YouTube Video
Podcast Episode

Sections: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Keywords: Prison, Cosmos, Nazi, Structure, Dostoevsky, Shadow, Rogers, Flood, Malevolent, Pinocchio, Covenant

Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on the Jordan Peterson subreddit.

Biblical Series VII: Walking with God: Noah and the Flood

by Dr. Jordan Peterson

Thank you. I looked today, and these lectures have now been viewed a million times. That’s pretty amazing—or they’ve been glanced at a million times. That’s also possible. All right. Let’s get right into it. Last week, I think, was mostly remarkable for the absolute dearth of content that was actually Biblically related. I’ll just recap what I laid out so that it sets the frame properly for what we’re going to discuss tonight.
I presented you with an elaborated description of this diagram, essentially, which I spent quite a bit of time formulating—probably about 25 years ago, I guess, which kind of accounts for its graphic primitiveness. I was really pushing the limits of my 486 computer to produce that, I can tell you. It’s a representation of the archetypal circumstances of life. The archetypal circumstances are the circumstances that are true under all conditions for all time. So you can think about them as descriptively characteristic of the nature of human experience. That’s not exactly the same as the nature of reality, because you can divide reality into its subjective and objective elements. There’s utility in doing that. But these sorts of representations don’t play that game. They consider human experience as constitutive of reality. That’s how we experience it, and so we’ll just go with that.

The idea, basically, is that we always exist inside a damaged structure. That structure is partly biological and partly sociocultural. It’s partly what’s been handed to us by our ancestors, both practically, in terms of infrastructure, and psychologically, in terms of the active, learned content of our psyches. That would include, for example, our ability to utilize language, the words that we use, the phrases that we use, and the mutual understanding that we developed as a consequence of interacting with each other. Archetypally speaking, that structure’s always dead and corrupt. The reason it’s dead is because it was made by people who are dead. The reason it’s corrupt is because things fall apart of their own accord. The fact that people don’t aim properly, let’s say, speeds along that process of degeneration. What that means is that young people always have a reason to be upset and cynical about the current state of affairs. It’s forever that way.

It’s useful, I think, to consider such conceptualizations as the patriarchy in that light. It’s an archetypal truth that the social structure is corrupt and incomplete. What that means is that it’s something that you have to contend with in every moment of your life. It’s a permanent fact of existence, and to be upset that the social structures—or even the biological structures—within which we live are incomplete and imperfect, and to take that personally…That’s the worst part of it. To take that personally is to misread the existential condition of humankind.

It’s always the case that what you have been given, and what you live in, is degenerate, corrupt, and in need of repair. It’s easier to just accept that, because there’s also a positive element. The positive element is, well, you’ve been granted something, rather than nothing, and maybe you haven’t been granted pure hell. There’s room for gratitude, especially in a country like ours, where many things actually function quite well. Even if it’s a broken machine, it’s not one that’s completely devastated, and it’s not absolutely hellbent, at every second, on your misery and destruction. It easily could be. Many societies are like that. The fact that we happen to live in one that isn’t corrupt beyond imagining is something to be eternally grateful for.
So we live inside a damaged structure. We also bear responsibility for that damage, because we don’t do everything we can to constantly repair it. People say, what’s the meaning of life? What they really mean is, what’s the positive meaning of life? Because—as we’ve already discussed—the negative meanings of life are more or less self-evident. Well, the positive meaning of life is to be found in noting the state of lack of repair of the walled city that you inhabit, and then sallying forth to do something about that—to repair the breaches, fix up the walls, and to make the structure that you inhabit as secure and as productive as it possibly can be.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to do that. You can do that in your own mind; you can do that in your own room; you can do that in your own household; you can do that in your own local community. Maybe, if you get good at doing that at all those levels, you can start to look beyond that. There’s challenges. That’s the thing that’s kind of interesting about this insufficient structure: it has a set of challenges built into it, because of its insufficiency, and, perhaps, even because of its corrupt nature. It calls forth the potential response from you of heroic adventure. Heroic adventure is to man the barricades and repair the city. You can always do that. It doesn’t matter what your personal circumstances are. There’s always something that isn’t right near you—that isn’t correct or laid out properly—that you could just fix, if you wanted to.

One of the things that we’re going to talk about tonight is the idea that, if you adopt an attitude that’s like that, the rule that you should play is to make things better, wherever you are, however you can. What would actually happen would be that things would get better, wherever you are, in all sorts of ways. We’ve really, as a species, you might say—or even as singular individuals—explored that rarely. It isn’t something that’s put forth as a proposition that often. It’s quite surprising to me.

I had an interesting experience the other day. I went to The Keg. I go there because I have food allergies, and they’re very careful with people who have food allergies. The waiter took me to the table. He said that he’d been watching my lectures. That’s a very common experience. He said that he’d had two promotions at The Keg in the past four months because he’d been watching my lectures. I really found that an affecting experience. You might say, well, he’s working as a waiter at The Keg, and there’s nothing particularly heroic about that. I disagree with that, actually, because I don’t care where you’re located.

You can do a hell of a job. I mean that literally. You can take whatever job you have and make it a real nice little piece of absolute misery. Or you can act like a civilized human being and notice that, no matter where you are, there’s a richness and a complexity that’s completely inexhaustible, right at hand. And then you can take that seriously. You can say, well, I happen to be a waiter at The Keg. Perhaps that’s not what I expected—and he’s a young guy—and perhaps that’s not where I want to end up, but it’s not nothing. It’s a rich environment, and I can make it a lot better, if I want to. I can get along properly with my coworkers, and not gossip behind their back. I can treat my customers properly. And if an opportunity comes my way, I can take it, and I can see what happens.

He said that’s what he started doing. Things were working out much better for him. He was in a much better job than he was three months ago. In three months; that’s nothing. That’s a nice trajectory. It’s an uphill trajectory. That’s what you want, really. An uphill trajectory’s actually better than being somewhere good, as far as I’m concerned. One of the things that really makes your life meaningful is the clear realization that you’re heading somewhere better than where you are now. And then it’s even better if you also understand that there’s a direct causal relationship between the things that you’re doing and the steepness of that incline.

I get a lot of letters from people like that. They are most frequently young men, although not always. They say, I’ve been listening to these lectures, and I’ve decided that I’m going to try to take responsibility for my life. I started to stop doing all the stupid things that I know are stupid and that I shouldn’t be doing. I’ve started doing some of the things that aren’t stupid that I know I should be doing. It seems pretty obvious, really, if you think about it. But, obvious though it may be, that isn’t necessarily what people do. And then they write and say, you can’t believe what difference that makes. They’re thrilled about it, and so I’m thrilled about it.

I really don’t experience anything that’s better than a letter like that or a message like that. It’s so good to see things that aren’t so good replaced by something better. I truly believe it’s an open question: to what degree could we make things better if that’s what we actually aimed at doing? In some of the stories that we’ve covered already—the story of Cain and Abel, in particular—there is really an analysis of that problem, which is so remarkable. It occurs so early in this document. It’s such a foundational story. It basically says that there’s two modes of being in the world: there’s one where you adopt the responsibility for being properly, and you make the sacrifices necessary for doing that. Then everything will flourish properly. The other one is a pathway of resentment, bitterness, rejection, murder, and genocide. And that just seems exactly right to me.

Carl Jung once said that modern people didn’t see God because they didn’t look low enough. That’s a phrase that I really, really like. People denigrate the opportunities that are right in front of them. There’s no reason to do that. What’s right in front of you is the majesty of being. That’s what’s right in front of you. It’s inexhaustibly complex and full of potential. There’s no reason to assume that wherever you happen to be isn’t as a good of a starting place as anywhere else. I know some people have terrible, terrible lives. They are in situations that are absolutely unbearable. But I also do know that even situations like that can be made a hell of a lot worse by the worst kind of attitude. That’s for sure.
That’s where you are. You’re in a damaged structure—you are a damaged structure. But at least it’s got some walls. You’re not being fed to the lions on a regular basis. That’s a good thing. You can emerge forward heroically, magically to confront the chaos that constantly threatens the structure within which you live. You can free something as a consequence of that. You can learn something; you can strengthen yourself. That’s the other thing: what informs you, and what you’re made of, is what you encounter when you voluntarily encounter the unknown. The more you voluntarily encounter the unknown, the more you get made of. The more you get made of, the more there is to you. And the more you’re good at encountering the unknown, restructuring order, and calling forth proper order out of the potential of being…God, you got to think, why wouldn’t you do that, since you can do that?

It’s an endless mystery. It’s also encapsulated, to some degree, in the story of Adam and Eve. What happens to Adam is that he becomes self-conscious and ashamed of himself. He regards himself as a lowly sort of creature. There’s endless reasons why people would do that. We’re rife with imperfection, and so Adam hides from God. I think that’s actually the answer to the conundrum: people don’t aspire to the highest good because they’re deeply ashamed of themselves, their weaknesses, and their insufficiencies. That’s not the only reason. There’s the desire to avoid responsibility, and there’s all the negative motivations, as well, like resentment, hatred, and the desire to make things worse. I don’t want to give us too much of a break. It’s something like that. But it’s ok to not be in a very good place if what you’re trying to do with that not very good place is to make it better.

One of the things that I really have learned as a clinical psychologist is that you just could not believe how powerful incremental progress is. You can do the calculations. It’s like compound interest. If you make your life a tenth of a percent better a week…Man, in two or three years, you’re in such a better place than where you were that it isn’t even like the same domain. If you keep that up for ten or twenty years—especially if you’re young, start to straighten yourself out early, and start to fix the things that you can fix—you can transform your lives in ways that are completely unimaginable. God only knows what the upper limit of that is in terms of human possibility. We are amazing creatures when we really get our act together and stop running at 10 percent of our capacity.

So that’s what you do. The fact that things aren’t exactly the way that they should be at least gives you something to do, and maybe something great to do, because there’s no shortage of suffering and trouble that besets the world that you could conceivably ameliorate. The utility and intrinsic meaning of that is self-evident. It also makes me curious about nihilism, for example, and despair. I understand those emotions. I understand them deeply, and the intellectual mindset that goes along with it. But they just seem beside the point, in some sense, because there are so many things that need doing that all you really have to do is open your eyes, look at them, and then decide that you’re actually going to do something about them. You might think, well, what’s within my scope of influence is so trivial that it’s not wroth doing. It’s like, it won’t stay trivial for long if you do it. Not at all, and I don’t think it’s trivial to begin with. I really don’t believe that anything done right is trivial.

My experience, in my life, has been that anything that I actually did paid off. It didn’t pay off necessarily in the way that I expected it to pay off. That’s a whole different story. But if it was genuine commitment to do something, even if it went sideways and the outcome was really something other than what I expected, the net consequence, over time, was nothing but good. Every new frontier that can be conquered is an advance forward, and there’s no shortage of frontier. We’re surrounded by the unknown. We’re surrounded by our own ignorance. We can continually move into the domain of chaos—or we can restructure pathological order. That’s the secret to proper being.

So then you encounter chaos, and then you can regard yourself as the sort of entity that, despite its insufficiency, has the capability to conquer chaos—despite the danger of that. That’s the other thing. The fact that you’re fragile is actually a precondition for your heroism. If you weren’t fragile, there wouldn’t be anything heroic about doing something difficult, right? If you couldn’t be hurt, damaged, defeated, or end up in failure, then where’s the moral courage in the endeavour? It has to be that the fragility is built into the courage. It’s not a reason not to engage in it, at all. In fact, quite the contrary.
So what do you do? Well, you put the city back together, and maybe the way you want it, so it’s functional, efficient, and beautiful, and so that people can flourish in a manner that makes them feel that the unbearable catastrophe of being is worth it for the experience. That’s what you’re aiming at. It’s not an impossibility. And then, not only do you repair the city when you do that, but you make yourself the sort of thing that continually repairs the city. That’s even better. That’s the end goal. It’s not the repair of the city that’s the goal: it’s the transformation of yourself into the thing that continually repairs the city. There’s just no reason for that not to happen. The more it can happen, the better.

There’s an undercurrent to the story of the flood, and that’s the fact that the city can become corrupt, and that’s because people don’t engage in heroic endeavour—or, perhaps, because they engage in precisely the opposite of that, which is outright destructive behaviour. This is also something that’s worth considering, too. If you consider your own manner of being, you can say things to people, such as, tell the truth and be good. Those are cliches, obviously, and so they lack power. But you can take them apart,and utilize them in a manner that stops being a cliche. You do that by being more humble about them, I would say.

Maybe you can’t tell the truth because you don’t know what the truth is. But one thing you can do is to stop saying things that you know to be untrue. You might say, well, how do I know that they’re untrue? Well, you need a whole elaboration of a philosophy of truth to answer that question. We’re not going to bother with that question, because, at the moment, it’s beside the point. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that there are times in your life where you know that the thing that you’re saying is not true. It’s a deception. It’s a lie of some sort, and you’re using it to manipulate yourself, another person, or the world. You’re also fully possessed by the idea that you can get away with it.

There’s a Satanic arrogance about that. In fact, that is the archetypal arrogance that’s portrayed in the mythological character of Satan. Satan is precisely the archetype of the element of the mind that believes it can twist and bend the structure of reality without paying the price. You can’t imagine anything that’s more arrogant than that. You really think that you can twist the structure of reality? And that that’s going to work out for you, without it snapping back? It’s so obvious that that can’t work that everyone knows it.

Anyways, back to the initial point. You know, by the rules of the game that you yourself are playing, that, some of the time, you’re violating the rules of the game that you’re playing. The first issue with regards to, say, stating the truth or behaving in a responsible manner would be merely to stop cheating at whatever game it is that you’ve chosen to play. That’s a good start. That’ll straighten out your life.

Well, how does the flood tie into this? We live in a corrupt structure, and we’re corrupt as individuals. Part of that corruption is just happenstance. It’s the way things fall apart. But the other part of it is that, not only are we not aiming up, but we’re actually aiming down. The flood story’s a warning, and it’s a very clear warning. The warning is that, if you aim down enough, and then if enough of you aim down at the same time, everything will degenerate into something that’s indistinguishable from the chaos from which things emerge at the beginning of time. It’s something like that.

The cosmos that’s presented in mythological representations is chaos versus order. The order is on top, you might say, and the chaos is always underneath. The chaos can break through, or the order can crumble, and you can fall into the chaos. That chaos is intermingled potential. The way that you destroy the order and let the chaos rise back up—which is exactly how it’s portrayed in the flood story—is by inhabiting the corpse of your father and feeding on the remains with no gratitude and no attempt to replenish what it is that you’re taking from it. That’s one mythological motif.

The warning in the flood story is, don’t do that for very long, because things will happen that are so awful that you cannot possibly imagine it. That’ll happen to you personally; it’ll happen to your family; it’ll happen to your community, and it’s happened to people over and over throughout history. It’s quite interesting. It’s very soon after the story of Cain and Abel when you see evil enter the world. In the story of Adam and Eve, along with self-consciousness, the evil, there, is the knowledge of good and evil; that’s the ability to self-consciously hurt other people. Of course, instantly, Cain takes that to the absolute extreme. He uses that capacity to destroy, really, what he loves best. He gets as close as a human being can to destroying the divine ideal. Of course, his brother is Abel, and Abel is favoured by God. Cain destroys him. Cain tells God at the end of that episode that his punishment is more than he can bear. I think the reason for that is, where are you when you destroy your own ideal? What’s left for you? There’s nowhere to go. There’s no up, and when there’s no up, there’s a lot of down.

There’s an idea that was put forth very nicely in Milton’s Paradise Lost when he was describing, from a psychological perspective, essentially what hell is: you’re in hell to the degree that you’re distant from the good. That might be a good way of thinking about it. If you destroy your own ideal—which you do with jealousy, resentment, and the desire to pull down people that you would like to be—then you end up in a situation that’s indistinguishable from hell. The way the Biblical story unfolds is, well, it’s Cain, and then it’s the flood. Cain adopts this mode of being that’s antithetical to being itself—at least to positive being itself. He does it knowing full well what he’s doing. The net consequence of that, as it ripples through the entire social structure, is that God stands back and says, this whole thing has got so bad that the only thing we can do is wipe it to the ground. That is no joke. That’s exactly how things work.

One of the things that’s extraordinarily terrifying about that sequence of stories—and I believe this to be true. I think I realized this independently of any of the analysis that I was doing of mythological stories. I looked at what happened in places like the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Nazi Germany. The most penetrating observers of those societies, the people who were most interested in how it was that those absolute catastrophes came about, all said the same thing: it was rooted in the degeneration of the individuals who made up the society. You hear that people were following orders. No; that explanation doesn’t hold water. You hear that you would be punished if you resisted. There was some truth in that, but nowhere near as much as people might think, especially at the beginnings of the process. It was more that people decided—each and every one of them—to turn a blind eye to the catastrophes and to participate in the lies. That warped entire societies, and they veered their way downward to something as closely approximating hell as you could manage, especially in places like Nazi Germany and, well, in all three of those places.

One of the things that’s so frightening about the stories in Genesis is that they say something very clear: your moral degeneration contributes in no small way to the degeneration of the entire cosmos. You say, well, I would like my life to be meaningful. People say that. Really? Would you really like your life to be meaningful? You’d think people would trade a little nihilism for not having to face that particular realization. I think people do that all the time. It’s a terrible weight to realize. But we are networked together. That’s the vulnerability that’s associated with our intense capacity to communicate. It’s certainly possible that the ripples of our individual actions have consequences that are far beyond the limits of our immediate consciousness. I also think that people know that, too. They know that in the way that people know things when they don’t want to know them, which means they know them embodied; they can feel them; they can sense them; they have an emotional response to them, but there’s no damn way they’re going to let them become articulated, because they don’t want to know. When you’re feeling guilty and ashamed about the things you’ve done or not done—I know that can get out of hand, as well—it’s often because there is a crooked little part of you that’s aiming at the worst possible outcome.

One of the things Jung said about the shadow—Jung’s famous idea that everyone has a dark side, and that that dark side needs to be incorporated and made conscious—was that the shadow of the human being reaches all the way to hell. That’s the thing that’s so interesting about reading Carl Jung: he actually means what he says. It’s not a metaphor. The part of you that’s twisted against being is aligned with the part of the conscious cosmos, let’s say, that’s aiming at making everything as terrible as it can possibly be.

It’s a terrible shock to realize that. That’s partly why people don’t realize it. It’s something that people keep at an arm’s length. It’s the same as recognizing yourself as a Nazi concentration camp guard, which is a very useful exercise. There’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t have been or still could be one. And if you think otherwise, all the more reason for assuming that you would be unable to resist the temptation if it was, in fact, offered to you. And if you don’t think it’s a temptation, then there’s so much that you don’t know about human beings that you’re not even in the game. If it wasn’t a temptation, then people bloody well wouldn’t have done it. Plenty of people did it, and it’s no wonder.

So things get serious in Genesis very, very rapidly. The depth of the seriousness is ultimate—archetypal. It gets as serious as it can get. The story of Noah and the flood opens in a fragmentary manner. I believe that these passages are a part of a longer story that we only have bits and pieces of, and also that it’s part of more than one story.
"And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose."

There’s two ways of looking at the past. You can kind of see that in the political landscape that we inhabit. On the more conservative end of the spectrum, people regard the past as the land of giants. There were heroes of the past, who established the current conditions that we exist in. The people on the left are more concerned, perhaps, with a lineage of corruption that’s come down through the centuries. Both of those perspectives are accurate. You can say, well, there were the great heroes of the past, who established our modes of being. You can think of them as composite beings, if you want. It’s a perfectly reasonable way of thinking about it. You can also think of the accumulation of corruption and evil that’s come along the centuries, as well. You see both of those reflected in these initial few lines: "that the sons of God"—so those are the heroes—"saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose".
And then this statement comes in as somewhat of a non sequitur: "And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years."

I looked at a variety of interpretations of that line, because it doesn’t seem to follow so clearly from the previous line. Exactly what it means isn’t obvious. The first line talks about the heroes of the past. The seconds lines says, wait a second; there’s something corrupt about the human mode of being. One of the consequences of that, as far as God is concerned, is that there are conditions under which the divine spirit will not strive with man. What that means is that the divine impulse towards good will abandon you because of things that you’ve done.
The secondary consideration, here, is that, perhaps, because of the degeneration of people, it’s not so obvious that our lifespans are limited—that the spirit that inhabits us will only do so for a limited amount of time. That’s tangled, in a strange way, in with the idea of human moral culpability. That’s posed against the notion of the giants of the past. And then the narrative returns to the giant idea, and reads: "There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown."

That’s the end of that sequence of fragments. It’s very broken. But you can see a dual narrative underneath it. One of the narratives is that there’s the kind of corruption, lurking—despite the nature of the giants of the past—that would cause God to withhold his grace and allow men to deteriorate. That sets the stage for Noah and the flood.
"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."

One of the things I really didn’t like about going to church when I was kid—I went to a pretty moderate church. It was the United Church, which is hardly even become a church now. It’s so moderate, so to speak. One of the things I didn’t like was the constant harping by the ministry on the sinful nature of human beings. It didn’t speak to me properly, partly because I really didn’t understand what it meant, and partly because it seemed sort of self-flagellating in an unattractive way. I don’t know if there is an attractive way to be self-flagellating. There was something about it that was also rote and fake that I didn’t like. But, you know, I thought about that more in later years. I started to understand that there was some real utility in asking people to keep the evil that they’re doing clear and conscious in the forefront of their imagination.

I think I mentioned to you guys last week this little episode from what we know of Mesopotamian culture, surrounding the emperor and the New Year’s festival. They would take the emperor outside of the walled city and strip him of his garb, so that he was reduced to just an ordinary man. And then they would humiliate him ritually and ask him how it was that, over the last year, he wasn’t a spectacular embodiment of Marduk. Marduk was the Mesopotamian deity who made order out of chaos, essentially. The emperor was supposed to sit and think, well, ok, I’m emperor. I should be doing a good job. Maybe I should even be doing a great job. But, probably, I’m coming up short in a bunch of ways, and that actually happens to be important, as I’m running the entire show. I should be very, very cognizant of how I’m failing to live up to the ideal.

That is the constant clarion call—that’s degenerate, I would say—in institutional Christianity. That was actually the idea: look, theres a bunch of ways that you’re not being everything you could be. It’s not supposed to be a whip, or to knock you down. Although, maybe it’s a whip to knock down your pride—pride that stops you from being aware of your insufficiencies. It’s more like a call to the opposite. It’s like, well, you should stop doing those things. You could be so much more than you are. That would be so much better for you and everyone else that it’s just not good that you continue breaking your own rules, let’s say.

As I said, we could start this game by assuming that you should at least play the game that you’re playing straight. And it is the case that, if you watch yourself…It’s a terrifying thing to do, but if you watch yourself, you’ll see that you lie a lot. When I learned this, to begin with, I was in my 20s. I’m a smart person, and I was very proud of that. I was also a small person, and I was moved ahead one year in school, so I was a very small person in my classes. I was also very mouthy—which might not come as much of a surprise—and somewhat provocative. I got pushed around a fair bit—because everyone gets pushed around—and my weapon was to be mouthy. It was a fairly effective weapon, although it tended to backfire. If you’re effectively mouthy with large, obnoxious people, then they tend to respond in a relatively negative, physical way. That sort of thing was happening to me a fair bit. But I was quite proud of the fact that I had some intellectual power.

It was then, in my 20s, when I learned about some of the danger of that. I started to read Milton’s Paradise Lost. I started to understand the danger of the intellect. The danger of the intellect, as far as I can tell, is that it tends towards pride and arrogance. It also tends to fall in love with its own productions. In Paradise Lost, that’s Lucifer. Lucifer is the intellect that falls in love with its own productions, and then presumes that there’s nothing outside of what it thinks. That’s the totalitarian mentality: We have a total system, and we know how everything works. We are going to implement it, and that will bring about heaven on earth. That’s associated with intellectual arrogance.

At the same time, another thing was happening to me. I was noticing my intellectual arrogance, and I started to understand what that meant. I also started to understand that there was more to life than the intellect—much more. I smoked too much, and I drank too much, and I weighed like 130 pounds. I wasn’t in good physical shape. I had a lot of things to do, when I went to graduate school, to put myself together. At the same time, I was trying to understand why things had gone so crazily wrong with the world—its encapsulation in the Cold War, and what role I might be playing in that—if any—and what role any of us were playing in that. At the same time, I was working at a prison, only a little bit. I worked with this crazy psychologist. He used to put jokes on his multiple choice tests. He was a really eccentric guy. I really liked his courses. He taught a course on creativity, and he was also a prison psychologist. He was an eccentric guy. For some reason, he liked me—maybe because I was eccentric, too. He invited me to go out to the Edmonton maximum security prison with him a couple of times, which I did. That was a very interesting experience. I was trying to figure out what role each individual’s behaviour bore to the pathology of the group. It was something like that.

I went out to the prison, and I met a little guy, smaller than me. I was a little bigger by then. He was a pretty innocuous guy. The prison looked like a high school—which is really quite telling, in my estimation—and I was out in the gymnasium. There were all these monsters in there, weightlifting. I remember one guy, who was tattooed everywhere. He had a huge scar running down the middle of his chest. It looked like somebody had hit him with an axe. I was in there, and I had this weird cape that I used to wear, that I’d bought in Portugal, and some boots to go along with it. Yeah…It was like a 1890s Sherlock Holmes cape. It was from the 1890s, because this little village was up on a hill. It was a walled city on a hill, and they sold these things. I don’t think they’d changed the style since 1890, so I though they were really cool. So I was wearing that, which wasn’t, perhaps, the most conservative garb to don if you’re going to go to a maximum security prison.

Anyways, I was in the gymnasium, and the psychologist left. God only knows…I mean, that’s what he was like. All these guys came around me, and they were offering to trade their prison clothes for my cape. I was being made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t really know what to do. And then this little guy said something like, the psychologist sent me to come and take you away, or something like that. And so I thought, well, better this little guy than all these monsters.

We went outside the gym, into the exercise yard. We were wandering around, and he was talking to me, and he seemed like a kind of innocuous guy. And then the psychologist showed up at the door and motioned us back, which was kind of a relief. I went into his office. He said, you know that guy that you walked out in the yard with? I said, yeah. He said, one night he took two cops and had them kneel down. While they were begging for their lives, he shot them both in the back of the head. I thought, hmph…

See, the thing that was so interesting was that he was so innocuous, right? What you’d hope is that someone like that would be very much unlike you, let’s say, and certainly wouldn’t be like someone innocuous that you’d met. What you’d want is that the guy would be like half werewolf and half vampire, so you could just tell right away that he was a coldblooded killer. But no. He was this sort of ineffectual, little guy, who was certainly not ineffectual if you gave him a revolver and the upper hand.

That made me think a lot about the relationship between being innocuous and being dangerous. Another thing happened—I met another guy out there. A week or two later, I heard that he and a friend of his had held another guy down and pulverized his left leg with a lead pipe. The reason for that was that they thought that he was a snitch, and maybe he was. That time, I did something different. Instead of being shocked and horrified by that—although I certainly was—I thought, how in the world could you do that? Because I didn’t think I could do that. I thought that there as a qualitative distinction between me and those people. I spent about two weeks trying to see if I could figure out under what conditions I could do that—what kind of psychological transformation I would have to undergo to be able to do that. That was a meditative exercise, let’s say. It only took about 10 days for me to realize that not only could I do that, but that it would be a hell of a lot easier than I had thought it would be. That’s sort of where that wall between me and what Jung described as the shadow started to fall apart. That, also, was very useful; I started to treat myself as a somewhat different entity.

I thought I was a good guy, and there’s no reason for me to think that. You’re not a good guy unless you really made a bloody effort to be a good guy. You’re just not. It’s not easy. And so you’re probably a moderately bad guy. That’s a long ways from being an absolutely horrible guy, but it’s also a long ways from being a good guy. But I had a little more respect for myself after that, because I also understood that there was a monstrous element to the human psyche that you needed to respect, and that was part of you. And I understood that you should regard yourself, in some sense, as a loaded weapon. It’s very useful to regard yourself as a loaded weapon around children, because, around children, you are a loaded weapon. The terrible experiences that many children have with their parents are testament to that.

Anyways, at about the same time—and I don’t exactly know how these things were causally related. I guess it was because I was trying to figure out who I was and how that could be fixed. Something like that. I started to pay very careful attention to what I was saying. I don’t know if that happened voluntarily or involuntarily, but I could feel a sort of split developing in my psyche. I’ve actually had students tell me that the same thing has happened to them after they’ve listened to some of the material that I’ve been describing to all of you. But I split into two, let’s say.

One part was the old me that was talking a lot, that liked to argue, and that liked ideas. There was another part that was watching that part, just with its eyes opened, and neutrally judging. The part that was neutrally judging was watching the part that was talking, and going, that wasn’t your idea; you don’t really believe that; you don’t really know what you’re talking about; that isn’t true. I thought, hm! That’s really interesting! That was happening to like 95 percent of what I was saying, and then I didn’t really know what to do. I thought, ok, this is strange. Maybe I fragmented, and that’s just not a good thing, at all. It’s not like I was hearing voices, or anything like that. It wasn’t like that. People have multiple parts.

So then I had this weird conundrum: which of these two things are me? Is it the part that’s listening and saying, no, that’s rubbish; that’s a lie; you’re doing that to impress people; you’re just trying to win the argument. Was that me? Or was I the part that was going about its normal, verbal business? I didn’t know, but I decided that I would go with the critic. And then what I tried to do—what I learned to do, I think—was to stop saying things that made me weak. I mean, I’m still trying to do that. I’m always feeling, when I talk, whether or not the words that I am saying are making me align or making me come apart. I really do think that the alignment is the right way to conceptualize it, because if you say things as true as you can say them, then they come out of the depths inside of you. We don’t know where thoughts come from. We don’t know how far down into your substructure the thoughts emerge. We don’t know what process of physiological alignment is necessary for you to speak from the core of your being. We don’t understand any of that—we don’t even conceptualize that. But I believe that you can feel that.

I learned some of that by reading Carl Rogers, who’s a great clinician. He talked about mental health, in part, as the coherence between the spiritual—or the abstract—and the physical—that the two things were aligned. There’s a lot of ideas of alignment in psychoanalytic and clinical thinking. But, anyways, I decided that I would start practicing not saying things that would make me weak. What happened was that I had to stop saying almost everything that I was saying—95 percent of it. That’s a hell of a shock—this was over a few months—to wake up and realize that you’re mostly deadwood. It’s a shock. You might think, well, do you really want all of that to burn off? Well, there’s nothing left but a little husk—5 percent of you. Well, if that 5 percent is solid, then maybe that’s exactly what you want to have happen.
I told you that story’s an elaboration of this line: "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." It’s a question worth asking: just exactly what are your motives? Well, maybe they’re purer than mine were, and it’s certainly possible. I don’t think that I’m naturally a particularly good person. I think I have to work at it very, very hard. I don’t necessarily think that everyone is like that. But some people are worse than that, and everyone’s like that, to some degree.

So it’s worth thinking about: just how much trouble are you trying to cause? The other thing you might think about is, if you’re not doing something important with your life, by your own definition—because that’s the game that we’re playing, and you get to define the terms, at least initially—maybe you’re prone to cause trouble, just because you don’t have anything better to do. Trouble is more interesting than boring. That’s something you learn if you read Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky knew that extraordinarily well. And so if you’re not pushing yourself to the limits of your capacity, then you have plenty of leftover willpower, energy, and resources to devote to causing interesting trouble. I would also say that this is an archetypal scenario: "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." That’s something to meditate on.

It’s not self-destructive, because it’s like the diagnosis of an illness. It’s like, if that does happen to be the case for you, to some degree—maybe it’s only 10 percent of you, or maybe it’s 90 percent—well, then coming to terms with that is excellent, because, maybe, you can stop doing it. What would be the downside to that? You’d have to give up your resentment, hatred, and all of that, obviously. That’s annoying, because those emotions are easy to engage in, and they’re engaging, and they have a feeling of self-righteousness with them. But you’re not doing this to put yourself down: you’re doing this to separate the wheat from the chaff and to leave everything that you don’t have to be, behind.