This is my interpretation on the chapter “Be precise in your speech” in 12 rules for life by Jordan Peterson.
Your laptop and the world
The relationship between your laptop and the world is the relationship between a simplified perception and the actual complexity comprised of a wide array of technological, interpersonal, biological, social accomplishments, coordinating together harmoniously to enable the environment within which you can safely use the laptop.
What you perceive as your laptop is like a single leaf on a tree, in a forest. More accurately, like your fingers rubbing briefly across that leaf. A single leaf can be plucked from a branch. It can be perceived as a single entity, but that perception misleads more than clarifies. In a few weeks, the leaf will crumble and dissove. It would not have been there at all without the tree. It cannot continue to exist in the absence of the tree. This is the position of your laptop in relation to the world.
We simplify the world according to its functional utility
Simplification is what makes us functional, because no one can take reality as it is. We look at the world as a collection useful things, not as objects. We perceive meanings directly, we see floors to walk on, doors to go through, and chairs to sit on. The world reveals itself to us as something to utilize and something to navigate through – not something that merely is.
When we look at the world, we only perceive enough for our plans and actions to work and get by. When we inhabit, then, is this “enough”. The radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world is necessary for us to avoid being overwhelmed by the actual complexity of the world. We perceive not them, but their functional utility, and in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple to comprehend. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim.
When sports fan watch their favorite sport teams perform, they identify with it on both biochemical and neurological level. Vicarious experiences of winning and losing raise and lower testosterone levels among fans “participating” in the context. Our capacity for identification is something that manifests itself at every level of our being.
Because we perceive the world as tools to achieve purposes, the purposes that we choose re-organize our perceptions. An implicit purpose that is wrong, at least to the degree that we can judge that it’s wrong when we make it explicit, subordinates our entire being to its pursuit. The result is that we lose at a war that we never wanted to fight.
The world is simple only when it behaves
It is difficult to make sense of the bare chaos of reality. The conscious illusion of complete and sufficient perception only sustains itself if everything goes according to plan. When our cars break down, the complexity of the machinery intrudes upon our consciousness, and it is experienced as anxiety-provoking.
A car is not an object, but something that takes us somewhere we want to go. It is only when it stops taking us where we want to go that we are forced to apprehend the machinery the car depends upon. Practically, this means we don’t get to go to where we want to go. Psychologically, our peace of mind disappears, and it often can only be regained by turning to experts that can repair the car, and more importantly, restore the simplicity of our perception.
When complexity intrudes upon our consciousness, it can intrude on multiple levels. A broken car forces us to deal with certain aspects of reality that may exceed our competence: is it time for a new vehicle? Did I err in my original purchase? Is the mechanic honest, reliable? Is the warehouse he works for trustworthy? The limitation of all our perceptions of things manifest themselves when something we can usually depend on in our simplified world breaks down. It is then that the walled garden we archetypically inhabit reveals its hidden but ever-present serpent.
We are simple only when the world behaves
When things break down, what we have been careless with gathers itself up in a serpentine form and strikes, often at the worst possible moment.
When a loyal and honest wife suddenly finds out about his husband’s promiscuous behaviors, it’s not one but two stranger that constitutes the problem. It’s not just that her husband is not who she thought he was, but she herself is not who she thought she was. Who is her husband? A victim of seduction? A psychopathic liar? An unsatisfied lover? Who is her? A victim? A gullible fool? A co-conspirator in a shared delusion? Everything is up for grabs, when the deeper realities of the world unexpectedly manifest themselves.
There’s no such thing as a dragon
There’s a story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. It’s about a small boy, Billy, who spies a dragon sitting on his bed one morning. It’s about the size of a house cat, and is friendly. He tells his mother about it, but she tells him that there’s no such thing as a dragon. So, it starts to grow. It eats all of Billy’s pancakes. Soon it fills the whole house. Mom tries to vacuum, but she has to go in and out of the house through the window because the dragon is taking up all the space.
Then, the dragon runs off with the house. Billy’s dad comes back from work to an empty space occupied previously by his house. The mailman tells the father where the dragon went, so chases after it, climbs to the dragon’s head and neck and rejoins his wife and son. Mom still insists the the dragon doesn’t exist, but Billy’s had enough of it, insists: “There is a dragon, mom”. Instantly, the dragon sinks into the size of a house cat again. Everyone agrees that dragons of that cat-size exist, and are much preferable to their gigantic counterparts Mom, after reluctantly opened her eyes to the dragon, asks why it had got so big. Billy quietly suggests: “maybe it wanted to be noticed”.
Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Resentment and unhappiness builds up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealousy, frustration, hatred, boredom. One day, the dragon grows so big, that no one can ignore it anymore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission
Living things die without attention
Maybe the demolished couple could have more precisely specified their desired manner of Being in a way that prevents the chaos from springing uncontrollably forth. Maybe it wasn’t sex, maybe every conversation had deteriorated into boring routine because no shared adventure animated the couple.
Maybe deterioration was easier, moment by moment, than bearing the responsibility of keeping the relationship alive. Living things die, after all, without attention. Life is indistinguishable from effortful maintenance. No one finds a match so perfect that the need for continued attention and work vanishes. In truth, what you need – what you deserve – is someone exactly as imperfect as you.
To ensure a failure, we have to do nothing: don’t react, don’t notice, don’t attend, don’t discuss, don’t consider, don’t take responsibility. Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order – just wait for the chaos to engulf you instead.
Why do we avoid, remain vague and refuse to specify?
Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily leads to a poisoned future? Because under all disagreements and errors lie a possibility of a monster. Maybe the fight you’re having signifies the end of your relationship. Maybe it ends because you are a bad person. It’s likely, at least in part. Having the argument necessary to solve a real problem therefore necessitates confrontation with two forms of miserable potential: chaos (the potential fragility of your relationship), and hell (the fact that the malevolence of you or your partner damned the relationship). There’s every motivation to avoid. But it doesn’t help.
Why remain vague, when it renders life murky and stagnate? Because if you don’t know who you are, then you might not be a bad person. Who knows? Not you. Not thinking about something does not make it go away though. You are merely trading specific, particular, pointed knowledge of your real faults and flaws for a much longer list of undefined potential inadequacies and insufficiencies.
Why refuse to specify? Because if you don’t define criteria for success, then you don’t also define criteria for failure. So when you fail, and it won’t hurt as much, cause you’re not sure. But that won’t work. You will carry with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and hatred for the world. To specify a problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, from a friend or a lover – and then you will know, precisely and clearly, when you don’t get it, and it will hurt, specifically and sharply. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future, instead of feeling the dull ache of continued hopelessness, a vague sense of failure, and the sense that precious time is slipping by.
Extract yourself from the general condition of being
So what if she who has been betrayed, is now determined to face all the incoherence of past, present and future? What if she decided to sort through the mess she had neglected, even if it will nearly kill her. To re-emerge, to escape, she must thoughtfully articulate the reality that was left hidden behind a veil of ignorance. She must separate the particular details of her specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of Being, in a world where everything seems to have fallen apart. It’s not everything that fell apart, but specific things that did. It isn’t every action I committed were wrong, but specific actions I committed were. It isn’t that everything I knew were false, but specific beliefs I held were. What are they, precisely? How can they be fixed, now? She can put the world back together by some precision of thought, some precision of speech, some reliance on her word, some reliance on the Word.
When things fall apart, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, things remain vague. The destination remains un-proclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.