This week I’m contemplating The Hanged Man, a Major Arcana card in the Tarot deck. The traditional meaning of the card is “life in suspension.” Not coincidentally, The Hanged Man is the title of my first book.
The Tarot illustrates archetypes, and archetypes, like stories, have many rich facets and shades. The meaning of such symbols is never cut and dried, and archetypes can always be understood in layers and intuitive connections.
For many years I’ve worked with Tarot cards every six weeks, and at least half the time I pull The Hanged Man out of a deck of 78 cards, thoroughly shuffled and cut, for a 10-card spread. It’s obvious this particular card carries an important message for me.
Life in suspension. What does that mean?
First, I have to decide what “life” means.
Life: Doing, having, being.
For 50 years I believed I had to make up for the fact of my being by doing and having. It’s only recently I’ve begun to support and appreciate my need and desire to just be. Gradually, I’m changing my focus and attention from having and doing to being.
Thinking or talking about just being — feeling, playing, expressing, being in my body, following my interests and desires — seems either ridiculously shallow or criminal, I’m not sure which. Maybe both together.
On the other hand, having and doing can certainly be shallow in the long run, and provide only a brief period of comfort and pleasure, at best.
Life in suspension. Being in suspension? As in I’m too busy doing and having to be?
That doesn’t sound good.
In my world, doing doesn’t count unless the doing is perfectly done. As perfection is a goal I never achieve, spending most of my time and energy doing seems like a bad investment.
As I explore and adopt minimalism, having is less and less important.
That brings us back to being.
Life in suspension describes those times during which we feel stuck. We might be in a job that doesn’t challenge us, an unhealthy relationship, or an addiction. We might feel trapped in indecision, fear, grief or financial struggles. We can spend years, decades, lifetimes with pieces of our lives in suspension while we wrestle with our demons.
The entirety of our lives is generally not in suspension at the same time. We might be very pleased to have healed a health problem, yet still have struggles with money. We might be happy at work but stuck in our personal relationships, or vice versa. We might function for years with a hidden addiction, or wrestle chronically with our weight.
The thing about being stuck is it doesn’t feel competent, attractive, effective or like success.
It feels like failure.
On the heels of failure are the hounds of guilt, shame and isolation.
But during those messy periods when our lives are in suspension and our feelings painful, what sort of invisible, underground growth and change is happening? What is hidden in that suspended interval that is regenerative, creative and fertile?
The Hanged Man wears an enigmatic smile in many Tarot decks. He’s hanging from one leg from the branch of a tree. Why does he smile? Why isn’t he thrashing and cursing, trying to get loose? Why is he peaceful? How did he get there, and how long must he hang? What will happen to him after he’s unfettered? Who hung him there in the first place, and why?
Life in suspension sounds like nothing is happening. Everything has stopped. Yet one of the things we can say about life with complete confidence is that it’s always changing.
I realize now my book, The Hanged Man, is at heart an examination of lives in suspension, or at least partly so. What happens to a mother who has murdered her children? That’s a life not so much in suspension as shattered, but what of her grief, her shame and her pain? How does one continue after such an event? What happens to a man who flees his home, his parents and his young wife, and is not able to stop running? What happens after we die? What’s happening while we’re waiting for spring, or for the baby to be born, or for a death?
Times of despair, illness, injury, grief, exile, and failure can make us feel stuck. We can’t seem to fix, change or get away from the tree in which we’re hanging upside down. Nothing seems to be happening and our discomfort goes on and on. Others fear us, or are repelled or uncomfortable because of our trouble. Failure of any sort is contagious. Nobody wants to be infected.
Yet suspended intervals are common to us all. We might pretend they’re not happening and hide them from others, but who hasn’t been through a time of failure, either one catastrophic event or many smaller ones? Who hasn’t spent time mired in grief, rage, addiction or indecision? Who hasn’t lost themselves in confusion or been paralyzed by fear?
That’s why The Hanged Man is such a powerful archetype.
The suspended interval doesn’t seem like rich ground for stories at first glance, but I’ve always been more attracted to the less popular and less prized side of life. I like the blood, the sweat and the wet spot. I like the harsh realities of bone and ash.
Years ago I started creatively exploring lives in suspension without ever thinking about it in those terms. It was a careless kind of play, inspired by my storytelling material. What happened to the characters from the beautiful old traditional tales I was telling after — or even before — the story I knew? When Rapunzel escaped the tower, where did she go? What did she do? What became of the prince the little mermaid loved?
Why is that rascally hanged man smiling?
In the suspended interval, decades long, of hiding my writing because I felt it was a shameful, unproductive waste of time and it earned no money, I accidentally started writing a book. Or, I should say, a series of books.
It didn’t seem like much was happening while I was living those years, though. I was just hanging on, living my life.
Now that life I was experiencing while nothing much was happening has become nearly two thousand pages of creative work.
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