During the long COVID-19 lock down days and nights of 2021, I enjoyed spending some time refamiliarising myself with the tarot, a useful tool that I hadn’t played with for a couple of years.
The first tarot decks I ever saw were my sister’s Smith-Waite deck (then still called the Rider-Waite) and Swiss 1JJ deck. I would have been twelve or thirteen at the time and I was immediately fascinated by their promise of ancient mysteries and secret wisdom.
It’s a glorious sunny summer Sunday afternoon and you’re lying in the park with an old friend. Fat insects hum through the tall grass all about you, as you talk away the day over cheese, dips and a bottle of wine. All the ingredients of a magic day are there, a day that should be uplifting and energising. So why, when you walk away do you feel so damn drained, so tired, perhaps with the beginnings of a mild headache, maybe almost a little depressed?
There have been so many books written about psychic vampires that you may be wondering why this post even exists. Well mostly because I’ve found the methods of defense presented in those erudite tomes to be largely ineffective or in some cases quite impossible. Indeed the most common advice to be found is simply to cut the person out of your life. This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the situation. If you've got someone causing you enough problems that you’re scouring books on psychic vampires then the individual in question is almost certainly someone who is deeply connected into your life. So much so that you’d probably need to quit your job or leave the country or disown a family member or abandon a whole set of friends in order to get away.
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“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
― Niels Bohr
Paradox, ambiguity, uncertainty; these are the sort of concepts which, if you think about them for long enough, will probably start to make you feel a little giddy, a little uncomfortable, perhaps even a little queasy. Almost by definition they are confusing, contradictory, non-logical ideas; portals to the fathomless realms of the unknown. And, as H.P. Lovecraft observed in the introduction to his 1927 essay, Supernatural Horror, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” [^1]
In a 2016 psychology review and research synthesis about fundamental fears, R. Nicholas Carleton supports Lovecraft by positing that fear of the unknown, or ‘FOTU’ is quite possibly the fundamental fear. He notes that, ‘FOTU tautologically does not require a priori learning; indeed, the first thing that could be feared would be “the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness.”’ [^2]
From the abyss of the unknown we conjure demons, fiends and nameless horrors out of the very fabric of our fears; they are legion. We learned this as children when, without conscious effort, we materialised monsters under our beds, in our cupboards, in the darkened doorways of our rooms. Of course as we grew up we learned to dispel such childish fears with reason. Relax. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Ah yes sweet logic is the light which banishes the darkness of the unknown. And so when ideas like paradox pop up, ideas which defy coherent rationale, it’s no wonder we almost always pull ourselves away with a slightly unsettled shudder.
However, as is no doubt clear from the title, this article is not about fear of the unknown, but rather is centred on that last uncomfortable little idea, paradox. Paradox which seems to characterize so many of the big problems at the forefront of modern science. Paradox which has fascinated and confounded philosophers for millennia. Paradox, without which mathematics could not have solved the problems on which all modern technology relies.
But, I entreat you, dear reader, to proceed with caution. I’m no academic and this is far from a rigorous exposition. Question every assertion, examine each scrap of evidence, take that which works for you.
Far from seeking to untangle the profound mysteries of paradox, I hope instead to outline how engaging with the concept of paradox in particular ways can re-pattern the warp and weft of the unfolding Now of your life in strange and marvelous ways. The nature of such mysteries, however, avoids direct scrutiny and is diminished through attempts at explanation. And so these words are mostly just the sketchy field notes from my own tentative steps, flickering lantern in hand, into that vast antechamber which holds in its dark embrace the entrance to the bottomless caverns of eternal mystery. There in that yawning vestibule, between the realm of the known and the unknowable, neither in one place nor the other, yet both and neither all at once; there in the liminal twilight, blooms paradox.
But what is a paradox? Well somewhat fittingly it’s a hard idea to pin down. Etymologically it means an idea which is contrary to (παρά, ‘para-’) general opinion (δόξα, ‘doxa’). Often though the word paradox is used to mean something surprising and/or nonsensical. In more formal terms, paradox has been defined as “a statement that, despite apparently valid reasoning from true premises, leads to a seemingly self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion.” [^3]
In A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind, Roy Sorensen describes paradoxes as “questions (or in some cases, pseudoquestions) that suspend us between too many good answers…Typically, the case for one solution to a paradox looks compelling in isolation. The question is kept alive by the tug of war between evenly matched contestants.” [^4]