This is the third in a series of posts adapting Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life to the context of eduction. I’m linking all the posts in this series here. This is not intended as an accurate summary of Peterson’s views, it is merely my hot take.
Not everyone is well disposed towards us. The higher you strive, the more you seek to put your stamp upon the world, the more likely you are to attract the opprobrium of the envious and bitter. This isn’t a lot of fun, but it can be managed. Usually such people broadcast their antipathy in no uncertain terms and so can usually be avoided without too much trouble. They aren’t the problem. The problem is with those acquaintances who can be fun and interesting but who do not want the best for you. Peterson’s suggestion is that we instead develop friendships only with those precious few who are genuinely well-disposed towards us, those who will celebrate our triumphs and mourn our defeats.
One of the central tenets of Peterson’s word view is that life is suffering. This is by no means an original observation, and he’s at pains to point out how this axiom lies at the heart of most world religions whether or not it’s explicitly stated. Only the most swivel-eyed optimist would really dispute this. Misfortune will regularly beset us and, regardless how fortunate you are, you, and everyone else, will, eventually, age, sicken and die. This is why it’s so important to have good friends.
A friend in times of need is a friend indeed. But a needy friend is no friend at all. If you’re not capable of being a friend, you don’t deserve one. Of course, as Cassius says in Julius Caesar, “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities,” but then he’s hardly a shining example of what it is to be friend. But that’s not the point; having a need is not the same as being needy. The real point is that life’s hard enough without having to put up with the attentions of the envious and bitter.
So, why do so many of us have toxic relationships? I think there’s two main reasons. One is that if we befriend people who are needy maybe we can feel better about ourselves by comparison. Our faults seem so much less catastrophic than theirs. This can disguise itself as pity or compassion but it could be narcissism. The other reason is driven by envy; because we want something they have. This can cause us to be unwholesomely competitive as we jockey to gain their attention or good will. Neither kind of relationship is equal and so neither can really be a friendship.
You probably don’t want to believe this about yourself, and so Peterson makes this suggestion: “Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.” Doing what’s easiest is an all too understandable failing of us all. It’s a good rule of thumb that what’s worthwhile and virtuous is what’s hardest. If doing good feels easy, then maybe it isn’t good.
But, it’s also true that doing things wrong can present us with real difficulty. A great watershed moment in my early life came with the realisation that I was putting in an awful lot of time trying to get people who I didn’t like to like me. This was a revelation. As soon as I was able to perceive the situation clearly I was able to stop repeating the same mistake. I can’t tell you what a boon it is only to cultivate friendships with people I genuinely like and wish the best for.
As teachers we regularly see students making unhealthy friends. We see the consequences too. We probably feel powerless in the face of these alliances, and maybe we are. But perhaps we should pass on the information that friendship is a relationship between equals who want the best for each other, and that if you would not honestly recommend the same friendship to someone you felt responsible for (see rule 2) then maybe you think twice about pursuing that relationship for yourself.
Peterson says this:
If you surround yourself with people who support you upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help you bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner. (p 82)
Worse, bad friends prevent us making good friends.
Good friends help us to be our own best selves. According to an Arabic proverb, A wise man associating with the vicious becomes an idiot; a dog traveling with good men becomes a rational being. I’ve often seen a students behaviour and attitude improve almost beyond recognition when they’re freed from the burden of a toxic friendship. Sometimes a parent has contacted me to ask that their son not sit next to a particular individual, or perhaps a student has switched classes, or schools. Sometimes, more rarely, a child spontaneously decides to break off an unhealthy relationship. The result can seem almost miraculous.
We can’t control our students’ friendships, but we can tell them that they owe it to themselves to make friends with people who want the best for them.