In Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, his first rule is: “Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back.” If you are facing resentment, stand up! Feeding on it, he warns, will turn resentment into monsters. And by the way, you don’t have to be a loser. If you present yourself as someone defeated, people will treat you this way. So stand up and respond to your challenges. Accept the terrible responsibility of life. Dare to be dangerous!
I’m reflecting on these words while flying home from South Asia. I can’t say I have stood so tall with my shoulders back. It was mostly Stand Down as opposed to Stand Up. After a fairly smooth flight to SFO early Friday morning, I transited to an overseas flight to Singapore. The first sign of trouble was a delay due to storms. We finally embarked but did not catch up much time. After 17 hours in the air, we landed and I ran to the gate for my third connection. I was the last person on board, receiving the same look I have given late passengers. After another four hours in the air, the only obstacle left before giving my tortured back a rest was immigration. And then Jordan’s first rule for life fell apart. There would be no standing up. For the first time in my life, I was denied entry into a country I was invited to teach. I would have to stand down.
But I was not about to appear defeated. My visa was secured. Just a matter of convincing this immigration officer that I was not a threat. Time to put my shoulders back. But as the hours went on, my shoulders began to sag and slump. Maybe I should have been less forthright about my purpose to come and teach wisdom literature. Maybe this bureaucratic red tape is a test, something to endure and wade through. Are they messing with me (like customs officers did in Amman before making me miss my flight and put me up in a transit hotel, or the Dutch official who threatened to send our container home if I could not remember everything we packed, and then waved me through)?
Sometimes I think Passport Control training includes lectures entitled, “Turn Him Into A Human Oil Spot On Life’s Tarmac,” “The Joy of Creating Chaos,” and “How to Dehumanize By Staring Blankly.” I imagine officers gathering on Friday night to watch movies like The Terminal with Tom Hanks. So cool to see people stranded.
I asked the immigration officer if I could refer to him by name, but with all of the warmth of the institutional decor he coldly replied, “My name is Immigration Officer.” He then informed me he had already called the airlines and I would be escorted to the next flight back. End of discussion. All I could think about was another 24 hours of squirming in a seat and eating airplane food.
How much of this is a growing effort to keep Christians out of his country, I am not certain. I do know that the present government, sadly, has become more alienated toward Christianity. There is a rising intolerance of other faiths, and a growing intention to keep them out. As the night wore on, I kept thinking about Jordan’s words. Don’t slump around and appear defeated. They can’t treat me like an illegal alien. Actually, they can. I was placed in a holding cell of sorts, with a guard assigned to unlock the door when I needed use of the washroom. This whole trip, one I had prepared for weeks, was turning out to be a nightmare. It had all the bleakness of a 19th-century Russian novel. Wherever I was on the dominance hierarchy scale, I was now much closer to the bottom—what Peterson describes as a terrible place to be.
With my luggage in its own holding cell, my passport confiscated, no cell phone, and no internet access (and wondering if the Blazers’ win streak was over), a helpless feeling took hold. It has been reinforced by the fact that I cannot have my passport; I cannot leave until everyone is off the plane; I cannot board until I am escorted on and my passport passed on to the next crew. The downside–I have been sitting in row 61, right next to the restrooms. The upside–I get seated before everyone, even those with elite status, sitting in first class. This causes my shoulders to straighten. Escorted by police, people might wonder if I am an onboard threat. Yes, I am living out Jordan’s words, “Dare to be Dangerous.”
A few learnings, now that I am back, especially after a wonderful night of sleep in San Francisco’s terminal. Neon lights and cleaning crews blaring, and flight announcements so soothing. Most of us tend to stop and reflect on life’s crazy experiences. For me, this has not come easy. How does a trip like this make any sense, bear any fruit? What is God up to? Did I screw up? All of the expense and preparation and time–for seemingly nothing. Are we, to use Jordan’s words, simply to accept the terrible responsibility of life?
Here’s what I do know. We are to accept that our faith will have its costs. There are consequences of aligning with Jesus, who told His disciples that you will have suffering in this world, and then exhorted them to stand up straight. (John 16:33). The reality is that what I paid this weekend is so minor compared to what so many others pay. In my brief incarceration, I thought of others who have been locked up for years and forgotten by a bureaucracy that could care less about them. And being escorted to a plane is far better than being tossed in the desert.
I do hate the occasional chaos, but the chaos is what grows me up. My flesh hates the humility. I have felt so second class these past three days. But my soul needs humility more than I realize. At times I have wanted to give someone a piece of my mind, but the Spirit pulls me back and says, “Perhaps you should allow yourself the luxury of an unexpressed thought.” Perhaps I should dwell on Philippians 4:5—“Let your kind, gentle, forbearing, reasonable spirit be known to all.”
Paul wrote these words after immigration did not work out so well for him. Show grace. Rise above setbacks and inconveniences and unreasonableness and discern where God is at work. And then put your shoulders back.