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Opinion psychology

Lesson 1: Deadwood – Let it burn

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To be proud of your insufficiencies is arrogant and foolish. Peterson recalls a conversation he had with a student who was a bad writer, in which the student asserts that she is not actually a bad writer, but that she has a unique style that is difficult to understand. Instead of graciously taking advice to improve her writing, she insisted that it was her teachers that were the problem, not her.

Many people find it difficult to accept their insufficiencies, because of defensiveness or insecurity, and this stunts their potential. A better way of living would be to pick an ideal for yourself, that is determined by your own values, and not the values of others. Once you have your ideal, you have chosen your master. And by doing this, you have created a judge. If manage to overcome your anxiety and insecurity of having a judge, then you can become more competent.

The alternative is to do what Cain did, and that was to kill Abel, to destroy the ideal. That is what many people choose to do. But if the ideal is too high, you should simply lower the ideal. Aim at something that is manageable, and then you can gradually higher your aim as you become more competent across time. As you continue to do this, you will have built in yourself the ability to withstand the tragedy of the world, and even, to become a beacon of light to others.

Insufficiencies come in many forms. They can be your addictions, undeveloped abilities, dreams, or relationships. Another problem is that getting rid of deadwood is getting rid of your emotional connections to the past. This includes your identity, how you justify your existence to yourself and to others.

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson has a chapter on making friends with people who want what’s best for you, he is following this heuristic. The idea of deadwood is not limited to your personal habits, addictions, compulsions, and follies – it includes your relationships with other people, physical objects, and even your past iterations of yourself.

There is no limit to the number of things that can be holding you down. An idea or dream about the future may give you the impression as something that is fresh, but in fact, like anything else in your psyche, it has a production date, and has aged. It has either contributed to your well-being, or it has made your life worse.

Your addictions and compulsions are part of your identity. They not only imbue your life with pleasure, but also give it meaning, because often, these addictions are intimately connected to your relationships with friends or partners. If you are addicted to drinking, it is not simply the drink itself, but to the experience of joy you have experienced through this drink in the past, with people that you have cared about, or still do care about.

These addictions also define your self-identity. It is not only that the alcoholic enjoys the habit or associates it with beautiful memories in the past, but it is also how he defines his own values. Perhaps, gambling or smoking or drinking is a sign of one’s own personal rebellion, one’s own defiance, and triumph against the forces that have tried to subjugate him.

And relationships too, can be classified as deadwood. The friends you have had in the past may not be the people you need to spend your time with today, if you are interested in improving your life. Or perhaps, it is not the people themselves that should be cut off, but the types of relationships you have with them. Going back to the example of the alcoholic, it may not be the best idea for him to cut off ties with his friends since they can’t easily be replaced. But perhaps he can choose to see them less or to find different activities to do with them.

If you don’t let forest fires burn, they collect a lot of dry branches. The amount of flammable material keeps increasing. But if it burns, then the forest can be wiped off into a desert. A little bit of fire at the right time can stop everything from burning to the ground.

Burning deadwood is about sacrifice. A weak part of you needs to disappear. It is easy to get rid of it willingly than have it taken away from you. What people are proud of, in terms of their own personalities, are useless idiosyncrasies that distinguish them from others. Always be willing to discard the past for something better.

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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