Around Thanksgiving, many of us try to pause and reflect on the things we are grateful for in our lives.
Gratitude doesn’t come easy for humans, but on the fourth Thursday in November many of us do our best to try to be grateful, at least for this one day of the year.
There are many things for which I’m grateful. We live during a time noteworthy for its peace and plenty, both of which are remarkable compared to any other period in human history. I’m grateful for the good health I enjoy today and the relative lack of suffering I’ve had to endure in more than four decades on this earth. In my personal life, I’m thankful for the friends and family who have given me so much, and for a devoted wife who has given me three healthy children, and much more.
It’s good to be grateful for such things, I think, but last night it occurred to me I was also missing something. My daughter had just finally fallen asleep, and I was re-reading Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life on the floor. (We read books together at bedtime.)
Someone had remarked to me recently that Peterson talks about gratitude in the book’s second chapter, “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping.” Sure enough, near the end of the chapter Peterson mentions a miracle of life he feels a profound, “dumbfounded” gratitude for: the persistence of humans in severe pain to continue bearing life’s burdens.
It is they, Peterson argues, who hold society together through little more than grit and tenacious spirit.
“Most individuals are dealing with one or more serious health problems while going productively about their business,” Peterson writes.
“If anyone is fortunate enough to be in a rare period of grace and health, personally, then he or she typically has at least one close family member in crisis,” he continues. “Yet people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortless tasks to hold themselves and their families and society together.”
It’s easy to forget the number of people in pain in this world. By the nature of his profession, Peterson, a clinical psychologist, is more aware than most of the pain humans endure.
What shocks Peterson, and makes him profoundly grateful, is the masses of suffering people who do not give in to despair—but instead continue to bear responsibility despite the slings and arrows of life.
“People are so tortured by the limitations and constraints of Being that I am amazed they ever act properly or look beyond themselves at all,” Peterson writes. “But enough do so that we have central heat and running water and infinite computational power and electricity and enough for everyone to eat and even the capacity to contemplate the fate of broader society and nature, terrible nature, itself.”
"All that complex machinery that protects us from freezing and starving and dying from lack of water tends unceasingly towards malfunction through entropy, and it is only the constant attention of careful people that keeps it working so unbelievably well,” he continues. “Some people degenerate into the hell of resentment and the hatred of Being, but most refuse to do so, despite their suffering and disappointments and losses and inadequacies and ugliness, and again that is a miracle for those with the eyes to see it.”
In a sense, this is the flip side of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s popular 1957 magnum opus on individualism and capitalism. Rand saw the Atlases of the world as the productive entrepreneurs who worked tirelessly to create value despite looters seeking to steal the fruits of their labor.
The Atlases of the world, as Peterson sees it, are the millions and millions of faceless people who persevere in the face of adversity and suffering that would drive so many to despair.
This is why people must treat themselves like someone they are responsible for helping. We must care for ourselves so we can bear the burden and suffering that life will inevitably inflict upon us, Peterson argues.
“You need to consider the future and think, 'What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?'”
Heaven, Peterson explains, will not arrive on its own. And if we fail to strengthen ourselves, we may find its opposite here on earth.
So this Thanksgiving, I can only express my deepest thanks to all the people who continue to persevere despite the chaos and pain, who refuse to succumb to despair, resentment, envy, and cruelty.
You, too, are the Atlases of this world—particularly during this season of despair and suffering.