person B is making excellent points about how Policy X diminishes oppression. They may quickly begin talking directly past each other, unable to hear the value in the other’s point, or see the weaknesses in their own.
(You definitely have something in mind for what policy X is, don’t you? You even know what you think about policy X, and I haven’t said what it is.)
Anyway, if you’re interested, take the test and find out where you come out.
*A note on the “modern” political climate: The Righteous Mind was published in the salad days of 2012, back when politics were all about the Obama era and the Tea Party moment. It feels like so long ago. And even way back in 2017, I thought Haidt’s descriptions of what makes someone “liberal” or “conservative” were pretty outdated. Things have changed, folks.
When I was young, my parents occasionally threw what they called an “Ugly Food Party.” The concept (patently my father’s brain child) was a potluck, to which each guest should bring a dish that was both delicious and ugly. The more delicious, and the uglier, the better. At the end of the evening, a first, second, and third-place winner would be announced. Memorable dishes ranged from the cartoonish (bean dip served in a diaper) to merely unusual-in-my-neighborhood (a whole sheep’s head). One was an opaque greyish jello served in a brain mold.
It was the jello brain mold that got me here, because this is how my actual brain works: I came here to write about neuroplasticity, which is to say, brain molding, hence brain mold, hence ugly food party. My brain did this little hopscotch in about four seconds. This is, perhaps, why I am almost constantly distracted.
Speaking of habits of the mind, neuroplasticity has been on my mind lately because I just finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself, which I would highly recommend. Dr. Norman Doidge writes accessibly about how the brain works, and the history of our growing understanding that the brain is constantly changing and adapting. Our thoughts and behaviors quite literally physically change the brain, because the brain adapts the tasks we put it to frequently. Thoughts we often think together become physically linked, until we make a conscious effort to disentangle them.
The book is full of fascinating examples of people who have been through tremendous physical or emotional trauma, and whose brains have adapted incredibly to overcome it, often with the help of therapy. The final chapter is about a woman who was born with literally only half of her brain (the other half never developed, after some unknown trauma in utero), and yet she was able to read, speak, and socialize, and was excellent at some kinds of math. Her half-brain had adapted to work as a whole one, finding space for all of her needs.
To summarize the conclusion of the book: you get better at what you practice. This is not what you might call groundbreaking. But to understand that it is true on a physical, neurological level is pretty amazing. Like a muscle, the brain becomes competent at, and then efficient at, doing what is repeated–whether these habits are harmful or helpful.
The book came out over a decade ago, and straddles the market between popular science and self-help. It offers very little in the latter category, but it is popular in those circles no doubt because it provides such a clear illustration of what needs to be done to improve oneself. Self-improvement on the order of increasing positivity, decreasing anxiety, or improving at an artistic task, begins to look like a physical reality, like straightening one’s posture or practicing piano scales. The prescription may remain the same as before (do more of the thing you want to do; do less of its opposite), but the explanation for why this helps makes it feel a little more tangible.
Even as I’m writing this now, I’m imagining my brain getting just that much better at associating the motor skills and verbal skills together that are needed to type while I think. And on a larger scale, I think back to a few weeks ago when I first decided to start this blog. At first, I had one or two ideas. Then, as soon as I articulated the thought to myself, “I will have a blog,” before I knew it I had quite literally dozens of ideas listed in a document. The neuroplastic explanation for that might be that even in imagining writing in this format, my brain strengthened the pathways between thoughts. I’m drawing connections between things, and drawing connections between those things and the ideas and actions of writing them down, more quickly and efficiently. It’s just practice. It’s picking what you like, and seeing how it grows, on a neurological level. It’s pretty neat.
Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of the “Typology” podcast, which is about the Enneagram. The guest was Dr. Richard Lindroth, a 5 who was willing to come on the show. (Type 5 is the “observer” or the investigator.” They are typically introverted and analytical, both of which traits might explain why it would be the rare 5 who would want to come talk about him- or herself on a podcast about something rather woo-woo like the Enneagram). Dr. Lindroth quoted the famous statistician George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and that is precisely how I think about the Enneagram. I decided I quite liked him.
He also struck me by mentioning neuroplasticity in connection with the Enneagram (about ten minutes into the interview). As a 5, one of his struggles is in allowing himself to feel his emotions. His inclination is to tamp them down and think them, rather than to feel them. Since learning about the Enneagram, he says:
“One of my practices for the last couple of years has been to reduce that distance [between myself and my emotions]…When I am experiencing an emotion [I] take the time and really experience it in the moment, hold it in my head and really experience it for 20 seconds. That’s my neuroplasticity rule…If I can engage with this thought or engage with this emotion for 20 seconds, it’s going to help rewire my brain to accommodate emotions probably in a more healthy way.”
The imperfect model of the Enneagram can hold up a mirror, showing us aspects of ourselves that we had no idea were unusual. Learning that we do these things (and not everyone does, and we needn’t keep doing them), can point out some areas where we can constructively change and grow. Thinking about this in the context of neuroplasticity, one might say that the brain of someone deep in their Enneagram type has grown and adapted and developed efficient patterns of that type: Dr. Lindroth has learned to distance himself from his emotions, and I have learned to associate conflict with danger, and to shut down at the first sign of it.
But by noticing that our brains have that habit, and by imagining doing things differently, and by engaging for 20 seconds with an emotion or by staying mentally present when interpersonal things get rough, we can start to weaken the associations our brain has made, and to strengthen new ones.
Recently, at the recommendation of a dear friend with whom I go way back (way back), I read Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing.
My friend recommended this book a few months ago, after I’d been making a little quiet fuss for a while about not being sure about my long-term plans. The book sat on my total chaos bookshelf (the one where new arrivals languish horizontally, their spines not even showing, no doubt shortening my librarian boyfriend’s lifespan every time he glances at the horror) for a month or two.
I picked it up just in time for reading it to coincide with a Big Freakout. Isn’t it funny how that often happens? The universe senses a freakout coming and throws a tiny life preserver out into it. Or maybe I was providing for myself, sensing the brewing eruption. Either way, I was tearing through it on the metro on my way to and from work, waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for Emily to tell me what to do with my life.
Spoiler: the book doesn’t do that. If you ever find one that does, please send it to me immediately.
And don’t we all think we want that book? A recent poll I saw on Amy Young’s Instagram story had 95% of responders feeling stuck. So there’s nearly all of us in our own private occasional freakouts, wanting someone to come give us a little pull or shove, get us un-stuck.
In parachutes Emily, like a firefighter into the wildfire of my panic, bearing short chapters, each of which is a little inspiration, a little way in to the unknown. She dropped a few buckets of calm water onto me with each chapter.
One, in particular, has stuck with me. Remembering a time she was trying to zhuzh up her garden, Emily tells us her strategy: “Pick what you like, and see how it grows.” You don’t have to have the whole vision for the garden. You don’t have to have all the research done about how each plant will fare in each corner. You don’t have to know how it will work over the winter. You just have to pick what you like, and see how it grows.
Reader, that little line is part of why I’m writing this now. I’d been unsure of how to go forward in my life, how to find my vocation, as though it were some kind of prize hidden under some disguise in some unknown spot, and if I only knew how to find it it would be waiting for me. But it’s not like that. It’s all right in front of me, right in my hands and my head and my heart, because in every moment I can pick what I like and see how it grows. So in this blog, I’m picking what I like and writing about it, and we’ll see where we get.
Even at risk of beating this poor metaphor to death, I’m starting to think of everything in my life as a little seed being scattered. Every conversation, email, interaction with a stranger, passing thought, scrolled-by post, is a seed being scattered across my mind. Some seeds grow. These I chase down, researching further or noting down for future reference, or I get them stuck in my mind and can’t stop thinking or talking about them. Some don’t. These I immediately forget, even if I’d rather not, and I might require reminding. When I notice that something didn’t stick, maybe instead of worrying I’ve done something wrong, or telling myself I should buckle down and force myself to be more interested–maybe I can shift this. Maybe the seed fell on the wrong soil, or it was the wrong seed for the soil, or something. Maybe I can let it go.
And maybe I should save my attention for the seeds that did take root. Sr. Joan Chittister, who has literally written the book on vocation (well, a book on vocation), reminds us of Honoré de Balzac’s words: “Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence.” Not to light a fire under planting that garden, but it’s worth considering. You may as well do the things you like. Not doing so can have disastrous results.
I’m also going to be gentle with myself about what doesn’t grow, and about what I don’t pick in the first place. For example, here I am writing about The Next Right Thing, rather than Autumn. I liked Autumn, perhaps a little less than I liked another of Ali Smith’s books, How to be Both, but I did like it. Yet as I was reading it, and especially as I thought about writing about it, there was this nagging suspicion that I was being dense, not understanding it on some level that would be obvious to most. So how do I pick what I like and see how it grows? For one thing, by not forcing myself to write about Autumn if I don’t want to. (As it happens, I’ve read more about it now and I think I do “get” it; I just don’t have anything in particular to say about it, and that’s fine.) (Another side note: is this not a terribly Enneagram-9 problem to have, worried that my very thoughts and preferences are wrong?)
Now, when you find what you like, is it guaranteed to grow? Absolutely not. Nor are my tastes guaranteed to stay the same. But just as Emily parachuted into my life with little morsels of wisdom, I’m realizing that there’s no mega-parachuter coming with All The Answers. Or, at least, it’s highly unlikely. So instead I’ll just be down here in my garden, picking what I like each day, and watering it, and seeing how it grows.
A note on the book: Emily comes from what I would call an evangelical Christian background, and the book is pretty religious in its orientation. It might not be for everyone (especially those who don’t particularly want to hear about Jesus or read gospel quotations.)