Sunday Essay: In perfect order

LET’S be honest: when you read about someone whose fundamental views you disagree with, do you turn toward them or do you walk away?

I had read a few stories before about the Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, whose views about free speech, compelled speech, gender identity and the climate crisis seemed controversial. But I had not read anything the professor had written, so I decided it would be a good idea to do so rather than reject his ideas outright.

Wouldn’t you know it, one of his suggestions struck me. Dear reader, it’s this: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”

Now, I probably whine more than most people do about how things are. It’s an occupational hazard most newspaper writers face. I don’t post every other day on Facebook about how terrible the traffic in Metro Cebu is these days although I can empathize with those who do so.

But yes, I have complained in this space and in conversations with family and friends about the traffic and a host of other things: shortsighted politicians, corrupt overlords of troll armies and unquestioning supporters of certain political figures included.

So, I guess it’s no surprise that the professor’s words hit hard.

“Say only those things that make you strong,” he writes in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. “Do only those things that you could speak of with honor... Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

Aguroy, right? Maybe I’m more susceptible to this brand of tough love because I’ve just celebrated a birthday that put me on the far side of 40 and within hailing distance of 50. But I’m guessing you’ll find that this particular bit of advice resonates with you, too, yes?

There’s a good chance it may be misinterpreted as a silencing of dissent, in the same way that many Filipinos have in recent years been saying, “Tumulong ka na lang (You’re better off helping than complaining).” But I don’t think that’s what Peterson means at all. One can ask necessary questions, which is every good citizen’s responsibility, and do something constructive as well. One choice doesn’t cancel the other.

It does make whining more difficult, though. So now, instead of just complaining about traffic gridlocks, we have to think about what we’ve done in terms of contributing to solutions. Here, my contribution is scant. I drive a HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) just one day a week, on Sundays when my family and I head to and from church. On weekdays, I carpool with a friend to and from work. And that’s about it. I wish I could say I voted for local officials with a comprehensive and feasible plan for fixing traffic but perhaps you’ll agree when I say they were not exactly in abundant supply this year. (Oops, whining again.)

We could apply Peterson’s test to most aspects of our public life. There are so many problems we could complain about. But first asking ourselves what we’ve actually done seems a worthy challenge. It won’t be easy. Important things often aren’t.

I have, for instance, an annoying habit. Whenever someone tells me something improbable—usually something they saw while scrolling through their social media feeds—I ask them who the source of that particular information was and why they trust that source. I know it’s not my nephews’ favorite trait but I think those are necessary questions.

Now, inspired by Peterson’s advice, I will start asking loved ones and friends what they’ve done to help fix something they often whine about. I imagine that won’t get me invited to too many holiday parties this year.