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I came across this very interesting lecture on TVO interweaving the topics of mythology and psychology and what the implications are for how people make choices how about how they engage themselves with life.

The lecture can be seen on TVO or via YouTube.

I transcribed the whole lecture and highlighted (bolded) a few of what I thought were the most relevant or interesting parts. Note that it’s pretty long – an hour lecture is a lot of words! There are a lot of good ideas here and reading the text of the lecture is actually a lot faster than watching the whole thing (though Dr. Peterson is a very effective speaker).

I want to talk to you today about what I think is a relatively new way of looking at your experience, but maybe even more broadly than that a new way of looking at reality itself. You all come to university, I suppose, to make your conceptions of reality more sophisticated. And you want to do that because you have to live in the world and the more sophisticated your conceptions, the less likely you’ll encounter tragic or harmful circumstances that you will be unable to deal with. It really matters if you know what you’re thinking and you know how to think. Over the last twenty years, I would say, there’s been a revolution in psychology. And the revolution has involved a transformation in the way we look at the world. And that’s what I want to talk about to you today.

I entitled this talk Reality and the Sacred. It’s a strange title to a talk to modern people because we don’t really understand what the sacred means unless we live within a worldview that’s essentially, I wouldn’t say archaic, but at least traditional. For modern, freethinking, fundamentally liberal people the idea of the sacred is anachronistic or, if not anachronistic, at least incomprehensible.

So I want to start with a story from the Old Testament. There’s a scene in the Old Testament when the ancient Hebrews are moving the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was a device that was manufactured in order to contain the word of God. And there was a rule among the ancient Hebrews which was “You are not to touch the Ark of the Covenant. No matter what.” And there’s a story in the Old Testament where the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant (they used to carry it), the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant trip and a man reaches out to steady it and when he touches it, God strikes him dead. And modern people look at a story like that and the first thing they think is “That seems a little bit harsh on the part of God given that the man was attempting to do something that he believed was good.” But what the story was designed to indicate, in my opinion, is that there are certain things that you touch at your peril, regardless of your intentions. And those things that you touch at your peril, regardless of your intentions, most cultures regard as sacred, as untouchable.

I want to make a case for you today that those things exist and also why they exist and why it’s necessary for you to know that they exist. I would also say that if you’re properly educated in a university, especially with regards to the humanities (which are in some conceptual trouble at the moment), what essentially happens to you is that you are introduced in a relatively secular way to the concept of the sacred. You are here, in the university, to learn about the eternal values of humankind.  And I think that people who tell you that those values do not exist or that they’re endlessly debatable, do you an unbelievable disservice.

Now I’m going to tell you first how you think about the world, I think. So this would be a Newtonian view of the world. It’s Newtonian and deterministic. And it’s the worldview that dominated psychology and economics and anthropology and political science, you name it, for probably four hundred years. But it’s come to a crashing halt in the last fifty years. And the consequences of that have been manifested in a number of domains.  The old world presuppositions are something like this: The world is made out of objects. When you look at the world you see the objects. There they are in front of you. As a consequence of seeing the objects you think about what to do. And after you think about what to do in the presence of the objects, you act. Now, that seems self-evident because when you look at the world, there the objects are. And it appears to you that you see them and then you think about them and then you act. But there’s a real problem with that.

First problem is: You use half your brain to see, literally. The human visual cortex is a very large part of your brain. And the reason that the human visual cortex is so large is that seeing is, as far as we can tell, actually impossible. Now the fact that seeing, perception, is impossible, wasn’t discovered by psychologists and wasn’t discovered by philosophers. It was discovered by people who were working on artificial intelligence and trying to make artificially intelligent machines. The presupposition of the people who were making intelligent machines was: the hard part of interacting with the world is figuring out what to do once you see the objects. But it turned out that making machines that could see objects was impossible. And the reason for that is boundaries between objects are not obvious. They’re not obvious at all. In fact it’s very difficult to understand how it is that we separate up things at all.

Now, let me give you an example. So, if you think about yourself. When you look in the mirror you see yourself as an object. You see your eyes, you see your nose, you see your face, you see your body. And that’s pretty much what you see when you look at other people. But that isn’t all there is to you. In fact, that’s hardly any of what there is to you. So you could say, for example, you exist at the level of the quantum particle. You can’t perceive that, in fact people didn’t know that until 75 years ago. Above that level you exist at an atomic level, and then a molecular level, and then you exist at the level of complex organs and the interactions between those organs. And then you, and then your family, and then the groups that your family belongs to. And then the ecosystems that the groups  belong to and so on and so forth until what it is that you are can expand to encompass virtually anything.

Now, when you look at yourself you don’t see that. You see yourself at a certain level of resolution. When you look at the world you see yourself at a certain level of resolution, but all those other levels are equally real and equally relevant. And we in fact have very little idea how it is that you’re only able to see what you see. Almost nothing has obvious boundaries and this has real world consequences, it’s not something that’s merely abstract. The technical term for this problem , the problem of how to bind your perceptions to limit them, is called the frame problem. The frame problem was discovered about forty years ago and the philosopher Daniel Dennett called it the most important philosophical discovery of the last fifty years.

The frame problem emerges to cause all sorts of trouble for people. So, for example when Henry Ford invented the automobile, well at least invented the modern procedure of building the automobile, what Ford presumed he was doing was building an efficient means of transporting people from one place to the other. There were other unintended consequences of Ford’s  discovery. So, for example, Ford happened to be a great supporter of Fascism. And the reason that he was a supporter of Fascism was because he regarded the Fascist  political structure as a logical extension of the efficient methods that he’d used to assemble vehicles. So his mode of production was instantly manifested in a political philosophy. Furthermore now, 2009,a hundred years after the invention of the automobile, we’ve discovered some other things that the car was other than a place to move people from point A to point B. So for example, it turns out that the automobile and the internal combustion engine are among the most effective technologies ever devised to transform the nature of the atmosphere to heat up the world. Not only that, the car has completely transformed the nature of cities. And these were all unintended consequences of the fact that the car was far more than what people thought it was. You can say that about any technological structure. No one knew what TV would do to the news, for example. No one knew what the internet would do to the music industry. Everything that you interact with is far more complicated than you see.

The most ancient ideas we have about the nature of reality are predicated on a certain presupposition. And the presupposition is this: there’s two fundamental modes of being that characterize reality. One is the absolute. The absolute is the sum total of everything. So if you think about things in their most unbounded possible form, if you think of things in their infinite number of potential variations, you can think about that as one pole of reality. It appears, classically, that people regarded their encounters with the absolute (which is all those multiple levels of being which are beyond your perceptual capacity) as equivalent to an encounter with God. Now you know that in the Islamic religions it’s against the rules to make a graven image of any sort of Mohammed. The idea is that you’re not supposed to make an image. And among the ancient Hebrews the idea was very similar.

The Taoists say that  you shouldn’t confuse the moon with the finger pointing to the moon. And what all that means is that the absolute is always something that transcends the finite frame that you place around your perceptions. So as soon as you start talking about it, representing it, making statues of it or idolizing it, you lose your connection with the absolute, because you’ve turned into something that’s understandable and concrete.

Part of the wisdom traditions that the world still maintains make the constant moral presupposition that you should always be aware of what it is that transcends both your understandings and your perceptions. And you should keep firmly in mind that that exists. Now when people talk about God in the modern world they tend to think about something that has more the characteristics of a being and I suppose that’s where most of the debate about religious reality comes in. But the idea that there’s an absolute outside of your perceptual capacity seems to be merely a statement of fact, especially given what we know now about the nature of perception, that the phenomena always transcends the manner in which you frame it.

We’ve also come to understand that not only does reality have multiple levels of existence, but in order to perceive it you have to stand inside multiple frames.

This is a picture of a French city. It’s a walled city. Now, the walls are there to keep the people in and the walls are there to keep what isn’t in the walls out. And so you can think about that as a protective structure.  Now I want to tell you how it is that you still inhabit a walled city and exactly what that means.  So, for example, you think about this room and I’m going to tell you how it is that this room allows you to see what it is that you see.

Now, when you’re interacting with a computer you actually don’t interact with the computer, you interact with the keyboard and the screen. If the computer crashes then you interact with the computer and you find that as a general rule very annoying because you really don’t understand the computer very well and you don’t actually see how complex it is until it stops working. Most of the time when you’re interacting with the world you’re doing things with the world. You interact with it in a way that produces some consequence that you want. And that means, in part, that your perceptions are always framed by what you want and that’s actually one of the reasons why the world isn’t just made up out of objects. The world is made out of things you use and things that get in your way.

You’re always applying a frame like that to the world in order to simplify it enough that you can understand it. And you’re aided in this process by all sorts of processes you really don’t notice. When you look at the world, you think “Well, there are the objects.” But there’s a thousand things going on before you make that judgment.

So, we’ll look at this room. When you walk in here the room tells you what to do. The reason it tells you what to do is because all the seats are pointed in the same direction. They’re all slanted in a particular way. When you walk in here and there’s other people sitting, you can see that all their faces point to the front. People’s faces point towards what interests them. The room is setup to make you face the front. The theory behind the room is that the thing that is interesting is happening at the front. It’s a theatre. What’s happening at the front is a drama, because theatre is there to promote and undergird drama. A lecture is a dramatic act. The room tells you what to do so you don’t have to think about what to do when you come into a room like this. You can just do it because the room tells you what to do. And then you can think, you can sit in here in relative comfort and listen to this lecture. Why can you sit in here in relative comfort? Well, the people around you have been relatively carefully selected as a consequence of the analysis of their twelve years in school. The university has made a determination: they know how to sit down and listen. That hypothetically they’re intelligent enough to understand the lecture and that they’re very unlikely to interrupt the proceedings with any unexpected outburst of emotion or motivation. Now, if anybody broke one of those rules you can be sure that your eyes would move very rapidly away from me and directly to the person who was causing trouble, because that would take centre stage. Now this room is actually supported by a million invisible processes. For example, while you’re sitting in here you don’t have to worry about whether it’s raining because there’s a roof. And you don’t have to worry about whether the roof is going to fall in because you make the presumption the people who built the roof are competent. And the electricity works because the utility is run by people who are competent, so it’s almost always on. Buildings hardly ever burn down, the electricity hardly ever fluctuates. There’ thousands of people out there working as hard as they can, diligently, to make this environment constant enough so you can ignore all the thousands of things you’re ignoring. So that you concentrate well enough to attend to the few things that you are attending to while you are in this room.

You’re in a walled city, there’s multiple walls. And those walls protect you from what’s outside the walls. You can think about it this way: this is a Taoist image of reality (Yin Yang symbol). Now, people think of this as a metaphysical symbol, but it’s not a metaphysical symbol, it’s an unbelievably practical symbol. The Taoists believe that the world, reality, is made up essentially of chaos and order. Chaos is all those things you don’t understand. So I would say chaos is all those things that exist outside of your perceptual preconditions.

Order is all the things you do understand and all the places you go where the things that you do produce the results that you intend. And the Taoists would say “Everywhere you go is like that. Everywhere you go has things that you understand that are orderly and things that you don’t understand that are chaotic.” And the chaotic things attract your attention because you already understand the orderly things.

If something unexpected happens your nervous system automatically reacts to it and orients you towards it. And sometimes that can be catastrophic. So this is an experience that some of you will have in the next four years. Undoubtedly there’s a number of you that want to go to medical school, go to graduate school or to law school, or to business school. And a certain percentage of you will take the admission tests that will determine whether or not you’re able to take that path. And a certain percentage of you will score below the 50th percentile on those tests and that will mean you will not be going to those institutions. And when that happens, first of all you’ll shake and tremble when you open the envelope to find out your results. And second, if you haven’t achieved the score that you expected that you would achieve, your world will fall apart. And what that’ll mean is you descend form the domain of order into the domain of chaos. And that happens to people all the time. It happens to people when they develop an illness that’s serious that they can’t control because then their body stops being something they can predict and starts to become something that they can’t predict. It happens to people when they’re in an intimate relationship and they’re betrayed. They assume fidelity and the person tells them that they’ve had an affair. That’s chaos. That means you didn’t know who that person was, the future you imagined no longer exists, your perceptions of people are erroneous at some level of analysis that you don’t understand. It’s conceivable that you’re naïve beyond belief and that everything that you believed about yourself and about other people up to that point is false. And when a revelation occurs that knocks out one of the walls that supports you, and you descend accidentally into chaos, you’ll regard that as one of the worst experiences of your life.

When that happens to you, your brain knows exactly what to do. It stops thinking about the future, it stops saving up resources for the future, it puts you in emergency preparation mode so that you’re ready to do anything at the drop of a hat because you don’t know what to do so your body prepares to do everything. It shifts your cortisol levels up, it activates your left and right cortices, your limbic system and your motivational systems are disinhibited, turned on, and you sweat and you can’t sleep. Because the orderly structure that you thought you inhabited, that provided you with security and direction, has now disappeared.

The Taoists believe that the world is always an interplay between chaos and order and that if you live your life properly you stand with one foot in order and one foot in chaos. Because if you’re only in order, nothing that’s interesting ever happens to you. Nothing is anything but a repeat of all the things that you already know. That’s the state that Fascists desire because Fascists desire things to be exactly the way they are forever.

And if you’re in a state that’s only characterized by chaos you’re at sea or overwhelmed or things have fallen apart on you and there’s too much of everything for you to deal with.

Now the Taoists being very wise people know other things as well. They know for example that chaos can turn into order, that’s why there’s a white dot in the middle of the black paisley. And they know that order can turn into chaos, which is why there’s a black dot in the middle of the white paisley. and the Taoists believe that a meaningful life, the optimally meaningful life, is to be found on the border between chaos and order. And I would say that your nervous system tells you exactly when you are there and it’s a kind of place and you can tell when you’re there because you’re secure enough to be confident, but not so secure that you’re bored and you’re interested enough to be awake but not so interested that you’re terrified. And when you’re in a state like that, you find things interesting and meaningful, time slips by you and you’re no longer self-conscious.

This is a medieval Christian representation of the nature of reality. On the outside you have the Virgin Mary, inside the Virgin Mary you have God the Father and God the Father is supporting a crucifix with an individual on it and the individual in Christian thinking is Christ. What does this image mean?

The walled city divides order from chaos, or order from nature. We think about nature as the thing that’s outside of what we understand. That’s Mother Nature. Mother Nature gives birth to all things, that’s the idea that’s expressed in this image. The Virgin Mary is standing for Mother Nature. out of Mother nature arises order and tradition. That’s true for primates like chimpanzees as much as it’s true for us. Any social animals that are grouped together have to form an orderly structure that they inhabit together, that defines their boundaries and goals. Because otherwise they fight each other to the death. So in the state of untrammeled nature, as Hobbes pointed out, it’s every man for himself. And without the order that tradition brings, there’s nothing but chaos and chaos is murderous and unproductive.

But there’s a problem with order. If you look at the history of the 20th century, it’s a toss up whether Mother Nature has been harder on us or whether our governmental traditions have been harder on us. You know, of course, that the dictatorship of Hitler killed six million Jews out of 120 million people in the Second World War. You may not know that the Stalinist dictatorship in the Soviet Union killed an estimated sixty million people in internal repression, not counting those people who died in the Second World War. And the internal repression that characterized Mao’s communist China killed 100 million people. And so the problem with tradition is that sometimes it’s a wise king and sometimes it’s a king that eats its own sons, which means that although we need tradition to guide us and to structure even the manner in which we perceive the world, our traditions can become archaic and outdated and cruel and inhuman. And as a consequence they can pose a worse threat to us than chaos itself. Nature, or chaos, has exactly the same dichotomous structure.

The figure on the left is a Medusa or gorgon. If you look at a Medusa, as you probably already know, you turn to stone. The reason you turn to stone is because when you look upon nature or chaos without your normal veils it paralyzes you, physiologically. Just like a prey animal like a rabbit is terrified if it sees a wolf. For millions of years human beings were prey animals. We were probably prey animals for large reptiles, which accounts for the reason that primates like us are naturally afraid of predatory reptiles.

If you’re in the presence of something that violates your assumptions of safety, you’ll freeze. You’ll freeze so the thing that might eat you can’t see you and that’s what turns you to stone. That’s nature in its terrible aspect. And the terrible aspect of nature can freeze everyone. And you can be sure, and will be seldom taught, that you will encounter that at some point in your life.

The primary Buddhist dictum is that life is suffering. What does that mean? It means that because you’re finite and you’re surrounded by something that’s absolute, in a sense you’re in a battle you can never win because there’s always more of what it is that you’re trying to contend with than there is with you. And worse than that, and it’s for this reason that tyrannies can’t last, is that the thing that you’re contending with isn’t even static. It keeps changing. So that what worked for you yesterday won’t necessarily work for you tomorrow.

This is an alchemical version of the Taoist yin and yang symbol and basically it says something that’s more sophisticated and complex. It says that that world’s made up of chaos and order, things that you can predict and understand and things that you can’t predict and can’t understand. And inside the order there’s some chaos and inside that chaos there’s order and inside that order there’s chaos and so on and so forth. And equally the case for order.

You have Mother Nature, representation of chaos. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative. You have a representation of the great Father, that’s security and tyranny. Two things you’ll always have to contend with. Finally in this representation you have a representation of the individual, at least a Christian representation of the individual and that’s Christ. And it’s a terrifying representation, it’s a remarkable representation because it’s not a representation of transcendence. It’s a representation of suffering. And it’s a funny kind of representation of suffering because the manner in which the story unfolds is this: Christ as the archetypal individual. The model for individuals from a psychological or mythological perspective knows that he’s limited and knows that he’s doomed to both suffering and death. In the garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, he has an argument with God and the argument basically is “Do I actually have to do this?”

And the answer is twofold. Well, no, you actually don’t have to accept your suffering, but you don’t have to voluntarily accept your suffering but there are consequences if you don’t.  Now, the Christian story is predicated on the idea that if you voluntarily accept your suffering you can simultaneously transcend it.  It’s a remarkable philosophy and it’s also something that we have very good support for from the psychological perspective.

So, for example, if I’m treating someone who has an anxiety disorder or a panic disorder. Who can’t go out of their house without their heart rate elevating and without collapsing into a panic stricken heap, without visiting the emergency ward every time their heart rate accelerates, every time they’re in a subway or every time they’re in a mall. They’re so terrified of existence they can’t even get out of their house. The way you cure that person is by getting them to voluntarily approach the things that they’re afraid of.  And it turns out that physiologically, that is I force you to accept a certain type of challenge, your body will go into emergency preparation mode and that will cause stress and that stress will cause you physiological damage, including brain damage if it’s sustained for long enough.

But, if I present you with the same challenge and you accept it voluntarily, your brain doesn’t produce stress hormones and completely different physiological systems kick in. And what that means is people have evolved two modes for dealing with the unknown: there’s voluntary approach and there is panic stricken paralysis and flight.

In this representation you can see that there are crowds of people standing in the wings of the open statue looking at the crucified individual. Very strange thing, but you know you still see people doing things like this that they don’t notice.

I went to a museum in New York. There were a very large number of paintings there from the late renaissance and they were religiously themed like medieval paintings except they featured recognizable individuals. And people had come from all over the world to look at those paintings. They were extremely valuable paintings and they were painted by Michelangelo or Leonard da Vinci. Each of them was probably valued, for reasons that are very difficult to understand, at something approximating hundreds of millions of dollars. The late renaissance was the first time in human history where human beings dared to presume that sacred images could be given an individual human face. And that idea was what actually launched the enlightenment and launched the development of modern culture. The late renaissance thinkers, the artists in particular, were the first people to posit that there was some direct relationship between sacred images and actual people. People come from all over the world to look at these paintings even though they don’t understand what they mean.

I want to show you some images that describe how the idea of the suffering individual developed and what that means. The first thing I want to show you is this picture of Saint George and the dragon. Now, you know that the main street that runs through the university is named after Saint George, right? This is a very old image. The oldest story we know, which is a Mesopotamian creation myth, features a god who confronts a reptilian monster and makes the world as a consequence of the conflict. He faces her, she’s terrifying. He cuts her up into pieces and out of the pieces he makes the world.

Now, the Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago, were trying to figure out what the nature of individuality was, and what the nature of consciousness was. And their presupposition, which was dramatized, because these people told stories and they didn’t think the way we think, in explicit philosophical, logical ahh…with philosophical processes. They thought in stories, which is a natural way for people to think. They came to the conclusion the object of their ultimate worship was the god who confronted the dragon of chaos, cut it into pieces and made the world. And that idea has echoed down through the ages, it’s an idea human beings have never lost.

Now this idea is very interesting, so you see the castle in the background. We already know what the castle stands for, the castle stands for order. And it’s a multi-walled castle because everyone’s protected by multiple walls. But those walls are constantly breached. Now, young people, especially modern young people, are often very cynical about the traditions that they inhabit. They’re cynical about them because they see that the world is theoretically devolving into some kind of environmental catastrophe, and they’re cynical because there’s still war and there’s still hunger. They’re cynical because often the people who are teaching them the traditions don’t seem to believe in them themselves. It’s very easy for young people to look at the traditions and to notice the breaks. But the truth of the matter is that throughout human history tradition has always been anachronistic and out of date. And what you see in images of Saint George and the dragon is that the dragons always breach the walls. Which means that tradition is always under attack from chaos. Well, of course it is, because the future is different than the past, but that doesn’t mean that the past should be abandoned. If you abandon the past and you knock down all your walls, you fall into a pit of chaos and that, classically speaking, is indistinguishable from hell. And I can tell you, if you spend long enough in that state you become bitter and cruel because that’s what happens to people who suffer endlessly.

St. George is a different kind of individual. When the walls come crumbling down, as they always do, he decides to go out and to confront the dragon. Now, dragons are very strange creatures as you may have already noted. First of all they don’t exist. Second of all, they have very weird propensities. So for example they hoard gold and they tend to trap virgins in their lairs, which you’ll also admit is very strange behavior for a reptile.

Now the idea behind this is a very complicated idea and it’s all presented pictorially. The idea is that the thing that lurks underneath, if you look to the right of the picture there’s a cave and the cave goes way down into the ground and way down in the ground is the terrifying place that’s underneath everything. And the dragon crawls out from time to time to threaten the structure of everything that’s known.

So St. George comes out to confront the dragon voluntarily, overcomes it and in this image rescues the virgin that the dragon has been guarding. It’s a very complicated story. It means that the things that terrify you contain things of value. That’s also what the image of the gold that the dragon hoards represents. It means something else as well. It means that the individual man who who’s likely to go out and confront chaos when tradition is crumbling is more likely to find a mate.

This is Jonah. Jonah had a very weird experience, he was swallowed by a whale. That’s a very strange whale as you might well note. It’s a medieval whale and of course medieval people didn’t really know what whales were and so they were guessing what a whale was. A whale for a medieval person would have been a big fish, a squid, some monstrous thing like a shark that lurks in the deep. They weren’t able to segregate all those things out biologically, their powers of collective observation weren’t that good. So the whale for them was what lurks underneath in the darkness. And the idea with Jonah was that now and then what lurks underneath in the darkness rises up to swallow you, but if your attitude is proper you can come back out the other side changed. Now that’s a story of redemption, for example, imagine you were in a bad relationship and you weren’t that happy about it, but it was better than no relationship at all. And then the other person in the relationship betrayed you and maybe they did that because you actually weren’t that happy with the relationship anyways, maybe they did that because you were a little bit naïve, or maybe they did that because you were a little bit too easy to get along with and as a consequence you were a bit on the boring side. So when they first leave you it’s a catastrophe because your world falls apart, but when your world falls apart you’re somewhere new and it’s possible to learn something new in that place. You might learn, for example, that you should be a little sharper next time you go out with someone or you should be a little more careful picking up clues that your partner is bored with you or maybe that you should stop associating with lying psychopaths and your life would be a lot more positive. And stop thinking that you have the capacity to redeem somebody who is not after redemption in the least.

And what that means is, now and then, when you fall into the belly of a whale and swallowed up by something that lurks underneath, ha you can come out he other side transformed and that’s actually how people learn. Every time you learn something, you learn because something you did didn’t work  and that exposes you to the part of the world that you don’t understand. Every time you’re exposed to part of the world you don’t understand you have the possibility of rebuilding the structures that you use to interpret the world. That’s why it’s often more important t notice that you’re wrong than it is to prove that you’re right. One of the things that you’re supposed to learn in university is precisely that. It might be useful to listen to people that annoy you on the off chance that they know something that if they tell you, you can use instead of dying.

Talking with people who agree with what you say is like walking around in a desert . You already know everything that they say.  The reason that your associating with them in that situation is so that they never say anything that challenges you because you’re afraid if you go outside of what you understand you won’t be able to tolerate the chaos. But it isn’t the case. People have an unbelievable capacity to face and overcome things they don’t understand. Not only that, but that’s essentially what gives life its meaning.

The Buddhists say “life is suffering” and you think well, if that’s the case, why bother with it. And people do ask that question and they ask it ways that result in their own destruction and worse, in the destruction of others. So for example, people who become particularly cruel, particularly in a genocidal manner, are more than willing to dispense with as many human beings as they can possibly train their sights on because they’re so disgusted by the nature of human limitation, that they’d rather eradicate it. And lots of people become suicidal because they can’t bear the conditions of their own existence. And suffering is real and it’s inescapable. So the question is, what do you do about it?

You notice in your on life, and you can do this by watching your own life- I often ask my clients to do this. Say look, watch your life for a week, but pretend you don’t know who you are, because you don’t know who you are, at all.

What you understand most about yourself are the arbitrary presuppositions that you use to hem yourself in. And you act as if those presuppositions are true so that the revelation of the full nature of your character won’t terrify you. People hide in their own boxes and it’s not surprising, but it’s not a good idea because life is too hard to hide in a box. You can’t manage it if you do that.

If you watch yourself for a week you’ll see certain things, you’ll see some of the time that you’re resentful and annoying. And those are times when you’re either taking advantage of yourself or you’re thinking improperly. Some of the time you’ll be bored, in which case you’re either undisciplined or you’re probably pursuing something you don’t want to pursue. And some of the time you’ll actually be engaged in life and the times that you’re engaged in life you won’t  even notice that you’re there. The distinction between subject and object disappears when you’re engaged in something you find meaningful.

The purpose of life as far as I can tell, from studying mythology, from studying psychology for decades, is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant. Or maybe that it’s even acceptable. And I would say as well that people know when they’re doing that.  You know that you’re doing that in part because you’re no longer resentful. You think “Jeez, I could do this forever.” There’s a timelessness that’s associated with that state of being. From a mythological perspective that’s equivalent to brief habitation of the kingdom of God. That’s the place where you are that’s so meaningful that it enables you to bear the harsh preconditions of life without becoming resentful, bitter or cruel. And there’s nothing that you could pursue in your life that would be half as useful as that.

Your nervous system, being an evolved structure, is evolved for a universe that is composed of the interaction between chaos and order. Those are the most fundamental constants that we know. They transcend the mere perception of objects. Everywhere you go is chaos and order.

Traditional Chinese doctors go into people’s houses to diagnose why it is that someone in that house is suffering. They walk in and they think “There’s too much order here.” I’ve been in houses like that.  That’s a house where all the furniture is covered in plastic. That’s a house where if you put a glass on a wooden table, the mistress of the house runs over with a coaster, slips it under immediately and gives you a dirty look. That’s a place where the children never play in the living room. That’s a place where the lines in the carpet are vacuumed so precisely they’re actually parallel. That’s a place where there’s so much order no one can survive because the person who runs the house is a tyrant. And that anyone who’s sick in that house is sick because they’re  suffering from an excess of order.

And then you can walk into a house that’s completely different and you can even see this in your own room if you want. Everything’s in complete disarray. You can’t even look at that place. You’re sick the moment you cross the threshold because everywhere you look there’s parts of untransformed chaos yelling at you “Do something about this, loser!”

If you walk into your study and you have a stack of papers, in the midst of which is buried your homework. You’ll notice you have  very tough time looking at that stack of papers. And the reason for that is that the stack of papers that you’re ignoring, that’s aging, that’s causing you more trouble with each passing day, is portal into order into which chaos is flowing. And if you ignore that long enough, the chaos will flow through that portal and take over your room and then take over your life. And you might think “Well, that’s a very strange way of looking at things.”  And I suppose it is, but just as an experiment to see whether or not this is true, try not paying your taxes for ten years and see what happens.

This is an old representation, right? Atlas with the world. It’s a representation that says that’s the proper way to live, right? The way to live properly so that you can withstand the nature of your own being is to pick up a load that’s heavy enough so that if you carry it you have some self-respect. It’s a very weird idea because it’s frequently the case that people do everything they can to lighten their load. But the problem with carrying a light load is that then you have nothing that’s useful to do. And if you have nothing useful to do, all you have around you (unless you’re extremely fortunate – and that will only be the case for very short periods of time) is meaningless suffering. And there’s nothing worse for your soul than meaningless suffering.

If you look around you and see the people that you respect, and I don’t mean that you think about respecting, the one’s that your gut, your whole being tells you to respect, you’ll see it’s always people who picked up something heavy and are carrying it successfully and you think “Now that’s what it means to be a human being.” And when you see that you think “Well, perhaps life is worthwhile despite the fact that the essential nature of reality is suffering.”

There’s an old Jewish idea, an idea that man and God are in a sense twins. It’s a very strange idea, but it seems to hinge on something like this: The classic attributes of God (these are the attributes of the absolute) – omnipotence,  omniscience and omnipresence. Do anything, be anything… can’t translate the other one momentarily. There’s a question that goes along with that. What’s a being characterized by the absolute attributes of God lack? And the answer to that is limitation. And that’s an unbelievably interesting idea. The reason it’s so interesting is because one of the things that modern psychology is increasingly telling us is without the limitation that a creature like us, with the structure of our consciousness brings to bear on the world, there’s no reality. That what reality is, an emergent consequence of the interaction of something that’s painfully limited and us and whatever the absolute is, which is something completely without borders. And what that implies in a sense is that without limitation there’s no being. With limitation there’s suffering. Without suffering then, there’s no being.

Well, you might think perhaps there should be no being. And lots of people act their whole lives in order to see if they can make that a possibility. And that’s really a luxury we don’t have anymore. But the alternative is to presume that being is worth the suffering. And to find a mode of being that allows you to make that claim in reality. I would say in a sense that’s your existential destiny and if you’re here at university rather than a trade school, your job is how to figure out how to be a human being. And that’s a much more important job than any specific time limited, pragmatic plan. You have an unlimited possibility for good, really. Individuals are way more powerful than they think. They’re more powerful for evil, but they’re also more powerful for good.

These archaic stories that I’ve been telling you about, they have something t say to you. They say “Life is uncertain. You’ll never know enough. And not only that, you never can know enough. And not only that, everything you stand on is shaky”. And then they say “But you still have to stand on it. And while you’re standing on it, you have to improve it.” And that’s how life goes on and that’s how you live your life and if you forget those things or if you undermine them, you’re in the same situation that the unfortunate man was that I told you about in the Old Testament. Who reached out to touch something he should have left alone.

To the degree that you’re human, you have to abide by a certain set of truths. The truths that I told you about today are, as far as I can tell, something close to a minimal set. There’s chaos, there’s order. You’re stuck with both of them and they both have a cost and they both have advantages. And your job is how to figure out how to serve as the appropriate mediator between the two. And you can tell when you’re doing that because when you’re doing that the dismal circumstances of your life manifest themselves to you as eminently acceptable. And it’s in that situation that you know you’ve placed yourself in a position in nature where everything is in harmony. And that’s the place to aim for.

Nice talking to you.

Questions & Answers:

How do you take your ideas about embracing suffering and apply them to treatments for mental illness?

The first thing I would say is if you’re dealing with someone who’s depressed and they’re really depressed you should try giving them anti-depressants. Because if they die, you can’t help them. Okay, so if you’re suffering you’re obligated, in a sense, to hold on to whatever rope someone throws you. And one of the things I do with my clients all the time, especially if their in trouble, is to tell them “Look, I don’t know exactly what’s going to help you, but don’t arbitrarily throw out any possibilities because you might not have that luxury. Anti-depressants help a lot of people and there are technical reasons why that’s the case. So that’s a simple answer, it’s not relevant to what I’ve already described, except if you’re offered a gift by your society and it works, try it. I don’t care what your presuppositions are.

Apart from that, lots of the time you see people who are suffering with depression, for example, there’s a multitude of reasons. But I’ll take one common reason. You can think about it as associated with the story of Peter Pan. Peter Pan is someone who won’t grow up. The problem with Peter Pan is he gets to be king, but it’s king of Neverland. Neverland doesn’t exist. So being king of nothing isn’t that helpful. One of the things you often see in people who suffer from depression (and I’m not making a blanket statement about the causes of depression, because there’s lots of them) is that people who don’t have enough order in their life tend to get overwhelmed. So, for example, if someone comes in to see me and they say they’re depressed I always ask them a very standard set of questions: Do you have a job? If you don’t have a job you’re really in trouble in our society. First of all your biological rhythms tend to go off the rails right away because there’s no reason to go to bed at any particular time and there’s no reason to get up. And for many people, if they don’t get up at the same time they foul up the function of their circadian rhythms and that’s enough to make them depressed right off the bat, especially if they start napping during the afternoon. They also don’t have a purpose. People aren’t good without a purpose. And this isn’t hypothesizing. We absolutely understand the circuitry that underlies positive emotion. We know how it works. Almost all of the positive emotion that any of you are likely to experience in your lives will not be a consequence of attaining things. It will be a consequence of seeing that things are working as you proceed towards a goal you value.

That’s completely different and you need to know this because people are often stunned, for example, they finish their PhD thesis and their presupposition is that they’re going to be elated for a month and often instead they’re actually depressed and they think “What the hell, I’ve been working on this for seven years and I handed it in and what do I do now?” And that’s what depresses them, right? It’s “What do I do now?” Well, they’re fine if they enjoyed pursuing the thing, as long as it was working out they get a lot of enthusiasm and excitement out of that. That’s how our nervous systems work. Most of your positive emotion is goal pursuit emotion. If you take drugs like cocaine or amphetamine, the reason they’re enjoyable is because they turn on the systems that help you pursue goals. That’s why people like them.

So if you don’t have a job, you’ve got no structure, that’s not good. Plus, you tend not to have a point. So you’re overwhelmed by chaotic lack of structure and you don’t have any positive emotion. Well, do you have any friends? So sometimes you see people who are depressed – they have no job, they have no friends, they have no intimate relationship, they have an additional health problem and they have a drug and alcohol problem.  My experience has been if you have three of those problems, it’s almost impossible to help you. You’re so deeply mired in chaos that you can’t get out because you make progress on one front and one of your other problems pulls you down.

So, one of the things I tell people who are depressed is “Don’t sacrifice your stability.” Get a job, even if it’s not the job you exactly want. Get a damn job, you need a job. Find some friends, get out on the dating circuit, see if you can establish an intimate relationship. Put together some of the foundational items that are like pillars your life rests on. That’s the practical thing to do. So that’s one example with regards to depression.

How do your clients respond to the suggestion that they establish structure in their life as an antidote to depression?

Well, the thing is, you don’t just launch it on them. You’ve got to negotiate with the person. And you’ve also got to teach the person to negotiate with themselves. This is something that’s very useful to know. You can tyrannize yourself into doing things, but I wouldn’t recommend it. What I would recommend instead is that you ask yourself what you’d be willing to do. It’s a really effective technique, it’s like a meditative technique. So, for example, you get up in the morning and you can think “Well you know, I’d like to have a good day today so I’d like to go to bed tonight without feeling guilty, cause I didn’t do some things I said I was going to do and I’d like to have kind of an interesting day. I’ve got to fulfill my responsibilities and I want to enjoy the day. Then you can ask yourself “What would I have to do in order for that to happen that I would do?” And the probability, if you practice this for three or four days, is your brain will just tell you “Well you know, there’s that piece of homework that you haven’t done for three weeks, you should knock that sucker off ‘cause it’ll only take you ten minutes and you’ve been avoiding it and torturing yourself to death like 72 hours straight. If you do that, here’s a little interesting thing you can do. Maybe these little obligations you should clean up.” And so what you do in a situation like that is you teach the person to negotiate with themselves. So let’s figure out what your aims are, you’ve got to have some aims, whatever they are. And they might say “Well, I’m so depressed I don’t have any aims.” and I say “Well pick the least objectionable of the aims and act it out for awhile and see what happens.”  Sometimes your emotional systems are so fouled up that you have to pretend, you have to act the thing out before you can start to believe it. People always assume they have to believe and then act, but sometimes that’s true, but lots of times it isn’t. So the trick, if you’re doing therapeutic work with somebody and you’re helping them establish a structure, is finding out what they’ll do.

Now, if they want to get better – which is not a given – because there are often payoffs for not getting better, that’s basically the payoffs of being a martyr or maybe the payoff of doing what your entirely pathological family members want you to do because they actually want you to fail. Assuming you want to get better, there’s usually something you can figure out that would constitute a step toward some sort of concrete goal. And my presumption, and it’s a behavioral presumption fundamentally, is that small accruing gains that repeat are unbelievably powerful. So, you know, this is another thing to know about in your own life, something I learned about from reading the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (he’s a great Russian philosopher and novelist). He said “You can look at your life and you can see what isn’t right about it.” I mean, all you have to do is look. And then you can start to fix that and the way you fix it is by noticing what you could in fact fix. You know, people are often trying to fix things they can’t fix, which I would not recommend because if you try to fix something you can’t fix you’ll just ruin it. Like you can find all sorts of undergraduates who are perfectly willing to restructure the international economic system who cannot keep their room clean. And there’s actually a gap there you know and it’s surprising that people don’t actually notice. So I say, if you pay attention you can see things that you could fix. They yell at you, they really do. We even know how that happens.

Let me give you an example. Rooms are full of stories and stories have effects on you. So here’s a classic experiment. So you take two groups of undergraduates, you bring them into your lab. You give one group a multiple choice test that has a bunch of words in it that are associated with being old. And you give the other group the same multiple choice test except the words are associated with being young. This is independent of the content of the test, it’s just descriptions. And then you time the undergraduates as they walk back to the elevators. The ones that completed the multiple choice test that had that had more words associated with aging walked slower back to the elevators. And they don’t know that. And they don’t know they’re doing it. And that study’s been replicated in various forms many, many times. You’re unbelievably sensitive to the story that your environments telling you. Because your environment is not made out of objects. That’s just wrong. Your environment is basically made out of something like tools and obstacles. You’re a tool using creature, you’re a tool perceiving creature. Like, if I take you out of this room and I say “What was in the room?” you’re not going to say “Random patterns in the carpet.” They’re real, they’re just as good an object as anything else. You’re going to say chairs ‘cause you can sit on them, you’re going to say handrails ‘cause you can hold them, you’re going to say stairs ‘cause you can walk down them. That’s what you see and that’s what you interact with and if you pay attention to your environment, which is you by the way – extended, all of your experiences are you, it’ll tell you all the time what you should do. All you have to do is do it. But then you have to decide if you want to do it. One of the things I’ve noticed about people, because I wondered, once I started studying mythological stories and I got this idea about the fact that life can be meaningful enough to justify its suffering, I thought “God, that’s such a good idea.” Because it’s not always optimistic exactly. Well some people will tell you that you can be happy. Those people are idiots. I’m telling you, they’re idiots. There’s going to be things that come along that flatten you so hard you won’t believe it. And you’re not happy then and so if life is to be happy, well in those situations, what are you doing? Why even live? But life isn’t to be happy. If you’re bloody fortunate and you should enjoy it because it’s the grace of God so to speak.

With regards to meaning I thought “People know when they’re doing something meaningful, they can tell , so why the hell don’t they do meaningful things all the time?” It seems obvious, you could do it. It’s hard because other people want you to do other things and it’s a struggle, but everything’s a struggle. And then I thought “Well, oh I get it, I see why.” It took me about ten years to figure this out. People have a choice.

Choice number 1: Nothing you do means anything. Well, that’s kind of a drag, right? The meaninglessness of life and all that existentialist angst. you know, that’s kind of a pain. But the upside of nothing that you do is meaningful is you don’t have to do anything. You’ve got no responsibility. Now you have to suffer because things are meaningless but that’s a small price to pay for being able to be completely useless.

The alternative is: everything you do matters. Really. If you make a mistake, it’s a real mistake. If you betray someone, you tilt the world a little more sharply towards evil than good. It matters what you do. Well, if you buy that, then you can have a meaningful life. But, there’s no mucking around. It means responsibility. It means that the decisions you make are important. It means that when you do something wrong, it’s wrong. Well, do you want that?

Are we centers of our own morality?

That’s a very hard question because people don’t always mean the same thing when they say their own moral compass. Here’s what I mean by that technically. Part of the reason you’re able to distinguish between right and wrong is you are a certain kind of biological organism. And then another reason is that your head is full of other people. All the people you’ve met, all the people you’ve interacted with. They’re all telling you a way to behave that’s good and a way that isn’t. There are circumstances under which your conscience should be…the duty you have to your conscience should override the duty you have to social norms. But, before you break a rule (because you think you’re going to be doing a good thing), you bloody well better make sure you have your head screwed on straight. Because every time you tell yourself a lie and every time you act out a falsehood, you disturb the pristine integrity of your nervous system and the reports it’ll give you about the nature of the world will be distorted as a consequence of that. So, yes, you have a moral obligation to follow the dictates of your conscience, but you also have a moral obligation to make sure your life is straight enough you can rely on your own judgment. And you can’t separate those things.

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A very interesting lecture which contains a discussion of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The entire lecture is available at the TVO website. The part I’m referring to starts at 23:15.

It has also been posted on YouTube, chopped into five sections, the third of which contains the part about Cain and Abel, beginning at the 5:00 mark.

I’ve transcribed Dr. Peterson’s talk and it is presented below exactly as spoken with no additions, subtractions or corrections.

Cain and Abel are two sons of Adam and Eve and they’re really the first people because of course Adam and Eve were made by God so they’re really not people at all because people are born and Cain and Abel are the first two people and they characterize, as far as I can tell two canonical patterns of reaction to the terrible vulnerability that’s revealed as a consequence of the development of self-consciousness.

Cain and Abel make sacrifices to God. Why? Human cultures make sacrifices, that’s what they do. Sacrifice, sacrificial rituals are a human universal. Blood sacrifice is a human universal. Human sacrifice, at least in some anthropological epochs, was regarded as a human universal. Why do people make sacrifices to God? To please Him. It seems like a mystery to modern people. I ask my students, what sacrifices did you make to go to university? Well, they can answer that in two tenths of a second. They can’t party as much as they might have. They can’t drink nearly as much beer as they might have liked to. More seriously, a lot of them work, a lot of them have put their families in serious financial straits to send them to university. They’ve given up all sorts of things in order to pursue a course of action that they believe will best insure their harmonious relationship with the nature of reality. Everyone makes sacrifices.

We can say that now because we’re psychologically sophisticated and linguistically sophisticated and we know something about human psychology. But thousands and thousands of years ago, before people had this explicit psychological acumen, the best they could do was act out and tell stories about human psychology because they hadn’t developed any further than that. And Cain and Abel is one of those stories.

The sacrifices are burnt on an altar. Why? Well, the smoke rises. Well, so what? Well, God’s up in the sky and if the smoke rises up there, he gets a whiff of it, he can tell what the quality of the sacrifice was. And you can laugh about that and you can think about it as primitive, but it’s not primitive, it’s artistic and it’s beautiful and it’s accurate and here’s why. Because before the invention of the electrical light and maybe before the invention of fire, the closest a human could ever get to confrontation with the absolute unknown was to look up at the night sky. Because the night sky, especially when it’s sprinkled with stars, confronts you directly with the fact of the infinite. And to make the presupposition that God resides in the infinite, and you’re having a direct experience of the infinite at that moment, is not a primitive notion. It’s a very intelligent and creative hypothesis and so the notion that God occupies the sky, and the day sky being as equally impressive as the night sky, is not a primitive hypothesis. It’s a reflection of the nature of a certain kind of human experience. You burn something and you send the smoke up. God gets a crack at determining the quality of your offering, the quality of your sacrifice. Well, let’s be perfectly clear about this. If your sacrifices aren’t first rate, the nature of your relationship with the infinite is going to suffer dreadfully. And that’s exactly what the story of Cain and Abel reveals.

Abel, he’s a trusting character. He believes in the nature of experience and the nature of existence. When he’s called on to make a sacrifice, he sacrifices the best that he has to offer. And that makes God happy and as a consequence everything that Abel touches turns to gold. Everyone likes him, they respect him, his crops multiply, he’s successful with women, plus he’s a wonderful guy. So you can hardly imagine a more annoying creature if you possibly attempted to do it.

Whereas Cain, see Cain has reacted to his self-consciousness by withdrawing from the infinite. And there’s a tremendous danger in that, because it starts to mean that he relies purely on his own devious devices to sail his ship through the shoals of life. He believes, as his arrogance develops, as a consequence of his withdrawal from the infinite, that a contact that he can’t tolerate, because he can’t tolerate his own vulnerability, that he is able to deceive the structure of reality itself, to offer second rate sacrifices to God himself ( who can see absolutely everything  because the infinite is absolutely everything) and to prevail nonetheless.

Well, needless to say, this does not work. And it doesn’t work in an obvious way. If you talk to people and they reveal to you their unnecessary suffering, it’s very straight forward to look behind what it is that they have to say. They’ll tell you the poor decisions they made in their lives and the opportunities that they didn’t take and the chances that they didn’t have enough courage to grasp and the sacrifices they failed to make. There’s nothing mysterious about it. And their own experiences teach then full well that they pathologize the relationship they have with the nature of reality. Well that’s a terrible thing. Cain is dreadfully unhappy. He’s unhappy because nothing he ever wants happens, and that’s probably because he doesn’t really want it, because if he really wanted it, he’d make the right sacrifices. The salt is rubbed into his wounds by the existence of his brother for whom everything seems simple, but of course really isn’t.

Cain goes to complain to God. I had to read three or four different translations of these particular verses to figure out what this meant. And he says “What in the world is going on here? I’m working myself to the bone, I’m sacrificing things left, right and center. Everything I touch turns to dirt, everything turns against me. What’s up with the nature of reality.” Cain’s essential vulnerability is revealed and exacerbated by his pathological attitude towards his own actions. God says to him, essentially, “Sin is a predatory cat that crouches at your doorway and leaps at you at will, but if you only wanted to, you could master it.” And that is absolutely the last thing that Cain wants to hear. Because if things are going from bad to worse for you and you’re playing a causal role in it, there’s nothing more horrible that someone can do to you, but reveal to you in a way you can’t deny that you’re entirely complicit in your own demise. And that’s exactly what God does to Cain.

And so what does Cain do? Well, the logical thing would be listen, because if the structure of reality itself tells you something it’s best to listen since there’s no way out of it. But that’s not what Cain does. He’s so incensed by his essential vulnerability, compromised and exacerbated by his failure to make the appropriate sacrifices and conduct himself appropriately that he just decides then and there, number one: to destroy his ideal, reduce the tension that he feels when that ideal exists as a contrast point and number two: to destroy the favored son of God. And so he goes out into the field and kills Abel. And God comes along and says “Where’s my favorite son?” and Cain says “I killed him.” And it’s so interesting to me that that story is placed, really it’s the third story in the Old Testament.  It’s with the archaic stories and it’s a story that reveals as far as I can tell that there are two essential patterns of reaction to the self-conscious vulnerable conditions of existence. And one is a humble approach to infinity with determined attempts to make the appropriate sacrifices. The other is arrogance, resentment, the keeping of everything good for oneself and the degeneration of the soul into something that’s homicidally murderous.

Well, the story doesn’t stop there and it gets really compressed in this part and perhaps because some of it’s been lost with the passages of time. But the next thing that happens is that, well, God doesn’t punish Cain. And you think “That’s kind of strange”. I mean the Old Testament God, he’s punishing people left, right and center. “Why not Cain?” you think, well He marks Cain and he says to the people who are around that they should leave him alone, because he’s been marked by God as to be left alone. And the reason for that I think, and this is something that’s reflected in our legal system, is that murder promotes revenge. And revenge destroys societies and so God puts an end to the situation right there and then by telling people that, despite the fact that Cain has committed a terrible crime, that there will be no retribution.

Cain goes off and gets married and he has a number of generations of offspring. If you insult a member of the first generation of Cain’s offspring, he doesn’t kill you, he kills seven of you. And if you insult a member of the second generation  of Cain’s offspring, he doesn’t kill seven of you, he kills seven times seven of you. And then on down the road the offspring of Cain is Tubal-cain and Tubal-cain is the artificer of weapons of war. And this stunningly brilliant story says in its incredibly compressed fashion that the motivation that drives the commission of the worst human atrocities is an inevitable social consequence of the refusal of the self-conscious individual to make the sacrifices appropriate to establishing a harmonious life and their consequent degeneration into a kind of murderous and resentment filled rage propagating endlessly through its variations in society until everything comes to an end. And the next story? Is the flood. And it’s not surprising. Because if things go from bad to worse long enough everything falls.

I’ll make very minimal comments since Dr. Peterson’s  commentary is quite extensive, much longer than the piece of literature that he is commenting on (which is probably true of many commentaries on the subject). His is not the only interpretation, but it does seem to me to be a valid one.

He makes an important point that this is probably part of a much older story and possibly a longer one (stories in oral traditions can be quite lengthy). The people listening to the original would have been much more familiar with the background and context of the stories as well as the meaning and value of the sacrifices. Even populations in later biblical times (1st century AD) would perhaps have been at least somewhat familiar with the context. To the modern reader, completely removed from such a culture, and none of whose ancestors in memory would have been part of such a culture, it is seemingly a remote piece of history. The reader needs to be able to read the text without being part of the living cultural matrix in which the text is situated, the way its authors and original audience would have been.