Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street

Wrapping up the 12th chapter of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link) feels a little surreal, because I’ve now been going through it for almost a month or so. It’s been quite a long journey, and I’ve been trying to apply some of the tips that Peterson gives to my life.

And, not too surprisingly given the feedback he’s gotten on the internet, many of them work. Some of them overlap with things I already did and knew about, but where I have made an intentional effort to pursue the objectives laid out in the 12 Rules I can see immediate improvement in my outlook and performance.

The 12th rule, however, is not one that involves some grand and lofty effort on the surface. It is a bit different in its approach, going for a bond with the readers and then telling us how; Peterson is more than happy to reveal his magician’s secrets.

One of the secrets he uses is group psychology: by linking the title of the chapter to cats, but opening by talking about his family’s dog, he avoids the pitfall of falling into either side of the notorious cats versus dogs divide. While this seems a little puerile to me (though, as a cat person, perhaps I’m simply offended anyone saw fit to justify themselves to dog people), it has a meaningful point for us: it is in our benefit to make sure that we activate peoples’ pro-social behavior and avoid their anti-social behavior by avoiding barriers.

There’s a dark side of this that could be raised, of course, when totalitarians use identity as a basis for controlling their populations, but I’m not going to dwell on that because this chapter is very positive and I don’t want to derail it by going down a pessimist rabbit hole.

One of the things that Peterson talks about is coming to grips with the limitation of Being. I remember there being a psychological behavior I read about when I was in high school called “seeking for magic”, where people sort of turn to fantasy worlds when they can’t figure out what to make of their own (as a nerd with significant social issues, I may have indulged in a little bit of this myself; not the least when I imagined myself as significantly tougher and good-looking than I was before snapping back to reality).

Suffering, of course, is one of those things that happens to everyone. Peterson is fond of the saying “Life is tragic” to describe the fact that everyone will lose something in their life (or, perhaps more accurately, lose everything and their life). I have had a hard time as a person coming to that conclusion. I don’t see a whole lot of shame as confessing myself as naturally very materialistic, and mentioning that when I was a child I had a hard time getting rid of anything (I’ve gotten somewhat better about this, though not entirely).

But it is understanding suffering that is important to who we are that creates our meaning. Peterson describes wanting to make his children invulnerable, but also his conclusion that the process of making something indestructible will inevitably unmake it in the image of something else.

Using an example from The Brothers Karamazov, he illustrates the notion that people often rebel against the suffering of the world by rejecting it; not the notion that being can exist and how it functions, but rather that it is inherently flawed and as a result is not acceptable: rather than believing that there is no God, they come to the conclusion that God is a farce, or God is malevolent, and that it would be better were there no God and no Being.

If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be… [everything] already is, and everything that could happen already has.

The notion is that for Being to exist, things that are going to change must exist.

Peterson uses the example of Superman to explain the concept: when  Superman kept gaining more powers and more immunity to harm, it made him into a sort of omnipotent figure. There was no point to Superman any longer, because there was no story, no Being within the pages of his stories. They all were the same event, dressed in different colors, and not a particularly interesting one either: there is no archetype for swift and easy success, because it is shallow and meaningless success.

Perhaps, as the Columbine boys suggested (see Rule 6), it would be better not to be at all. Perhaps it would be even better if there was no Being at all. But people who come to the former conclusion are flirting with suicide, and those who come to the latter are something worse, something truly monstrous.

The grand idea that Peterson is getting at when he says to pet cats as you pass them by is to find things that are good and wholesome, and that you enjoy. Not decadent and self-destructive things that are just dressed-up rage, but the little pleasures that cost nothing to you: the sunset, the world that surrounds you, the company of people.

When you appreciate these things, you inoculate yourself against the trials of your own life: when things go bad, as they are wont to do, you need to see something other than yourself, and while having a concrete purpose can be good, sometimes it will need to be re-examined (as all people are prone to operating on flawed premises) or appear lost.

At those times, the ability to see beyond the self and the path are important. Sometimes the point of the forest is the trees, to corrupt a metaphor, and when you stop and appreciate the goodness in a child’s laughter or the beauty of the sky, you realize how Being is worth having.

I think that’s a lesson that everyone can get behind. It’s a great antidote for chaos and destruction, and a fitting final rule.

4 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street”

  1. I just finished reading the book and this whole dog vs cat thing symbolizes what really annoys me about the book. Peterson goes off on way too many tangents, to the point where you forget what the current rule was all about. You don’t need a 1 ½ page lecture about group identity, when it would suffice to write “And that goes for dogs too.”.

    Maybe I don’t see the importance of dog vs cat tangent, because I don’t really understand rule 12. All I read is that one should enjoy the little things in live, that one should stop and smell the roses.I just don’t see why Petersen needs to go to superman and the need for limitations to explain that.

    1. I agree that Peterson does tend to go a little too heavily into the tangents, but I think some of that has value in and of itself. You learn something you didn’t originally set out to learn. That, of course, is more irritating when you’re in a hurry or if you already know the stuff that he’s talking about. However, it also helps generalize the content of the book, which is a powerful tool to help apply things in your life—by connecting familiar and unfamiliar, or emotionally dull moments with emotionally heightened ones, Peterson has a second layer of tools to help you remember his point.

  2. Petting cats, whichever I’ve done since childhood is being optimistic. Cats are almost always friendly. They’re very regular critters. They do the same things the same way every day.
    So petting is both taking advantage of opportunities and learning to behave with consistency.
    This is analog to continue to pray and meditate on daily basis for God’s will and pass it on, found in 12th step

    1. I think that this is a good point to add. A large part of taking advantage of meaningful opportunity is being willing to enter the unknown; this is something that Peterson explores in Maps of Meaning and you can also find in other works, particularly those of Jung.

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