Making a series of programs for the BBC on morality in the 21st century, I felt I had to travel to Toronto to have a conversation with a man I had not met before, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Recently he has recently become an iconic intellectual for millions of young people, as well as a figure of caricature and abuse by others who should know better. The vast popularity of his podcasts — hours long and formidably intellectual — suggests that he has been saying something that many people feel a need to hear and are not adequately hearing from other contemporary voices.
During our conversation, there was a moment of searing intensity. Peterson was talking about his daughter Mikhaila. At the age of 6, she was found to be suffering from severe polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Thirty-seven of her joints were affected. During her childhood and teen years, she had to have a hip replacement, then an ankle replacement. She was in acute, incessant pain. Describing her ordeal, Peterson’s voice was wavering on the verge of tears. Then he said:
One of the things we were very careful about and talked with her a lot about was to not allow herself to regard herself as a victim. And man, she had reason to regard herself as a victim … [but] as soon as you see yourself as a victim … that breeds thoughts of anger and revenge – and that takes you to a place that’s psychologically as terrible as the physiological place. And to her great credit I would say this is part of what allowed her to emerge from this because she did eventually figure out what was wrong with her, and by all appearances fix it by about 90%. It’s unstable but it’s way better because of the fact that she didn’t allow herself to become existentially enraged by her condition … People have every reason to construe themselves as victims. Their lives are characterised by suffering and betrayal. Those are ineradicable experiences. [The question is] what’s the right attitude to take to that – anger or rejection, resentment, hostility, murderousness? That’s the story of Cain and Abel, [and] that’s not good. That leads to Hell.
As soon as I heard those words, I understood what had led me to this man, because much of my life has been driven by the same search, though it came about in a different way. It happened because of the Holocaust survivors I came to know. They really were victims of one of the worst crimes against humanity in all of history. Yet they did not see themselves as victims. The survivors I knew, with almost superhuman courage, looked forward, built a new life for themselves, supported one another emotionally, and then, many years later, told their story, not for the sake of revisiting the past, but for the sake of educating today’s young people on the importance of taking responsibility for a more human and humane future.
But how is this possible? How can you be a victim and yet not see yourself as a victim without being guilty of denial, or deliberate forgetfulness, or wishful thinking?
The answer is that uniquely — this is what makes us Homo sapiens — in any given situation we can look back or we can look forward. We can ask: “Why did this happen?” That involves looking back for some cause in the past. Or we can ask, “What then shall I do?” This involves looking forward, trying to work out some future destination, given that this is our starting point.
There is a massive difference between the two. I can’t change the past. But I can change the future. Looking back, I see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I want eventually to be.
Both are legitimate ways of thinking, but one leads to resentment, bitterness, rage and a desire for revenge. The other leads to challenge, courage, strength of will and self-control. That for me is what Mikhaila Peterson and the Holocaust survivors represent: the triumph of choice over fate.