Image description: A hand is holding a Tarot card, Wheel of Fortune by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. In the image, an orange wheel is floating in the ether; there is a sphinx holding a sword on top, a yellow snake slithering down the left side and a red devil with a human body curling up the right side. In each corner there are clouds with four winged, yellow characters laying down reading books in each. Clockwise from the upper left corner they are an angel, an eagle, a lion and a bull.
I have a feeling that a lot of you know the tension of wanting both to trust an unfolding process and to have an answer. I’m using the word answer here as synonymous with cure, I guess. I’m imagining that an answer has a similar function to a cure in that it remediates some kind of trouble.
This tension is one that I’ve thought and written a lot about.
This past year I wondered about Perceval’s visit to the grail castle—where he fails to do the thing that brings the healing—and whether that scene may have signified resisting the urge to fix, answer or cure in favor of something else like stillness or presence. At the time I was in a big-time reckoning with wounds in my own life that I don’t see an end to. It felt clear going after a cure was getting me nowhere.
More recently I’ve been fixated on a footnote in a book by the founders of narrative therapy Michael White and David Epston, who describe their work by saying that they “do not imagine that we do anything that relates to a ‘cure’” (1990).
And while I try not to allege that I’ve finally or ultimately come to understand much of anything—since I know how skittish understanding can be—I do think I’ve opened up some to the possibility that there are many ways of relating to undesirable conditions like stuckness or confusion that don’t involve resolution, an answer, or a cure.
The opening up has been a long time coming. For seven years I’ve been facilitating conversations with Tarot cards, which is work that’s been more concerned with process than outcome. I’ve never been as inclined to use cards to answer questions as I’ve been in using them to ask.
When I teach others to facilitate conversations with cards I often cite philosopher Brian Massumi’s language on process-oriented exploration, which “tries not to reduce…tries not to encapsulate…does not end in an overview…rather, it works to become more and more adequate to the ongoing complexity of life” (2015).
I’ve drawn also on language from late religious scholar David Haberman, who named two types of pilgrimage: linear with a destination, and "open-ended meandering through a web of possibilities with no predetermined center or end point.”
In his book When God was a Bird, which is where I encountered Haberman’s language on pilgrimage, another religious scholar Mark Wallace writes that most pilgrimages turn out to be a mix of linear and open-ended. The pilgrim is “both awake to the ubiquitous sacred embodied in all things and mindful of the eventual goal” (2018).
I’ve liked to imagine my work as striving for a similar sort of balance; both aware that a prize may exist and with an eye there, without too much attachment to the prize itself or what moving toward it might look like.
And yet. I’ve had a lot of doubts about this way of working.
I closed my calendar last year for one-on-one Tarot sessions in part because I was starting to doubt the value of what I was doing in a way that tends to deplete me. I’d found a philosophical north star in prioritizing process over solution, and at the same time wrestled with feelings of senselessness. At my best, I’m mostly okay with not having or even seeking a solution. But I do need meaning.
When someone’s feeling stuck—which is a broad way of describing a diverse set of experiences that can be called much better and more precise names than stuckness—how do we know that a process-oriented exploration isn’t going to exacerbate feelings of confusion or overwhelm?
Is this way of working actually helpful? Does helpfulness imply the pursuit of a cure? If it’s not helpful, why do it? Is there a way to be process-oriented, and still have a goal? These questions lead me to another question: When you feel stuck, are you more likely to make arguments, or tell stories?