Tammy Peterson, Jordan Peterson, and The 4th Dimension
Everywhere, always, all through history, people have had religious experiences. They vary in degree, magnitude, and type, but one thing is for sure: they happen. They may be induced by plant medicine, or slipping on a banana peel, or a near death experience, or hearing a songbird sing. What is very often described is something like this: the veil lifted from my eyes and I saw ‘The 4th Dimension’; or, I met God and nothing will ever be the same.
I reached out to Tammy Peterson after she had spoken of such an experience and a radical change of heart. ‘My own plans weren’t working’ she told me. ‘I was going to die. So I started to pray’. The prayer in the Catholic rosary goes: ‘not my will but thine be done.’ Through intense prayer and giving up a strong self-will, Tammy found a greater meaning and purpose. Today, despite her husband Jordan Peterson’s still terrible condition, she seems joyful and upbeat, and she has rediscovered her passion for painting. As a result of her experience, she is now willing to open up and tell people her story.
I won’t go into too much detail regarding Tammy’s dramatic health issues and near death, which have been told elsewhere in podcasts with her daughter Mikhaila Peterson and Curt Jaimungal. But her story seems to me to be profoundly universal, which is why it is worth telling: mythologically speaking Tammy, and Jordan as well, have both experienced a kind of archetypal story of Job.
Tammy was living a blessed life of sorts, travelling the world, helping her husband and children, but something was missing: ‘What am I doing here?’ was her constant question during the whirlwind ‘Twelve Rules for Life’ world tour with Jordan Peterson. But then, at the peak of her husband’s fame and their world travels came the death sentence: nine months to live. Amazingly, Jordan was also supposed to die; he was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia, finding himself with Mikhaila in a hospital north of Moscow, not knowing how he got there. Mikhaila, who also has had radical health problems, heroically fought for her father’s life, risking everything — despite being mocked and ridiculed by the British press. Both Tammy, Mikhaila, and Jordan have experienced a horrific array of medical nightmares, misdiagnoses, and iatrogenic (or medically created) diseases. And they are all still here to tell the tale.
The Job archetype has logic: a beginning, a middle, and an end — a narrative arc. Job is living the good life; he has everything he needs. Then God, in his perverse game of cards with the devil and to test Job’s faith takes everything away. Job then experiences ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’; he wishes that he were never born; he would like to ‘shake his fist at God’, as Jordan put it in a recent interview with Jonathan Pageau. First there is great suffering, then a void, and then there is reckoning and reconciliation. God shows Job a rainbow and a whale: He boasts: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth’. The message is: we have no ultimate control of our fate. And we have to submit and be humbled by what is higher than ourselves. Nobody can do it alone.
Many people are profoundly irreligious these days and don’t believe in this kind of submission to something greater than their own personality or ego. Richard Dawkins has described religion as a sort of brain disease, a kind of parasitical meme. The general mood of skepticism and ideology of scientism makes religious experiences unspeakable and taboo. However, Tammy attests to an experience that is universal. Her awakening has a Catholic flavour, but such things also happen to Muslims, Jews, Zen buddhists, and even atheists — all the time, all over the world.
I was once told the story of a US congresswoman during the Reagan administration, who was a hard core atheist and Freudian, but had dreams that the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to her. This was during the Cold War, and when she met Pope John Paul II, he declared, without knowledge of her dreams : ‘The Virgin Mary is helping you to end communism’. The congresswoman remained a committed atheist her whole life, but was quite puzzled by her dreams and her meeting with the Pope. Of course, this story may be totally apocryphal, or Republican or Catholic propaganda, but what if it were true? ‘We know nothing about God’, Tammy told me. ‘The spiritual world is invisible’.
It should be pointed out however that religious experiences are not really the point of spiritual life. They may be a corrective to our egos, a kick in the pants to our arrogance, or result in a new orientation — but it is the daily practice that matters, Tammy told me. Regular meditation, work, and a discipline of self honesty and self-confession are essential. If one errs from truth or kindness, one should admit it right away, so that it doesn’t fester. This is the benefit of confession, as it is practiced in many traditions. Confession — by whatever means — is how we don’t become ‘bitter and resentful’ as Jordan Peterson would put it. Such religious traditions are actually not arbitrary and are in fact extremely helpful — and may provide more benefit than psychotherapy to many.
Tammy told me that after her awakening of sorts, she now experiences little miracles all the time. Synchronistic events occur daily, now that she has stopped trying to fabricate circumstances or impose her will, but listens instead. Small miracles, listening, the power of the humble — these are the values that Tammy embodies, it seems to me. It is not the ‘show’ that matters, according to Tammy, but the daily work.
And this work leads to the recognition — which literally means ‘seeing again’ — of what is most subtle and real. Tammy (who is not without a sense of mischievousness I feel), told me that she calls this the 4th Dimension. So what is this 4th dimension? We live in the 3rd dimension most of the time, she tells me, and that is the ordinary world as we know it. But when we listen, when we connect to a subtle reality, a silence and mystery descends on the word, which is the redemptive spirit that people have always called grace.
Grace is not a trivial thing. It is perhaps what we search for most in religion, art, and love — and in any beloved activity. I remember Leonard Cohen saying that if he doesn’t wake up in a state of Grace, he tries to go right back to sleep. Grace is what we feel when we are most attuned to the living pulse of reality. It happens when we are dancing, making love, or waking in nature. But we can also experience that presence in the banal, or in our worst and most hellish moments, in total vulnerability and terror, and when we are most lost. Not through my own will, but through thy will is the formula for grace that Tammy has discovered.
I was thinking about how different (but complimentary) Tammy’s spirit is from that of her husband. While Jordan, in the Nietzschean spirit, ‘philosophizes with a hammer’ — thinking through and articulating unpopular and dangerous truths, his wife’s truth seems to be about letting go of individuality, and a ‘light touch’. Jordan is a fighter; he has another kind of compassion but his message is essentially ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’. He is influenced by the Nietzschean ‘will to power’ which tells us that the individual can change the world through achievement. In other words, he leans towards will and action, whereas Tammy’s message seems to be about Grace and letting go.
However, perhaps we can reconcile these two views. We do need to exert effort and will to create good circumstances (to clean out our metaphysical room), so that we can let go of that overarching control. As the Sufis say: willful practice will not lead to enlightenment, but without willful practice, enlightenment can never happen. Jordan’s masculine will vs Tammy’s feminine surrender are therefore profoundly complimentary. Too much will and control, as Jordan points out in his book, can lead to tyranny, just as too little can lead to chaos and dispersion. The truth is somewhere on the razor’s edge.
When Tammy was in the midst of her trials and tribulations in the hospital, an old Catholic friend called Queenie visited her and asked her if she wanted to pray. Her answer was ‘why not’? That light touch again! Tammy continues to pray and lead a spiritual life, and even if she doesn’t call herself a Catholic, she is definitely a believer. And how different is her ‘why not’, from Jordan’s epic struggle with God (I’m afraid he exists, I act like he exists) Jordan tells us. But Tammy told me: ‘it’s harder for Jordan to access that’.
Isn’t it tragic that the man who has brought so many people to rediscover spiritual life cannot fully embrace it himself! However, let us give Jordan the credit he deserves: so many religious people talk about God, but how many of us can say that we really believe, even if we pay lip service to belief. And what does belief in God really mean?
Tammy Peterson is profoundly her own person and is no sycophant of her famous husband certainly. Like Jordan she is also very articulate but in an entirely different way; she speaks like a painter and a dreamer, drawing landscapes in her non linear narratives. I suspect she has always been ‘the power behind the throne’ of the Peterson empire, but now she appears willing to come out from behind that throne, to take her place, and even speak publicly, although she prefers zoom meetings to being on a stage.
If Jordan Peterson is the patriarch in the family, then Tammy is the equally powerful matriarch: she is wise, careful and intelligent. The two childhood sweethearts balance each other out, it seems to me. But why has Tammy, who obviously has something to say, been so silent? My wife told me: ‘Us women know when to speak and when to shut up’. Of course, this is a generalization, but isn’t it true that women so often have a superior sense of timing? Perhaps we can learn from wise women not to speak of profound matters until we have a good answer to the question: ‘What am I doing here?’.
Tammy is a grandmother now, and is a serene and courtly presence. We need such grandmothers and elders in this world, I told her. Her husband Jordan has shown that young men need to be empowered and encouraged by elder men. But isn’t this equally true for young women? Don’t we need wise grandmothers like Tammy — especially those grandmothers with a sense of humour and who have access to the 4th dimension?
Recently Jordan Peterson has said, in the interview with Jonathan Pageau, that the best part of his day during his periods of chronic pain, is when he says grace with Tammy and his family over a meal. During that moment of communion the 4th dimension enters, as Tammy puts it. The 4th dimension is the world that we miss, in our haste, in our willful manipulation, in our fear of being. But we need to stop, listen to the silence between the words, to the divine inspiration, to God — or whatever you want to call the living presence — to enter.