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Offering: September 2021
A eulogy, tracking The Devil to ask questions about limitation & freedom
September, wow. Each month I’m amazed. The offering this month is long, for reasons which you’ll see. So I’ll keep this part brief.
I’m teaching a class on Tarot Reading—which will focus on a process- versus results-oriented style of card reading and collaborative, creative interpretation—which will be held for the first time on September 12. It’s sold out, but I’m offering it again October 3.
[Image description: Six Tarot cards by Pamela Colman Smith from the Rider-Waite Tarot. Left to right and top to bottom, they are The Devil, Two of Wands, Ace of Pentacles, Five of Pentacles, Ten of Cups, Four of Pentacles.]
On Thursday I texted my friend Charlie something I’d read in a book of selected writings by Franco Basaglia about two kinds of intellectuals; traditional and organic.
By this way of thinking, traditional intellectuals are technicians, whose job it is to maintain the systems in which they operate. Organic intellectuals aren’t beholden to institutions, which makes them more likely to retain loyalties to the communities and identity groups they belong to.
I texted Charlie about it because it reminded me of something he told me when I was a graduate student interning at the clinic where he worked. He’d say there are two kinds of therapists, technicians and craftspeople, and that today’s graduate programs train mostly technicians. To be a craftsperson required something different. The connections between these two sets of ideas had my wheels turning.
Charlie didn’t text me back, which was the second time this summer that’s happened. When I Googled his name, I found his obituary.
I’ve known a lot of therapists over the last ten years. Charlie is the only one I know of who, nearly forty years into his career, was still getting regular supervision. That means he was paying out of his own pocket to sit with another therapist who would help him locate his limits, and how they might be getting in the way in the therapy room.
He did this because he knew that no matter how many years of experience he had, no amount of knowledge would make him immune to inadvertently impeding the therapeutic process due to his own hangups, issues, and plain ignorance.
Charlie was a gemini. Which meant little to him, but explained everything to me, especially our epic five-hour ‘My Dinner with Andre’ type dinners. He loved learning, and so even though he was almost twice my age, he was pretty easy to surprise. I’d tell him some idea I’d been working with, and he’d let it blow his mind. To me he was a genius, but never in the stiff pose of expert.
I wrote a draft of this newsletter on Thursday, and found out that Charlie died on Friday. We had no mutual friends, so I was about three months late to learn.
In the draft, I’d been exploring limits through the image of The Devil and the story of Job in the Old Testament. I touch on the relationship between limitation and freedom, how caring necessitates limits, and the edges of what any of us can do and know.
It does not surprise me that, reflecting on things Charlie taught me, a lot of it was related to these things. As a clinician, son, brother, partner and friend he knew well the limits that came with caring deeply for others. He also knew about the dangers that caring can bring, if not tempered by a degree of mindfulness, and choosing how to respond sustainably to the limitless needs of the world.
Charlie is the person who gave me this charm, which is in my book and one of the very best I have:
When you care for someone, and they need something that you really don’t have the capacity to give, you have the choice (Two of Wands) between saying yes and feeling resentful or saying no and feeling guilty. And in that case, you should always say no. Because guilt, though scary at first, does diminish after a while. But resentment proliferates.
Charlie was born and raised in Philly, in an Irish Catholic family. He was never into Tarot, so I have to imagine he would laugh knowing I’m eulogizing him in a Tarot newsletter inspired specifically by The Devil card. But don’t worry Charlie, I will intellectualize the hell out of it. :)
In four years of daily pulls on Twitter, The Devil is the only card I consistently have to mute because of the often vitriolic reactions. If you don’t have a strong association with anyone else in the major arcana, you likely carry something about the fifteenth arcanum. And it’s probably something you were given early in life.
For years, I mostly associated The Devil with addiction. I thought I was going to be a psychotherapist, and found the image of people with loose chains around their necks resonant with the mechanics of compulsivity. It felt like an image of a psychological captivity with the instruction that one can get free by understanding that behavioral choices can override fear.
These days, I’m more broadly interested in what The Devil says about limits and freedom.
The etymology of the word capture comes from capere, “to take, hold, seize.” Captivate is related, from captivus, “caught, taken prisoner.” I’ve considered this often in terms of passion, and how to be captivated with something or someone—a poem, a piece of music, a project, a lover—it really can feel as though some psychic mechanism is holding you there. Limiting your movement.
Technically you could lift the rope from around the neck and walk free. But that assumes a degree of behavioral sovereignty that’s independent from thoughts, feelings, instincts or impulses (Ace of Pentacles).
It’s a reach to assume that anyone has a level of complete freedom where they can act in alignment with some ultimate higher interest, no matter what’s going on internally. But also this way of thinking about freedom assumes a definition of free that’s totally contained, unaffected by anything beyond one’s own physical body. Which I don’t think is real.
For the last couple weeks I myself have been captivated by something I heard Bayo Akomolafe say in a short video. He was talking about being a child watching his father pour libations in Nigeria:
“I started to understand that a libation is a falling down to earth, a noticing that we are not free, we are tethered, anchored by more than rational beings, more than rational influences in the world.”
I have lots of conversations about commitment and freedom, mostly in the contexts of romantic relationship and creative work. It feels like what we tend to think about as freedom is really stymied by caring. To care for someone is to be tethered in a sense to that person, in a way that contemporary boundary-speak doesn’t (in my experience) adequately address.
Maybe this is why romantic love is such a spiritual—and often fraught, transformative—experience. It shakes us back into a context of we, from the context of I.
Once, you were getting along just fine, feeling self-contained and enjoying the spoils of that. Now Cupid’s arrow has stabbed your side, now you’re braided to someone, now every step and decision—yours and theirs—fans out and makes waves in the other. Now you’re back in the physical fact that your free will choices affect the world around you. They always did, it’s just that now you’re a lot less able to forget it.
If you care, you aren’t free. At least not in the sense that I’ve always thought about freedom. In a popular understanding, care’s a liability. It gets in the way of freedom as the capacity for limitless, untethered growth, the ultimate capitalist fantasy.
Questions: Are there ways of defining freedom that don’t cancel out care? Definitions that take the strands of limitation and tethering and being plaited to others, and weave in attentiveness and consideration and kindness? I’ll return to this later with some thoughts.
So I feel like The Devil is to do with limitations. And I have questions, so I go find him in the Old Testament. The Book of Job, to be exact.
In Job’s story, The Devil comes to God with a group of angels. When God asks where he came from he says “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
So right away we see that The Devil is in a way indelibly marked by limit. Unlike the other angels, who can presumably move vertically between the earth and heaven, he can only move horizontally, across the land. As humans, that’s our situation, too.
Being constrained in this way, I think it make sense that The Devil would want to test the limits of others. He finds it hard to believe, for example, that Job could be a man of such unmovable faith in God. He tells God basically that, well of course Job is a believer; he lives in abundance, enjoys every blessing, wants nothing (Ten of Cups). Take all that away, and see if he holds his faith.
God agrees to let The Devil test Job. He says, do whatever you want, just don’t kill him. And Job does keep his faith, through it all. His animals are killed, so are his children. His wife stops believing and actually scorns God (Her words were “Curse God and die!”). Sores form all over Job’s body. He wishes he was never born. He doesn’t understand why God would do this to him, but never doubts God.
I imagine The Devil doing this because, due to his own limits he yearns to better understand the whole thing. He wants to see what others do when painful constraints are imposed, when the lambs are slaughtered and once supple skin covered in sores. He wants to see about what can emerge from there.
In despair, Job argues with three of his friends for what seems like forever. He wishes he were able to file a complaint somewhere, but can’t find God’s physical location.
“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”
Then, before God comes, there’s this amazing interlude that feels like one part love poem to the land, one part commentary on limits.
It says that yes, humans can probe into the “farthest recesses for ore in the blackest darkness” and “assault the flinty rock with their hands and lay bare the roots of the mountains…tunnel through the rock…search the sources of the rivers and bring hidden things to light.”
But they must always contend with the limits of that searching:
“Where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? No mortal comprehends its worth…It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds in the sky.”
Because he is human—tethered to the earth, a dimension where God doesn’t keep office hours or hold a physical headquarters—Job has limits to what he can and can’t do. Even his unwavering faith practice can still be insufficient. And, same goes for us. We can care deeply for someone as care can go, those people can and will die. They can leave without notice, that's life. It’s facts.
What I take from this story is that to be human is to contend with the limits of what one can do and know. Given that, an aspiration could be to stay willing to locate those limits (Four of Pentacles), and through a process of reckoning, learn to invent and engage freedom.
My friend Charlie used supervision to locate his limits as a therapist, not so that he could feel bad about himself, but so he could find the spaces of maneuverability therein, however small, and increase mobility. Make freedom.
In his book Politics of Affect, Brian Massumi says that “Freedom is not the property of a subject.” Rather, freedom is invented in relation to constraints, all of which are highly dependent on context and situation, all of which are relational.
If freedom is made, and The Devil symbolizes constraint, maybe the chains around the necks are the thing we have to engage to make freedom. So we could look and see what those things are, for ourselves and our communities.
Massumi also says that decision is not individual, it happens in the world. “Events decide, in relation.” So maybe freedom has to do not with individual choice but processes of decision that are unfolding in events. In other words, it is never one hundred percent up to, or on you.
What any one person—be it a therapist with forty years’ experience, Job, me, you, our parents—can do in a given moment, is always limited in its power without cooperation from some other, at times invisible forces.
What those forces are, I don’t know. And I don’t know that I need to. What it seems I do need is to acknowledge that they’re there, and cultivate the humility to recognize what’s beyond the bounds of my awareness, capacity, and influence.
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