There were these dogs that were put into harnesses. What looked like an escape route was placed in front of them. The scientists then delivered electric shocks. The dogs would struggle to escape but the harness kept them in place, and kept them tied to the thing that was causing the pain. This went on for a very long time. The scientists then removed the harnesses. The dogs could then easily jump out of the way of the electric shocks. But they had struggled for such a long time that they felt defeated. They knew that open door was just a taunt. They sat there and let the scientists continue to hurt them, as they had given up on the possibility of freedom.
Because of this experiment, we learned the concept of “learned helplessness”–when something happens for so long that we think we can’t do without it. Part of learned helplessness, it seems to me, is the belief that we need access to animals and the ability to cause them pain in order to make scientific breakthroughs: there is just no other way.
Swords are ideas, thoughts, rational thinking, words. I always liked that in the tarot, the more swords you have the more problems you have. Really the only nice Swords card in the whole deck is the Ace. One sword, one thought, one idea, one philosophy, cutting through the bullshit. With two ideas you officially have a contradiction. With three, how can you carry them all at the same time and still put the swords to any use?
With eight swords, come on, you’re fucked. No wonder you find yourself blocked by them and trapped by them. All these thoughts, clanging loudly in your head, until you can’t see a way forward. All of these different ideas of what you should do, spinning you around relentlessly in a million different directions, pulled so thoroughly by contrasting desires that from a distance, it looks like stasis.
Here we have a woman. Her hands are tied. Her eyes are covered with a blindfold. She is alone on a mountain, and she is surrounded by eight swords.
It looks pretty dire. Until you see the blindfold is loose. Her hands are not tied so tightly. There is a gap in the swords. “Pick up one of the swords and get out of there, lady!” you want to yell. “No, that’s okay, I’m fine here,” she replies. “There are some berries on that bush right there, I’ll just eat that, you go on without me.”
The eight of swords in a reading is a shaking. The world says, “You can leave.” You say, “There’s no possible way.” And whether that is a job, a situation, a relationship, a family, a room full of scientists and their electrical wiring, it doesn’t matter. You’ve probably struggled and failed in the past. You know by now the open door just up ahead is a spiteful trick by the universe, it’s just Lucy’s football over and over. And you will not humiliate yourself with your optimism again.
There are a lot of ideas we sit trapped behind, thinking, well, I guess this is just the way things are. They always have been, and they always will be. Capitalism. Marriage. Inequality. War. Patriarchy.
We are invested in our powerlessness. It serves us, in dark ways we refuse to bring to light. That woman, she is getting something out of standing there in that circle. Everyone has stood in that place where she stands, and everyone has stayed there for a very good reason. But that reason will never be talked about, never acknowledged, and so we will continue to take our turns in the circle, marking our breast with the label VICTIM, quietly satisfied that this is where we have found ourselves.
Being raised in the rural Midwest, I was taught that the worst thing a person can ever experience is disappointment. So, best never to try. Don’t try to leave, don’t try to do something new, don’t even fantasize about a better life, because readjusting to reality will crush you. Just stay here, where things are familiar, where nothing unexpected will ever happen.
And disappointment is a killer, that much is true. I picked up entirely dysfunctional habits and beliefs from being told all of my life that the outside world is a terrifying, violent, unloving place. Before I can try to do anything, I have to hold within myself the belief that this is going to end in failure. If I can picture the failure and devastation and still have the energy for the attempt, then I can try. And if I ever imagine a happy ending, I believe that I have just jinxed myself. If I imagine a romantic encounter, I have just cursed myself with another year of loneliness, how dare you think someone would be interested in you. If I imagine that people might enjoy this thing that I wrote, I am doomed to eternal obscurity.
I think about the story of Saturn and Uranus. Uranus is the sky god, all limitless expanse and endless possibilities. But Uranus will burn your house down and say, “Now look at how much more space you have!” Saturn is an earth god, all reality, and restriction, and delay. It is the hard slog. Too much Uranus, you’ll destroy yourself with anxiety. Too much Saturn, you’ll never get out of bed.
Saturn of course castrated Uranus, which is what reality does, it removes the potency of the I can do anything. It’s the castration that is interesting to me. It does not have to be a world-ending act. Without castration the world would never have had the otherworldly castrati. And let’s not forget that from that act of castration Venus was born.
That gap between reality and potential, that is where all of the power is. That is where you can slip through and escape.
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. She reads tarot cards specifically for writers and artists, meant to unearth creativity and remove blocks. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional info is here.
Jen May is a Scorpio and artist living in Brooklyn, NY with 3 cats. She keeps a tumblr updated regularly with horoscope images and everything else.