Skip to main content

In uncertain times, we all want to know what the future holds. But divination, done correctly, is more about facing reality than escaping it

Open this photo in gallery:

Liz Worth is a writer and tarot reader based in Toronto.

You’re nervous when you ask the question. You even apologize, admitting you feel a little silly hearing it spoken out loud. But there’s no need to explain yourself. You’re not asking anything I haven’t heard before, and nothing I haven’t worried about myself. People, I’ve learned, have a lot more in common with each other than we might realize. No matter how many clients I see in a week, our conversations circle around the same themes: hopes and fears, goals and losses, work and relationships.

You want satisfaction, security and fulfilment just like everyone else.

Regardless of common threads, there’s always a lot to talk about. I ask what feels most pressing to you, to start with. “Love,” you say. Specifically, you want to know how to find it, and keep it once you do. Next, you want to know about your career: That dream job you worked so hard for is burning you out. You’re wondering: Is there something else out there for you – something better, maybe?

I pick up my tarot deck and start shuffling. Every time I do, I’m aware of how many readings these cards have been through. Their edges are starting to soften, and the images are fading in places. I lay down three cards. I start by looking for certain patterns in the cards. Do the cards look easy, or challenging? Fast, or slow? Growing, or stalled? Tarot’s images can be surprisingly direct. There are cards of loss and success, intimacy and isolation. They run from delightful to jarring, containing a spectrum of experiences and archetypes. Some cards depict beautiful, sunny landscapes, sunshine and rainbows. Others look shocking, can be unsettling, like Death or the Devil or the fiery Tower, which depicts two people tumbling out of a building. Whatever turns up helps to inform an answer: If I see a lot of cards of stagnation, for example, this might tell me there’s a lack of momentum in your life. A project could be stalled, or you’re feeling stuck.

You seem to hold your breath as I pause to study your cards. The silence at this point scares a lot of people. Will the news be good, bad or something in between? It’s easy to misread my concentration as a bad omen. You interrupt to ask, “Are you seeing something I don’t want to know about?” I reassure you that I’m just finding a place to begin. Tarot is old. Its images date back to medieval times, and can seem dramatic against our modern experiences.

No matter what we’re talking about, my process is the same for every session: I sit down at my dining table and log into Zoom. When my client shows up, we say hello, smile at each other, and I ask what’s brought them to me today. An appointment lasts one hour, but can contain several shorter readings, depending on how many questions a client brings. Sometimes people show up with an itinerary, their questions written out like a grocery list.

I get a lot of mixed reactions when I tell people I’m a professional tarot reader. Some get so excited, they want a reading on the spot. Others roll their eyes dismissively. Yet even when some people are skeptical, most are at least a little bit curious – at least enough to ask, “What do tarot readers actually do?”

Do I sit in a neon sign storefront all day, surrounded by black cats and crystal balls? Do I give predictions about wedding dates or lucky days, or advise on lottery numbers? For all the magic and mystique that gets associated with tarot card reading, some might be surprised at how mundane my work really is. I don’t have any special rituals or ceremonies to start my sessions off with. It’s just me and a deck of cards.

Divination is an ancient art. For thousands of years, people have been looking for signs. We find meaning and messages in tea leaves and tarot cards. We find prophecy in dreams and gut feelings. We read everything, from the sky to the palms of our hands, looking for answers big and small. And these days, living through a global pandemic has had many of us asking even more questions about our purpose, and our future.

Open this photo in gallery:

The world's most popular tarot deck is the Rider-Waite-Smith from 1909. This is how artist Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the two of swords card.

There are many stories about tarot’s origins. While we like to think of tarot as inherently mystical, it didn’t start out as a divinatory tool, but instead as a card game in Italy in the 1400s. It wasn’t until the 1700s that tarot grew its esoteric roots, when European occultists started to assign new, spiritual meaning to the cards.

Tarot continued to captivate us from there, but it took until 1909 for the world’s most popular deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith, to arrive. This deck went on to inspire countless others since, and continues to be a major influence on many of the tarot cards we see on the market today. While I’m not quite ready to say that tarot is now a household hobby, there’s no question these cards have been flirting with the mainstream since the New Age movement of the 1960s, and are currently experiencing a revival.

Tarot is a collection of ideas, an organic invention that has been shaped by various influencers over several centuries. There is no ownership over it and no singular perspective on what it is for. While the common perception of tarot is that it’s a fortune-telling device, you’ll find many tarot readers who don’t use the cards to predict the future at all. Tarot’s modern iterations are diverse and ever evolving. It shows up in psychotherapy practices, life coaching and yoga studios. It’s been used in conjunction with personality tools like the Enneagram and Human Design. Some people see tarot as a tool to develop your intuition, others see tarot as a visual language.

Nailing down one clear definition is like trying to distill a centuries’ deep history into a sentence or two. What’s best to keep in mind when discussing tarot is that its purpose is not always to look to the future, but also to make sense of the present. Many of my clients come to gain insight about what’s currently holding them back, and what changes in their mindset or behaviour they can make to help shift their lives. Tarot is not therapy, but it can feel therapeutic for many. To divine is a verb, after all, and means to discover a truth through intuition or insight. Divination isn’t just about foreseeing what’s to come, but about seeking knowledge of the unknown, overall. We all have blind spots: If you’re not sure why you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or you need help finding clarity in a confusing situation, a tarot reading can fill in the gaps.

Not that predictions aren’t part of the work - it’s just that they aren’t always as sensational as what you might see in the movies. Still, I understand that from a skeptic’s perspective, it’s easy to dismiss divination as frivolous entertainment. When I was a kid, my mom used to have psychics come over to read at her parties. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. But for my mother, it was more than entertainment: She held onto so many details from those readings, repeating predictions for years afterwards. It provided something else for her: a sense of a grand design behind her life, and the permission to trust that life is going in a good direction. That’s another way readings can feel helpful: They offer hope that things can change, or they provide clients with a goal to work toward. It’s less about waiting around for life to happen to you, and more about becoming conscious of how your actions today can impact you tomorrow.

The world of divination is much more than popular depictions of cheesy fortune tellers who make generic promises of fame, fortune and secret admirers. I owe so much of my spiritual development to astrologers, tarot readers, mediums and magicians. And having grown up in this world, I know how easy it is to dismiss divination as fraudulent or deluded. Or even flat out evil. To be honest, there are people out there posing as psychics who do run scams on their clients. It doesn’t hurt to have a healthy dose of skepticism when you’re navigating this industry.

But everything requires balance. The beliefs, assumptions and misconceptions about my work – and trust me, this is real work – tend to come from the perception that I just sit down and get grand visions of my clients’ lives. That I see everything playing out like a movie, and will be able to tell them the dates and times they’ll meet their future partners, or get a phone call with an exciting opportunity.

Divination is not omniscient. When people come to me for a reading, I often remind them that they know themselves best. I encourage them to get clear about their values, boundaries and desires, rather than sitting back and waiting for me to tell them what to do.

Tools like tarot and astrology are meant to help people tap into their own coping skills and inner resources, or offer perspectives they hadn’t considered. It’s not about seeing into the future. That being said, sometimes predictions do come true. There is a prophetic element to divination, but it’s not always as clear-cut as mainstream beliefs make it out to be. And we need to remember that there is a whole world outside of ourselves. Many factors shape our lives. The economy, politics, societal norms, technology and more all influence our opportunities, decisions and challenges.

And when the collective is experiencing strain, tarot readers tend to get busy. People turn to us for answers. They want to know that things will be okay. Don’t we all crave certainty when we feel scared? Imagine if someone could tell you that whatever you’re doing right now, whatever you’re going through, things will work out just fine.

That’s often what people hope to get out of a tarot reading. And some people put a lot of faith into what the cards have to say.

Open this photo in gallery:

The eight of cups. A tarot deck has 56 suited cards, also called the Minor Arcana (whose suits in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck are called cups, wands, pentacles and swords) plus 22 trump cards, or Major Arcana.

So you can imagine how busy things got in 2020. Ironically, my main concern at the start of the year had been selling my clients on Zoom readings instead of in-person appointments -- in November, 2019, I had made the decision to transition my business completely online.

There could be a joke in there that I saw the pandemic coming, but I didn’t. Like many business owners before me, I’d realized my work didn’t need to be done in person. I liked the idea of being able to work from anywhere, and as a bonus it would lower my overhead since I wouldn’t need to rent an office space.

When the world shut down a few months later, suddenly, people were booking in for readings so quickly that I temporarily closed my calendar to new clients. Zoom was no longer a deterrent, but the only way to have a safe, face-to-face encounter.

And though I’d come to expect an increase in bookings during a crisis, things felt different this time around. This client uptick was about fear. People were scared, worried, and wanted answers to questions much bigger than the ones I typically am asked.

Throughout the past year, I’ve talked to some of my peers about how, as tarot readers, we get just as scared as anyone else. We’re only human, after all, and feel the same fears and stresses as everyone else. And our compassion and desire to support our clients stirs up a lot of guilt when we don’t have the answers people want to hear. Especially when they are asking things like, “Is my job stable?” when, truthfully, job stability is rarely guaranteed even in the best of times.

Tarot readers aren’t here to build fantasies, but tell the truth of what we see – for better or for worse. Which is why, in my practice, I work to bring people back to themselves first and foremost: What do you need? What’s important to you? What steps can you take to get yourself to a good place? We can’t escape the possibility of job cuts, lay offs or business closings. Those are part of our reality. But we can focus on managing our fears, and accepting that the future always holds unknown variables – including pandemics.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, people often asked me, “When will this be over? Will I be safe? Will my family stay healthy?” My answers remained the same: I don’t know.

I know some expect psychic answers: “Aren’t you supposed to know everything?” No. But beyond that, there are ethical issues to consider with questions like this. Some things are best left to medical professionals, and even then, information can be elusive and ever-changing.

Still, these questions were easier to sympathize with than others. While people consciously seek out readings for comfort and reassurance, subconsciously there can be a tendency toward escapism and evasion. I had some clients act as though nothing was going on at all. They asked about their love lives, and where they might meet a new partner soon: “Where should I be hanging out? What should I look for? What should I wear?” Perhaps tellingly, many of these clients were coming from the U.S., in states such as Florida, where COVID numbers started high and stayed high.

It’s not uncommon for people to expect a tarot reading will give them permission to do something they know they shouldn’t. For years, I’ve dealt with people who want me to tell them to spontaneously quit a job or cheat on a spouse. It’s much easier to say, “The tarot reader told me to do it” than it is to take responsibility for an uncomfortable, and potentially regrettable, decision. In COVID times, these questions changed to, “Will I get COVID if I go on a blind date this weekend?”

Intuition is important, but it works best in tandem with common sense. Predictions shouldn’t trump good judgment, and readings don’t replace decision-making or personal responsibility. Nor do they override public-health measures, science or the benefits of good hygiene.

Perhaps what has surprised me more than anything was that I continued to receive requests for parties when the city was shut tight. People asked me to come over to their apartments to read tarot at their birthday parties. I got invited to set up a tarot table in people’s living rooms and gallery spaces. Even when I declined these invitations, a couple of event hosts were quick to come back with a counteroffer: “I’ll pay you really well to make it worth your while.” But going into a stranger’s private home during a pandemic wasn’t worth the risk, no matter how generous the tip.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Fool, one of the Major Arcana cards.

Sometimes, I meet people who are unfamiliar with tarot, or scared by the idea of it, and they think that I can see right into them and read their deepest secrets, shame and regrets. While this would be an impressive power, the one thing I have gotten a deeper read on this past year is the impact the pandemic has had on us all, mentally and emotionally.

There remain many questions about what the future holds. And as I ease back into more client work, I expect to field new sets of questions: The future of office work, the health of our downtown cores, and the increasing cost of real estate will likely be high on the priority list for my clients as they start to plan out their lives from here.

I also expect to experience my own new wave of regret that I can’t take away the pain some of my clients have around these or other uncertainties. Divination, when done with care and compassion, is meant to bring you closer to your reality, not help you escape from it. It’s only then that you find true empowerment and direction. It’s a fool’s errand to grasp for certainty in an undetermined future. Instead, all we can do is come back to who we are now, and whether our actions align with those of the person we hope to become.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe