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Keywords: Catastrophe, Hurricane, Frame, Flood, Ego, Physiological, Red Queen, Social, Myth, New Orleans, Eliade, Routine, Student, Parent

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Biblical Series VI: The Psychology of the Flood

by Dr. Jordan Peterson

So I’m going to launch right into it. I like this story, as well. This is the story of Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel, which I think are juxtaposed very interestingly. The Tower of Babel was one of those stories, like Cain and Abel, that was only a few lines long. It’s like a fragment, although the story of Noah is quite a well-developed narrative. But like the other stories that we’ve covered, it is relevant at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously.

I’m going to start with some psychological background information so that the story makes sense. The first thing that I’d like to make a case for is that you bring to bear on the world an a priori perceptual structure. That’s really an embodied structure, and it’s a consequence of the 3.5 billion years that you’ve spent putting your body together, which is a tremendous amount of time—not only your body, but your mind, of course. The mind is part of the body and very much embedded within it. You tend to think that you have your brain in your head, and it’s sort of floating separate from the rest of your body. That’s not really true. You have a tremendous, massive system of neurons running through your entire body. There’s more neurons in the autonomic nervous system than there are in the central nervous system. That’s a lot of neurons. Your central nervous system, of course, enables you to exercise voluntary control over your musculature, and also to receive information from it. Your brain is distributed through your body. One of the things you may not know is that people who are paraplegic can walk if you suspend them above a treadmill. Their legs will walk by themselves with no voluntary control. Your spine is capable of quite complex activity. In fact, when you walk, it’s controlled fall, and mostly your spine is doing it.

So anyways, the point of all that is that you don’t have a blank slate consciousness that’s interpreting a world that manifests itself as segregated objects in some straightforward sense. You have a built-in interpretative system that’s extraordinarily, deeply embedded and invisible. You might think about it as the implicit structure of your unconscious. It’s what gives rise to your conscious experience. It presents you with the world. That’s one way of thinking about it. It’s a good way of thinking about it. It’s the psychoanalytic way of thinking about it as well as the neuroscientific way of thinking about it.

One of the things that’s pretty interesting about modern neuroscientists—especially the top rate ones, and those are usually the ones who are working on emotions, as far as I’ve been able to tell—is that they are often quite enamoured of the psychoanalysts. Jaak Panksepp was a good example of that. They came to understand the psychoanalyst’s insistence on underlying, unconscious, personified motivations as an accurate reflection of how the brain worked. So you can think of yourself as a loose collection of autonomous spirits that’s governed by some overarching identity. That’s a reasonable way of thinking about it. A question that arises from that is, what is the nature of this a priori structure that you use to interpret the world? I think the clearest answer to that is that it’s a story, and that you live inside the story.

That’s very, very interesting to me. I believe—I have a couple of videos that lay this out—that Darwinian presuppositions are, at least, as fundamental as Newtonian presuppositions. I actually think that they’re more fundamental. The fact that we’ve evolved story-like structures through which to interpret the world indicates to me that there’s something deeply true about story-like structures. They’re true, at least, insofar as the fact that we’ve developed them means that here we are, living, and that it’s taken 3.5 billion years to develop them. They’re highly functional. We don’t have a much better definition of truth than highly functional. That’s about as good as it gets, partly because we’re limited creatures and we don’t have omniscient knowledge.

The best we can do with our knowledge, generally speaking, is to note its functionality and improve it when it fails to work properly. I think the scientific method actually does that. The fact that we’ve evolved a story-like structure through which to interpret the world is pretty damn interesting. It says something fundamental about stories. It’s strange in the same way that the fact that we have hemispheric specialization for the known and the unknown—or for order and chaos, respectively—also says something fundamental about the nature of the world—if you assume that we’ve evolved to reflect the structure of the world, broadly speaking. That’s obviously not just the physical structure—the atoms and the molecules—but all of the pattern manifestations of the physical molecules as they build structures of increasing complexity across time. That would include human interactions, political interactions, economic interactions, familial interactions—all of those things that are a very important part of our reality, but perhaps, in some sense, are not as fundamental as the physical attributes that the physicists concentrate on.

So we live in stories. I want to talk to you a little bit about stories and their structure. When you understand a little bit about the structure of stories, then a whole array of things about mythology all of a sudden make overwhelming sense. It’s so useful. What you see is that many of the things that are standard occurrences in everyone’s life are portrayed universally in mythology. It’s very helpful. First of all, it deisolates you. One of the things you learn as a clinical psychologist—contra the anti-psychiatrists, let’s say—is that diagnosis is often a relief to people. There’s a problem with being diagnosed: you might be labelled, and the label can follow you for the rest of your life. Once you’re labelled as a something, then strange things happen around you that often reinforce that label. Maybe you start acting it out more, or you adopt it as an identity. There’s a flip side of that, which is that the last thing you ever want to hear when you go see a physician or a psychologist is, you know, I’ve never seen a case like yours before. Right. That is not a relief, man. If the message is, I’ve never heard anything like what you’re telling me, the outcome is going to be either not so good for you or you’re not going to get listened to at all. You’re such an anomaly that your existence is annoying to the integrated knowledge structure of the medical profession that you’re attempting to receive advice from. It’s definitely the case because, you know, if you can be put in a box, then the box tells the doctor what to do with you.

That’s actually a relief to the doctor, but also a relief to you, right? You come and say, look, I can’t go out of my house much anymore. I’m afraid on elevators. I have heart palpitations, and I sometimes end up in the emergency room. My interactions in the world are increasingly restricted. I find myself staying at home. I’m afraid I’m going to die of a heart attack. The psychologist says, well, you have agrophobia. It’s like, lots of people have that. Here’s usually how it developed, and here’s the treatment course. We can probably do something about that. Well, you’re not going to die of a heart attack now, probably. That’s a real relief. You’re not crazy in a completely unique way, and you’re crazy in a way that might be treatable. And so it’s such a relief. People come in there with a pile of snakes of indeterminate magnitude, and they walk out with one manageable snake. It’s still a snake, but one manageable snake beats a hydra.

Back to stories. The stories that we tell and that we live in are fundamentally ways that we deal with the complexity of the world. The fundamental problem with the world, as far as I can tell, is that not only is it complex beyond your comprehension, but the complexity shifts in unpredictable ways. That’s the Darwinian conundrum, actually. That’s why Darwinism seems to be a practical necessity with regards to the continuation of life. The complexity changes unpredictably, and you can’t necessarily tell what’s going to work in the future. The Darwinian process solves that by generating quasi-random variations and letting whichever one by happenstance happens to work in that environment survive. It’s not random, precisely, because the underlying structure is conserved. It’s very rare that a child would be born with an extra arm, or something like that. The skeletal structure that you inhabit is shared by animals going way, way back in evolutionary history. There’s a lot of conservation in the evolutionary process. There’s variation within conservation—like music. It’s a good way of thinking about it. The stories that we tell have exactly the same structure. They have this core element with variations.
All right. I’ll turn to the stories. The first problem, as I mentioned, is the complexity problem. Things are just too complicated to get a handle on. That actually has serious consequences. What happens to everyone, eventually, is that their lives become so complicated that they die. Many terrible things can happen to you on the way to dying, as well. You can develop a serious illness that you can’t get a handle on. You can hit an impasse in your relationship that you see no way out of. That happens to people quite frequently. People who are suicidal, for example, often feel like they’ve been backed into a corner—that they have no good options. There’s something terrible to face no matter which way they turn, and they can’t see any way out of it. Sometimes, that’s more true than you’d like to think.

We also tend to like to think that people’s problems are primarily psychological, but they’re not. One thing that you learn quite rapidly as a clinician is that most of the time people don’t come to you because they have a mental illness: they come to you because they have a complexity management problem. Their lives have got out of hand on them. They don’t know how to get them back under control. All sorts of things can do that. And then, of course, that can make you anxious or depressed. It can trigger all sorts of illnesses. But the fundamental problem is still that things have got beyond you. That actually has a psychophysiological cost that isn’t merely psychological. You have a limited amount of capacity—from a resource perspective—to deal with emergent complexity. There’s just not enough of you. You’ll exhaust your psychophysiological resources if you get into a situation that’s too complex. Well, that’s what the idea of chaos represents. It represents that underlying complexity that can manifest itself at any time. For example, you wake up in the morning and feel an ache of some sort. Perhaps it’s nothing, and you ignore it. It gets worse, and you end up going to the hospital. You find out, perhaps, that you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’re going to live for six months, and that’s the end of that. It’s at that moment that you break through the thin ice that everyone walks on and you see what’s underneath. What’s underneath is the ineradicable complexity of life. That’s chaos.

It’s taken people a long, long time to get a grip on this conceptual schema. Human beings have done it mostly with image and story before they’ve been able to do it in any articulated manner. There are a set of images that represent this underlying chaos. One of them is the dragon of chaos—precisely that. That’s the dragon that the hero goes out to confront; the symbol of the unknown; the thing that lurks underneath. It’s the thing that also guards treasure. In the unknown, there’s the possibility for treasure. Also, the water that was there at the beginning—that we talked about in the Mesopotamian creation myth—both the salt and the fresh water, is often a symbol of pre-cosmogonic chaos. Some of you have had this dream, I suspect. You’ll dream that you’re in a house that you know well. All of a sudden you discover a new room or a set of new rooms, or maybe a set of rooms in the basement. Often the rooms are not well organized, and they’re full of water. Those are very common things. What that means is that you’ve broken through the constraints of your conscious self-understanding to a new domain of possibility, but a new domain that needs a tremendous amount of work. It says, well, here’s a new part of you, but it’s not well developed. It’s flooded with chaos, essentially. It’s water, I think, because chaos is not only what you fall into when you’re not expecting it, but it’s also the unknown that you confront forthrightly and generate new things out of. Water is a symbol of life, especially in a desert. Of course, life is dependent of water. Water’s a natural symbol to utilize when you’re talking about something that’s life-giving but also potentially deadly. A little bit of water, that’s a drink. But a lot of water, that’s a shipwreck. Those are the extremes.

There are accounts that are sort of subtexts in Genesis, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, of God conquering a great monster, leviathan, or behemoth that has serpentile elements, and making the world as a consequence of that conflict. There’s this idea that the world-creating force—which we’ve talked about as the logos—is the thing that continually confronts chaos, and that one way of thinking about chaos is as a predatory, reptilian monster, and often one that lives in the depths or, perhaps, underwater. Part of that, I think, is because we actually use our predator detection circuit to do this sort of pre-cognitive process. The notion, fundamentally, is that anything that threatens instantaneously is something that your predatory detection circuit should be working with. It’s fast, low resolution, and it doesn’t have a lot of ideas—but it’s really, really fast. That also accounts for our capability and tendency to very rapidly treat people who upset our conceptual structures as enemies of the predatory variety. We can fall into that in no time flat. It’s the archetype. If something comes along to knock you for a loop, it’s a shark; it’s something that lurks under the water; it’s something that will pull you down; it’s an enemy. Usually you get prepared. That’s a reasonable defensive strategy, even though it also has its dangers and could sometimes be wrong.

The landscape within which we have to erect our stories is fundamentally one of an overarching chaos—a chaos that exceeds our capacity to comprehend, in any sense: individually, familial, socially, economically. We’re constantly threatened by the collapse of the structures that we inhabit. You own a house. How much time do you spend maintaining a house? Well, a lot. Why is that? It’s because the house falls apart, and that’s because you’re stupid. The house falls apart because you do repairs wrong, or you ignore things, right? I’m saying this, actually, for technical reasons. The house falls apart because you’re incompetent. But even if you’re competent, the house falls apart. It’s just entropy. Things have a proclivity to fall apart on their own, so you have to run like mad just to keep them doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And then, of course, that’s complicated by your own willful blindness and inadequacy as a repair person, refusal to attend, and all those other things. That’s a very classic idea, which we’ll return to.

One of the ideas that Mircea Eliade, a famous historian of religions, extracted from a very large corpus of flood myths was the idea that the earth is periodically flattened for two reasons: One is, things fall apart. Straight entropy. I don’t remember which law of thermodynamics that is, but it’s one of the big laws of thermodynamics. It’s one of the top three, man. Things fall apart of their own accord. That’s one of the things that we have to contend with. The rate at which things fall apart is sped by the sins of man. That’s the other idea. Everyone knows that. Your car breaks down on the highway, and you think, God, that’s so inconvenient. You shake your fist at the sky, and then there’s part of you, in the back of your mind, that goes, I knew that rattle that I wasn’t paying attention to actually signified something. I knew I should have paid attention to it. I didn’t, and now I’m in this situation.

I bet you this happens to people two or three times a week. They do something stupid that they know they shouldn’t have done and that they told themselves not to do mere seconds before. They know the voice says to not do that…Yea, yea. You do it. You get nailed for it exactly the way that you knew you would get nailed for it. Then you’re hurt doubly, because not only did it fall apart, but you’re the idiot that made it fall apart—knowing full well that it was going to fall apart and ignoring it.

That’s the idea behind the notion that there are two reasons that things fall apart: thermodynamic entropy and the proclivity of people not to attend to things they know they should attend to. Partly we do that because if a problem emerges, it always announces itself. Unless it’s a really, really tiny problem and you’re approaching it voluntarily, it always announces itself with negative emotion. That’s part of the predator detection circuit. It announces itself in frustration, disappointment, emotional pain, grief, or the paramount one: anxiety. And no wonder, because it’s a problem, right? One of the logical responses is to sort of freeze in the face of the problem. But, of course, if it’s a problem that has to be addressed and solved, freezing and turning away from it is not a good solution. Since things tend to fall apart on their own accord, just leaving the thing alone is problematic. It’s just going to get worse, and not better. That’s one of the things that’s very annoying about life. So, for example, if you get a warning message from the tax department, the probability that ignoring that will make it go away is zero, right? What will happen, instead, is that the more you ignore it, the larger it will grow. If you ignore it long enough, then it will turn into something large enough to eat you, and that will be the end of you.

I read in Harper’s Magazine, at one point, that people would rather be mugged than audited. I believe that, because the mugging…Man, that’s over. A couple of minutes of sheer terror, loss of your wallet, and away you walk. An audit…That’s like a semi-fatal disease. So that’s chaos. The psychological idea is that that’s also the chaos that whatever is being represented in Genesis as the spirit of God extracts order out of that at the beginning of time. It’s also that which we’re constantly contending with as we struggle in the same manner to construct and maintain a habitable world. It’s brilliant. When I first put together the relationship between what Eliade called the pre-cosmogonic chaos, the predatory landscape that surrounded our ancestors, and the manner in which we’re structured neurologically to respond to all of that, it was like an amazing epiphany.

It’s self-evidently the case that the world’s too complicated for us to deal with. That’s one of the problems that we face on an ongoing basis. And then the question is, well, what do you do about that? If you ignore it, it gets worse, so ignoring it doesn’t work. We know what doesn’t work, so if ignoring it doesn’t work, then attending to it might work. And then I found out with the Egyptians, for example, that Horus was the god of attention. The same thing happened among Mesopotamians with Marduk and his ring of eyes. What’s the way to forestall the catastrophe of things falling apart? The answer to that is by voluntarily attending to them. That slots very nicely into the hero mythology that promotes the idea that if there’s a dragon in the neighbourhood, hiding in the basement just makes it grow larger. It’s time to go out and confront the damn thing.

The general stories are, well, you might get killed—because it’s a dragon—but it’s only might, as opposed to definitely will get killed if it happens to attack you at three in the morning, at home, when you’re hungover, it’s been a bad day, and you don’t have your sword and shield at the ready. That is generally what happens to people who avoid things. It’s not something that should be recommended. You’re screwed both ways. That’s one of the things that’s so nice about being deeply pessimistic: it’s so freeing. Knowing that, sometimes, no matter what you do you’re in trouble is a really useful habit to develop. That’s a relief. Then you can stop scrabbling around for the way out. There’s no way out, man. You can pick wretched death A or slightly less wretched death B. Something like that. I know that’s a terrible way of looking at things, but it is extraordinarily useful to understand that many times your choice boils down to picking the least bad option. If that’s all you can do, if that’s how life is revealing itself to you, it’s like, well, more power to you. The least bad option—that’s the best you can do. It’s good enough, especially compared to the alternative, which is the most bad option.

All right. The fundamental reality of things is complex beyond comprehension. The question is, well, how is it that you manage that? This is where the image of the patriarchal order comes in—in the positive manner, I might point out. In the absence of patriarchal structure, for lack of a better lexicon, there’s nothing but chaos. I wouldn’t recommend chaos. There’s a lot of it, and there isn’t that much of you. If you think you can handle it without an a priori structure, and without a sociological structure surrounding you, then you don’t know anything at all about human beings. One of the things I’ve noticed, for example, is that it’s unbelievable the degree to which our sanity depends on a functioning sociological structure. Here’s why: First of all, you kind of need to know what to do every day. You have to have a routine, because you’re an animal. Dogs are a really good example of this. Dogs like routine. They like to be walked the number of times a day that they’re supposed to be walked. They get quite sick, very rapidly, if you don’t routinize their days. Children are exactly the same way. You can overdo it, but you still need to know approximately when you should get up. It should be approximately the same every day. You need to know approximately when you’re going to eat; you need to know what you’re going to eat; you need to know who you’re going to eat with; you need to know where to buy your food.

Something like 70 percent of your life consists of those things that you do every single day, that you repeat. Those are often the things that people think about as the trivial elements of their life, but one of the things I would like to point out, if you do the mathematics—I did this with a client of mine that was having a hard time putting his child to bed. They were having a fight every night. I knew by that time that the studies indicate that most parents only spend 20 minutes per day of one-on-one time with their child. The reason for that is that people are busy, and it’s actually not that easy to parse out 20 minutes of one-on-one time. It’s a lot bloody more time than you think. But that’s all there is: 20 minutes. He’s spending like 40 minutes per day fighting with his kid, trying to get the kid to go to bed. That’s not very entertaining. You think, well, he’s just having a scrap with the kid about going to bed. No, no—if it happens every day, it’s a catastrophe. So you do the math. We’ll say five hours a week for the sake of argument, just to keep it simple. That’s 20 hours a month and 240 hours a year. That’s six 40-hour work weeks. That guy was basically spending a month and a half of work weeks doing absolutely nothing but having a wretched time fighting with his son, trying to get him to go to bed. Horrible. That’s just way too much time to spend doing something like that if you want to actually have a positive relationship with someone. It’s just too punishing.

So you need structure and predictability, and you need more of it than you think, just to keep you sane. Now if you’re lucky—and maybe a bit odd—you can deviate five percent from the norm, or ten percent from the norm, or something like that—carefully and cautiously, as long as the rest of you is all well ordered in a normative manner. You might be able to get away with that, and you might be able to sustain it across time. People might be able to tolerate you if you do it. Or maybe you’ll get really lucky and happen to be creative but reasonably well put-together, and people will actually be happy that there’s something idiosyncratic and unique about you. But even under those circumstance, mostly what you want is to have a routine that’s disciplined and predictable—and bloody well stick to it. You’re going to be way healthier, happier, and saner if you do that.

The psychoanalysts overestimated the degree to which sanity was a consequence of being properly structured internally. From the psychoanalytic point of view, you’re sort of an ego, and that ego is inside you. Of course, it rests on an unconscious structure, but the purpose of psychoanalysis is to sort out that unconscious structure and the ego on top of it, and to make you a fully-functioning and autonomous individual. But there’s a problem with that. The reason that you’re sane as a fully-functional and autonomous human being isn’t because you’ve organized your psyche—even though that’s important. The reason that you’re sane, if you have a well-organize unconscious and ego, is because other people can tolerate having you around for reasonably extensive periods of time, and will cuff you across the back of the head every time you do something so stupid that people will dislike you permanently if you continue.

So what people are doing to each other all the time is broadcasting sanity signals back and forth. You smile at people if they’re not only behaving properly, but behaving in a way that you would like to see them continue to behave. You frown at them if they’re not; you ignore them if they’re not; you shun them; you roll your eyes at them; you manifest a disgust face; you don’t listen to them; you interrupt them; you won’t cooperate with them; you won’t compete with them. You’re blasting signals at other people about how to regulate their behaviour so frequently—well, it just makes up all of your social interaction. That’s why we face each other, and that’s why we have emotional displays on our face. We’re looking at each other’s eyes, and we know as much as we can about what’s going on with each other given that we don’t have immediate access to the contents of their consciousness.

Partly what you’re doing with your routine is establishing yourself as a credible, reliable, trustworthy, potentially interesting human being who isn’t going to do anything too erratic at any moment. Everyone else is tapping you into shape, making sure that that’s exactly what you are. That’s how you stay sane. People get isolated and start to drift if they don’t have a routine. They drift badly, because the world is too complicated for you to keep it organized all by yourself. You just cannot do it. So we outsource the problem of sanity. It’s very intelligent that we outsource the problem of sanity, because sanity is an impossibly complex problem. The way that we manage the incredibly complex is we have a very large number of brains working simultaneously on the problem, all the time. It’s like a stock market for sanity. I use that definition with purpose. The stock market does the same kind of impossible thing, right? It tries to price things, which is impossible. How many things are there? Like a billion. How in the world do you decide what the price is? You can’t decide what the price is—that’s why you have a stock market. In a stock market, as well as a free market, everyone’s voting on what the price of everything is, all the time. That’s the way we figure it out, because it’s technically impossible. That’s partly why the stock market explodes now and then, and there’s bubbles, and all of that sort of thing.

Anyways, the point is that things are chaotic. In Alice and Wonderland, when Alice goes down the rabbit hole—that’s the underworld. Now she’s gone into the substructure of being. She meets the Red Queen. The Red Queen is mother nature. Mother nature is running around, and she’s yelling "off with their heads! Off with their heads!" Which is, of course, what mother nature does. And she tells Alice, "in my kingdom you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place." That’s exactly right. In fact, evolutionary biologists and psychologists picked up on that phrase. They call it the Red Queen problem. The Red Queen problem is that everything’s after you all the time and you’re not smart enough to do anything about it, or enough about it. That’s a permanent, existential problem. How do you deal with that? You’ve got a biological structure. So your embodiment is part of the solution to the problem. And then you’re inculturated, and because you’re inculturated, you’re taught a lot of things that you need to know. But mostly what you’re taught is how to communicate with other people in an acceptable manner. Once you can communicate with people in an acceptable manner, then you can outsource your problems constantly, which you’re doing constantly.

We’re in this continual dynamic exchange of problem solving. So if you’re a socialized person, that’s what you get access to, and that’s something to know if you’re going to have kids. I mentioned this, I think, in a previous lecture. The purpose of being a parent for very young children is to make your children exceptionally socially desirable by the age of four. If you can do that, they’re set. Everyone wants them around. As soon as everybody wants them around, they want to play with them; they want to cooperate with them; they want to compete with them. The doors open, and they stay sane because they’ve got all sorts of people who actually like them, who are helping them out. So your goal is to make them as socially acceptable and desirable as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean you render them obedient without spirit. That’s a tyrant’s mode of enforcing social acceptability. It’s like, never do anything wrong. Well, that’s not any way to—I mean, that’s a good piece of advice, but it’s missing the other half, which is to do a bunch of things that are right so that people are thrilled to have you around. That’s what you want to do as a parent, as well as inculcating the order.
In this little diagram I indicated that there’s God the Father with the sun behind him, and he’s ruling over this walled city. He’s like the meta-spirit of the walled city. It’s a brilliant image. It’s the collective spirit of the city. That’s another way of thinking about it. It’s the collective spirit of the city across time, or the collective spirit of the force that built and maintained the city across time—even better. That’s associated with the sun, because it’s associated with enlightenment, illumination, and all of those things that we associate with higher consciousness and vision. It’s a brilliant image. And then I overlaid this. Of course, the patriarchal aspect of existence can become tyrannical, and it does that quite regularly. It’s one of the existential dangers of human civilization: civilization is a medication for chaos, but it can spin out of control in and of itself and become its own sort of problem, which is like a hyper-order problem, generally, which then produces a chaos problem.

Every solution carries within it certain problems, because no solution is perfect. You have to keep things in balance. It’s one of the reasons that I’m really…Let’s call it irritated about the postmodernists. They keep yammering about the patriarchy, and it’s very, very annoying. It’s self-evident that social structures are tyrannical. It’s like, that’s not news, folks. That’s obvious. But that’s not all they are. It’s a reduction of the entire complex solution, let’s say, to a unidimensional problem. It’s just tyranny. It’s like, no. Actually, it’s not just tyranny. If you spent six months somewhere that was just tyranny, you’d know the difference very, very rapidly. That doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t give up a pound or two—or ten, or twenty—of flesh to participate even in a society that’s as free as a Western society is. We all get crushed and moulded by the tyrannical force of social convention. But, at least in principle, the benefit is worth the cost. It’s also up to you to make sure you don’t sacrifice more to the group than you should. You can start to tell if you’re sacrificing more to the group than you should because you start to become resentful of other people. That’s part of the psychological mechanism that’s informing you of that. So it’s up to you to fight against the overarching pressure for conformity and to retain your individual logos, but that’s sort of your problem. The group wants you to behave. Now if you could behave and be creatively productive, so much the better, but that’s pretty damn rare. The group generally tends to settle just for behave. There’s a tyrannical element of that, but what the hell’s the alternative? Our society is based on consensus, and the consensus is based on a certain sacrifice of individuality, even though individuality is absolutely necessary as a revitalizing force for the society. It’s a very tough thing to manage properly.

Anyways, you have your physiological structure as your first line of ordering in relationship to chaos. Your body presents you with the world in a certain way. And then the second line of defense is something like the sociological structures that you inhabit. We could call those the competency hierarchy. Something like that—and thank God for them. Maybe you’re going to be able to specialize in one or two things in your life, but there’s 300 things you need to know. If it’s just you, you’ll be doing your genius level mathematics while your bathtub is leaking all over your bathroom floor. That’s not so good, so you can call a plumber. Hooray for that. We tend to cooperate to keep chaos under control. We tend to cooperate to keep order under control. That’s the political dialog, right? We maintain the culture to keep chaos under control, and we balance the culture properly to keep the culture under control. That way we get to live reasonably peacefully, reasonably productively, for a reasonable amount of time, and that’s the best that we can do. We should have gratitude when that’s working. The default condition of things is that not only do they not work very well, they work worse and worse over time, all by themselves. Any time anything is working you should just be amazed by it.
So what does the frame look like? Well, I think it looks something like this. As far as I can tell, this is the barebones of a variety of things. It’s a barebone story; it’s a barebone conceptual framework; it’s a barebone dasein, to speak in Heideggerian terms. It’s the barebones world that you live in. You’re always in one of these worlds. There’s no getting out of them. You can move from one to another, but you’re always in a world like this. This is the world that you’re in. You’re somewhere, because you have to be somewhere. Now you might not know where that is, which means that the somewhere that you are is chaotic, in which case you need to go over your past in great detail and figure out where you are. You’re lost, and the problem with being lost is that you don’t know where to go. The problem with not knowing where to go is there’s a million places you could go, and a million places is too many places for you to go without dying. So being lost is not good. You need to know where you are.

One of the things that my partners and I built online is this program called Past Authoring that helps people lay out the narrative of their past, break their life down into six stages—we call them epochs—and then to identify the emotionally significant moments in each epoch and write out what happened negatively, what happened positively, what the consequences were, what you derive from it, perhaps what you could have done differently, and perhaps what you learned from it—all of that so that you can zero in on determining precisely where it is that you are right now. People are often loathe to do that, because they actually don’t want to know. They’d rather be spread out in a sort of half blind manner, in a fog, hoping that the place they’re at is better than it really is and deluding themselves by remaining vague. They’d rather do that than figure out that they are right here, right now with these specific problems. But it’s actually better to do that, because if you have a set of specific problems, and you’ve really narrowed them down and specified them, then you can probably start fixing them.

You can start fixing them in micro ways, bit by bit, but there’s no way you can do that without knowing where you are. It’s impossible. You can kind of tell if you don’t know where you are. It’s quite straightforward. If you are haunted by reveries of the past, for events that are older than approximately 18 months, if they continue to come up in your mind, over and over—in your dreams, over and over—you haven’t extracted the world out from your past experiences. The potential is still trapped in the past. To confront the potential means to confront the dragon of the past. Of course, that’s terrifying. It can seriously be terrifying. For example, maybe you’re vague, ill-formed, and ill-defined because you were abused very badly when you were a child. Maybe you were abused by a family member when you were four years old. Something like that. That’s generally who does the abusing. That just makes it worse. And then what that means is that you’ve had a direct encounter with malevolent evil, but you have an implicit hypothesis of malevolent evil that’s plaguing you. It’s still there, trapped in representational structure. As an adult, you’re now faced with the necessity of articulating that fully before you have any chance whatsoever of freeing yourself from it.

So that’s no joke. Lots of times people have to go into the past—that’s what the psychoanalysts do—and say, look, here’s something that came along and just bloody well knocked me over. It isn’t even that I repressed it…We won’t talk about Freud’s errors. Freud was a genius, so we’ll just leave him alone. But sometimes it’s not repression. It’s just that terrible things happen to people at such a young age that there isn’t a bloody chance in hell that they can figure out why they happened, or what to do with them, or what they mean. And then you can carry that with you.

It’s like your body encounters the world in stages. It happens very rapidly. It can extend over years, but the initial stages happen very rapidly. For example, if you’re walking down a road and you hear a loud noise behind you, you go like this. That’s a predator defense response, by the way. You crouch down. That’s to stop something from jumping on your back and getting at your neck easily. That’s like a few hundred milliseconds. It’s really fast, or even faster than that—and it better be, because something like a snake, we’ll say, can nail you just right now, so you better be fast. But it’s low resolution. It’s like, danger-snake, or danger-predatory-cat. It’s that fast. And then you can unravel that and categorize it, but that takes time.

You do that with emotion, and then you do it with cognition. You can do that with longterm thinking. Maybe you’ve encounter someone specifically malevolent and predatory at work—that happens to people a lot—operating as a destructive bully who seems to have no positive function whatsoever, and who is only living that out. And then you don’t know what to do about it. You’re in prey mode…I don’t mean this kind of mode, although that would help, too. I mean that you’re acting like a prey animal, and then you have this terribly complex thing to decompose, which is, what the hell’s up with this person? Why are they making my life miserable? What is it about me that allows them to make my life miserable? That’s a nasty little road to walk down. You’re stuck with having to decompose it. Maybe you can’t—maybe formulating an explicit philosophy of good and evil to deal with something malevolent in your environment actually just happens to be beyond you. That could easily be it. It’s certainly the case for people who are young, and it’s the case for plenty of adults, as well. It’s no simple thing to manage. Soldiers who have post-traumatic stress disorder often have to do it. They’ve encountered terrible things. Maybe they’ve done them, or ran into them. They need to update their moral model of the world, or they end up in something closely approximating hell.

So you need to know where you are. That’s what this is: where are you. So you’re navigating. You’re a sailor on the ocean. That’s what you are: you’re a mobile creature. You’re going from point A to point B all the time. You’re not sitting there glued to a rock like some brainless sea creature. There’s a funny little creature called a hydra—a very simple little creature. It has a brain and swims around in its juvenile stage. But then, when it turns into an adult, it latches itself to a rock and promptly digests its brain. If you’re just siting on a rock, and you’re not moving, you don’t need a brain. But that’s not our issue.

We’re zipping around in the world. We’re navigating agents. To navigate, there are two things you need to know. The first is where the hell are you—exactly, precisely, razor-sharp. What’s good about you and what’s bad about you, by your own reckoning. You can ask other people, but this is a game you play yourself. I’m taking stock. What is it that’s ok about me? And what needs some work? You gotta watch to not be too self-critical when you’re doing that, because that can just be another kind of flaw. Next is, ok, where are you going? What’s your destination? That’s what the frame is. You can do that in a very sophisticated way. You do that by thinking consciously about who it is that you are in an articulated manner, where you want to go, why, and how you’re going to get there. People hardly ever do that. That’s come as such an absolute shock to me, as an educator.

One of the other programs in this suite of programs is the Future Authoring program. I started developing it in my Maps of Meaning class, which is where some of this material is from. I got students to write about their past. It’s like, ok, we’re talking about stories, so let’s tell your story. Who are you? How did you get here? And what are you now? That usually helps people put things to rest, although it’s quite stressful while you’re doing it. Stress goes up when you’re doing it, and maybe you feel miserable for a couple of weeks, and then stress goes down, and it stays down. That’s also why people don’t do it, because who the hell wants to have their stress go up. But if it’s temporary, it’s a sacrifice.

So then the next issue is, well, where are you going? Students that have been in the education system for 14 years—high-end students, most of them—not once in their whole bloody life did anyone ever get them to sit down for like a day and say, all right, justify your existence. Well, seriously. It’s like, here you are in university; you’re taking a bunch of courses; you’ve got some sort of vague career plan. Defend the damn thing, since you’re going to go live it, and everything. You’re staking everything on it. What’s your damn plan? Why are you so convinced that it’s not the plan of a babbling fool? Because if you haven’t thought about it, then it is. And if you really want to go out there and live that out…

One of the things that Carl Jung said was that you’re in a story whether you know it or not. And then he made two nice comments about that: If it’s someone else’s story, you’re probably going to get a bit part, and it might not be the one you want. And if it’s a story that you don’t know, it might be one with a really bad ending—or maybe it’s just bad, period, with a worse ending. If you don’t know what the story you’re living out is, maybe that’s the one. Maybe you got that from your mother; you got it from your grandmother; you got it from your aunt, or God only knows where you picked it up, because you pick up things like mad. That’s what human beings are like. Maybe you’re living a malevolent tragedy unconsciously. And then one thing you might ask yourself is, well, how wretched, miserable, and futile is your life? And you might say, yea, 70 percent on each count. Well, then you’re probably unconsciously living out a malevolent tragedy—it’s either that or 70 percent of the whole universe hates you.

Anyways, we got students to start writing in detail about—not what they wanted. It’s not a career thing, because that’s the closest people usually get. They have a career plan. It’s like, no, no; it’s not a career plan. That’s peripheral—important but peripheral. It’s like, all right, you got three years, man. You’re going to live them, anyways. Devote those three years to setting the world up around you so that it’s the best it could possibly be for you—as if you cared for yourself. Well, what would that look like? Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, if you figured out where you were, that you could have what would be best for you. Well, what is that? I bet you never asked. People don’t ask, so life comes at them like random snakes, and they sort of fend them off. And life goes by, and things don’t work out the way people expected them to.

A huge part of that is that you didn’t know where they were, because they wouldn’t look, or didn’t know that they should look. Ignorance and willful blindness, right? Two great catastrophes. And they never figured out where they wanted to go, or why. Now there’s a problem with figuring out where you want to go. The problem is that you make your conditions for failure clear to yourself. People don’t like that. If you keep yourself in the fog, then you can’t tell when you screwed up. That isn’t so good because you’re still screwing up; you’re just too self-blind to notice. Although, in the short term that’s less painful. If you make your criteria for success razor-sharp, then you know every time you screw up. But that’s great, because then you could fix it. You could repair either the behavioural inadequacy or the conceptual inadequacy that you’re using as a tool in that situation. Or maybe you could adjust your damn plan. Either way, you can fix it.

Ok, so you’re living in one of these bloody things. It seems to me that you might as well make it the best one you could live in, because you don’t have anything better to do. If you don’t do that, if you don’t do it consciously—and this is what the psychoanalysts pointed out—you’ll just act out the stories that the innumerable, quasi-autonomous subsystems that make you up generate impulsively. You know that because you watch yourself over two weeks and you think, Jesus—I did a lot of stupid things over the last two weeks. And you think, why? And it’s because you’re a collection of somewhat random, quasi-autonomous personality units. Lacking a leader, they’re just going to fire off whenever they want. First you’re hungry, then you’re thirsty, then you want to go to bed with your wife, then you want to sleep in, then you want to tell your boss off, then you want to curse at the guy that cuts you off in traffic. You’re kinda like a two year old. It’s one emotional frame after another, vying for dominance. There’s no overarching hierarchy, and there’s no king at the top.

We already talked about pyramids of competence. What’s supposed to be at the top is something to bring all those things together. We understand this neurologically. I’ll show you some of that in a little bit. We understand this neurologically—how this maps, in some sense, right onto the neural structure of your being. You want to put something in control. The thing that you should put in control is the bloody thing that pays attention and learns. Everything else in the hierarchy should be subordinate to the thing that pays attention and learns. You could think, well, that’s the message of the idea of logos. That’s for sure, because logos is partly attention and partly communication. You learn a lot by communicating with others.
Ok, so you need to know where you are—just like your GPS, which is about the closest thing we have to an intelligent cybernetic system. Those bloody things are pretty smart. They know where you are; they know where you’re going, and if you go off course, they recalculate your route. Those things are damn near alive. That’s so close to intelligence. You can tell that because they act intelligently. They solve problems, continually. This is a cybernetic model, by the way. Cybernetic models were the models on which the GPS systems were based. It’s not accidental. You need to know where you are, and you need to know where you’re going. And then the next thing you need to know is how it is that you’re going to act, move your body, propel yourself through time and space to transform this into that. And then we can make that a little bit more complex, because it’s a bit too simple. So it isn’t exactly that you live in one of these: it’s that you live in a nested hierarchy of these. You can think of this as your own internal patriarchy. That’s a good way of thinking about it. Maybe it could be a tyrant, or maybe it could be something that gives you security and functional autonomy, and hopefully that’s the one you go for, but it’s a battle. A little bit of tyranny exists in everyone.
So at the very highest level of analysis—that would be the overarching story—maybe you think, I’d like to be a good person, or a successful person, or a famous person. I think good’s probably better, because you can come up with the definition of good as long as it doesn’t annoy other people too badly. Otherwise they would just get in your way, and that won’t be helpful. So you have to negotiate it. But let’s say you’re a good person. That’s sort of the story at the top of hierarchy. And then you could decompose that into your primary roles. Maybe you’re a good parent; maybe you’re a good employer; maybe you’re a good employee; maybe you’re a good sibling; maybe you’re a good child. Those are major roles that you have in your life. And so you’d say that a good person is what’s good about you across all of those roles. It’s a higher-order abstraction from something more concrete.

You can take the good parent role and say, well, what is it that constitutes a good parent? And you might say, well, a good parent—this isn’t exhaustive, obviously—has a good job and takes care of his or her family. And then you might say, well, what does it mean to take care of your family? And then you might say that means that you can cook the odd meal—not too odd, hopefully—and you can play with a baby. Well, how do you play with a baby? Well, you play peekaboo with a baby, or you tickle a baby. There’s a cool shift, there, because this is all articulated and conceptual, right? Right down to this level. Then, all of a sudden, it’s your body. Because how do you play peekaboo with your baby? You don’t have like a chat about how you play peekaboo with a baby, right? You go like this. It’s quite fun.

You could even do it with older people. They even smile about it, right? Dad’s gone, and the baby’s all shocked to death about that. Where’d he go? Oh, look—he’s back. The baby is playing with the reliability of the world, so it’s a real intense game for a baby. It’s like, oh no, Dad’s gone. Oh, look, he showed up again! Oh no, he’s gone. And then dad’s smiling to indicate that those brief flashes into nonexistence aren’t existentially terrifying beyond capacity. The point is, if you’re playing peekaboo with a baby, you