3 of Swords: Power, pain, and purpose

This essay originally appeared in Little Red Tarot.

It’s been a three of swords kind of season.

All summer, as I shuffled and cast, there it was — boldly face up when I flipped my daily draw on a park bench; lurking at the bottom of the deck during a reading; darting through cyberspace in an email PDF. It’s a card for pains both collective and personal, a card for news cycles that only get shittier, a card for the hundred things you hoped would never happen again.

For me, this summer, the three of swords was also a card of power. It came to me with sympathy, with urging, with reproach. This is power, it said stubbornly, this is your power.

When I throw cards for people brand new to tarot, I always do a hasty reassurance if the Waite-Smith image comes up, the classic impaled cartoon heart: “It’s about heartache, right? But, like, the kind that makes you stronger. Don’t be scared by the stabby thundercloud thing, it’s a positive stabby thundercloud. Really.”

I realized this is how I’ve been reading the card for myself, as well. That same quick jump to the potential happy ending, swords beaten into ploughshares of transpersonal development. I haven’t actually been doing the work. And the three of swords insists that when our hearts are in pain, the only way to really make something out of it is to do the fucking work.

This summer many of us have struggled to salvage purpose out of tragedy, and to figure out how and what to fight. We’re trying to find the best ways to keep living in a world filled, as always, with injustice and pain. It’s an especially potent theme for me right now. This time last year, I was in treatment for a potentially fatal cancer. Now I’m in remission, asking myself that well-worn yet vital survivor’s question — what next? Being alive is a thing filled with joy, but also with oppression and destruction, with dark trajectories we want to help shift.

Back in the spring, I came across the term “despair work.” It’s an idea originally developed by environmental activist Joanna Macy, and it’s deceptively simple: when we numb ourselves to our own despair for the world, we cut ourselves off from our creativity as well. We bypass the emotional experiences that can unite us with like-minded others, and we stunt our ability to imagine new ways of combating what threatens to destroy us.

Slowly, persistently, the three of swords is showing me how to do the work.

In the Wildwood tarot, this card is renamed the three of arrows. The image may lack thunderclouds but it’s no less stabby; in this version the heart is a wooden target not only pierced and literally bleeding, but also inexplicably on fire (because three arrows weren’t ominous enough).

And yet, when you look closer, the wood isn’t blackened or consumed by the flames. There it hangs on its tree, a tree growing up out of rocky ground. Maybe the bleeding heart is what waters the roots. Which is a little gross, but also beautiful, in a macabre and stabby sort of way.

If we want to make our pain a source of growth and power, we have to let it fully hit its target. The arrows with enough force to really wound you are also compass points to your half-formed hopes. They tell you what matters, they mark out the common ground of empathy. If you follow those compass points to their ends, you’ll find the fuel that keeps your heart hot and the wellspring that keeps it from burning away.

Because here’s the real power of pain: we wouldn’t feel it if we weren’t alive, if we weren’t hoping, if we didn’t love the world and the people in it. Without pain we’d have no purpose. When we’re in pain, our hearts are saying we’re not content to just survive. We still want more.

It has been, in many ways, a shitty season. But for those of us who are alive, who are prickled with arrows and pumping with blood, this kind of season can set us aflame. If we let it.