Someone dear to me asked that I write to my Lunar correspondents about how to gain perspective in troubled times. Understandably enough. The month of August 2017 has given us whiplash – first, Charlottesville, then the remarkable eclipse, ending with Hurricane Harvey.
I have a few thoughts about all of this, but I decided it would be best to hold off before answering, and pull some cards from my classic Marseilles deck first, in the spirit of the Delphic Days we started over a year ago. I had my beloved lend assistance, since this is a concern we both have together.
What do we need to know in troubled times, I asked, and what is the appropriate way to respond?
The first card we pulled was the diagnostic card: the Tower Card. And then the answer to the second query came in two parts: Death and the Sun, Le Soleil.
I actually love the Tower card. It speaks to change – swift and absolute. There is nothing subtle about this card, no easing one into the difficult times. Rather, they land on your doorstep, on your television screen, in living color and undeniable.
The Tower also speaks to a core tenet of the Sacred Arts – that beauty is found in the broken places. And so it is. I have been privileged now to watch hundreds and hundreds of people sift through and stand knee deep in their broken places. Without fail they find treasure. It is always unexpected. Not always clearly applicable in the moment. But treasure nonetheless. I like this card too, because it tells you what you are dealing with straight up – it feels like the end of the world because in some ways, it definitely is.
In the Marseilles deck “Death” is simply “XIII”, that is, it is unnamed. In my experience with the card generally, and what I encourage my clients and students to see, is that Card XIII is nothing to be scared of, and can lead to very interesting and useful insights.
When we divine, we are looking for a way of understanding not only what might be, but also what is, and what has been. And whenever one is engaged in this project, it is much more useful to be led by curiosity as opposed to passionate feelings that are often called up by organizations that have their own agendas (hint: not concerned with what is best for you).
So as diviners we ask questions, and the interesting one to ask with Card XIII here is…why is it unnamed? Why is Death not written on the Card? Every other card in the Major Arcana has a title – for example, The Sun or The Tower. I will have more to say about this question below. But let’s begin with the final card that came up in the reading, The Sun.
What is the appropriate way to respond? we asked.
Under the brilliant rays of the sun, two people hold each other in a caring embrace. This was especially poignant to me as something literally needed for significant parts of my home state of Texas – to dry things up, to shine once more, to remind us that all was not lost.
The first thing many of us do in troubled times is look out for number one. It is so deeply an instinctual urge that very likely no human being is immune from it. Disaster looms and the first thought is: I’m going to get mine, I’m going to take care of me, it’s a dog eat dog world.
Thomas Hobbes, a political philosopher whose work still shapes the world today, said it like this: “life is nasty, brutish, and short.” He believed that men responded in kind to that reality, making life, and politics a zero sum game of winner takes all. It is easy to write off that idea as another irrelevant notion by a European man, but the man had lived through some serious devastation and war. He had witnessed events first hand that gave him this impression. And we have some sense of what he is talking about. But the upshot politically is that our common life all comes down to force – not justice, not something beautiful and good.
We can feel it physically when this attitude comes over us. Jaw juts out. Voice gets louder, harsher. Shoulders hunch forward, eyes narrow in suspicion, and we are just waiting and ready to drop down into fighting stance. We say things we would normally never say. We treat people in ways we would normally never treat them. We harden ourselves in every possible way; feeling and fearing that we cannot afford to stay tender. For to do so equals death.
We know this way of being; we have seen it in others, and if we are honest we have seen it in ourselves. But we also know something else. While a nihilistic, me-first, attitude is part of our experience it is not the only part, and we are certain that it is not the best part.
For what we also see is that saving your own skin is the last thing that actually counts in troubled times. What matters, what inspires, enlivens and teaches is having and helping each other, moving through it together. Not you or me, but we, all of us, together. We feel this physically too. It opens up our chest, we breathe deeper, our throats close up and our eyes fill with tears; we soften, letting tenderness in. The love found in helping where and when we can, even at personal loss, shines far brighter than the fear that would have us betray right relationship for a survival that is lonely, isolated, and apart.
I’ve heard multiple people from both sides of the political aisle say that Hurricane Harvey has been a kind of blessing because after the hatred, ignorance, racism, and division we saw in Charlottesville we needed to know that we, as a country, could come together. This strikes me as wrong for multiple reasons. I don’t think hurricanes work like that for one thing. For another it feels far too sentimental. I shudder to think of the attitude it could foster. Could precipitating a disaster be justified to ‘bring people together’?
But what I do find interesting is the yearning that I see across cultures, ethnic, and racial lines to be led by our better angels, not our worst selves. We know we have within us what is required to fuel more Charlottesvilles, for hate comes easy. We aren’t so sure, I think, that we have what it takes to mitigate a disaster like Harvey. We aren’t as sure any more that we can love that hard. So when we see that at least some of us can and do love that hard, I think a breath held by the collective is suddenly released. Maybe the sun will shine again after all.
Le Soleil – The Sun – recalls to mind the ancient Chinese concept of virtue, ren, which is a pictograph of a human being held within the number two, the number of relationship. This is a picture of humanity.
Our humanity – that is, who we really are – begins in at least two, in relationship, not with ourselves alone, egoistically conceived as prior to all other relationships. The starting point is right relationship, not isolated ego.
This is one part of the mystery held in the teaching found in many First Nation and indigenous communities, that life is made up of “all our relations” – people, creatures, rocks…all beings. Together.
In the Gospels, Christ drives toward the same idea, advising his people to be like the sun whose rays shine everywhere. Your deepest love is not partial. He doesn’t mean to say, um, be like a flashlight, shining on one thing (yourself) and forgetting about the others.
In Plato, the Sun was – playfully – the Good. Most of all, the Sun is fullness of vision and clarity of mind and consciousness – and consciousness is healing. This is the moment the sun returns after the troubling storm departs: now the rebuilding can begin.
When I see radically different groups of people, from different times, different parts of the world, and different cultures working hard to say something very similar, I pay attention. I think in all of the above examples there is an articulation of what it means to strive, together, to find wisdom and healing at the exact times they are most likely to disappear. I see that in each of the above examples there is a call to love, not as a way to avoid or escape the Tower crumbling and falling, but rather as a way to meet it, head on.
In a Delphic Days conversation, what I pull from my deck is not authoritative: you would also ask the question of your oracle of choice – whichever one works for you – and we would share and sort through the results, and let them guide us, as we move together slowly and collectively toward wisdom and healing, toward a perspective that counts.
I want to tell you, though, tenderly, that no useful perspective is forthcoming until we can recall out of the flooded lands and muck, some scattered old words back into our speech and into our reflections on our hardest experiences – until we can call some wanderers home again.
The disappearance of words in the mud of self-forgetting is surely an event in history. Since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche, it has been de rigueur to try to go “beyond” good and evil, to be the sort of people who create our own values.
Good and evil were understood to be bourgeois categories, guaranteeing mediocrity and stifling our (as it was understood) truly heroic and freely creative natures. We washed our hands of all self-righteous moralistic talk, disgusted with the moral absolutism and injustice it all-too-often inspired.
Case in point: the institution of slavery. We wanted a more just world, and in order to create it we knew we needed to stand on new ground, turn a fresh page, and cut out the language of good and evil that had been used to excuse and encourage barbaric practices.
The approach makes sense. It comes from the best possible place. The consequence, however, is that the concept and language of virtue has passed out of our line of sight, losing its currency in our ordinary ways of thinking and talking about hard experiences of life.
Virtue has even come to mean the opposite…sanctimonious hypocrisy, prejudice. Worse than that, the concept of virtue is becoming more and more language owned and used by some of the loudest and most hateful voices. I heard many people say many things about what happened in Charlottesville. I heard no one call it – for very long or at all – by its proper name: evil.
And here’s the thing that anyone whose lineage and life has been touched by slavery can tell you: You don’t erase the underlying thing by erasing the word. Even though we have lost the language of virtue, the phenomena of virtue or – what is more precise – the problems which virtue speaks to, are still there, everyday, practically unnamed and wandering about among us, homeless, sometimes with great harm and sometimes with astonishing grace.
We have seen virtue and its opposite on display in August, first in Charlottesville and then in Houston. We have seen it; but few of us have the language to speak to what we have seen. Which means that we also do not have the capacity to think and feel through those events with as much integrity and clarity as we might otherwise be able to. Which means in turn, that our actions in response may not be as rooted, clear-sighted, helpful, healing, and loving as we would have them be. That means that things like Charlottesville will happen again and again and again. And when we are at the point where we look to a massively destructive storm to make us feel better about ourselves, I think we need to re-assess what’s been given up and whether the trade off was worth it.
It is no coincidence, to my way of thinking as a Sacred Artist, that the Marseilles “Death” card Number XIII is unnamed. On the one hand, we know what it is. Death doesn’t need to be introduced. The Holy Names are sacred too – better to leave such things unnamed, the things that surpass all comprehension. But just look at the dismembered body parts strewn about under the sway of that sharp scythe. Death is unnamed because that is what fear does: it unnames us, freezes us, renders us mute.
Now flip this over and you can see something. Finding the true name of a thing, like your own true name, is not in fact dis-membering, but re-membering, bringing it back together, unifying, whole-making and holy. This is the challenge of the Death card. Do you know your name? Do you know yourself? Do you remember? This is why in my tradition we make such a big deal about remembering our Beloved Dead; in remembering them, we remember ourselves, we remember our capacity not just for fear but for love.
Perspective will come, then, when we can finally see that – after all – even though we don’t like to speak in absolutes, and we don’t want to be unjust people, we are not at all beyond the problems of good and evil, we are not beyond taking a stand for the good and for what is right, and perhaps even not beyond naming them for what they are in fact.
Maybe it is time, then, to humbly and simply welcome our homeless wanderers – those problems of good and evil – home again in our thinking, give them a place to reside, to clothe and nourish them, help them re-enter society – to educate them, to learn the lessons of the past, for the sake of our future together. Maybe they too are like ancestors and maybe it is time we start to remember them as such.
I suspect that when we do that we will know with more certainty that we are here to love hard and that we will be able to see with more clarity the ways and places that hate seeps in like so much poison and stop it in its tracks.
In the aftermath of August, we hear some popular speakers saying things like “human beings are “wired” to fundamentally good.” So attractive, for it offers a simple solution to life’s problems, but it is a silver bullet solution. I submit that this view, far from expanding our sight, in fact narrows our vision, blocks perspective – by obscuring what may be staring us in the face.
My thoughts have lately been with a specific client base that I have, and wondered what they would think about some of these popular speakers and their claims. These clients have been with me a very long time. They are mostly African-American, women, and in between the ages of 55-65. They are church-goers, and they have a deep memory: they remember the Civil Rights movement, they remember some of the events that made it necessary and that still do. I heard them say in their calm, alto voices, “People are fundamentally good? Bullshit. People make a choice to be good.” I love these clients of mine. They are not on Facebook. They are brief and polite in their email exchanges. They strongly prefer to speak on the phone. They don’t want to take a web-based anything, but they very much appreciate a straight up card reading. And they call it like it is. They have taught me so very much.
Sacred Artists and Soulful Seekers get relationships. We get awareness and paying attention. We are down for those projects. We even understand the need to choose love over fear. But we shy away from remembering that there is good and evil in the world for all the understandable reasons. But my “church ladies” – as I think of them – would have us remember something else: everyday we make choices, and if you have lost the language that describes what you are choosing then how will you make the best choice? How will you choose good? How will you choose love? How will you look at hate in the face and give it a name so that it might be vanquished, not forever, but for today?
Here is what’s known: Towers fall, Death comes, and the Sun will rise once more.
Here’s what’s not: How will you choose? Where will you stand? You or me or us, together? Fear and self-preservation? Or the much harder path of love that doesn’t turn away and something that, once upon a time, was called good?
Choose and be well.