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The Fool in Us: What This Archetype May Teach Us in 2023

"Taking A Leap Into The Unknown" by Peer Lawther, CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Every year’s end, I and the inner female circle of my family draw animal cards as inspiration for the upcoming year. For 2023, my card is the otter. I loved welcoming this joyful creature who, according to the explanation in the book, represents “absolute bliss.”

So I was in the playful energy of a child when I started thinking about the challenge of writing this essay. This year, we are invited to consider the images of the tarot.

We’re starting the year with card number 0, The Fool. To be frank, it is one of my favorite tarot cards. I got into my hands the familiar Rider-Waite deck, in which The Fool card shows the sun, the universal symbol of the source of life, shining brightly. Despite that the enterprise seems to be blessed by the sun itself, the male figure is standing at the edge of a cliff. As the young man gazes upward, as if lost in thoughts, there is the suggestion of imminent danger. The white dog that is a little behind seems to be trying to alert him of what is coming ahead. Animals tend to be symbols for our instincts, so it would be a good idea to listen to them whenever we need guidance in our life journey. In his right hand and across his shoulder, he carries his possessions in a small bag on a stick. Not amounting to much yet, but certainly things related to power, achievements, goals, and things that matter to him in this phase.

This initial reading of the symbol speaks to the first part of life, as Jung wrote in a 1931 essay entitled, “The Stages of Life.” (“The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” Volume 8, The Collected Works of Carl Jung) The Swiss psychiatrist uses the sun metaphor to characterize the lifespan: “In the morning it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament.” (§ 778) 

We are talking, therefore, about the floating islands of consciousness that emerge from the child's unconscious and gradually build the ego. As Campbell said to Bill Moyers in The Power of the Myth, in the Western world, we are not intended to neutralize our ego as in the Eastern traditions, for a well-developed ego is necessary to face life's struggles, especially when it comes to having a job, a healthy romantic relationship, raising children, or running a business. But as Campbell says, the ego can become a real dragon, in the sense that it may hold us in and not let us go beyond our beliefs, established objectives, and society’s conventions, pinning us down in a smaller life than the one we could be living. How to slay the dragon in us? Moyers states that Campbell remarked on the “soul’s high adventure,” to which the mythologist replies: “My general formula for my students is follow your bliss, find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it.” And of all the amazing phrases Campbell uttered, perhaps this one represents the heart of his teachings, which, for me, are both practical and profound. 

If the individual has the courage to follow this advice, The Fool card has a chance to become tarot card 22—traditionally, it ends with card 21, The World—in a reversal that mirrors the complete journey, the ultimate achievement. As Jung says in the prologue of Memories, Dreams and Reflections, “My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.” 

So we have the same card in front of us, but the meaning may be entirely different. The man stepping to the edge of the cliff now makes us remember the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the famous Leap of Faith scene. There is a previously unseen path ahead to what seems to be the end of the track. As the way forward is not visible, it is necessary to have a good deal of trust in the unknown to discover what is still veiled, and be open to letting go of things that were important but no longer serve us. 

Now, if we pay attention carefully, we can see that The Fool is holding a rose in his left hand. In Jungian theory, the left side of the body is always attributed to the feminine, the unconscious, or little things that are not that much praised in our times, but still they express the voice of the soul. And above all flowers, and especially the rose, are connected to love. With Christmas still fresh in our minds, I remember the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart. What really matters, Zuzu’s petals, takes up very little space.

This might be one of the positive dimensions of experience and aging. As Jung wrote:

“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” (§ 787)

In between The Fool card as number 0 or as number 22, the journey of life takes place. In the audio Tarot & the Christian Myth, Campbell recalls the first time he saw a tarot deck at Esalen, and he reminds us that these symbols are referring to a basic principle: the elevation of consciousness and, consequently, spiritual life. Therefore, this journey represents an illumination that is possible and can be achieved. In a sense, it is only one small step away.


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