12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (31 page)

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If you decide that you are not justified in your resentment of Being, despite its inequity and pain, you may come to notice things you could fix to reduce even by a bit some unnecessary pain and suffering. You may come to ask yourself, “What should I do today?” in a manner that
means “How could I use my time to make things better, instead of worse?” Such tasks may announce themselves as the pile of undone paperwork that you could attend to, the room that you could make a bit more welcoming, or the meal that could be a bit more delicious and more gratefully delivered to your family.

You may find that if you attend to these moral obligations, once you have placed “make the world better” at the top of your value hierarchy, you experience ever-deepening meaning. It’s not bliss. It’s not happiness. It is something more like atonement for the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being. It’s payment of the debt you owe for the insane and horrible miracle of your existence. It’s how you remember the Holocaust. It’s how you make amends for the pathology of history. It’s adoption of the responsibility for being a potential denizen of Hell. It is willingness to serve as an angel of Paradise.

Expedience—that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s covering the blood you just spilled with a carpet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. It’s wrong because mere expedience, multiplied by many repetitions, produces the character of a demon. It’s wrong because expedience merely transfers the curse on your head to someone else, or to your future self, in a manner that will make your future, and the future generally, worse instead of better.

There is no faith and no courage and no sacrifice in doing what is expedient. There is no careful observation that actions and presuppositions matter, or that the world is made of what matters. To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will. Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.

What is expedient works only for the moment. It’s immediate, impulsive and limited. What is meaningful, by contrast, is the organization of
what would otherwise merely be expedient into a symphony of Being. Meaning is what is put forth more powerfully than mere words can express by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a triumphant bringing forth from the void of pattern after pattern upon beautiful pattern, every instrument playing its part, disciplined voices layered on top of that, spanning the entire breadth of human emotion from despair to exhilaration.

Meaning is what manifests itself when the many levels of Being arrange themselves into a perfectly functioning harmony, from atomic microcosm to cell to organ to individual to society to nature to cosmos, so that action at each level beautifully and perfectly facilitates action at all, such that past, present and future are all at once redeemed and reconciled. Meaning is what emerges beautifully and profoundly like a newly formed rosebud opening itself out of nothingness into the light of sun and God. Meaning is the lotus striving upward through the dark lake depths through the ever-clearing water, blooming forth on the very surface, revealing within itself the Golden Buddha, himself perfectly integrated, such that the revelation of the Divine Will can make itself manifest in his every word and gesture.

Meaning is when everything there is comes together in an ecstatic dance of single purpose—the glorification of a reality so that no matter how good it has suddenly become, it can get better and better and better more and more deeply forever into the future. Meaning happens when that dance has become so intense that all the horrors of the past, all the terrible struggle engaged in by all of life and all of humanity to that moment becomes a necessary and worthwhile part of the increasingly successful attempt to build something truly Mighty and Good.

Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order, whose purpose is to produce out of the attendant chaos a new order that will be even more immaculate, and capable of bringing forth a still more balanced and productive chaos and order. Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.

Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.


I trained to become a clinical psychologist at McGill University, in Montreal. While doing so, I sometimes met my classmates on the grounds of Montreal’s Douglas Hospital, where we had our first direct experiences with the mentally ill. The Douglas occupies acres of land and dozens of buildings. Many are connected by underground tunnels to protect workers and patients from the interminable Montreal winters. The hospital once sheltered hundreds of long-term in-house patients. This was before anti-psychotic drugs and the large scale deinstitutionalization movements of the late sixties all but closed down the residential asylums, most often dooming the now “freed” patients to a much harder life on the streets. By the early eighties, when I first visited the grounds, all but the most seriously afflicted residents had been discharged. Those who remained were strange, much-damaged people. They clustered around the vending machines scattered throughout the hospital’s tunnels. They looked as if they had been photographed by Diane Arbus or painted by Hieronymus Bosch.

One day my classmates and I were all standing in line. We were awaiting further instruction from the strait-laced German psychologist who ran the Douglas clinical training program. A long-term inpatient, fragile and vulnerable, approached one of the other students, a sheltered, conservative young woman. The patient spoke to her in a friendly, childlike manner, and asked, “Why are you all standing here? What are you doing? Can I come along with you?” My classmate turned to me and asked uncertainly, “What should I say to her?” She was taken aback, just as I was, by this request coming from someone so isolated and hurt. Neither of us wanted to say anything that might be construed as a rejection or reprimand.

We had temporarily entered a kind of no-man’s-land, in which society offers no ground rules or guidance. We were new clinical students, unprepared to be confronted on the grounds of a mental hospital by a schizophrenic patient asking a naive, friendly question about the possibility of social belonging. The natural conversational give-and-take between people attentive to contextual cues was not happening here, either. What exactly were the rules, in such a situation, far outside the boundaries of normal social interaction? What exactly were the options?

There were only two, as far as I could quickly surmise. I could tell the patient a story designed to save everyone’s face, or I could answer truthfully. “We can only take eight people in our group,” would have fallen into the first category, as would have, “We are just leaving the hospital now.” Neither of these answers would have bruised any feelings, at least on the surface, and the presence of the status differences that divided us from her would have gone unremarked. But neither answer would have been exactly true. So, I didn’t offer either.

I told the patient as simply and directly as I could that we were new students, training to be psychologists, and that she couldn’t join us for that reason. The answer highlighted the distinction between her situation and ours, making the gap between us greater and more evident. The answer was harsher than a well-crafted white lie. But I already had an inkling that untruth, however well-meant, can produce unintended consequences. She looked crestfallen, and hurt, but only
for a moment. Then she understood, and it was all right. That was just how it was.

I had had a strange set of experiences a few years before embarking upon my clinical training.
I found myself subject to some rather violent compulsions (none acted upon), and developed the conviction, in consequence, that I really knew rather little about who I was and what I was up to. So, I began paying much closer attention to what I was doing—and saying. The experience was disconcerting, to say the least. I soon divided myself into two parts: one that spoke, and one, more detached, that paid attention and judged. I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things: I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practise only saying things that the internal voice would not object to. I started to practise telling the truth—or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth. So, that’s what I did my first day at the Douglas Hospital.

Later, I had a client who was paranoid and dangerous. Working with paranoid people is challenging. They believe they have been targeted by mysterious conspiratorial forces, working malevolently behind the scenes. Paranoid people are hyper-alert and hyper-focused. They are attending to non-verbal cues with an intentness never manifest during ordinary human interactions. They make mistakes in interpretation (that’s the paranoia) but they are still almost uncanny in their ability to detect mixed motives, judgment and falsehood. You have to listen very carefully and tell the truth if you are going to get a paranoid person to open up to you.

I listened carefully and spoke truthfully to my client. Now and then, he would describe blood-curdling fantasies of flaying people for revenge. I would watch how I was reacting. I paid attention to what thoughts and images emerged in the theatre of my imagination while he spoke, and I told him what I observed. I was not trying to control or
direct his thoughts or actions (or mine). I was only trying to let him know as transparently as I could how what he was doing was directly affecting at least one person—me. My careful attention and frank responses did not mean at all that I remained unperturbed, let alone approved. I told him when he scared me (often), that his words and behaviour were misguided, and that he was going to get into serious trouble.

He talked to me, nonetheless, because I listened and responded honestly, even though I was not encouraging in my responses. He trusted me, despite (or, more accurately, because of) my objections. He was paranoid, not stupid. He knew his behaviour was socially unacceptable. He knew that any decent person was likely to react with horror to his insane fantasies. He trusted me and would talk to me because that’s how I reacted. There was no chance of understanding him without that trust.

Trouble for him generally started in a bureaucracy, such as a bank. He would enter an institution and attempt some simple task. He was looking to open an account, or pay a bill, or fix some mistake. Now and then he encountered the kind of non-helpful person that everyone encounters now and then in such a place. That person would reject the ID he offered, or require some information that was unnecessary and difficult to obtain. Sometimes, I suppose, the bureaucratic runaround was unavoidable—but sometimes it was unnecessarily complicated by petty misuses of bureaucratic power. My client was very attuned to such things. He was obsessed with honour. It was more important to him than safety, freedom or belonging. Following that logic (because paranoid people are impeccably logical), he could never allow himself to be demeaned, insulted or put down, even a little bit, by anyone. Water did not roll off his back. Because of his rigid and inflexible attitude, my client’s actions had already been subjected to several restraining orders. Restraining orders work best, however, with the sort of person who would never require a restraining order.

“I will be your worst nightmare,” was his phrase of choice, in such situations. I have wished intensely that I could say something like that, after encountering unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, but it’s
generally best to let such things go. My client meant what he said, however, and sometimes he really did become someone’s nightmare. He was the bad guy in
No Country for Old Men
. He was the person you meet in the wrong place, at the wrong time. If you messed with him, even accidentally, he was going to stalk you, remind you what you had done, and scare the living daylights out of you. He was no one to lie to. I told him the truth and that cooled him off.

My Landlord

I had a landlord around that time who had been president of a local biker gang. My wife, Tammy, and I lived next door to him in his parents’ small apartment building. His girlfriend bore the marks of self-inflicted injuries characteristic of borderline personality disorder. She killed herself while we lived there.

Denis, large, strong, French-Canadian, with a grey beard, was a gifted amateur electrician. He had some artistic talent, too, and was supporting himself making laminated wood posters with custom neon lights. He was trying to stay sober, after being released from jail. Still, every month or so, he would disappear on a days-long bender. He was one of those men who have a miraculous capacity for alcohol; he could drink fifty or sixty beer in a two-day binge and remain standing the whole time. This may seem hard to believe, but it’s true. I was doing research on familial alcoholism at the time, and it was not rare for my subjects to report their fathers’ habitual consumption of forty ounces of vodka a day. These patriarchs would buy one bottle every afternoon, Monday through Friday, and then two on Saturday, to tide them over through the Sunday liquor-store closure.

Denis had a little dog. Sometimes Tammy and I would hear Denis and the dog out in the backyard at four in the morning, during one of Denis’s marathon drinking sessions, both of them howling madly at the moon. Now and then, on occasions like that, Denis would drink up every cent he had saved. Then he would show up at our apartment. We would hear a knock at night. Denis would be at the door, swaying precipitously, upright, and miraculously conscious.

He would be standing there, toaster, microwave, or poster in hand. He wanted to sell these to me so he could keep on drinking. I bought a few things like this, pretending that I was being charitable. Eventually, Tammy convinced me that I couldn’t do it anymore. It made her nervous, and it was bad for Denis, whom she liked. Reasonable and even necessary as her request was, it still placed me in a tricky position.

What do you say to a severely intoxicated, violence-prone ex-biker-gang-president with patchy English when he tries to sell his microwave to you at your open door at two in the morning? This was a question even more difficult than those presented by the institutionalized patient or the paranoid flayer. But the answer was the same: the truth. But you’d bloody well better know what the truth is.

Denis knocked again soon after my wife and I had talked. He looked at me in the direct skeptical narrow-eyed manner characteristic of the tough, heavy-drinking man who is no stranger to trouble. That look means, “Prove your innocence.” Weaving slightly back and forth, he asked—politely—if I might be interested in purchasing his toaster. I rid myself, to the bottom of my soul, of primate-dominance motivations and moral superiority. I told him as directly and carefully as I could that I would not. I was playing no tricks. In that moment I wasn’t an educated, anglophone, fortunate, upwardly-mobile young man. He wasn’t an ex-con Québécois biker with a blood alcohol level of .24. No, we were two men of good will trying to help each other out in our common struggle to do the right thing. I said that he had told me he was trying to quit drinking. I said that it would not be good for him if I provided him with more money. I said that he made Tammy, whom he respected, nervous when he came over so drunk and so late and tried to sell me things.

He glared seriously at me without speaking for about fifteen seconds. That was plenty long enough. He was watching, I knew, for any micro-expression revealing sarcasm, deceit, contempt or self-congratulation. But I had thought it through, carefully, and I had only said things I truly meant. I had chosen my words, carefully, traversing a treacherous swamp, feeling out a partially submerged stone path. Denis turned and left. Not only that, he remembered our
conversation, despite his state of professional-level intoxication. He didn’t try to sell me anything again. Our relationship, which was quite good, given the great cultural gaps between us, became even more solid.

Taking the easy way out or telling the truth—those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.

Manipulate the World

You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is what it means to “act politically.” This is spin. It’s the specialty of unscrupulous marketers, salesmen, advertisers, pickup artists, slogan-possessed utopians and psychopaths. It’s the speech people engage in when they attempt to influence and manipulate others. It’s what university students do when they write an essay to please the professor, instead of articulating and clarifying their own ideas. It’s what everyone does when they want something, and decide to falsify themselves to please and flatter. It’s scheming and sloganeering and propaganda.

To conduct life like this is to become possessed by some ill-formed desire, and then to craft speech and action in a manner that appears likely, rationally, to bring about that end. Typical calculated ends might include “to impose my ideological beliefs,” “to prove that I am (or was) right,” “to appear competent,” “to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy,” “to avoid responsibility” (or its twin, “to garner credit for others’ actions”), “to be promoted,” “to attract the lion’s share of attention,” “to ensure that everyone likes me,” “to garner the benefits of martyrdom,” “to justify my cynicism,” “to rationalize my antisocial outlook,” “to minimize immediate conflict,” “to maintain my naïveté,” “to capitalize on my vulnerability,” “to always appear as the sainted one,” or (this one is particularly evil) “to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault.” These are all examples of what Sigmund Freud’s compatriot, the lesser-known Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, called “life-lies.”

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