Last Thursday, I headed off to Rhode Island to meet an online friend for the first time in real life. The occasion was an opportunity to see Jordan Peterson speak live in Providence, and I jumped at the chance.
It was a moving experience, in that crowded theater, to see this man, returning from a near-fatal illness, walk out on stage to a standing ovation before he had ever uttered a single word. He never intended to become famous. It only happened because he refused to to live by lies, and was determined to seek out the meaning in our existence, come hell or high water, helping whoever he could along the way. No one there needed to hear anything new to know what he meant to them. If you were in one of those seats, odds were good it was because he had already changed you, and you were there not just looking for more, but to show your support and your love.
Peterson shoulders his notoriety — which contributed to the sickness that nearly took his life — with humility, and treats it like the grave duty it has become. Even before he wound up in a medically-induced coma in Russia after having a paradoxical reaction to prescribed anxiety medication, and the long recovery period he has endured to return to find the strength to return to the stage, he spoke movingly of those who have been touched by his work:
In his talk last week, Peterson — who gives a different lecture on every stop of his tour, preferring to riff on ideas he’s working on over prepared speeches — focused on themes surrounding the first rule in his most recent book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. That rule is: “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.” For Peterson, a Canadian, the idea of social institutions is very much on his mind as the Orwellian scene in Ottawa plays out. He avoided most specific references to that situtation, but the theme of his talk was clear: “Compulsion is a sign of bad policy.”
It’s an overtly political theme, but also one I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to religion. One I hope to write about more very soon.
The talk was full of wonderful, though-provoking moments, but I have neither a recording or notes, so I’d do a disservice to Peterson to attempt to summarize it.
Some of my favorite thoughts came out of the Q&A after the talk. One person asked, “If you could go back in time to give your college self one piece of advice, what would it be?” With very little consideration, he replied in a decisive tone, “Have more children, and have them earlier.” His daughter Mikhaila was moderating the Q&A, and the expression on her face made it clear that she was both surprised and delighted by his reply. (She has played a critical role in his recovery, and is now part of his larger enterprise, even as she grows a sizeable podcast audience of her own.)
In another question, Peterson was asked, “When do you see a person’s true character.” An audience member yelled out, “When they’re drunk,” and Peterson replied with a wry smile, “That’s only what drunk people think.” With a little more consideration, he answered, “When you face adversity.” He explained just how much he learned about people when he got sick. Once again, with this answer, you can tell just how much more deeply he feels connected to his family these days. If he was “the man in full” during his previous book tour, as my friend Kale Zelden put it, this time he was (also in Kale’s words), “Frodo after Mordor.” He is a changed man. Diminished in some sense, more profound in another. Suffering has transformed him, even if he’s the first to admit that he’d never tell you something so trite as that it made it all “worth it.”
I want to talk more about Kale for a minute, though, since he plays a starring role in this story.
Virgil to my Dante
I can’t tell you for certain when Kale, the formerly-online friend who invited me to Peterson’s Providence talk, first started interacting with me. If I had to guess, I’d say it was 2018 or 2019. At first, he was a reader of mine who pinged me with some interesting thoughts, sharing them on Twitter in a way that was provocative without being snarky — a rare enough thing to take notice of. Later, we transitioned to more in-depth conversations via private message. Then, one day, he practically reached through my screen and grabbed me with an email that I can say, without exaggeration, changed my life. It was in August of 2020, while I was still in the thick of running 1P5. For the previous six months, I had found myself increasingly alienating large segments of my long-cultivated audience with decidedly non-tribal takes on current events. My faith was crumbling, and I was trying to hold on through sheer force of will. The answers I was finding within Catholicism no longer satisfied. I had no idea what to do. My sense of identity was dissolving, and I was rapidly losing my sense of direction.
When his email came, it was within 48 hours of my experience of a turning point from a personal crisis so deep it had almost cost me everything. My marriage, which had almost ended, was inexplicably saved in a moment of unearned forgiveness. My perspective on the expectations I had for “the way things should be” had been blown apart. I had been shown mercy and love I had not deserved. If my heart had been hardened before, the churn of my life and the nascent epiphany that love mattered more than rules, doctrines, or even order itself had broken me open, and I was vulnerable and ready for unexpected ideas. The ground was fertile for new seed. The old me was dead. I was ready for what was next.
Kale knew none of this, of course. He had been pondering the online discourse, and was increasingly concerned with what he saw — and thought maybe I might be the guy willing to address it. He had no idea that his observations were about to take me from the dark wood in which I had found myself and show me a pathway out. I have come to think of him as the Virgil to my Dante, at this phase of my life. He has helped to lead me out of my particular Inferno and on to higher things.
In the email, which to an outsider may seem like an unlikely catalyst for profound metanoia, Kale made an appeal to look outside of trad-world bubble I had spent the better part of two decades within for some sense-making help:
A few years back I stumbled upon the Jordan Peterson/Kathy Newman clip on Rod Dreher’s blog. I was intrigued by the interchange, and enjoyed his calm demeanor in the face of an obvious attempt at a smear job. But honestly, bill C16 wasn’t really my jam.
But as I started to watch his videos, along with other members of the group dubbed the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), I lamented that this group (Peterson, Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying, Eric Weinstein, James Lindsey, Joe Rogan, et al) has almost zero interaction with my (our) own tribe of Trad Catholics.
There is virtually no one in the Catholic Trad-ish world with the capacity and/or stones to actually remain elastic enough to learn from the IDW without resorting to some kind of of knee-jerk response along the lines of “well in sacrum sacrum sacrum, the church condemns this as wrong-think,” etc.
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the farcical poke at pontifical prooftexting in his last sentence. This had been my world for many years, and I was rather proficient at citing the proverbial Sacrum Sacrum Sacrum myself. But it wasn’t cutting it anymore. A lot of the harshness in my persona, as well as the anxiety, the fear, the guilt, the triumphalism, the frustration I dealt with on a daily basis — a jumble of emotions and ideological positions one would be hard-pressed to see as in any way positive — were very directly a result of the traditionalist ideology I had imbibed. It was a belief system that perpetually saw itself as a tiny, persecuted minority (within an already persecuted minority, namely Catholicism itself) whose members were perpetually on the brink of defeat, and were just waiting for divine reinforcements who never came. A cultivated hostility with not just “the world” but the larger Church meant seeing enemies everywhere, criticizing everything and everyone, all the time, and encountering daily existence with the sort of hawk-eyed search for threats that leads to seeing existential danger in the flicker of every shadow. It’s a kind of self-inflicted PTSD — which feels oddly normal, if you’ve already got the real kind in some form — and it makes you a miserable, trigger-happy sonofabitch.
I had owned Peterson’s earlier book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, since I bought it on a whim during a summer road trip in 2016. I’d heard people talking about this profoundly interesting psychologist who was offering young men a sense of direction without a specific appeal to religion, and I was curious. But I don’t think I ever made it past the first chapter. Now, I’m notorious for not finishing books; this is not an indictment of Peterson. But considering how quickly I got through it on my second attempt, I suspect I just wasn’t ready back then. In 2016, I was just coming into the height of 1P5’s popularity, and was as a consequence still very ensconced in the hardened bunker of Tradistan. I was the kind of guy who thought, solely in virtue of my religious convictions, that I had something to teach someone like Peterson, more than I had something to learn from him.
Zeal and hubris are, alas, often indistinguishable.
Being a full-fledged member of Tradistan means your cup is always full. There’s just no room to take in more when you already know everything — or at least, when whichever version of Sacrum Sacrum Sacrum you have in your screenshots folder does. There’s this weird psychological phenomenon in tradland where folks — usually but not always young men —outsource the pride and arrogance they know would be personally sinful to the Church, since She Can Never Be Wrong™. They then weaponize this narcissism-by-proxy to glibly condemn anyone who falls short, unconvincingly disguising their rash judgment as a spiritual work of mercy: “I’m just admonishing the sinner/instructing the ignorant, fam.”
But my cup had just been emptied in the most profound and moving of ways. I was done, done, done with the constant negativity, the doom and gloom outlook, the conspiratorial overtones, the fear and anger and judgmentalism, all of it. I had brought that shit home and wielded it on my wife and children. For years. And I had been too blind to see the damage it had done. As I’ve written before, being Catholic didn’t make me a better person. It made me a worse one. And the ideological side of traditional Catholicism, which I’d gone all in on back in 2004, had ‘roided up the problem.
So there I was, having just woken up and realized that nothing was worth this. Not the Church. Not even God. I was not going to be a willfully miserable person for another. single. day. But I still needed to make sense of the world, and suddenly in marches this dude I barely knew from Twitter with answers on a silver platter.
I honestly didn’t realize until I sat down to write this just how profound this coinciding of events actually was.
More from Kale’s email:
[A]s regards the [resistance to the] IDW, I mean, I get it…to a point. But our sense-making apparatus we call “The Church” doesn’t make sense to those outside the tribe…and I fear will start to lose sense inside, too. It is basically incoherent, and it’s corruption from within is not the cause, but it is certainly the accelerant. Can anyone who regularly tweets at you or replies to you or scraps with you sit through an entire JBP video and simply take it in? Listen to it? Process it? Resist the urge to define and dismiss it away, in some kind of misbegotten method of apologetics? In other words, learn from it?
JBP in the q&a after his first Biblical Series says this: regarding those that say they ‘appreciate the bible’s literary merit but reject it’s underlying meanings or presuppositions’:
“they are not approaching the thing with enough respect. That’s my sense…and who knows? Right? I don’t know, but what I’ve tried to do is to think ‘there’s probably more to this than I know. And then try to understand it from that perspective, rather than to think for example ‘well it’s a collection of superstitions that we have somehow outgrown.’ It’s like, well, it’s just ‘sorry.’ NO. That’s not a deep enough analysis because it’s got some truth but it doesn’t take into account the fact that the proposition still stands at the foundation of our culture. It doesn’t address Nietzsche’s central concern which is if you blow out the nature of God then the entire structure crumbles. You can debate that. Fine. But … I don’t think the atheist types … they have wrestled with the real problems.”
I got chills listening to this on my walk. How many theologians would be willing to say this out loud?
The fact is, very few. My experience had taught me that it was like pulling teeth to get theologians who were complaining in private to admit in public that the pope was saying stuff contrary to scripture and tradition. And so I was struck, when I listened to that first Peterson biblical lecture (see below if you haven’t watched it), not primarily with the depth of his analysis or the sincerity of his grappling — both of which were very impressive — but with his absolute freedom in exploring a religious topic without fear. He spoke like a man who fervently wanted to understand the truth, full stop. He wasn’t constantly self-censoring as he thrashed ideas out, worried he’d be viewed as a heretic for what he said, concerned that he’d have unintentionally contradicted some papal bull from the 15th century and would consequently be getting angry letters from the Maniple-Measuring “Ackshually” Squad. He wasn’t preoccupied that one of the theologians who lacked the balls to go public with his deep concerns about the state of the Church was going to privately notify him that what he just said was a “damnable sin.” He just wanted to know if the damn thing meant; whether it was true, and what we could learn from it. He demonstrated zero concern for whatever sacred cows he had to puncture along the way.
It was at that moment that I had an epiphany. I realized, in a visceral way, that I’d been in a self-imposed intellectual prison for many, many years, and I was suffocating there. I’d spent months speaking out in ways that were authentic to my own thought, but which were nevertheless contrary to the prevailing views of my tribe. The topics were non-dogmatic: things like reasonable responses to COVID, moving on from failed presidential election, and even the growing toxicity of trad culture. I felt obligated to speak truthfully according to my understanding, but simultaneously encumbered by outside expectations and purity policing that tripped me up every step of the way. I was constantly being told I was stepping out of bounds, even when my digressions were far from dogmatic. Some variation on “Some trad you are” is a favorite crack of the whip to keep the independent thinkers in line. I recognized that I had become a hostage of the very audience I had cultivated and grown by developing an independent platform rooted in my desire to be free to speak unpopular truths. They expected something from me I could no longer give to them — lockstep regurgitation of the hive mind. By escaping the restrictions of diplomacy found in a formal editorial board, I had unwittingly created accountability to untold thousands of informal editors.
And I knew — I knew with all my heart — that I needed out. That I needed to take away from my peers and colleagues in trad media, or in the online commenterati, the only leverage they really ever had over me: my desire for membership in their club. My need to, as one particular relentlessly derivative opportunist likes to put it, “be on the team.”
I don’t give a damn about your fucking team, I realized. I don’t want anything to do with any of these pandering, grifting, dick-measuring demagogues. I am not the guy who is going to tell you only the things you want to hear.
I had started 1P5 because I believed I was called to it, and I could make a positive difference. For a while, maybe I had. We’d exploded onto the scene out of nowhere in 2014 and taken the top spot for online traffic in all things trad in a very short time. But that window had closed. For all the accusations I’d weathered that I was just doing it for the money, the one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do was sell out. People were going to hear what I actually thought, even if it made them all run away screaming. It was a non-viable path from the moment that mindset — which I’d had from day one — diverged from the bulk of the crowd I had originally appealed to. And then, it was only a matter of time before I either found a suitable partner to take the enterprise over or buried it six feet deep, with the hope that the audience members who actually got was I was trying to do would come with me to a place like this. I’m thankful for those of you who did.
More from Kale:
How about this quotation [from Peterson, about biblical understanding] as a kind of prolegomena for a kind of “method”? How many of us Catholics exhibit this kind of humility and relation to that which we are trying to study and figure out and protect and promote? I just don’t see it. I mean, instead, I see arguments online about rubrics and postures and positions…it’s all just bullshit politics. But instead of following the Ted Smith vs. Jane Jones race for local comptroller at the town council, we argue about churchmen in the far flung capital of Rome. I mean, it’s not that those things aren’t important…but we need to stop pretending that any of this church politics speaks to the lived experiences of dudes and dudettes in the pews.
You know who does? JBP…the folks in the IDW. They are calling out all sclerotic and decadent institutions and the Church is (implicitly) right in the center of the cross hairs.
We actually need more than tradition. Though I agree that we must cleave to our tradition, in order for us to come to a successful strategy to weather the coming storms and raise our families and not lost them, we must look to what some brave truth tellers in the culture are proclaiming and chewing on and theorizing, EVEN those that are not in our tribe. They (mostly IDW types) are often ignored because they are not part of the tribe, or they are atheists, or they like Jung too much, or some such tripe.
This kind of tribalism is a failing strategy.
Let us be more like St. Thomas. And by this, I do not mean read the Summa more…that is fine, of course, but instead, let us look to him for his method. Do we have any record of Thomas scoffing at a thinker or a source because it was “pagan” or “Jewish” or “wrong”? Of course we don’t. He read widely and generously. I like to think of him as following in the traditions of the early church fathers like Justin Martyr. I’m paraphrasing here, but Justin basically held a simple view: if it is true, it is Christian. Period.
How about we explore an expansion of our tribe, taking the insights from those outside, and seeing how we might forge a new strategy?
Kale’s email came to me as a proposal to write an article about how our sense-making capacity is badly damaged. He eventually wrote it, and it was a great article. As is usually the case with great articles, it wasn’t nearly sensational enough to get much traffic. For a website that routinely picks up 1-2K shares on posts, 133 shares was meager, at best, despite my best efforts to promote it. It’s still one of the pieces I’m proudest about publishing in my 7 years at the helm, traffic anemia be damned. (There was also this podcast, which was my favorite one I ever did.)
But more to the point, Kale’s insight into Peterson, and to a slightly lesser extent, the rest of the IDW, opened my eyes to a whole new world of people who really cared about What It All Means, even if that didn’t lead them to papistry. And I’ve continued to find their freedom in pursuit of these truths most refreshing of all. Without the bias of pre-conceived theological ideas that preclude certain avenues of thought, they’re free to explore anything and everything. Which is exactly what truth-seekers need to do, if they really care about finding out the truth.
Kale’s email and the discovery of Peterson, et. al., is not what cost me my faith. Being close enough to the Church and her teachings to see the contradiction between what she claims and what she is did that. I was fighting tooth and nail for an institution full of lies, and the more I saw the lies, the less valiant my fight revealed itself to be. If Catholicism is still true, that truth lies buried beneath centuries of layered excrescence. My investigation of her claims will have to continue, without the benefit of the doubt being given in the absence of evidence. And FWIW, Kale is a believer, if a somewhat unorthodox one, and continues to challenge me in that regard.
But if I find myself outside the once comforting walls of a cradle faith, I am not lost in the darkness. Peterson has given me a compass, and a light. He has taught me to face the monstrous things I am capable of, so that I may choose not to become a monster. He has taught me that suffering is the one universal experience of human existence, the one common bond we all share with fellow men. And if he does not preach the sublimation of suffering, as Christianity does, he does preach the meaningful things that make suffering bearable. He has taught me not to hide difficult things in the fog, but to confront them before they return, stronger and more dangerous than before. He has taught me that I cannot protect my children forever, but I can make them strong enough to protect themselves. He has taught me a great many things, and has affirmed for me that it is essential to be engaged in something “weighty, deep, profound, and difficult” for then
[W]hen you wake up in the middle of the night and the doubts crowd in, you have some defense:
“For all my flaws, which are manifold, at least I am doing this. At least I am taking care of myself. At least I am of use to my family, and to the other people around me. At least I am moving, stumbling upward, under the load I have determined to carry.”
I have long felt that burden: to be engaged in weighty matters. I enjoy frivolity; I’m a big fan of games and movies and fiction. I enjoy, perhaps more than I should, wasting time. But I’m incapable of small talk. I feel desolate and empty without conversations in which the most essential questions are examined, analyzed, and hashed out. In the past, I thought the only way to approach such things was with a set of theological parameters baked in. Now, I see that these often get in the way of really understanding anything. They are shortcuts to knowledge we have not earned. They keep us from thinking overly much about certain kinds of ideas deemed dangerous to faith. And as such, they get in the way of what we need to know. To truly learn, as I said before, our cup cannot be full. Not even by extension to something like the Church.
More from Peterson:
You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of convincing, oppressing, dominating or even amusing. You must accept this before you can tolerate a conversation where the Word that eternally mediates between order and chaos is operating, psychologically speaking. To have this kind of conversation, it is necessary to respect the personal experience of your conversational partners. You must assume that they have reached careful, thoughtful, genuine conclusions (and, perhaps, they must have done the work that justifies this assumption). You must believe that if they shared their conclusions with you, you could bypass at least some of the pain of personally learning the same things (as learning from the experience of others can be quicker and much less dangerous). You must meditate, too, instead of strategizing towards victory. If you fail, or refuse, to do so, then you merely and automatically repeat what you already believe, seeking its validation and insisting on its rightness. But if you are meditating as you converse, then you listen to the other person, and say the new and original things that can rise from deep within of their own accord.
It’s as if you are listening to yourself during such a conversation, just as you are listening to the other person. You are describing how you are responding to the new information imparted by the speaker. You are reporting what that information has done to you— what new things it made appear within you, how it has changed your presuppositions, how it has made you think of new questions. You tell the speaker these things, directly. Then they have the same effect on him. In this manner, you both move towards somewhere newer and broader and better. You both change, as you let your old presuppositions die— as you shed your skins and emerge renewed.
A conversation such as this is one where it is the desire for truth itself— on the part of both participants— that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, vital, interesting and meaningful. That sense of meaning is a signal from the deep, ancient parts of your Being. You’re where you should be, with one foot in order, and the other tentatively extended into chaos and the unknown. You’re immersed in the Tao, following the great Way of Life. There, you’re stable enough to be secure, but flexible enough to transform. There, you’re allowing new information to inform you— to permeate your stability, to repair and improve its structure, and expand its domain. There the constituent elements of your Being can find their more elegant formation. A conversation like that places you in the same place that listening to great music places you, and for much the same reason. A conversation like that puts you in the realm where souls connect, and that’s a real place. It leaves you thinking, “That was really worthwhile. We really got to know each other.” The masks came off, and the searchers were revealed.
So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom. It is for this reason that the priestess of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth. She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 255-256). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.
I’ve noticed, in my online praise for Peterson, a certain reticence to give him any credit. Some claim he is derivative — but he himself, in the video clip near the top of his post, says he’s not positing new ideas, but articulating old and established wisdom. Some scoff at him as though he is an addict, disregarding the official account of his reaction to a prescribed medication. Even if he were an outright junky, he isn’t filling concert halls because his ideas are drug-addled nonsense. Some worry over him being some ersatz messianic figure, which any mature adult should know is not the case — we don’t think he’s perfect, we just find him uniquely helpful and clear.
Peterson is a man who has a profound gift for helping us to better understand ourselves, the world around us, and the archetypal stories that make sense of our existence. He is cutting through the noise and the clutter and the chaos of post-modern thought and offering substance and duty and purpose and meaning without sugar coating the reality of suffering, all offered to a world of broken souls who were neglected or abandoned by those who were supposed to care for them and raise them and teach them how to live rightly. He is also, for those overly concerned with such things, a man grappling with Christian belief, as I’ve written about before. But he has to get there via his own path, because he is too honest to simply bend the knee while questions remain. (He is, even now, writing a book between the intersection of religion and weaponized guilt – a topic near to my heart.) As someone who spent his life on bended knee without sufficient consideration of what he was bending it to, I respect the hell out of him taking his time. If I find my way back to the Church, it will be on my own terms, not by means of the ideas and indoctrination I was spoon fed since I was too young to know that I could think contrary thoughts. That such things were not just allowed, but healthy.
And until I do find my way back, if indeed I do, Peterson has offered me a framework to understand reality and my responsibilities therein that is both challenging and useful. It is also blissfully free of the baggage of religious abuse and guilt. If there is an exchange of value between the two of us, I have gotten the far, far better deal. I will be forever grateful for all of it.