When the Emperor Walks in Shadow

I have never been able to see utopia.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, a deficiency unique to myself and a handful of stray psychopaths, serial killers, and statesmen throughout history. Everyone I’ve ever met has a plan, an ideal, a thought that the world could be better if only such-and-such change were to take place. That thought is often, though not exclusively, accompanied by active attempts to effect such change.

I, on the other hand, have never been able to imagine a better world.


I have no delusions about the world we live in being ideal. I see, in vivid color, all of the injustices, manmade and otherwise, that exist around me. (The picture of MLK above obviously contextualizes this post within a discussion of racial inequality,* but I’m not just talking about that. On a broader scale, we can talk about global poverty, disease, human trafficking, and on and on down the list.) I’m just not able to imagine a world without those things, or even with a significant reduction of them. I accept them as fixed properties of the world around me, and the thought of trying to create a world without suffering is as odd to me as the thought of trying to create a world without the electromagnetic force.

More concerning is that where other people see suffering and are inflamed to act, to try to make the world a better place, I see it and go, “Yup. That’s suffering.” And then I proceed about my daily business.

In other words, not only am I not able to imagine a better world. I can’t find it within myself to be upset that the world is not better than it is.


I’ve written before about human suffering, and about my opinion that we generally live in an indifferent and unordered universe in which evil is just an inevitable part of the way things are. But I think it bears further examination.

My attitude towards the less-than-ideal world of reality is defeatist, to say the least. Moreover, in a certain sense, it’s just incorrect. My view is, more or less, “The world will never be perfect, so let’s just accept it as it is.” But even if the world will never be perfect (and I genuinely believe that it won’t), that doesn’t mean the world can’t be better** than it is. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better.

Moreover, history proves me wrong. Suffering in the world has decreased. Things have gotten better, through the efforts of people who saw the potential for a brighter future and then acted to make it reality. In most of the world today, even the most destitute have a higher standard of living and a longer life expectancy than they would have had nine hundred years ago. Rights for women and minorities (racial, religious, sexual…) have certainly expanded–and in many cases, have appeared where they did not exist before. In short, my apparent claim that nothing changes and nothing can ever be made better for anyone is just demonstrably wrong.

Yet I can’t shake it. Even if I know that the world actually can be made better, I can’t bring myself to imagine that better world. I can’t bring myself to want that better world.

To say it pithily and callously, I just don’t care.


This is a horrible thing to admit, and it’s gotten me in many a verbal spat with people who really, really care about one issue or another. Once again, it’s not that I’m ignorant of all the bad juju going around in the world, or that I want to perpetuate it; I can look at it and acknowledge that it’s objectively bad, and given the choice between keeping it and getting rid of it, I’ll take the latter. Rather, it’s that I won’t go out of my way to combat the aforementioned bad juju. It doesn’t touch me. Even when it directly affects me,*** I just sort of accept it. The thoughts “This shouldn’t be this way” and “I am going to change it” never cross my mind.

To any reader who is upset at this admission: I am aware of just how atrocious it is. (Or maybe it doesn’t sound atrocious when stripped of context. But then take this philosophy and stick it in Bosnia in the 1990s. Or, to be even more stomach-turning, put it in Germany in the 1930s. “I just don’t care” is one of the most appalling things a human can feel with regard to the suffering of others, and the complicity that accompanies it is just as bad as actively causing someone else harm.) This post is openly discussing a side of myself that I don’t often share, and of which I am far from proud. For those who use the term, this post is heavy-duty shadow work, and like all shadow work, it’s as ugly as sin.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this, and on how it can be expressed in Tarot terms–mostly because I interpret everything through a Tarotistic lens at one point or another. I think in one respect, it can be seen as a darker aspect of the Nine of Cups and my bottomless, inhuman well of mirth, but that’s a discussion for another day. The predominant card that I think reflects this uncaring-itude is the Emperor.

Vlad the Impaler, for anyone who doesn’t recognize him. I have a bust of him on my Tarot altar.

I’ve always felt a very strong connection to the Emperor. Moreover, over the past month or so, I’ve been doing some pretty serious work with him, in conjunction with Strength and Temperance. Part of my affinity for this card is just a matter of what it represents: power, authority, stability, generosity… All qualities I like to embrace within myself. Part of it also is because astrologically, I’m an Aries.****

“Uncaring” is not typically one of the bad qualities given for stereotypical Aries personalities; more often, you’ll see buzzwords like “hot-headed”, “competitive”, or “unable to follow through” (none of which, incidentally, are very good descriptions of me). But I think that the energy of the Emperor is very much in line with the sort of unfeeling persona I’ve described here. The Emperor at his best is a sort of divinely ordained king, an Arthur or a Charlemagne who can usher in an era of peace and light. But let’s face it, most emperors have not been Arthurs. More often, they are tyrants.

And when the Emperor is a tyrant, how does he live? If his kingdom is not just, what does he do? I honestly think he must convince himself that he doesn’t care. I think he must embrace the injustice, and tell himself it’s inevitable, because otherwise it would drive him mad.

So I sit, in my megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur, on the Emperor’s unjust throne. I survey his domain, and I feel cold inside, because to feel otherwise–to allow myself to do anything but fiddle as I watch Rome burn–would be too much for me. I am no Arthur. I am no steward of utopia, and I can’t imagine my empire being anything other than the crumbling mess it is. If I admit to caring, Rome won’t stop burning. I don’t think anything could stop the burning. But I would feel the flames.

Hmm. I wandered off into weird stream-of-consciousness hermbagerb towards the end there. Sorry about that; I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say here. I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s easier for me not to care, because deep down I believe that nothing I could do would change the outside world. If I cared, the world would still suffer, but I would have the added emotional burden of actually feeling that suffering. When I embrace the shadow aspect of the Emperor, I lift myself above that suffering. I distance myself from it, and I quell the human fire (which supposedly we all have) that that would otherwise burn with righteous indignation at the sufferings of mankind.

Anyways. Many thoughts. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the deck review I promised you. I actually have two coming up, because I’m weak and I bought another one. Look for the first of those sometime this week (barring extenuating circumstances), and the next one probably the week after.

*And the Black Lives Matter movement is, of course, the elephant in the room. I’m not going to address that movement directly. For one thing, I really try to keep politics off this blog. For another, I don’t think that my voice has anything new or productive to add to that conversation. And for a third, this post is intended to be a personal reflection on my struggle with a lack of empathy, and not a commentary on any specific issue in the world beyond my own psyche.

**There are obviously some definitional and normative issues with the use of the word “better”. For now, let’s sweepingly say “more equal” and leave it at that.

***Insert disclaimer here about what a privileged life I live. Yes, I am white and male and upper-middle-class and from ze glorious Amerika where ze streets are paved wiz gold, so obviously a lot of this global juju doesn’t directly affect me. I’m not trying to claim otherwise. What I’m saying is that I’m not inflamed by suffering of any degree, even when it’s my own or that of someone close to me.

****More accurately, I’m a super Aries. I have three planets in Aries: the Sun, Mars (whoopee!), and Saturn. Plus, I have my South Node conjunct Mars. The influences of Aries and Mars dominate my natal chart, and my meager little Venus-in-Gemini and Mercury-in-Taurus can only do so much to combat them.


5 thoughts on “When the Emperor Walks in Shadow

  1. Recently I read something about the shadows of our self that Jung referred to. It was a very thought provoking statement because it highlighted how much me fluff up the term ‘shadow’ when we are referencing the darker hidden self. It spoke of the real shadows in which we are capable of anything. I believe you have done well to truly find and own some of your real shadow side without apology or the need to fluff it up or soften it. That my friend is truly looking deep within and owning parts of the self that lurk deep down. 🙂


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