Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 41, Between You and the Dragon Stands the Lie

As we near the end of Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson returns to and recapitulates his great theme:

The great dragon of chaos limits the pursuit of individual interest. The struggle with the dragon--against the forces that devour will and hope--constitutes the heroic battle in the mythological world. Faithful adherence to the reality of personal experience ensures contact with the dragon, and it is during such contact that the great force of the individual spirit makes itself manifest, if it is allowed to. The hero voluntarily places himself in opposition to the dragon. The liar pretends that the great danger does not exist, to his peril and to that of others, or abdicates his relationship with his essential interest, and abandons all chance at further development.

Again, this theme of the hero facing the dragon has been a recurring one in this series. Slaying the dragon, rules of living that provide an "antidote to chaos," is Peterson's great theme. But what is of interest here in the final moments of Maps of Meaning is a shift of focus toward a different sort of foe. True, the Dragon awaits to be confronted. But between you and the Dragon stands the Lie. This focus on the Lie carries over from last Friday's post.

Before we face the challenge of the dragon we have to recognize that the dragon even exists. As Peterson says, "the liar pretends that the great danger does not exist." 

What, exactly, is the Lie hiding?

The Lie hides us from our "individual interest." And for Peterson, it's this "interest" that imbues life with meaning. He says it clearly in at the start of the very next paragraph: "Interest is meaning." So the Lie, by hiding our "interest" in existence, robs life of meaning. As Peterson goes on to say, withdrawing from our "interest" in existence "drains [our] life of meaning."

What, though, does Peterson mean by "interest"? In an earlier paragraph he says:

Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique--is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable--remarkable, miraculous.

I take Peterson to mean that our "interest" in life is participation in this "act of creation," our "ability to bring something new into being." It is this creative activity--the alchemical activity of turning the raw material of existence into gold--that makes life meaningful. As Peterson writes, "Meaning is the manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path." Successful adaptation to life is this creative construction of meaning, and it's this power that makes human life "divine," even "miraculous." 

Summarizing, meaning is constructed. Meaning-making is our creative labor, our duty. Meaning-making is adaptation itself. The Lie, if I'm tracking with Peterson, is the denial of this truth, or the refusal to engage in this process. The Lie is to on-load the raw experience of life, the dragon coming at you, and to do nothing. To deny, or avoid, the fact that life is making a demand of you. The Lie is refusing to face the truth that meaning-making is your sacred duty, a denial of your divinity. 

Looking this over, I think some of the appeal of Jordan Peterson is this message that adaptation, successful living, is simply the sacred duty of meaning-making. Many people feel stymied by life--stunned, perplexed, shocked, flattened, flummoxed, confused, and lost. Experience creates existential vertigo. Chaos is in our face. And rather than sensing this as the threshold of the heroic, the moment of truth if you will, the Lie says life just is chaos and randomness. We freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights. Looking into a nihilistic void we despair, grow passive, retreat. Adaptation, for Peterson, is facing the Chaos--the dragon--as opportunity, as the call to the sacred, heroic and creative act of meaning-making. 

Last week, I drew a sharp line ontological line between myself and Peterson. Today I want to blur that line a bit. Specifically, I've repeatedly stated that I have concerns about Peterson's view that "meaning" is something we create, wholesale, rather than a reality we discover that exists independently of our own subjectivity. The never-ending project of creating meaning each day, I think, is an exhausting prospect. I think mental health is better grounded when we come to rest in a meaning that exists independently of our own minds. A meaning that I don't have to continually prop up and inflate each day, like a ballon always running low on helium. But I do agree with Peterson that this encounter with meaning is an active process. When we get flattened by life the Lie lures us into passivity and despair. To borrow from the gospels, we never ask, we never seek, and we never knock. Meaning-making, in the Christian ontology, isn't manufactured, but it does demand our investment and participation. For example, I've talked to quite a few Christians who are struggling with their faith, and generally they lay a lot of blame on God. But when I've investigated further, the overwhelming impression I often get is that they aren't even trying. Passivity, according to Peterson, a refusal to participate in the drama of your life, is the great danger facing us. The Lie has inserted itself between us and the Dragon.

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