“Yes, But . . . .” — A Cautious Take On Prediction

A woman wants to know if her husband is cheating on her.

A man wants to know if his wife is going to file for divorce.

A businessman wants to know if a proposed investment would be a wise move.

A high-school graduate wants to know whether it would be best to go to college or join the workforce.

A litigant wants to know if the lawsuit will be won or lost.

An ill woman wants to know if she will fully recover from her malady.

These people all expect a straight answer with no verbal tap-dancing and no mincing of words. What do we tell them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m leery of unqualified “Yes” or “No” answers since I don’t think the cards speak that language with any great clarity or precision. They’re big on qualifiers, though: “Yes, but . . . ;” Not unless . . . ;” Maybe if . . . .” Almost every scenario is conditional, requiring some action by the querent to make it so (or not so, as the case may be). This is where the concept of “empowerment” trumps that of “fortune-telling.” We like to say that nothing is carved in stone, and everyone can avoid or at least mitigate unhappy consequences (or encourage happy ones) if only they have the foresight to make informed decisions. Our job as diviners is to furnish the hidden knowledge that can be translated into such foresight as long as the querent pays attention and follows though on it.

My personal belief is that the track into the future has been laid but the switch-man (that’s us!) may choose to reroute the train at any time before the destination is reached. It may never be known whether that choice results in avoiding a tragic train-wreck or simply delays the ETA. I like to talk in terms of possibilities, not certainties; but when the testimony in the cards is very plain I might stick my neck out and describe likelihoods or probabilities, always making it clear that each of these potential outcomes hinges upon the querent’s action or inaction in response to the insights offered by the reading. We as readers tend to get very good at variations on “maybe,” such as “could,” “may,” “might,” “suggests,” implies,” “seems,” “appears,”and the like, limited only by our creative command of the necessary weasel-words; intransitive verbs like “will,” “would,” “won’t,” “can’t,” “wouldn’t” and “couldn’t” don’t get much play, and we shy away from the absolutes “always” and “never” like the plague.

As we diligently try to pound our square pegs into the round holes of the querent’s situation, none of us should be naive enough to assume that every utterance of the oracle is the whole truth. I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual or mystical but, if we’re honest about it, our observations are always tempered by a certain cautious hedging; the better we are at bringing intuitive conjecture together with hard-headed plausibility in a single sentence, the more well-received — and ideally the more accurate — our pronouncements will be. As Launcelot says in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, “truth will out,” and I’d like to be there every time it does to make the appropriate mark in the tarot tally-sheet, but I rarely am.

I often talk about the “theater of tarot” as a performance art (usually with my tongue firmly in my cheek): the mystique of choosing the deck and the significator, the niceties of properly framing and focusing on the question, the razzle-dazzle of the shuffle and cut, the storyteller’s inspired hocus-pocus of deciphering the cards. But perhaps the biggest feat of legerdemain we perform is our clever avoidance of being maneuvered into an unequivocal “Yes” or “No” answer. The rabbit we pull out of our magic hat may be all fluff and no flesh, but like the Tarot de Marseille’s stage-magician, we divert the observer’s gaze away from that fact with a calculated sideways glance. But we do it with carefully tailored words rather than gestures. I know I haven’t heard you do it, but I can almost guarantee you have on occasion.

There is a reasonable assumption that, due to its layered symbolism, any card in a tarot deck can mean almost anything within its broadly-construed conceptual range when encountered in a reading. This elasticity of context is limited only by the diviner’s resourcefulness in “connecting the dots,” and it could be argued that, in the interest of “empowering” our sitters to make the most of their circumstances, wielding this level of fluency is the reader’s sacred duty. Unfortunately, as we grope for relevance, we sometimes resort to what I think of as disingenuous “weasel-words:” oblique remarks that coyly dance around any negative connotations, skirting the edge of dishonesty but not quite crossing the line. Often this comes down to “denaturing” a card by stripping it of its essential character: “Of course Death never means physical death, it just signifies a major transformation.” In an online forum conversation, a noted author of my acquaintance once suggested tartly that rotting in the ground is most definitely a transformation.

This marginal duplicity is the unstated principle behind the oft-mentioned aphorism “There are no bad cards!” With enough creative “spin” we can force just about any placatory meaning we want upon the cards and gracefully float (aka “soft-peddle”) an unfavorable forecast by giving the seeker a comforting haze of affirmation. Aleister Crowley was fond of using the word “appeasement” in his definitions, and that’s what it can degenerate into; another expression for it is “enabling.” Rather than a resounding “yes” or “no,” the answer often comes out a “definite maybe,” and we can wind up feeding the sitter’s regressive tendencies rather than promoting personal growth. But in reality, challenging cards will inevitably come up and we have to do our best to present them in as constructive a light as possible even when we don’t consider them even remotely hopeful.

Well-chosen “weasel-words” are a fact of life when reading for others if we don’t want to traumatize them unnecessarily. After all, a tarot reading is an impressionistic take on probability, it doesn’t convey a carved-in-stone certainty from which there is no escape. There is another popular aphorism: “The cards never lie!” but as readers we must sometimes help them find a more congenial way to “package” the cold, hard truth. For me it never reaches the level of Mary Poppins’ “spoonful of sugar” because I have both the experience and the vocabulary to “finesse” almost any idea without backing down too far from an unflinching appraisal of the situation. (Or, in W.C. Field’s consummate witticism, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit!”) But it took me a lifetime of study and practice to get to that point, and I still sometimes trip myself up!

The thought of having to confront and overcome such intimidating reading scenarios can be a major obstacle for neophytes who are contemplating the start of a public-reading adventure. We want to “do good” and be of help to those who seek our advice, and having the Devil smirk at us from the table-top in full view of an already-anxious client doesn’t do much for our self-confidence or their peace-of-mind. Short of caving in and using a more innocuous deck like the Connolly Tarot (no Death or Devil as such), we all have to make our peace with the “Weasel Lord” sooner or later. I have mixed feelings about how much and in what way we should “spin” the card meanings to accommodate the sensitivities of our clients. The line between being merciless and being complaisant (or complicit) can be a fine one, and it can come down to a matter of delivery. After all, we don’t want to be accused of being a living embodiment of this paraphrase of Ronald Reagan’s “nine most terrifying words in the English language:”

“I’m your tarot reader and I’m here to help.”

So if I’m confronted with “Yes, but is he cheating on me?” I stare sagely at the cards, pause pregnantly, and declare something like “The situation appears to offer the opportunity.” In other words, a definite “maybe.” But if I’m asked a medical, legal or financial question that entails professional liability on my part, I will unfailingly decline to do the reading in those particular terms and may suggest a different approach. I’m perfectly happy to announce “The cards advise you to get a second opinion,” but you’ll never hear me say “The cards inform me that your doctor is a quack.” There are more ways than one to get at the truth, and being prudently oblique may be best for all concerned.

Originally published at http://parsifalswheeldivination.com on March 24, 2019.

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