For the past several months, I’ve caught myself sort of involuntarily rolling my eyes whenever the 5 of Cups comes up in a reading. It’s taken some contemplation, but it finally hit me: the 5 of Cups reminds me of everything I hate about online social networking sites.
Hang with me for a second.
Typical interpretations of the 5 of Cups include statements about suffering, focusing on the negative, failing to appreciate what’s right within your reach, mourning loss, etc., etc. The ensuing advice is usually something about shifting your focus to the good stuff that’s right there for the taking (if only you would turn around!). You’ve got to suck it up, move on, and start rebuilding, blah blah blah. It’s time to heal. Those things are true and important, I think, but there’s something more about this card that really hits me lately: this guys isn’t just suffering, he’s suffering in public.
On some level, this is totally understandable and expected. As social animals, we’re dependent on others witnessing our losses and helping us to cope. Sharing our problems with a community not only enables us to receive the support we require in order to both survive and to be emotionally healthy, but it also enforces social norms and expectations. It helps us to remember what is right and wrong, how we should behave, and what we can fairly expect from others. Like all of our other experiences, suffering allows us to construct our identities. We can use it to define ourselves and even gain a kind of status, just as we would use our accomplishments or our good fortune (which is not to glorify or romanticize suffering, only to point out that we often use it to define ourselves). We construct identities like survivor and warrior around experiences of suffering. Suffering often gives us context. Like everything else that happens to us, for good or ill, suffering makes us who we are.
Weirdly, suffering—both our own and that of others—can bolster the ego by creating a place for ourselves in the community that we may not have otherwise. For some people, public suffering becomes an act of vanity. I immediately think of the passive-aggressive status updates that many of us encounter on Facebook and other social networking sites. Facebook makes it easy to overshare. Facebook makes it easy to wallow.
You know the person I’m talking about. We’ve all met that person. The one for whom every little thing is a tragedy. And not only is it a tragedy, but it’s a worse tragedy than anything you could possibly have going on in your own life. You know that guy who has to one-up you at everything, even shitty stuff? The one you tell about an injury or financial loss or heartbreak and he has to tell you about how he’s got it even worse? That guy.
Every break-up is a “betrayal” and every lost job is “persecution.” One fight with a friend and it’s, “I just can’t trust anyone!” Life is one big crisis after another. And not only is the world out to get them and them alone, but it’s all over their Facebook wall in cryptic posts. Life is just so hard.
The guy in the 5 of Cups isn’t just coping with shit, he’s donned his black cape and strolled out into open space so that we can all see his shit, too. And from the observer’s position, his shit doesn’t look particularly remarkable. He’s got two perfectly good cups behind him, and there’s a fully functional bridge over all that troubled water. My sympathy only stretches so far.
Everyone suffers, and while I would never presume to tell someone that their suffering was insignificant, I do think that we can fairly declare that some people suffer more than others. Some wounds require clean water and a bandage—others an ambulance, surgery, and months of physical therapy. Pain and suffering are relative. What wounds one person might kill another, and it’s impossible to make the distinction sometimes. The best course of action is usually compassion and, with the one-upping guy on Facebook who’s so obsessed with betrayal, the best response is probably silence (he’s not posting for comfort or practical solutions, after all).
But I think the 5 of Cups might have something to say about where we draw the line with regard to the process of public mourning and suffering in general. What limits do we place on the expression of pain? The 5 of Cups is a reminder that everyone suffers and that, socially, we have ideas about good and bad ways to do so (whether or not this is fair is up for question, naturally).