It was Friday. I was backing out of the driveway to take my daughter to school. As I did so, I happened to notice my neighbor setting his house on fire. Well, his shrubbery at any rate. In the car I watched as four foot flames leapt before his house while he stood there, smiling and waving at me with a can of lighter fluid in his hand.
We live in townhomes. All the houses are connected and this man is igniting a dead bush over a lawn of brittle, dry leaves. “Daddy,” my daughter asks, “is he burning his house down?” “Of course not,” I reassure her. The man waves as we pass. I wave back. He shoots another squirt of fluid onto the flames.
As married ROK readers can attest, wives never answer when you need them and I spent the drive frantically calling mine to warn her about the crazy man and to ask her to keep an eye out for growing flames in case she needed to call the fire department. No answer. I was worried. By the time I dropped my daughter off the fires in my imagination had already consumed the block and so rather than go to work I whipped around back to the house, speeding to check on the flames. I call my wife again. No answer still.
The smoke was almost back in view when she found her phone. “Sorry!” she yelled. “I was stuck talking to a crazy man burning his house down!” Right after we’d left my wife had decided to take the dog out and the man with the lighter fluid decided that was a good chance to tell someone his life story. A disjointed biography. One of those speeches where you can only pick out memorable words but not really detect a narrative. A vague swirl of phrases like “gold coins,” “Obama,” “on the farm,” and “the 80s,” she remembered. Everything else was a blur. I arrived back to find the bush still burning. The man was nowhere to be seen.
What does this have to do with Jordan Peterson?
By nature I am not very assertive. Like most raised in America, I learned that the highest value is minding your own damned business. Ours is a society deeply focused on removing all human interaction from our lives and without Peterson I honestly don’t think I’d have confronted the man with the fire. Not really out of cowardice, just a lack of social rules about how to address the situation.
Barren of conflict resolution tools, our culture’s primary response to them is to just ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The point where I have a right to interject myself into my neighbor’s affairs is never spelled out. Such would go against the primary American ethos: “Keep to Thy Self.”
However… my neighborhood was on fire. That ethos seemed inadequate.
Peterson piqued my interest because I’m a struggling Christian and he outlines a form of spirituality not only in-line with evolutionary biology but actually a consequence of it. By his reckoning there is The Known and The Unknown, Chaos and Order, things so real and fundamental that our bodies and brains evolved to deal with them.
I stood in the drive staring at the burning bush, finding myself exactly on the border of those realms. I was home. A place of security and comfort. Across the street was a crazy man and a fire. Order and Chaos. According to Peterson, this was where life happened. Using Christian themes, Peterson suggests that the proper way to conquer the unknown is to shoulder responsibility for it. To take up your cross. I’d listened to him say this but never put it into practice to see if it worked. It was worth a shot.
The man saw me
Before I could even get near he came bursting out the door, warning me about the smoke. “Watch out,” he said. “You’ll get covered in ash.” I told him I was uncomfortable with the fire and he told me it was his property and to agree to disagree. I said no, the fire needed to stop. He said it was safe. I said it wasn’t.
He then went on a diatribe similar to the one he’d given my wife and I picked up words like “gun,” “drug war,” “Jesus,” and “the CIA.” I also picked up a narrative about how the Home Owner’s Association was pocketing our dues and not paying for landscaping. His bushes had died. He’d complained for years. Nothing was done. He’d done something himself.
As he talked I realized he was speaking the truth. For ten years I’d heard repeated rumblings form other neighbors about their various petty feuds. They all hated each other. They all wanted to sue. They accused one another of stealing and vandalism and once a lady poured wasp spray into another woman’s face for letting her dog relieve itself upon her lawn. As he ranted beside the burning lawn decorations I realized I had known all this, but ignored it. It was petty. It was “Not My Problem.” True enough but things that aren’t your problem grow. Sooner or later they become your problem. Fires spread.
Peterson was right
Ten years I’d ignored all the burning Hells inside the people around me and now a piece of Hell had manifested into an actual roaring flame threatening to burn everything down. The underworld had come forth. Inner darknesses had been fed so long that they were sending real smoke up into a real sky. School shootings. Terrorist attacks. They all happen for the same reason. Because fires grow.
Christ said the Kingdom of God is within us and I think what he meant by that was that you can actually unfold yourself onto the geography. You can manifest the intimations of Heaven inside you out onto the exterior world. But… you can also do the opposite. Just as easily, you can call forth the demons of Hell. Talking with my neighbor I realized that by ignoring all these metaphorical dragons over the years I’d given them space to get bigger. I had not taken responsibility. I’d picked up no crosses. The logic behind “Love thy neighbor” boils down to the idea that the one on the scene is obligated to put the fire out before it spreads. What is the role of Man if not to slay the dragon?
Fires are burning all around you. Put them out.