Not Just a Kid’s Story.
As regular readers of my articles will know, I’ve recently been listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures. I am aware he’s a controversial figure, but I have honestly never encountered anyone like him before in my life. In one of his lectures he analyses the story of Pinocchio in a way I had never even thought of before, but now can’t stop thinking about.
‘Pinocchio” is a deep, deep story. It has echoes that go back 3 or 4,000 years to the earliest stories we know, and it’s so rich with information, that a child can watch it over and over and over and over.’ Pinocchio is born wooden, unformed and on strings, guided by forces and impulses he doesn’t control. To become free, first he ‘wishes upon a star’ to become a ‘real’ boy. Then he battles his fears and desires, learns to listen to his conscience (Jiminy Cricket), tells the truth and finally sacrifices himself for others. Peterson is right, this is a lot more than a ‘children’s story’, and many of the insights have now informed both my life and my coaching relationships.
“Wish Upon a Star”. Peterson’s podcasts are always astounding, but the one on ‘Walking with God: Noah and the Flood’ is one of the most impressive and interesting podcasts I’ve ever heard. Within it he discusses the power or orienting your life towards the highest good you can conceive of. The kind of good that makes the intrinsic suffering of life worthwhile.
‘There’s a very, very, very interesting idea, here. It’s certainly one of the most profound ideas that I’ve ever encountered. The idea is that, if you configure your life so that what you are genuinely doing is aiming at the highest possible good, then the things that you need to survive and thrive on a day-to-day basis will deliver themselves to you. That’s a hypothesis, and it’s not some simple hypothesis. What it basically says is, if you dare to do the most difficult thing that you can conceptualize, your life will work out better than it will if you do anything else.’…….
…..‘Let’s say your aim is the highest possible aim. Well, that sets up the world around you. It organizes all of your perceptions, and it organizes what you see and what you don’t see; it organizes your emotions and motivations. So you organize yourself around that aim. Then what happens is that the day manifests itself as a set of challenges and problems, and if you solve them properly, then you stay on the pathway towards that aim. You can concentrate on the day. That way you get to have your cake and eat it, too, because you can point into the far distance and live in the day. It seems to me that that makes every moment of the day supercharged with meaning. If everything that you’re doing, every day, is related to the highest possible aim that you could conceptualize…Well, that’s the very definition of the meaning that would sustain your life.’
Set a goal, then try to make the right choice each time. This idea of discrete daily challenges, but with the free will to choose, reminds me of the concept of “timshel“’” at the heart of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Taken from the story of Cain and Abel, “timshel” translates as “thou mayest”; ‘meaning that mankind is neither compelled to pursue sainthood nor doomed to sin, but rather has the power to choose’. Over and over again Pinocchio makes the wrong choices, pays the consequences, but is offered second chances at redemption and finally transcendence. I really like the idea that we can have an intimidatingly lofty goal, but that we never need to make more than one choice at a time in achieving it. Not that every choice is always an easy one……
So……why don’t we aspire higher? Back to JP: ‘I think that’s actually the answer to the conundrum: people don’t aspire to the highest good because they’re deeply ashamed of themselves, their weaknesses, and their insufficiencies. That’s not the only reason. There’s the desire to avoid responsibility, and there’s all the negative motivations, as well, like resentment, hatred, and the desire to make things worse. I don’t want to give us too much of a break. It’s something like that. But it’s OK to not be in a very good place if what you’re trying to do with that not very good place is to make it better.’ Certainly as social animals having finely-tuned shame sensors makes complete sense; repeating the kinds of behaviour that could get you thrown out of the tribe could quickly prove fatal to you as an individual.
The other answer is that we simply don’t know what direction to even start pointing ourselves in, and that’s one question I’ve been working on with my clients. Helping an individual to find his own personal ‘highest good’ is one of the most fulfilling things you can do.
There’s also a link between shame and coaching, as a coaching relationship can lead to vastly improved self-knowledge. I think a lot of our shame burden is unconscious. We haven’t taken the time to ‘know thyself’, especially with relation to our fears and desires. I’ve found a good heuristic for trying to make the right decisions in life is ‘don’t do anything that makes you ashamed’. But in order to do that effectively, you need a strong connection to your conscience.
Fears and desires: Time and again Pinocchio is led astray, notably to Pleasure Island where all the boys indulge all their physical desires, and he himself is nearly transformed into a donkey. Your desires are your strings, your conditioning, pulling you unconsciously in different directions. In our own lives we all know people lost on Pleasure Island, slowly becoming donkeys and losing their spark of individuality to regressive habits.
Pay close attention to your distractions- then dial them down. If something doesn’t move you forward as an individual, but if you use it for relief in times of pain, it may be acting as a crutch. It could be your phone, alcohol, food, cigarettes or Netflix. How can you tell? What do you turn to after a particularly bad day? If it’s a regressive habit, remove the crutch, then see if you feel pain. In paying attention to the pain, and reducing the dependency, you can grow more independent of your ‘strings’. Soon you’re walking on stronger legs.
This is hard, legendarily hard.
It is hard because it means committing to feel the pain of a truly bad day; to go through life as alert and awake as you can. It can even mean accepting pain’s most difficult message; that something major might need to change in your life. We are often told that pain is purely optional in today’s society, and this perspective directly contradicts that. But the substantial reward is more personal growth and freedom than any ‘finding more happiness’ self-help book can ever give you.
Fear as limitation. Fears often also operate to hold you into a smaller space that you deserve. We all have responsibilities to society and our families. But you may be considerably more free, in considerably more dimensions than you realise. A huge part of coaching is in highlighting the difference between a real-life constraint and a limited perspective.
Peterson makes an interesting analogy to video games. ‘There’s a dragon; it’s stopping you — because there’s lots of dragons, and most aren’t stopping you. You can ignore them. You don’t have to slash away randomly. You’re not supposed to be fighting dragons that aren’t in your way, but if they are in your way, you can’t ignore them, and then you decompose them into subdragons, and you have people take them on. As they take them on, they dispense with the dragon, and they gain the power of the dragon. It’s like a video game — actually, a video game is like that experience. That’s why people like the video games. Well, that’s right, right? There’s a reason that you absorb power when you overcome things in a video game. It’s not like that’s intrinsic to the video game structure. That’s an archetypal idea.’ Video games may have taken the reward structure from the needs of our psyches, not the other way around.
Find ways to (responsibly) face your fears. Walk towards the walls. Often you’ll find that they disappear the closer you get. And you’ll get stronger in the process. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul: ‘it’s not really difficult to get past the walls. Time and again, every day, the natural flow of life collides with our walls and tries to tear them down. But time and again we defend them. You must realize that when you defend them, you’re really defending your walls. There is nothing else to defend in there. There is just your awareness of being and the limited house you built to protect yourself’.
In Kierkegaard’s thesis, freedom emerges from crisis, and crisis from intellectual, emotional, or physical imprisonment.
But there’s a troubling idea that emerges as a consequence of considering this. Does our own failure to make progress in life, when we get stuck in outward personal or professional limbo, reflect a failure of inward courage? As Lao Tzu wrote; ‘Those with outward courage dare to die; those with inward courage dare to live.’ Either way, I believe that coaching companionship along the route makes the road far less daunting.
Turn-up the volume on your conscience. The consequence of fears and desires diminishing in importance in directing your actions is that your conscience gains increasing influence. If you subscribe to the view that there is an innate guiding wisdom within us, and I do, then finding ways to turn the volume up is of critical importance to helping us find direction in our lives. The still, small voice of calm, ‘Jiminy Cricket’, helps us make the right choices at each ‘timshel’ moment towards the attainment of our lofty goals.
Never lie: Listening to our conscience produces a sense of being true to ourselves. However Pinocchio is perhaps most famous for his lying, with his wooden nose that grows with each untruth. Truth, or at least the refusal to lie, is at the bedrock of Peterson’s worldview. As he says, rather terrifyingly; ‘If I’ve learned one thing in 20 years of clinical practice, it’s that. I swear I’ve never seen anyone get away with anything in my whole life.’ He exhorts us to tell the truth, all the time, and if you don’t always know the truth, at the very least not to lie. Specifically, lying about your own shortcomings prevents you from seeing them clearly, and if you can’t see them clearly you can’t address them, and they can grow until they have ever-greater control over your actions. Conversely, there’s something about telling the truth to another person that helps us manifest our latent potential, and it’s usually the most powerful moment in a coaching relationship.
Awareness is the key. As with so many things, just becoming fully aware of your own shortcomings and limitations is enough to begin transcending them. If you’re really paying attention to your inner Jiminy, making the wrong choice turns from an absent-minded gesture to a deliberate act. We all know how much more vulnerable we are when we’re distracted. Bringing your full attention to each choice makes it vastly easier, and this habit compounds itself until you begin to see each day as a series of discrete choices and challenges. The coaching relationship brings greater accountability and awareness to these decisions. It also brings fears and desires into the light where they can be fully examined and tackled.
Self-sacrifice. Pinocchio ends with his father Geppetto being rescued from the belly of a whale, but not before Pinocchio dies and is resurrected in the process. He is then finally granted his wish of becoming a ‘real’ boy. There’s a parallel with the biblical story of Jonah, who was thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale. Jonah was sent to preach to the Ninevites and refused, running in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until his encounter with the whale that he reverses course and finally does God’s bidding. The common factor is that both are saved at their lowest point by the choice to serve others.
This conclusion reminded me of a quote from Frank Ostaseski: ‘At an installation ceremony at the Zen Centre, a student asked the abbot, ‘What can the Dharma teach me about serving others?” The abbot answered, “What others? Serve yourself!” The student persisted, “How do I serve myself?” To which the abbot responded, “Take care of others.”’
If there’s a unifying thread here it’s about the transition from a self-centered boyhood worldview to one of manhood and service. The first stage of life is about building a strong ego, and cementing our place in the world. But in time that kind of existence becomes shallow and constraining, often because of its relative comfort. In Falling Upwards Richard Rohr writes ‘There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.’
Deep personal transformation requires making difficult choices. Making those choices with clarity requires self-knowledge. Self-knowledge requires a tolerance for pain, discomfort and ultimately growth. But through setting a lofty goal and doggedly pursuing it we can grow into the awareness and transcendence that is meant for us.
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