In a social justice law course I took back in my law school days, the professor went around the room on the first day of class and asked each one of us to offer what we think brings about social change in this world. A classroom populated by, um, well, white folks, offered thought bubbles like grassroots mobilization, advocacy, charismatic leadership, lobbying, equal access to justice, public policy, etc. Funny, I was thinking about it from a different perspective.
When it was my turn, I said, “Pain.”
Pain is not only the impetus for social change, but it is the impetus to greatness. Profound feelings of marginalization lead to zealous advocacy on behalf of others. Even when your pain looks different from my pain, the common emotional denominator between our pains is the same, and through that common emotional denominator, you and I can connect, create an incredible, powerful fusion, and together, through collectivism, become the impetus for social change and for mutual greatness.
The suit of Swords in tarot has come to represent both pain and glory. How is it both? It’s because profound feelings of inadequacy lead to over-achievement, to glory. Pain builds strength and character. We are so afraid of failure and inadequacy that we overcompensate, overdo, and reach higher. Because we reach higher than most, we achieve more than most. We feel we need to be better than everybody else so nobody notices our failings, our ugliness, and the shameful secret weight of pain we carry.
The suit of Swords is also an aggressive suit. When we have endured great pain, scars harden and we become hyper-defensive, developing an unhealthy attitude of hurt others before they hurt us. That aggression is therefore necessarily expressed in the suit of Swords. Generally we don’t like that aggression, don’t or don’t want to resonate with it. It’s why the Swords are often readers’ least favorite suit. It’s our least favorite because the suit expresses all of those least favorite qualities about ourselves, the adjectives we kind of hope no one ever uses to describe us with.
That being said, only by experiencing pain can we truly embrace fearlessness. When I was nine years old I was trying to teach myself how to do a back walkover and for the life of me I couldn’t get past the back-bend part. That’s because I was afraid of falling and hitting my head. Then one day I actually fell, hit my head (hard), but realized hitting my head wasn’t so bad. After falling and hitting my head, I lost my fear of falling and hitting my head. I became fearless. And then I was able to do the full back walkover.
When you’ve been through hell, suddenly all your mundane anxieties, no matter how severe, pale in comparison. When you’ve hit rock bottom, you’ve got nothing else to lose, so you find the courage to charge full speed forward, armaments raised, and challenge anyone who defies you to duel you. And if one is on the receiving end of such a challenge, know this: someone who has been through hell, hit rock bottom, and has nothing else to lose will be a formidable foe.
There may be a “takes one to know one” facet of this suit. Those who have experienced profound pain in their lives are more likely to resonate with the Swords and find solace even validation in its imagery. Ultimately, pain builds strength, character, and abilities, which is why the suit of Swords is a great suit to start with when using tarot for shadow work. Compel yourself to identify with each card in the suit and specifically, what facet of your inner self that you fear, reject, or are ashamed of is represented by that card? What facet of the Ten of Swords is the embodiment of your fears? What facet of the Five of Swords and Seven of Swords represent the inner self you are ashamed of? What facet of the Three of Swords do you seek to reject?
If the four suits of the Minor Arcana in tarot represent the four seasons of any life cycle, then we as a global society and our ruling politics seem to be in a state corresponding with the suit of Swords. The U.S. in particular, after the recent presidential election, has in effect transitioned from Cups to Swords. We’ve entered a state of rot, inside out. Yet it is a necessary period of pain that I hope will incite the motivation for progressive change. The autumn period of the seasonal cycle is when character is tested and greatness is forged. Following the phase of the Swords, what is to come is not a new beginning for growth, not quite yet; it’s more darkness. Winter is coming, the suit of Pentacles, and only after enduring the winter and darkness to come as a result of what has transpired during the suit of Swords can we once again see the spring of the suit of Wands.
The suit of Swords is my favorite suit not just because I identify with the Queen of Swords as my significator card, but because the suit marks the early milestones of my life that have ultimately become my sources of power and inner magic. This narrative of the suit of Swords is the story of the idealistic philosopher turned warrior.