It can be hard to find anything positive to say about The Tower card in the Tarot. It shows a tower being struck by a lightning bolt and the inhabitants of the tower plunging to their death and destruction. When you draw the card in a reading, it symbolizes total disaster, either on a physical or a psychological level. Everything that you believed in and held dear is being blasted into debris and smoke. It gives any Tarot reader a real case of the heebie-jeebies.
Most people don’t experience that kind of total destruction. That’s not to say that they don’t have terrible or traumatic experiences sometimes. Usually, though, most of their world remains intact. A person’s partner may leave, but she still has her children. Or perhaps she’s fired from her job, but she still has a sizable savings account. Or her house burns down, but it was fully insured. Yes, we all experience disasters of greater or lesser magnitude, but it’s rare to have everything fall apart at once, to be left with nothing but a shell of our life.
When that happens, we lose our sense of being in the world, our sense of living in a sane, orderly, safe universe where we fit in and life is predictable. It’s literally like being in a psychological and spiritual earthquake, where previously solid ground has shaken and shifted and split apart and left you standing in ruins.
In his book The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Penguin Psychology), R.D. Laing refers to what he calls, “ontological insecurity.” Ontology is the philosophy of being, of studying how we, as living beings, fit into and exist in our world. Ontological insecurity, then, is the pervading sense of not fitting into the world, of not belonging.
We can see a mild example of that when someone travels overseas. Every society has unwritten rules that the citizens just take for granted. There are macro-cultural rules like the fact that in America we drive on the right hand side of the road and we mostly speak English. There are also micro-cultural rules like the fact that people who live in the Southern part of the United States make eye contact and smile as they pass strangers on the street and people in New England don’t. A woman on the East Coast may wear skirts and heels to work every day while a woman in California wears jeans and a blouse.
Whatever the rules are for that particular society, they are so comfortable and so well known by the people who live there that they operate on an almost unconscious basis. People take the underlying rules for granted and because of that they fit in. They know their place in the world and how to behave in it. That’s ontological security.
If you were to take one of those people, though, and parachute them into Thailand or Indonesia or India, their ontological security would vanish. Suddenly they’re in a place where the language sounds like gibberish, people drive on the wrong side of the street, buildings aren’t, “right,”, bathrooms aren’t right, the beds are weird, and the money makes no sense.
In other words, they don’t know the rules.
There’s very much the same sense of angst when your whole life blows up in your face. When you lose your life partner AND your home AND your job AND your family walks away from you. Not only are our lives shattered, but, even worse, we’re left with a sense that the world just doesn’t make sense anymore, that nothing is safe and orderly and predictable, and that no one is trustworthy.
In other words, we feel like we don’t know the rules anymore.
And that’s ontological insecurity.
R.D. Laing was working primarily with severe schizophrenics and, unfortunately, many of them never come back from whatever hell-scape they happen to be living in. With those who did come back, however, he likened their illness to a shamanic journey, a deep, spiritual pilgrimage to strange dimensions where our ordinary sense of reality, our, “rules,” of behavior simply don’t exist.
Having the underlying fabric of your life destroyed can feel very much like that sort of a descent into madness. Unfortunately, when we’re faced with total disaster, most of us can’t stand to live in that space for very long. It’s too threatening, too scary, too overwhelming to face the fact that our lives are built on a very thin veneer of rules and normality which really have no substance to them. And so we begin to reconstruct our lives as rapidly as possible using the same template that failed us in the first place.
Your wife died? No problem – get remarried.
You lost your shitty job? No problem – get another shitty job.
Your family deserted you? No problem – join a social club or AA or a church and make a synthetic family.
We desperately want to get back to our sense of safety but, in doing so, we lose the gift of the loss, the gift of the shamanic journey into darkness. And make no mistake, losing everything can be a magical gift because it can make us realize that we never really had it to begin with.
When we realize that everything we treasure can vanish, then we can begin to reconstruct our lives with things that are real and won’t disappear in the next disaster. Love. Compassion. Inner wisdom. Peace. Tranquility. But first we have to relinquish the safety of our, “rules,” and our so-called normal lives. As Pema Chodron said in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times/p>
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
The gift of The Tower is to be fully alive and fully awake, to live without our previous illusions. If we choose to take the gift.