The Devil and the Two of Swords

the weight of our choices

On the left, The Devil from Spolia Tarot (a grey line illustration of a winged devil holding a figure by the legs and eating the figure’s top half, against a fully black background) and the Two of Swords from Apparition Tarot (a red background bisected by a slightly curved black and white checkered column; in the foreground are two curved black and white checkered daggers with yellow handles - the one on the left has an open eye on the handle with long lashes, the one on the right has a black oval possibly a closed eye - and these sit above two sitting black and white dogs, dog on the left looking to the left, dog on the right turned away and looking to the right).

When I still believed in the religion I grew up with, the concept of hell and the devil brought me some fear and worry and it also brought me comfort. It made me think there was a straightforward meaning of justice, of right and wrong, and of eventual punishment to those who hurt others in this world and life. If not now, then in the after

That concept of an afterlife was one of the hardest things to let go of when I decided agnosticism was more my speed. Like okay, I want to believe in a mysterious random unknowable/knowable universe that runs on its own steam like cells multiplying in a petri dish, in our free will and how it's enacted in our relationships with each other, with other earthly and otherworldly elements, in how we are in charge of our "morality", I want to believe that there is no life after death only what memories remain of our actions and presence on earth, our relationships. If I believed all that, then I must believe our actions as we lived mattered significantly, that community mattered significantly, and if there were "bad eggs" amongst us that caused harm, we needed to acknowledge the pathways of that person's life and self and actions in the interconnected web of our relationships, and that we are all responsible for and accountable to one another. Because we only have this one world, each other, these single lives, this finite amount of time. 

My brain for a while would then say: Okay, what about Hitler? What about paedophiles, abusers, mass shooters, and rapists? What about the evil ones that don't start out so evil (hi Aung San Suu Kyi), that cause harm through neglect, through the belief in their own morality, through the desire to protect One above All? What about the ones that never have to face the massive harm they did? They live, they die, they return to the dirt and there's no Devil waiting in a hell prepared to make them face what they did and maybe finally feel remorse. And so then it's our job - us, the living - to try and get that process of confrontation, of justice, of healing above all, happening before the big clock runs out on our single, interconnected lives. On top of you know, just living! And trynna get laundry done and find love and clean the litter and use up the produce in the crisper drawer before it goes bad! 

Just typing that out made me want to lie down all over again. 

My beliefs are a forever work in progress, as is my relationship to faith, humanity, the unknowable. I can't explain how I've "squared" it in my head because I haven't, but I know I ask these questions now with less despair, that I learn a lot about my thoughts and feelings about justice and healing and accountability when I learn more about the prison abolitionist movement and transformative justice. It's made me view what (and who) we call "evil" with a closer eye and a more curious heart, to see how connected we all are even and especially to those we disagree with, to those who repulse us and make us question humanity's future. I've turned my eye and heart inward as well to my own shadows and yearnings, to where my judgement and forgiveness lives, to why it is that I put so much stock in remorse, and what it is I truly want when I experience and witness hurt.  

And so. The Devil's been coming up for me recently. I asked on Instagram what people's relationship to The Devil was, however they interpreted it (in the abstract, the literal tarot card, as a religious figure, as a character, etc), and I only got one response, which I can understand. It's maybe too big a question to shoot off a reply to on an app. L, the only one who responded, said they associated it with "being enabled or enabling as opposed to being empowered." Enabling in the sense of acting in the name of "something that feels good but not might actually be good for [yourself] (or for someone else)." This made me think of the themes I spoke about above, how relational and collective our lives are, the weight and meaning of our responsibility to each other and to ourselves to practice care, to lift up, to leave the world better than how we found it. You wanna lie down thinking about it because that weight is heavy and that responsibility is hard. I don't think it's a devilish thing to want the easy, even knowing that it doesn't absolve us or solve anything. To want to feel good in a way that makes you forget your responsibilities, in the face of the work it all involves. Seems human. 

Around the same time as The Devil showing up, I was coming to the realisation that I am experiencing mild depression about my job. It's been very stressful recently [redacted whole paragraph about all the things that have been stressful about work]. In short, it's a pressure cooker that's been on too long, to the point that the joy and motivation have leached out of the day to day. The depression makes it hard for me to focus - everyday tasks feel overwhelming and pointless, and in turn I doubt my progress, the decisions I've made about my direction in life, and the future I am building towards. The least I could do and what I managed to do, was sit where I was (stuck), and name what was in front of me. It was a step above darkness. It was something. The realisation was sad, but I find naming the dark shapes in my life almost always helps in getting to understand them better and seeing them more clearly so I can know what I am facing.

I also watched two things recently: a documentary called The True Cost and the second half of Season 3 of The Good Place. The documentary is about all the different types of impact that result from the production of clothing (like on garment workers' health and labour rights, on the environment, on local economies, on our expectations and experience of fashion and consumerism). The Good Place, if you haven't watched it, is a sitcom that's broadly about the concept of heaven and hell, and morality, and what it means as a human to be and do good. In a way it’s also exploring why we think about all these things. 

If you watch or wanna watch TGP, I'm gonna put a SPOILER ALERT here, go to next paragraph! In the show there is a point system that translates your actions on Earth into points that determine whether you go to The Good Place or The Bad Place. And in the third season they discover that the points of our actions have changed, because it's become more complicated to make morally "just" choices in a world where buying a fresh tomato could implicate you in terms of if the labour to pick that tomato was exploited or if harmful pesticides were used to grow that tomato or if the carbon footprint of getting that tomato to your grocery store thinned our ozone layer even more. This story point felt quite masterful, and when they executed it it spun my head. SPOILER OVER. 

After I watched these things, I ended up going to Uniqlo and Nike at a mall to window shop, and as I walked past the racks and shelves, touching the leggings and mesh tank tops and the sweaters, I of course thought about the humans I didn't know that made all these things in a factory, whether their lives were as prosperous as mine, whether they could afford anything in these stores, what rivers and landfills lived near their factories and how they've fared after the production of all these RM150 leggings, what these workers thought about heaven or hell and their lives on this earth right now, if they thought things were going to get better, if they believed their work moved them further in their single lives. Yes, it's lie down time again. What an insufferable way to be in a mall, right?? Where does it leave you as a player in capitalism and a human trying to "do good"? Where does it leave you if you just need to buy a damn t-shirt? 

None of these things make me feel closer to understanding The Devil, as a concept and as a card in tarot but they also do? I think the grappling is the point. Liy taught me about a way to structure the sequence of the major arcana to understand parts of it in the context of a long journey of the self, which she first got from Carrie Mallon. The Devil starts off the third and final sequence that focuses on the Spiritual, on Enlightenment. It's where the self begins to think about its place in the cosmos, its sense of purpose on a larger scale of not just being a human, but being human, one of 7 billion, one of several communities. And that's a task that doesn't disappear, doesn't get to be checked off. It's the work of our lives, it's (to me) the meaning of it all, of this time we have, of how we spend it as the Earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun, again, again, again, again. 

It will always be eerie to think of The Devil as a shadowy figure echoing my steps, looking over my shoulder as I contemplate how to live on a dying planet that we are killing. As I contemplate how to live with the ghosts of failed relationships in a small city, how to face the ways in which I've hurt others and how they've hurt me. As I contemplate a million choices that make up my single life, large and small, and wonder what it all adds up to. When I think of turning around to face this figure, my agnostic self imagines my own face under the cloak of shadows

The Devil to me remains the most abstract of the Major Arcana; it could be singly and at the same time the self, the systems we live in, obsession, addiction, spiritual hunger, lack, our own beliefs and fears, the ability that lives inside all of us to do harm (perhaps the biggest fear of all). And sometimes there is no light we can grasp that's strong enough, within easy reach, to hold against that. So you do what you can, you ask a single question, you look harder at something you take for granted, you tell the truth about something you feel you've done wrong, you forgive yourself, you hold yourself accountable, you talk to yourself about doing better, you make some real plans about doing better, you look harder at the world and where you are in it, you use your voice even if it's to sigh, to scream, you give up on words for a minute, you hug something soft and cry and hope time goes by faster for you and that the new day is kinder. You name the darkness something other than "evil". You let it envelop you and you tell yourself, if nothing else, I'm still human. 

Previously, I made an audio recording about The Star and also The Tower. “If you've ever suffered loss, it can feel at times like your life after loss, no matter the length and duration, can always be thought of as after disaster.” If you'd like to subscribe, click here. If you like what I write and share and want to support that, here’s my tip jar. Please feel free to share this newsletter with a friend 💌