Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.
When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.
I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.
If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.
In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.
What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?
Here are some possibilities:
We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.
It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.
We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.
For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.
As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.
It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming—just a little!
I learned long ago that the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.
Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.
It’s only in the tension of connection that we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.
Living in the complex, enigmatic, fascinating void between how I experience myself and how others experience me. My daily crime.
Sometimes these posts are like puzzles. I pick up fragments in the course of daily life, and I find they all belong to the same idea. Remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles as a kid? I’m never sure what the shape is I’m working on, but I turn the pieces of the puzzle around until I’m satisfied with a coherent (hopefully!) post. It’s fun.
If I was bent on delivering a learned lecture in this post, I would have titled it “Postmodernism.” I’m not interested in lecturing, though, or philosophizing, or exploring current ideas and trends in a scholarly way. Ick. If you’re not sure what postmodernism is, here’s a link. You can educate yourself and draw your own conclusions—always the best way!
As I researched postmodernism I came across a referral to “post-truth.” Huh? Post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Truth is a slippery concept, and I’m not interested in debating whether it’s “real” or not. The tension between objective facts, denial and beliefs is a can of worms I have no interest in opening. I do accept science-based inquiry and methodology, particularly if data can be replicated, the process is peer-reviewed, and the funding is clean and unbiased. For me, truth and learning are dynamic, flexible and organic. What might be true for me today may change tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean today’s truth is necessarily a lie.
I don’t accept that belief and truth are the same, and I don’t accept that feelings and thoughts are necessarily objective facts.
The puzzle pieces I have collected this week all fit into postmodernism, but, as usual, I come at it in my own unique (and slightly off-center) way. Here are the pieces, in no particular order:
One of my four most important values and priorities in making choices is to see things clearly; in other words, not to argue with what is, be in denial, or wholly and unconditionally believe in my own stories, assumptions, and feelings. Understand, I validate, value and rely on my feelings, but I’m very aware they don’t always point to the truth. I might feel rejected, for example, but that doesn’t mean I am rejected. It doesn’t mean I’m not, either. The feeling points me toward something that needs further exploration, that’s all.
When I say “see things clearly,” I mean accepting what is without fear, resistance, apology, or the need to rewrite or sanitize my experience.
The second puzzle piece is a conversation I had with an approximately 30-year-old man in which I described a relationship that was not working well and what I did about it. His comment was that I was “harsh.” Intrigued, I asked if it would have been better if I’d lied to the other party, or continued the relationship in spite of believing it was unhealthy for both of us. He had no answer for that. I asked if he had a suggestion for a kinder or different way I could have communicated my truth clearly. He had no answer for that one, either. What I was left with was that, from his point of view, it was wrong for me to feel the way I did and tell the simple truth about it, without shame or blame, honestly communicating my sadness, my need to part ways, and my caring for the other party.
I’ve thought a lot about this conversation. As regular readers know, I dislike labels and sweeping generalizations, but I wonder if part of his problem with my choice about ending my relationship has to do with the trend in his generation toward postmodernism; that is, that there is no truth, all stories are equal, and to speak “truth” is somehow hateful, bigoted, and/or mean. I’ve even been told stating the truth is “dehumanizing.” Wow.
From my point of view, identifying and speaking the truth is by far the kindest thing we can do for each other and ourselves. Communicating the truth means we are taking responsibility. It means we have the courage to have a difficult conversation face-to-face, rather than ghosting, making excuses, living a lie, or leaving someone with no closure. It means we are healthy enough to take care of ourselves and manage our time and energy, and authentic enough to be heartful and committed in what we choose to do with our lives.
I realize, of course, that some people use the truth as a club, and take no trouble to employ clear, kind language. Shame and blame and refusing to take responsibility are not truthful. Pretending is not truthful. Making excuses is not truthful. Cultivating a pseudo self is not truthful.
The third piece of this particular puzzle was in a book titled Roadwork by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). Here it is:
“But Mary’s footsteps never faltered because a woman’s love is strange and cruel and nearly always clear-sighted, love that sees is always horrible love, and she knew walking away was right and so she walked …”
I’m a fan of King’s writing, and this quote really caught my eye. I stopped reading, bookmarked the quote so I wouldn’t lose it, and thought about being a mother and all the agonizing choices one makes when raising a child. (The context of the quote has to do with a mother and child.)
It’s terribly difficult (and sometimes terribly painful) to be clear-sighted about our own children. We are forced to make decisions that tear us apart, always striving to do what we think is best and frequently missing the mark. Moreover, having children means we are forced to look at ourselves more clearly for their sake, and that process is humbling, painful, and occasionally terrifying.
I ask myself, is this how King experiences a woman’s love? If so, is it a woman’s love for her child he has his eye on, or a woman’s love in general? Is it terrible love because it’s “clear-sighted,” or because women who love are capable of making horribly difficult choices and sacrifices for the sake of those they love? Is it the love that’s “strange and cruel,” or the clear-sightedness of that love? Or both?
I recently wrote about unconditional love. Is that kind of clear-eyed love “horrible” because it’s so powerful?
I’ve mentioned before somewhere on this blog that in the Tarot deck, which has pre-Christian roots, The Devil symbolizes authentic experience. This indicates to me that dealing with the truth is not a new challenge for human beings. Postmodernism is just another cyclical iteration we’ve come up with as we struggle with the truth, misinformation, outright lies, authenticity and pseudo self, the sincere desire of many to be kind and compassionate, and the equally sincere desire on the part of others to control cultural narratives and (dis)information. I’m the first to admire and practice kindness and compassion, but taken too far they become enabling, denial, codependence, pseudo self and abdication of our own self-defense and needs.
The last piece of the puzzle was this link I received to a piece of satire about the “divisiveness” of truth. Satire is not my gig (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s above my head), and I don’t normally enjoy it or pass it on, but this was certainly timely, and it demonstrates the (to me) crazy thinking that postmodernism can lead to.
It seems to me truth is connecting rather than divisive. I’m wary of anyone who responds to the presentation of an objective or science-based fact with a rant about divisiveness. It seems to me that those who seek to persuade us there is no truth anywhere, that whatever we believe is Truth, are the ones who are actively divisive. Critical thinking is not about hate, fear, control or manipulation, it’s about seeing the world around us with curiosity and clarity.
So what’s the deal with the demonization of truth, or authenticity, or honesty, or facts, or whatever? Does it have to do with technological cultural influences? Is it connected to our broken educational system? Does our decreasing literacy (TLDR—too long, didn’t read) play a part? Do our burgeoning health problems, poor diets and ever-increasing toxin loads affect our ability to think well?
Have we become so fat, lazy and comfortable that we simply don’t want to make the effort to learn, explore, reflect and think critically?
Are we so entitled and selfish that we reject unpleasant or unwelcome truths that might threaten our status quo?
Sometimes the truth is painful, inconvenient, and difficult to hear and say. Are we so precious, pampered and cowardly that we need everything sugar-coated and artificially flavored and colored in order to deal with it, never mind if it’s truth or lies? (Have you watched any commercials lately?)
I don’t know. The only power I have is what I do with my own life. In my own life, endeavoring to see things clearly, to understand, to excavate what’s true for me at any given point in time and put it into effective, clear, responsible language and action, are paramount. Objective facts matter. History matters. Science is important. I value literacy, learning, education and professional expertise.
I’ve spent much of my life people pleasing and enabling the destructive behavior of others. I’ve spent much of my life assiduously cultivating what I thought was an acceptable pseudo self. I lacked the courage and support to face my own truths in the privacy of my head, let alone speak them to others. I allowed others to bully, manipulate and punish me for seeking objective facts. I allowed myself to be the target of gaslighting and projection.
This week I’m contemplating The Hanged Man, a Major Arcana card in the Tarot deck. The traditional meaning of the card is “life in suspension.” Not coincidentally, The Hanged Man is the title of my first book.
The Tarot illustrates archetypes, and archetypes, like stories, have many rich facets and shades. The meaning of such symbols is never cut and dried, and archetypes can always be understood in layers and intuitive connections.
For many years I’ve worked with Tarot cards every six weeks, and at least half the time I pull The Hanged Man out of a deck of 78 cards, thoroughly shuffled and cut, for a 10-card spread. It’s obvious this particular card carries an important message for me.
Life in suspension. What does that mean?
First, I have to decide what “life” means.
Life: Doing, having, being.
For 50 years, I believed I had to make up for the fact of my being by doing and having. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to support and appreciate my need and desire to just be. Gradually, I’m changing my focus and attention from having and doing to being.
Thinking or talking about just being–feeling, playing, expressing, being in my body, following my interests and desires–seems either ridiculously shallow or criminal, I’m not sure which. Maybe both together.
On the other hand, having and doing can certainly be shallow in the long run, and provide only a brief period of comfort and pleasure, at best.
Life in suspension. Being in suspension? As in I’m too busy doing and having to be?
That doesn’t sound good.
In my world, doing doesn’t count unless the doing is perfectly done. As perfection is a goal I never achieve, spending most of my time and energy doing seems like a bad investment.
As I explore and adopt minimalism, having is less and less important.
That brings us back to being.
Life in suspension describes those times during which we feel stuck. We might be in a job that doesn’t challenge us, a relationship that’s not healthy, or an addiction. We might feel trapped in indecision, fear, grief or financial struggles. We can spend years, decades, lifetimes with pieces of our lives in suspension while we wrestle with our demons.
The entirety of our lives is generally not in suspension at the same time. We might be very pleased to have healed a health problem, yet still have struggles with money. We might be happy at work but stuck in our personal relationships, or vice versa. We might function for years with a hidden addiction, or wrestle chronically with our weight.
The thing about being stuck is that it doesn’t feel competent, attractive, effective or like success.
It feels like failure.
On the heels of failure are the hounds of guilt, shame and isolation.
But during those messy periods when our lives are in suspension and our feelings painful, what sort of invisible, underground growth and change is happening? What is hidden in that suspended interval that is regenerative, creative and fertile?
The Hanged Man wears an enigmatic smile in many Tarot decks. He’s hanging from one leg from the branch of a tree. Why does he smile? Why isn’t he thrashing and cursing, trying to get loose? Why is he peaceful? How did he get there, and how long must he hang? What will happen to him after he’s unfettered? Who hung him there in the first place, and why?
Life in suspension sounds like nothing is happening. Everything has stopped. Yet one of the things we can say about life with complete confidence is that it’s always changing.
I realize now my book, The Hanged Man, is at heart an examination of lives in suspension, or at least partly so. What happens to a mother who has murdered her children? That’s a life not so much in suspension as shattered, but what of her grief, her shame and her pain? How does one continue after such an event? What happens to a man who flees his home, his parents and his young wife, and is not able to stop running? What happens after we die? What’s happening while we’re waiting for spring, or for the baby to be born, or for a death?
Times of despair, illness, injury, grief, exile and failure can make us feel that we are stuck. We can’t seem to fix, change or get away from the tree in which we’re hanging upside down. Nothing seems to be happening and our discomfort goes on and on. Others fear us, or are repelled or uncomfortable because of our trouble. Failure of any sort is contagious. Nobody wants to be infected.
Yet suspended intervals are common to us all. We might pretend they’re not happening and hide them from others, but who hasn’t been through a time of failure, either one catastrophic event or many smaller ones? Who hasn’t spent time mired in grief, rage, addiction or indecision? Who hasn’t lost themselves in confusion or been paralyzed by fear?
That’s why The Hanged Man is such a powerful archetype.
The suspended interval doesn’t seem like rich ground for stories at first glance, but I’ve always been more attracted to the less popular and less prized side of life. I like the blood, the sweat and the wet spot. I like the harsh realities of bone and ash.
Years ago I started creatively exploring lives in suspension without ever thinking about it in those terms. It was a careless kind of play, inspired by my storytelling material. What happened to the characters from the beautiful old traditional tales I was telling after—or even before—the story I knew? When Rapunzel escaped the tower, where did she go? What did she do? What became of the prince the little mermaid loved?
Why is that rascally hanged man smiling?
In the suspended interval, decades long, of hiding my writing because I felt it was a shameful, unproductive waste of time and it earned no money, I accidentally started writing a book. Or, I should say, a series of books.
It didn’t seem like much was happening while I was living those years, though. I was just hanging on, living my life.
Now that life I was experiencing while nothing much was happening has become nearly two thousand pages of creative work.
In old stories, a crossroad is always a magical place of power and choice. You never know who you might meet at a crossroad. Perhaps a lean, handsome peddler will draw up a cart and spread his wares. Other travelers may appear. Elders may linger there with wisdom under their tongues. Crossroads are not always identified by neat, straightforward lettered signs, but portents, omens and intuitive signs abound. A dismally croaking raven, a snake in the dust or a fleeting glimpse of a fox all have a message at a crossroad.
I rarely miss posting weekly, but last week I did. I succumbed to a virulent upper respiratory virus and for a few days had no choice but to down tools and lie low. Simply breathing occupied all my attention and energy. I cancelled plans and obligations, abandoned my ‘to accomplish’ list and let go of my self-expectations.
This was frustrating, as it was the week in which I intended to transition effortlessly from my old job to new possibilities, witness the smooth closing of the sale of my property in Colorado, and generally navigate these significant endings and beginnings seamlessly, elegantly, confidently and without mess.
Instead, I emptied two boxes of Kleenex, coughed as though ready for an end-stage TB ward, achieved a spectacularly sore and chapped mouth and nose, drank liters of fluid with the inevitable day and night result of continually needing to pee, and tried to sleep in a sitting position to facilitate breathing through my clogged airway.
Instead of transitioning smoothly into new work, I canceled one opportunity and didn’t follow up on others. I worried about money instead.
The sale of my house did occur, but a day late due to unexpected last minute paperwork that needed to be signed and notarized and sent from Maine back to Colorado. My renters have been unable to find a new place, the buyer (now owner) is moving into a trailer because her old house also sold and her new house still has renters in it, and I need urgently to return to Colorado and retrieve the rest of my possessions from the property.
In short, nothing about my internal, physical or external reality has been seamless, elegant, confident or without mess. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of mess, from sodden Kleenex to tangled feelings.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
None of this really surprised me. I’ve never yet been really miserably ill without a significant emotional event of some kind at the onset. I might not admit my distress intellectually, but the truth will out physically. Unacknowledged feelings eventually reach such proportions they demand my attention, one way or the other. All of my pretty plans didn’t allow for any space in which to pause, reflect, feel and be with how things are.
So, I got sick.
I resigned myself to the inevitable, did what I could for my symptoms, reread all my old Mary Stewart books (so comforting, and no brain required), dozed, and thought about intersections, endings and beginnings, suspended activity and crossroads.
I have a tendency to view my experience through a lens of metaphor and symbol, and suspended activity has been much in my mind for the last five years. The Hanged Man is a Tarot card with just that meaning, and my first book is named after it.
The Hanged Man is a card many people fear, although generally the figure depicted hangs upside down from one leg, apparently perfectly relaxed and comfortable and even smiling, depending on the deck. The card illustrates that place in life we’re all familiar with between one thing and another, just like the crossroad. Events converge and intersect. Meetings and partings take place. We suddenly come to the end of a road and it’s necessary to choose a new one.
I’ve never been good at pausing. I can accept change, but I expect myself to adjust and adapt instantly and effortlessly, no pause required. I don’t want to hang around (if you’ll pardon the pun) and think about what’s over or what I’d like to begin. I want to get a grip and move on. Now!
This is a shame, and all the old stories and archetypes tell us it’s counterproductive. Crossroads are sacred ground, filled with resting places, old altars and tilted gravestones. The leaves on trees growing at crossroads whisper all the prayers and petitions they’ve heard. At crossroads we lay out cards, cast runes and yarrow stalks, interpret dreams, drum, dance and call on our intuition and faith for guidance. A crossroad is a place to linger, honoring where we’ve been and considering a way forward, or sideways, or perhaps even retracing our steps for a second time before we go on.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
A crossroad deserves an offering of our presence and patience. It’s only in suspended activity that we access our deepest intuition and wisdom, only then when we begin to gain full understanding. Loss takes time to put to rest. Hopes and dreams need time to grow. Intuition can’t speak unless we’re quiet, and guidance can’t find us if we’re not still.
I’m writing this out on our deck in the sun. I can hear water running into the pond. The phoebe, back for another summer, is perched in her favorite spot on the barn roof, bobbing her tail and hunting for insects. Wonder of wonders, there’s not a box of Kleenex at my elbow! Not only that, but I’m breathing through my nose. Things are looking up.
Before me is a new week. I’ve sort of given up on the seamless and elegant thing. It hasn’t been fun to be sick, but I’m grateful I was forced to pause. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything except wasting time and blowing my nose, but I see now I needed to hang by one leg and just be for a little while. I needed to consider what’s ending, and how I feel about it, and what direction I want to go now. I needed to spend some time wandering in my graveyard, remembering what’s laid to rest there. It was important to revisit my hopes and dreams, check in with my intuition and take time to wonder what will happen next.
At this point I’ve decided to be content with lingering at this crossroad. When it’s time to go on from here, I’ll know. In the meantime, this is a good place. Maybe a peddler is even now on his way to meet me, or an old crone in a hooded cloak will come in the dark morning hours with an enigmatic message that will show me the way forward. Who knows?
Now that this is written, perhaps I’ll go find the tree from which the Hanged Man is suspended and see what’s on his mind today.