“We are lost, afflicted only this one way;
That having no hope we live in longing” I heard
These words with heartfelt grief that seized on me
Knowing how many worthy souls endured
Suspension in that Limbo
~ The Inferno of Dante, Robert Pinky translator
The position of the (hanged) man: upside down, head below, hanging by one foot…. plunges us into the heart of the problem of the relationship between man and gravitation, and the conflicts the relationship entails. ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, by Anonymous
I’m not sure what, if anything, will come of this.
Its all up in the air, and it could leave you hanging too.
I sit with my clients and listen as they move through their daily lives. Building careers, raising families, moving among and around weekly rhythms – work, commute, dinner, home, therapy appointment, weekend. The world is comfortably, or perhaps even oppressively predictable. The ground underfoot becomes a well-trodden path. The disruptive power of the Unknown, of the Unpredictable, seems reduced to a piffle. Lives are ordered. Choices are made. Cause and effect rule the day - if x , then y.
Our sense of agency and ability to structure ourselves can appear inviolate. We imagine that we have the tiger by the tail, and that tragic, upsetting, disruptive things happen only to other people, to a colleague you don’t know too well at work, or a friend of a friend, or to the person whose photo is splashed across the cover of of the NY Post being held by the stranger sitting across from you on the subway.
When suddenly, in a split second, the rules of every day are suspended. And we can find ourselves in a whole new world. A instantaneous slip into an alternate universe, one we did not choose and would never have picked if the choice was offered.
But it wasn’t.
The table turns in a flash – and any expectations that the next day will be better, or even vaguely resemble this one are disrupted. Crisis erupts or we fall into it, it flips us upside down – a job loss, a change of fortune, an unexpected diagnosis, a natural disaster.
Entrapping uncertainty can also creep up slowly: we can find ourselves bound, against our will, in long, excruciating waiting periods, slow builds, protracted searches for something or someone that may never be found, precarious processes with unclear prognoses. States where any and all predictions might be reasonable – and our need to know what might come next is thwarted. Incrementally or violently pressed into Life’s Waiting Room we thrash and writhe, or go limp and sleepy – we do all we can to escape this In Between Place where Life is neither feast nor famine, neither fish nor foul, neither here nor there.
This is the sorrowful state of souls unsure….
Who, neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him,
Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart.
~ The Inferno of Dante
There are times when we find ourselves suspended.
And I find myself strung up as often as anyone.
Dante locates Limbo as the first stop on the “deep and savage road.” a place just inside the Hell-gates of hopelessness. But we commonly think of it as a space between Heaven and Hell, where even the noblest souls may suffer.
Will circumstances stabilize? Or deteriorate? Is hope useful or foolish? Should we prepare for the worst? Is this the end of the world as we know it? Or the birth of a better one? Is it the gateway to a perpetually unfolding tragedy, the horror and losses of our greatest fears? Or will we be granted our heart’s deepest desire?
Whether to invest in our dreams coming true, or resign ourselves to despair there is no way to know. Souls in Limbo are abandoned by the very ability to anticipate or prognosticate.
Those who are activated by anxiety find it a place of tortuous buzzing agitation, as their inherent optimism leads them to believe that proactivity could positively affect the outcome.
Hapless ones never alive, their bare skin galled
By wasps and flies…
~ The Inferno of Dante
The anxious-avoidant can find passive comfort in the intermission - some even draw it out – experiencing the enforced break in the action as reprieve from pessimism and fear: at least the worst hasn’t happened… yet.
This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. ~ Oscar Wilde
Limbo is an inconsolable, tension-filled deprivation. A lack of. A halting, a freeze, a holding of the breath, a nothingness sandwich with hope on one side and despair on the other.
The soul seems to me to be in this state when no comfort comes to it from heaven and it is not there itself, and when it desires none from the earth and is not there either…
~ The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
Few recall Cicero’s morality tale about King Dionysius and his courtier Damocles who wished aloud that he might be king himself, and was cruelly threatened into gratitude for his lowly station. Yet, everyone remembers the heavy archetypal sword, the shiny point dangling just over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single horse hair.
We hope, like Damocles, for the opportunity to be returned to the moment before the threat loomed over us, to go on as we have been going on, to be spared further suffering or any darker transformation of our fate.
In suspense, we find ourselves exquisitely alone, the tension exacerbated by isolation:
The soul is suspended between heaven and earth; it experiences complete solitude. For here it is no longer a matter of ordinary solitude where one is alone in the world, but rather of complete solitude where one is alone because one is outside of the world – the celestial as well as the terrestrial world ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
The therapist needs to be acutely aware of their own and their client’s coping style, for when they are sitting with clients who are dangling between the worlds, one’s strategy may be intolerable to the other. “Let’s-get-this-over-with” mixes with “I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow” as effectively as oil and water. And any misattunement merely exacerbates the sense of banishment from the realm of the everyday.
My own experience twisting in the wind reminds me it is all too easy to fall into empathic error with those who are hanging in the Unpredictable In-Between. We cherish our rhythm of life and when we encounter others whose patterns have been disrupted we can too often rush past their powerless pause: “Oh I’m sure it will all be ok!” minimizes potential and looming threats. “Oh my god that is terrible!” smothers hope. Real empathy requires tolerating the dialectic, joining the tension of the opposites: “It must be so uncomfortable to not know what to expect, and to have to wait for any answer – I’ll hope along with you that all will be well, but know I will also be here for you if it doesn’t – I know that both possibilities feel very real right now.”
And although we may not be able to guess which way this cat is going to jump, the archetypes of myth indicate that there are gains to be had, lessons to be learned, from uncomfortable, even fatal suspension.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
(~ Stanza 138 & 139 of the Hávamál)
The tarot’s Hanged Man is a rendering of Odin, who has strung himself upside down in order to acquire wisdom. He will die from the suspension and be reborn hanging from the world tree, a mighty ash known as Yggdrasil.
Perhaps the wisdom that Odin gains from his ordeal, and that suspension imbues is merely this:
We are always in Limbo, whether we recognize it or not. Life itself is a feral and untamed beast. Anything can happen, and many things beyond our control will happen. Even the most ordered and controlled life unfolds in a wilderness of unpredictability. We succumb to inflation when we forget this.
The Hanged Man is the eternal Job, tried and tested from century to century…~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
And maybe the only cure for such puffery and complacency is to intermittently find ourselves upside down, hanging, in a state of suspense until we are humbled and reminded that living is a wild unfolding, an eternally unpredictable event.