If you know nothing else about the Tarot, you will have seen this card. It is the one that the gypsy fortune-teller always picks out in every cheesy horror film or TV show since the dawn of time. It is, as I’m sure you know or have guessed, Death.
Many versions of the Tarot exist, but they are all divided into two parts. One is essentially the same as a regular deck of playing-cards, with different (but related) symbols for the suits, and an extra court card – similar to the playing-cards used in Spain, if you’re familiar with those. These are sometimes known as the Minor Arcana. The other is what is known as the Major Arcana, or Trumps, and these are all individually named and (mostly) numbered. The number for Death, as we see here, is thirteen.
This may all sound like unalloyed bad news. If you’re wondering what I think is so great about this card, well, that’s why I’m blogging about it.
If you get this card in a Tarot reading, it probably doesn’t mean you are about to die. I cannot stress this point enough. If it does mean that, then you will be in a place where you are ready to die, and may even be looking forward to it: prepared, in fact, to die a good death, of which more later. But, as I say, it probably isn’t referring to actual death, either yours or anyone else’s. The Death card refers more generally to letting go of something. We all need to do this many times in life, and while it can be sad it can also be liberating. Losing one’s virginity is a loss, but not necessarily something to regret.
Imagine, for example, that you are a heavy smoker who decides to give up smoking – and more power to your elbow. This is not an easy thing to do. People who have been addicted to both report that giving up tobacco is actually harder than giving up heroin, and that ain’t no walk in the park.
So giving up smoking will be a struggle. But it also has considerable rewards. On a purely financial level, you’ll save a small fortune, at least if you’re in a country that taxes tobacco heavily, as the UK does. It will have a massive beneficial impact on your health and well-being. It will also be one less need that you will have to satisfy and plan for and make time for. But it will also be the death of your tobacco habit.
Now the death of your tobacco habit maybe something to mourn from the point of view of Philip Morris, but for you it’s a win all round. There will be suffering, no doubt about that, but the gains outweigh it. You will, in fact, have gained something by not having something, which is a concept that appears paradoxical in our culture but not, as far as I know, in any other. That’s why I like the Death card.
The ultimate expression of this paradox is the good death, to which I alluded earlier. By this I don’t just mean altruistic self-sacrifice in the manner of Sydney Carton, although that has its place. I speak of a death which concludes a life well-lived: which doesn’t mean that you need to have been a hero, just someone who mostly did right by those around them and left the world a better place than they found it.
If you want to read a modern exploration of how that can look at the sharp end, I can heartily recommend the book With the End in Mind: How to Live and Die Well by Kathryn Mannix (William Collins, 2019; ISBN 978-0008210915). Dr Mannix is a specialist in palliative care and knows whereof she writes, and her patients are ordinary people, in as much as ordinary people exist, which I doubt. You may find the book difficult in places. Persevere: it’s worth it.
The Death card seems to me very much a card for our times. Right now, many people all over the world are having to let go of some pretty big things – their homes, for example, through fire or flood. We are all going to be letting go of many things over the coming years and decades as industrial civilisation slowly and messily disintegrates. Ready access to tobacco, for example. Mains electricity 24/7. The ability to run a car. Regular paid employment. That sort of thing.
Plenty among us have already had to say goodbye to some of those. Perhaps you already have some experience of that; if not, a rehearsal might not be a bad idea. Just a suggestion.
Not all of the things we shall lose will be material goods, either. We are all going to have to rethink a lot of our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about how the world works and what is and is not really valuable. For some people, that will be harder than having their house burn down. You don’t want to be one of those people.
In the immortal words of John Michael Greer: “Collapse now, and avoid the rush.”
The Death card is about collapse; it’s about losing things, but also about learning that the things you lose are not, after all, things you need. It’s like trees shedding their leaves in autumn. The leaves were worth growing, and all through summer they contributed greatly to the life of the tree, but as winter approaches they cost more to maintain than they are worth, now that the days are shorter and the sunlight is weaker. Shedding those leaves is a smart move. Nobody is quite sure exactly why or when some species of tree started doing this, but it was long enough ago that we can be quite sure it works from an evolutionary perspective.
If it’s going to work out for us from an evolutionary perspective, we’re going to have to get back to basics. That means the end of a lot of extraneous nonsense that we have mistaken for reality, and in some cases for essentials. If you are one of those people who can conceive of nothing good about a world without iPhones, you are either going to revise your ideas or die despairing, because where we are going is just that kind of world. Do not, I beg you, die despairing. Life is bigger and richer than that.
Ultimately the Death card is an invitation to life: a different life, true, a life that lacks some things, but which at the same time makes room for other things. Everything that lives does so from something else that dies; even plants – where do you think humus comes from? – even the veganest vegan that ever veganed. That’s how nature works. And [spoiler alert] nature will carry on working like that whether you or I like it or not.
A bizarre phobia about natural processes is the besetting hobgoblin of our culture. It springs, I think – I hope – largely from ignorance. Remedy that ignorance, dear reader. Live a little amongst wild things, or at least non-human things. Grow a house-plant. Keep chickens. Watch and learn. Begin to think like a tree.
Death has much to teach us. Its gift, ultimately, is life.
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