Whether fortune-telling with the tarot is okay or not okay is this weird hill that people are hell-bent on dying on. At the end of the day, whether a tarot reading is fortune-telling, divination, psychology-based, or some form of life coaching is just a difference in style, I think. We’re all doing the same thing. We just prefer different terminology because we’re trying to craft a particular image of ourselves.
Recently in online tarot social media, the topic of fortune-telling and whether this is something we want to encourage or discourage came up in discussion. It reminded me of a recent personal event.
Back in July I was visiting my parents in upstate New York. Mom, Dad, me, and the Hubby walked into a Chinese restaurant where my parents are friends with the owner. The owner came over to chat and asked us how we’ve been, and in particular, what I’ve been up to. They’re all speaking Mandarin Chinese.
Mom said to the owner, “My daughter is a fortune-teller.” (For those who speak Mandarin, she said, Ta hui bang ni suan ming. And yeah, I get it, my pin yin is probably all wrong there.)
I’m sure my face scrunched up into a grimace. “Ma, no, that is not what I do,” I replied in English.
“All right. Fine. Then you tell Auntie what it is that you do,” said Mom.
I took a moment to gather my thoughts. “There’s a physical world and a spirit world,” I started to explain, speaking Chinese. “I’m interested in studying different methods of communicating with and understanding that spirit world so that we can make our physical world better.”
My answer was met with an awkward silence from everyone. The restaurant owner clutched her crossed-arms, like she had goosebumps. Her eyes widened. “So what can you see?” She asked me. “Can you see spirits?”
“It’s like being on the telephone with someone. You can’t see them, but you’re communicating with them all the same, and you definitely know they’re there. Sometimes you’re talking to a stranger and from the voice and the messages, you have to guess who you’re talking to. Other times, you know exactly who you’re talking to. Everything is different wavelengths, and spirits aren’t part of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, so they’re not visible through our physical eyesight. But they’re a frequency you can sense all the same. And sometimes maybe your psychic eye can pick up on vague forms, but then you get confused and you think it’s your physical eyesight. Also, there’s the issue of translations. Mastering how to translate what they say is a skill all on its own.”
What I hadn’t anticipated was Auntie being unnerved by my long-winded explanation. On the car ride back home, Mom said to me about my explanation, “Hmph. You don’t think your Ma knows all that already? I know that’s what it is. I know that’s not exactly the same as fortune-telling. But your explanation confuses people. It’s too many words. Too many ideas. You’re talking about too many things that most ordinary people know absolutely nothing about. So just tell people you are a fortune-teller.”
It was then that I remembered why for so many years I simply said that what I did with the tarot was psychology-based.
It wasn’t really psychology-based. But back then I surrounded myself with mostly non-woo folks, and knew intuitively I couldn’t give them the answer I had given Auntie. So out of convenience, I’d talk out of my ass about psychology.
As you get older, you give less fucks, or something like that, so you stop sugarcoating yourself just to be more palatable for others. You shoot straight and those who don’t want to get on board with you fall to your wayside. I think that’s why I gave the answer that I did to Auntie.
And yet here was Mom, even older, much wiser, and telling me my approach was wrong. Either step clearly to the side of fortune-telling or step clearly over to the side of psychology-based tarot. Because it’s not actually about me; it’s about making things convenient for others, so other people can more easily label and categorize me. When I give the long-winded explanation that I gave Auntie, people don’t know what to do with it.
I still can’t and don’t call myself a fortune-teller, though if I’m being honest, I like “tarot life coach” even less than “fortune-teller.” And calling myself a diviner just sounds pretentious.
It’s the same with the term “psychic.” A while back, a friend of mine asked me why I don’t call myself a psychic. She has known me for over a decade and I’ve done countless readings for her over the years. She’s been to see professional psychics, says she compared what they do to what I do, and isn’t quite sure what I do that’s different, causing me to shirk from that title. “Why aren’t you a psychic?” She’s asked me on more than one occasion.
Here’s what I think it is for me. To call one a psychic is an extraordinary claim, and to make an extraordinary claim, you need extraordinary proof. And I don’t have that, not for myself at least. In my philosophy of life, I would rather under-sell.
When fellow tarot readers say they’re against fortune-telling, I think what they’re really saying is they don’t want to be associated with the mainstream stereotypes people attribute with those who call themselves fortune-tellers. They’re not actually against fortune-telling or fortune-tellers. They’re just put off by the bad PR.
“Life coaching” is just the shiny, catchy title du jour, and there seems to be enough overlap between what life coaches do and what New Age tarot readers do, so many of us hijacked the title and started using it in our professional circles.
Yes, I believe we are all doing the same thing, but it’s that style of what we’re doing that’s different. And the style we prefer (along with the styles that repel us) have a lot more to do with our personalities and our humanity than it does anything at all to do with the Spirit we’re all tapping in to.
This is Part 1 of 2 blog post ruminations on the topic. Part 2 will be coming soon. In the second part of this rumination, I’ll talk about what I see as the stylistic differences between fortune-telling, divination, psychology-based approaches, and life coaching with the tarot.