He was the tough professor, the one you liked to cite as cause for bags under your eyes, late night pizza charged to your credit card. Frat guys and drama majors would pass you heaped over a staked-out library desk, see four empty coffee cups stacked on your blue beast of a book, catch the recognizable spine: The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
“You got Peterson?” they’d ask.
When you’d nod, pity would flood their eyes.
A tall man, raspy voice. That same plaid beret, leather elbow patches on his jacket. Once, when asked whether he’d be referencing a course syllabus for the semester, Peterson’s response was that life offers no syllabus. “It’s just us,” he’d say. “Just us, our two ears, and these damn brains. Use ’em.”
Everyone had Peterson, it seemed.
Later, I’d think of Peterson in odd junctions of life. Cutting up strawberries for my five-year-old daughter. Catching a flight to Jaipur for work. Folding the whites. I once thought I saw him driving down Sepulveda Boulevard when I lived in Los Angeles—two thousand miles and years away from that quiet university—but no, it couldn’t have been him. He didn’t believe in cars.
“You’ve been given legs,” he’d said. “Two portals. Two! What more could you possibly want?”
This was his favorite question: What more could you possibly want?
The answer was less favorable, of course, because the answer was everything.
Much has changed since my days in Peterson’s lecture hall. In a short fifteen years, the vast majority of our culture has careened on a course toward speed, abundance. We manufacture solutions to manufactured problems. We purchase toilet paper, dog food, diapers, and each arrive at our door, an emailed apology if shipping time exceeds two days. We sleep in LED-lit rooms with blackout shades. We order a venti to-go, punch time clocks or keyboards, pick up kids, pick up dinner, pick up dry cleaning, drive back to our suburban homes like birdcages with garage doors.
We watch the news, shake our heads. Scroll through Twitter to read complaints about the economy, the weather, about inalienable rights. Fights over religion, childcare, the dishes. We skim an article preaching the gospel of Fitbit. The problem? Discontent. The solution? Ten thousand steps a day.
Add to cart.
I sometimes wonder what the ramifications are for our consumerist mentality, for the speed at which we seek quick answers for quicker lives. In a world where all is readily available, have we tricked ourselves into thinking our lives are problems to be solved? That people are projects to be managed?
That wisdom can be found, acquired with ease, stacked on our nightstand next to the Fitbit?
On the first day of class, Peterson stands towering at the front of the lecture hall, his calloused hands gripping the edge of an oak desk.
“You are not here to get smart,” he bellows. “Toothpaste, you get. A parking ticket, you get. Herpes, you get,” the last of which elicits a handful of snickers, maroon cheeks from the rest. He continues.
“Smart, you do not get. It is not given to you, nor received. It may be earned and it may be fought for, but do not for a second think it is available for the taking.”
And with that, Peterson tips his famous beret, leaves the room.
I don’t know whether Peterson was right or wrong, but I think I know what he was getting at. I think he was fifteen years early in debunking the myth of an entire generation who believes that information is a commodity worth chasing.
Even Solomon, praised biblically for his God-granted wisdom, found ultimate demise in the multiplication of wives, horses, talents. That when given what we all seek—answers, clarity, a sound mind—he went on to chase kingdoms.
What more could you possibly want?
The temptation runs deep. Just as Adam and Eve chose the fruit in search of wisdom, we fill our baskets in search of the same.
In this Google-able age, where the very names of our most popular technological resources are rooted in mythology—Siri, Alexa, Amazon—we might do well to remember that our world, mighty and mysterious, is vastly unfindable. That our declinate minds will fail us. That curiosity needs little confirmation.
That the most powerful phrase we can offer, sometimes, is I don’t know.
We are not here to get smart. We are not here to build knowledge or kingdoms, to search the unsearchable. There is no answer key, no syllabus, no shortcut down Sepulveda Boulevard.
Instead, there is this: deep, satisfactory awe.
Babies born under impossible circumstances. Whale patterns dictated by the moon. Great loves fought for, lost, regained by an inch. The speed of a blink, the bite of a lemon. Thunder. Freckles. Breath. Ten thousand trillion ants weaving beneath fourteen billion legs—two portals! what more?!—all scurrying around under the same stretch of sky.
It is enough to make you gasp, the final realization that perhaps we grow wise not through knowledge but through wonder. That life exists in the questions, not the answers. That acquiring wisdom has little to do with the hoarding of information and everything to do with the releasing of theories.
That maturing in faith means becoming childlike, profoundly slack-jawed at our perfect smallness.
Just us, our two ears, and these damn brains.
What more could we possibly want?
When Peterson returns our final dissertations at the end of the semester, I flip through two hundred pages of bound paper to find a B minus Sharpied upside down on the bottom of the final page. As I scan the paper, the strange pattern continues—each note in the margin scrawled upside down, a reversal in red.
The lecture hall quiets as forty students shuffle papers, tilt their heads, attempt to crack the code. We meet his eyes and wait for the explanation we know to expect.
“Don’t go through life thinking your way is rightside up and other people’s way is upside down,” he booms. “Flip the page, explore a different rightside up. Lose your bearings. And never stop questioning your own meager sense of direction.”
And with that, his famous beret tip one last time.
Cover image by Alex.