Image description: The 4 of Cups in the Next World Tarot. A person with one breast exposed from a pink housecoat sits on a dock, examining her nails. Four corked bottles float in the ocean beside her, and she has nail polish bottles on the deck beside her. She is wearing fuzzy green slippers.
This is another cross-post from my tarot blog. It’s been a really intense few weeks of responding to abuse – people in my communities are responding to interpersonal, intimate, and social/structural abuse, and it’s been really heavy. Tarot has been helping me work through this, and today’s post is a companion to last week’s Ten of Swords post.
Last week I pulled the Four of Cups, and my phone ate the post. I meant to come back to it, but didn’t have time.
This morning, I pulled the Four of Cups again and I am thankful for the opportunity to come back to this. I’m also so conscious of how our relationship with the tarot deck is so contextual – this card lands differently today than it did last Saturday.
Today, I flipped that card over and in the femme checking her nail polish I saw so many women and femmes in my own life who have experienced abuse and are bored with it.
I thought about those moments when you’re shocked that someone would say or do something abusive, but you also know that they’re just reading from the same ratty old playbook as so many people before them. I’m thinking about how predictable and unoriginal abuse is; the gaslighting, the victim-blaming, the blame and shame and fragility and violence.
And it doesn’t really matter who they are, we see it all over the place. TERFs abusing trans women in the same boring old ways. Men abusing women and non-men in the same boring old ways. White folks abusing people of colour. Across every gap of privilege and dominance, there is the potential for this abuse and when it shows up, it is horrible and unacceptable and boring.
The effects of abuse are real. When I say that abuse is boring, I am not at all intending to downplay the impact. But where I see creativity, resourcefulness, innovation is in the responses to abuse. Abuse is so easy – our whole culture is set up to comfort and console and protect people who misuse their power. Capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy – it’s all designed to make it easy to misuse our power in the same old ways. At the end of the day, it’s the same old Scooby Doo villain reveal – looked like an exciting new monster, but it was the same old thing again.
I see this boredom in the Four of Cups today.
I feel this boredom in my heart. And I feel the heaviness of it in my shoulders, my temples, my hips. Because it may be same old same old boring shit, but it’s also pervasive, entrenched. It’s everywhere. Yes, it’s the same thing. Yes, we can predict the gaslighting, the victim blaming, the revisionist histories. We can predict the response of the media and many of the people around us. But that doesn’t make it any easier. That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t give the disenfranchised access to power or stability or security. The boring abuse still takes over lives, leaves people hurting, alone, living with trauma.
So, back to the Four of Cups.
Personally, I have always read this card as being about scarcity. It shows up when I’m feeling restricted, afraid. There’s often a sense of constriction in this card for me. I’m holding all those cups in reserve, because I don’t know if I’ll have anything left tomorrow. I’m unwilling to engage, because engagement feels risky.
This card tends to get a bad reputation, but it’s one of my favorites, and it has a very nuanced message. In some circumstances, this card suggests a person who is closed off from opportunities. Being too absorbed in your inner world can be a detriment, leading you to miss golden opportunities. Disconnection and apathy can be inherent in this card.
But in another view, emotional withdrawal does not have to indicate a negative form of apathy. Sometimes you need to hole yourself up, forget about what shiny things the outside world is offering, and let your emotions stabilize. After all, four is the number of structure and stability, and cups are the suit of emotions. Therefore, the Four of Cups can advise you to come back to your own emotional center.
Even in the more “negative” interpretation here, I wonder: what has led this person to be closed off? What has been happening in their context that has them turning inward to their inner world? What is the context that invited disconnection and apathy into their lives?
I think this is especially relevant when we are examining our own responses to someone who has experienced abuse. Do we see them (or ourselves) as “missing out on golden opportunities” (without holding compassion for how much those opportunities might cost)? Are we frustrated with them (or ourselves) or not engaging in their/our own lives? For not leaving, responding, resisting – all the other “opportunities” available to people who are experiencing violence (which are often not actually as available as they seem).
The Next World Tarot guidebook interpretation of the 4 of Cups highlights the potential positives that come with disengagement and withdrawal. I think this is relevant to the current theme of responding to abuse which is so present in my life these days.
In the Next World guidebook, Cristy C. Road writes:
It feels as if she has been in the middle of this argument for centuries. The 4 of Cups is strong, but exhausted, and unwilling to part with the quiet. She is happy now – along the seaside, surrounded by her most comforting possessions. The 4 of Cups asks you to question your exhaustion. Is it due to unhappiness, disinterest, or boredom?
Living in a society so complacent with injustice, the 4 of Cups asks you to transform exhaustion into your own disengaged moment of accidental self-care.
Are there ways in which exhaustion can highlight injustice? Can our exhaustion and disengagement be an indicator of where something is wrong, and we are unwilling to cooperate with it?
Is there a way in which exhaustion can be refusal? Is there a way in which our acknowledgement and response to exhaustion can be self-care?
So often, interpretations of the Four of Cups can feel incredibly victim-blaming. (In Michelle Tea’s Modern Tarot, she actually says, “Often when this card comes up, the problem is you but you’re too deep in your own bad feelings to see it.”)
When we locate the problem internally, it becomes difficult to see the wisdom and creativity of people’s choices to disengage. Disengagement, turning away, avoidance – these things are all massively devalued in our capitalist, productivity-worshipping, success-chasing, “manifest your best life”, “law of attraction” culture.
But people are always responding to the hardships and traumas in their lives.
People are always resisting.
Nobody is a passive recipient of hardship.
Certainly, there are times when we want to be engaged, and there are times when we want to shift away from the restriction and isolation of this card. But what would happen if we brought curiosity to our interpretation of what’s happening?
What if we asked:
Am I feeling disengaged right now? Does this card reflect my feelings in my own life, or is it an invitation to think about how I’m viewing the world around me?
What have I learned about disengagement as being either good or bad? Who taught me this? Does this learning align with my own values, or my own lived experiences?
If I am disengaged right now, why am I disengaged in this moment?
What am I disengaging from?
What does my disengagement make possible?
What have I learned about greed, or selfishness, or self-absorption (also strong elements associated with this card)?
Whose values do these lessons about greed, selfishness, or self-absorption align with? Do these values apply differently depending on the social location of the person who is behaving in “greedy” or “selfish” or “self-absorbed” ways?
What have I learned about self-care? From whom?
Is there a small moment of self-care that I can engage with today? What might that look like?
Who does it serve or benefit when I engage in self-care? Who does it serve or benefit when I do not?
How can I reevaluate (the key word on the Next World Tarot version of this card!) what I have been taught? Can I choose to engage with these discourses and narratives with curiosity, and to honour my own insider knowledges?
This week, in fact the last few months, has been focused on being a support for people responding to violence in their relationships (both intimately and socially/structurally). I have been so thankful for the gentle invitations that the tarot has offered me over this time. I’m particularly thankful for Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot and the liberation and justice-oriented interpretations offered in the guidebook.