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12 Rules for Protecting Life (Part Six)
This is Part Six of "12 Rules for Protecting Life: An Antidote to Abortion"—which applies Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life to the issue of abortion.
Rule #11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
There are lots of reasons why parents and municipalities frown upon skateboarding. It’s dangerous. It’s countercultural. It’s a public nuisance, and it creates all sorts of liability issues. But Jordan Peterson isn’t buying any of that. More precisely, he doesn’t regard any of these reasons as providing a sufficient rationale for trying to shut skateboarding down or squelch its irreverent boundary-pushing soul. Here’s why:
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Kids need to go out and push themselves against danger, because that’s what life is—pushing yourself against danger. And when you see kids doing things that are dangerous but spectacular you kind of have a moral obligation to back the hell off and let them experiment with their own mortality because you can’t keep them safe. The best thing you can do is make them able and courageous… It’s absolutely crucial. And [while] you can obviously be a fool on a skateboard, the distinction between being a fool and developing yourself is not as clear as people might like to imagine. When kids are out there with no helmet and doing dangerous things, there’s a part of me that’s very worried about it, but there’s another part of me that admires it very much because they’re practicing what they need to practice in order to cope with the world.
Jordan Peterson believes we do children a great disservice by isolating them from all potential danger—or trying to. It’s a fool’s errand, of course. “Even the most assiduous of parents,” Peterson writes, “cannot fully protect their children, even if they lock them in the basement, safely away from drugs, alcohol and internet porn.” In so doing, “the too-cautious, too-caring parent merely substitutes him or herself for the other terrible problems of life.” Rendering kids competent is more important than protecting them, Peterson argues, because competence is actually the surest means of protection. And just to clarify, that doesn’t mean making them “competent” in drugs, alcohol, and pornography. It means giving them the toolkit to navigate the complexities of life.
Skateboarding is an exercise in pushing boundaries—on multiple levels. For parents, that’s a bit terrifying. And while there is certainly a place for rule-keeping—I’m a notorious rule-keeper myself—there is also something to be said for challenging convention. You don’t actually want kids who are too compliant. Eventually, rote obedience must give way to a more nuanced understanding of when to comply and when to push back. We see this in the relationship Jesus had with his earthly parents. Remember the angst he caused Mary and Joseph when his 12-year-old self stayed behind in Jerusalem—without their consent. When his parents found him three days later, they were astonished and not a little put out. “Son, why have you treated us so?” Mary demanded. “Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress." The overly-compliant child would never have done that, indicating perhaps that we should be looking to develop something more than mere compliance in the hearts of our children.
You've probably heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So too are the efforts to ban skateboarding from public spaces—and the efforts to spare women from crisis pregnancy through the violence of abortion. This is where Rule 11 intersects with abortion. Actually, there are two connections, but this is the first. One of the primary reasons women choose abortion is because they don’t think they can give their child a good enough life. Ostensibly, they’re trying to protect their child from coming to a bad end—which is the same thing motivating those who want to ban skateboarding. The problem is, trying to keep children away from everything that might harm them is metaphorically fatal. And trying to protect children from a difficult life—by commissioning their premature death—is literally fatal. At the end of the day, abortion is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason you should allow children to risk skateboarding is the same reason you should allow them to “risk” life itself.
For children to learn competence, they must be exposed to difficulties. They must learn to overcome challenges. This is why it’s so hard for the fabulously wealthy to raise high-character kids. There are no easy “no’s.” Nor can they use the “we don’t have enough money” excuse—which is remarkably useful. The normal incentives for kids to work hard and save money—as a means of bettering their life—simply don’t apply. If you don’t think that creates a problem, you’ve never thought it through—or looked at the life trajectory of those who win the lottery. A life without meaningful stakes can unravel very quickly. When it comes to raising kids, ‘too much” and “too little” are both serious problems.
I don’t want to undersell the difficulties and dangers of raising a child alone—or the expense. They are real and significant. Jordan Peterson points out that “children in father-absent homes are four times as likely to be poor,” and are far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. These are real problems, but do they justify preemptively killing fatherless children in the womb?! Countless parents abort their children on the explicit assertion that they won’t be able to provide them with everything they “deserve,” not realizing how remarkably resilient children actually are. The primary thing a child deserves is life itself, not the accoutrements. Once you understand the profound value of having to overcome risks and obstacles, you’ll realize how foolish it is to try and “spare” kids from ever having to encounter them. No one can provide a perfect life for their child for the simple fact that perfect lives don’t exist.
One of the consequences of never exposing kids to danger—or giving them the competence to successfully overcome it—is this. They grow up lacking courage. They’ve never had to confront the chaos of the unknown or muster the resolve to master it. The easier pathway is rarely the better pathway. It might never be the better pathway. Courage and competence go hand-in-hand. Little orphan Annie bemoaned the difficulties of a hard-knock life, but that’s actually how we learn and develop. When you fall off the horse, get back up! Nobody wants their kids to be ruled by fear, but that’s precisely what so many of today’s well-intentioned helicopter parents are instilling. And one of the things that results from this bondage to fear is more abortion. Consider these remarks from women who have had an abortion:
I had an abortion when I was 17. I knew it was wrong, and yet I did it anyway because I was afraid.
I was alone, and only wanted the nightmare to end. I was too ashamed and afraid to tell my parents.
I was afraid to go through the pregnancy alone and be a single mom, especially with no income or stability.
I was afraid to take on the consequences of my irresponsible acts. I wish I didn't make those appointments.
I was shocked, afraid, and all alone. The father didn’t want to be involved. I felt like ending the pregnancy was the best thing to do. I was wrong.
There are days I truly wish I was dead... all because I was too afraid. I failed my child who I was supposed to protect and love and keep safe and I didn't.
I was afraid that having another baby at that time would make life way harder than it already was. My boyfriend told me it was up to me, that it was my decision. I wish he hadn't said that.
When I was 19, I was pregnant and scared... I thought I was too young to have a baby, I wasn't sure if I was in love, and I was afraid that I wouldn't be a good mother. Adoption was never even offered as a "choice."
My boyfriend told me I’d ruined his life and he’d leave me if I kept my baby. I had an abortion even though I didn’t want to. I was afraid of losing him. I became depressed and he left anyway. I hate myself every day for not staying strong.
I went in for an abortion. I can remember feeling so unsure and afraid. I asked the lady behind the desk if it was a baby yet and if it would feel anything. She told me that it wasn't anything yet, and it wouldn't feel anything. She told me my problem would be over in 20 minutes. It has been more than 25 years
I let fear and anxiety take over. I was afraid that I couldn't care for another child. I was afraid another baby would pull me away from my child who had additional needs. I was afraid the anxiety and depression would increase and I wouldn't be able to function at my work or for my kids. I thought I was doing the right thing. One year later, I (still) regret my decision every day. I wake up sad, and I go to sleep sad. I know my life would have been hard with another child, but at least there would also be the joy of another child. Now I have emptiness.
The way to overcome adversity is to “get your fear behind you—where it’s pushing you forward instead of in front of you where it’s stopping you.” The way you do this, Peterson argues, is “by actually thinking through the consequences of not putting your life together.” In the context of crisis pregnancy, abortion is what results when you leave your fear in front of you. But if you put your fear behind you—and think about what will become of you and your child if you don’t make things better, it has the potential to actually transform you into the person your baby needs you to be. “The fundamental reality of life is tragedy and suffering.” That’s inescapable, Peterson tells us. “But that doesn’t mean that it makes life unbearable or that it makes ‘being’ something that shouldn’t have existed.” Here’s something else worth considering:
No one in the modern world may without objection express the opinion that existence would be bettered by the absence of Jews, blacks, Muslims, or Englishmen. Why, then, is it virtuous to propose that the planet might be better off, if there were fewer people on it? I can’t help but see a skeletal, grinning face, gleeful at the possibility of the apocalypse, hiding not so very far behind such statements. And why does it so often seem to be the very people standing so visibly against prejudice who so often appear to feel obligated to denounce humanity itself?
“If you do moment-to-moment comparisons of people who have kids and people who don’t have kids,” Peterson tells us, “people who don’t have kids are happier.” That doesn’t surprise him though. “Of course you’re less happy when you have children,” he argues, “because you have to worry about them.” But maybe there’s more to life than being happy. Having a child is exceedingly dangerous. It makes you vulnerable in profound ways. It exposes you to unimaginable pain, but abortion doesn’t spare you from this. It can’t. The die has already been cast. Abortion only spares you the joy and wonder of having a relationship with your one-of-a-kind child. Though parenthood is rife with peril, it also carries some of life’s most transcendent meaning. Children are an unparalleled source of both hope and heartache. But the struggle is worth it, and the rewards are plenty. The reason you shouldn’t try to protect kids from the dangers of skating—by taking away their boards—is the same reason you shouldn’t try to protect kids from the dangers of being—by taking away their lives.
Rule #12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Jordan Peterson begins this chapter talking about dogs—of course—to demonstrate that his admonition is not limited to domestic animals of the feline variety. But even with this categorical expansion, Rule 12 still feels a bit narrow and obscure. To figure out what Peterson is getting at, we might consider what would prevent someone from stopping to pet a cat? So far as I can tell, there are five things. I’ve listed them in my imagined order of likelihood:
I’m too busy to pet a cat
Petting a cat is beneath me
I don’t like cats
I’m allergic to cats.
I’m scared of cats.
I suspect Peterson would be willing to grant an exemption to those who are genuinely allergic to cats, so let’s focus instead on the other four reasons. We can boil them down to busyness, pride, indifference, and fear. By isolating the potential reasons for not petting a cat, the purpose of Rule 12 begins to take shape. Stopping to pet a cat has real psychological value, but the rule also serves as a proxy. Think of it as a modern expansion of “stop and smell the roses.” There is so much suffering in life—so much that can bring you down—that “you have to keep your eyes open for those little opportunities for the redemptive elements of being to sort of pop themselves up.” That’s how Peterson extrapolates Rule 12 on The Rubin Report. Life can be overwhelming, which is why it’s so crucial that we don’t miss those moments “where a little bit of possibility still shines through.”
Perhaps you’ve already noticed this, but the underlying reasons for not petting a cat are some of the same underlying reasons for not carrying to term. Here’s what they sound like in the context of crisis pregnancy: I’m too busy to have a baby. I’m too ashamed to have a baby. I don’t like babies. I’m too scared to have a baby. And while I don’t think anyone would say, “I can’t afford to pet a cat,” being too busy is an expression of the same basic sentiment. Since adhering to Rule 12 requires the admission that even the life of a cat has value—and is worth adjusting our schedule for—how much more should we be willing to do for an innocent and helpless human baby?
Wait a minute, you well might complain. Haven’t I gone a bridge too far? Isn’t there a huge difference between the effort required to pet a cat and the effort required to birth and bring up a baby? Fair enough, but consider this. The incongruity could also be framed the other way. You have no personal responsibility to care for a random cat you meet on the street, but parents dohave a moral and legal responsibility to care for their children.
And in the context of our comparison, abortion is not the moral equivalent of simply ignoring a cat that you meet on the street—not by a long shot. Even if you’re not going to stop and pet the cat, aren’t you at least required to not do it violence?! Don’t you at least have a responsibility to not inject the cat with chemicals that will induce its demise or subject it to a surgical procedure that will pull its body to pieces? And yet this is exactly what abortion does—to an innocent and helpless human being. Peterson makes the following observation during his lecture on the Genesis flood:
(In Genesis 9:1-5) God describes the dominion over the planet that revivified humanity will have, and notes the power that goes along with that, and then puts a limitation on it. The limitation is to maintain the sanctity of life, despite your power… So there’s an opportunity, which is that the descendants of Noah can dominate the earth. But there’s a moral limitation placed on that, which is, nonetheless, life itself is to be regarded as sanctified and sacred.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Thats the way Uncle Ben put it to young Spider-Man—paraphrasing the back half of Luke 12:48. As stewards of creation, human beings have been given dominion, but it’s bounded by an obligation to honor and protect human life. Though there’s no indication that Jordan Peterson had the issue of abortion in view when he made the remarks above, the ramifications are undeniable. The sanctity of human life, after all, is the driving moral conviction behind the global effort to abolish abortion.
The world likes to cast stones at the supposed barbarity of the Old Testament ethic, ignoring the fact that its assertion that every human being is made in the divine image—and thereby has intrinsic worth—has transformed the world entirely. Prior to the emergence of Christianity, Peterson notes, “human sacrifice, including that of children, was a common occurrence even in technologically sophisticated societies.“ Today we can no longer fathom the public acceptance of human sacrifice as spectator sport—which speaks to the transformative influence of the biblical worldview. Would any of the ancient pagan kings have said with Nelson Mandela that a society's soul is revealed by how it treats its children? Or proclaimed with former President Barack Obama that keeping children safe is our first task as a society? Professed commitment to the safety of children is now nearly universal, but you know what they say about talk. Jordan Peterson observed the following in one of his Maps of Meaning lectures:
Because I’m an existentialist, I’m operating under the presupposition that you can tell what people believe by watching how they act. I don’t care what they say. I don’t care what their statements are about their view of reality. Because the correlation to that and their actual actions is certainly not perfect and sometimes doesn’t even exist.
Political platitudes make for good sound bites, but policy is more important—and when it comes to the safety of children, policy is not always a friend. “Was it really a good thing,” Peterson wonders, “to so dramatically liberalize the divorce laws in the 1960s?” It certainly wasn’t a good thing for children. “Horror and terror lurk behind the walls provided so wisely by our ancestors,” Peterson continues. “We tear them down at our peril.” And then, of course, there’s abortion.
“The death of a child,” Peterson writes, “is, perhaps, the worst of catastrophes.” Many relationships fail in its wake. Too many parents in a crisis pregnancy get bogged down thinking, “I can’t afford to have a baby,” instead of realizing: “I can’t afford to kill a baby.” Yes, having a baby is much more expensive—monetarily—than having an abortion. But the physical, emotional, and spiritual cost of having an abortion is massively, MASSIVELY higher than allowing your child to live. And the cost extends way beyond the individual parties involves. Peterson observes:
A culture that doesn’t hold the mother and child as sacred dies. Obviously. [this relationship] has to be held as something that you revere, which at least means: you don’t kill mothers and children. It at least means that. And that’s an instinct. It violates you to do that, and thank God.
In large measure, Rule 12 is a mechanism for coping with the tragedies of life. That includes embracing the unexpected moments of connection and joy that life puts in your path. It includes learning to recognize and savor the value of little things—including the cat you pass on the street. I realize that having a baby is not a little thing. It may well be the biggest thing. But there’s another sense in which appreciating the little things might also entail learning to appreciate the littlest members of the human community. The quality of relationship you can have with a child, after all, vastly exceeds that which you can have with a cat. It is the “limitations” of unborn children that are used to justify abortion, but Peterson came to realize that “what can be truly loved about a person is inseparable from their limitations.” Before birth, the diminutive size and utter dependency of the embryo and fetus are explicitly used to dehumanize them. After birth, these same traits become the basis for guarding newborns so assiduously. “The fate of the world,” Peterson tells us, “rests in each new infant—tiny, fragile and threatened but, in time, capable of uttering the words and doing the deeds that maintain the eternal, delicate balance between chaos and order.”
Rule 12 is “a reminder to look for what’s meaningful and soul-satisfying, soul-sustaining, even when you’re where you’d rather not be.” Crisis pregnancy—by definition—is exactly such a place. So how do you get through it? What do you do after you’ve found a cat to pet? Jordan Peterson has publicly berated the movie Frozen, but it strikes me that the second installment at least got this part right. In times of crisis, and fear, and pending doom, all you can do is the next right thing. Peterson writes:
What shall I do in the next dire moment? Focus my attention on the next right move. The flood is coming... and the centre cannot hold. When everything has become chaotic and uncertain, all that remains to guide you might be the character you constructed, previously, by aiming up and concentrating on the moment at hand.
He adds the following in an interview with Dave Rubin:
When things are going to hell in a hand basket, you’ve got to shrink your temporal horizon. [You can’t be] planning (for) three months out if you’re on fire. You’re planning for the next two seconds. If things are really harsh in your life—if someone is suffering around you and you’ve got too many problems, you shrink your timeframe to the day, or the hour, or the minute… You shrink the time until you can handle it. There’s not any more going on in that tiny fragment of time than you can bear. That’s how you adjust to the catastrophe.
Not everyone likes cats. That’s okay, but if you meet someone who doesn’t like children, “you should run away from them very rapidly.” That’s Jordan Peterson’s advice. And if you’re notgoing to run away from them, you should at least not sleep with them. That alone would spare us a world of heartache and death. Though I’ve pushed Peterson’s application well beyond where he strictly meant it go, those committed to doing “the next right thing” do not abort their children, and those who recognize the intrinsic relational value of felines on the street, do not kill helpless human beings in the womb.
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