Prejudice, Preconceptions, and the Four of Cups

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of two friends I had in college. To protect the innocent, we’ll call them Dave and Irina. They started dating each other fairly soon after the start of freshman year, and were together for long enough that they became firmly established as the power couple on our (admittedly small) campus. And then, as is wont to happen with college romances, things went up in flames.

There was lots of adolescent drama at the time, but here’s the TL;DR. Dave found his eyes wandering and realized he was no longer all that interested in Irina; someone else had caught his attention, and he wanted to pursue her. Wanting to be an honorable person and trying, in his 19-year-old brain, to do what was best, Dave broke up with Irina shortly before a big Valentine’s Day party, so that he could try to make his move on the other girl without being an adulterer. As luck would have it, the other girl was not the least bit interested in Dave—so the next week, he got back together with Irina, even though he knew he wasn’t that into her, because he wanted to have a girlfriend for the rest of the school year. When they finally broke up at the start of the summer, she was devastated, but he disavowed any responsibility for hurting her because “she knew what she was getting into.”

This is the abbreviated version of a whole lot of teenaged ridiculousness that’s cringeworthy to look back on, but you get the idea. Now, needless to say, Dave didn’t act terribly well in this scenario. He treated Irina poorly, broke her heart, and then used her more or less because he knew he could. He was really trying to be an upstanding guy, but he fell pretty far short of that goal.

Here’s the thing, though. Dave grew up. He made some shitty, short-sighted and selfish decisions when he was 19, but he was nineteen when he made those decisions. And as he grew into an adult, he learned from his past mistakes and he stopped making those sorts of decisions. He’s been with his current partner for five years now. He treats her with respect and honesty, and he shows genuine care for the emotional needs of the people around him. By all accounts, he is no longer the fuckboy he was when he was dating Irina.

Blah, blah, people grow and learn from their mistakes, et cetera, et cetera. None of this is a particular revelation, and you’ve seen this moral at the end of a dozen after-school specials—so why I am I telling this story?

Even though Dave learned from his poor behavior and grew up, I never really got over his breakup with Irina. After that whole fiasco, I formed a mental image of Dave as someone who was selfish, emotionally immature, and inclined to view other people as vending machines for his own gratification rather than as individuals in their own right. Over the course of the years that I knew Dave after he and Irina broke up, he grew and matured into a pretty great person—but I never saw it. All I saw was the 19-year-old who made a series of kind-of-well-meaning-but-ultimately-selfish decisions and hurt someone I cared about deeply.

As time went on, I kept seeing Dave as that person, and I kept treating him accordingly. We’d spend time together, one-on-one or in a group of friends, and we’d have fun, but there was always a bit of an undercurrent of distrust. I sometimes picked at him, talked down to him, or started fights with him over things that really weren’t a big deal; all of it, at root, was about something he’d done years in the past, and a perception I had of him that no longer aligned with the reality of who he was. I saw him as this selfish, childish person, and so I perceived everything he said and did as selfish and childish, even when he had long since outgrown those patterns. And because I kept treating him like that person, he started (quite rightly) to feel resentful. It wasn’t his fault; I couldn’t get over a mistake he’d made in the past, and I mentally defined him by that mistake in a way that left no room for him to mature past it.

Dave and I aren’t really friends anymore. We’re not enemies. We didn’t have a falling-out. But over time, we grew apart and stopped spending time with each other. He’s a big-shot diplomat now, living the life of his dreams, and every now and then I’ll see something on Facebook and feel glad to know he’s doing so well. But the intimacy we once shared is gone. I don’t pin all the blame for that on myself—there are a variety of reasons we grew apart, many of which are not anyone’s fault in particular, and certainly the fact that we now live on different continents doesn’t particularly facilitate a deep and intimate friendship—but one of the things that contributed was certainly the way that I never got over his breakup with Irina. I think about that sometimes, not with deep regret, but with a sort of wistfulness, because I wish I had been able to look past the version of him I’d fixed in my mind in order to see the person that he became.

The Four of Cups.

What happened with Dave is that I got stuck. I decided that he was a certain way, and I clung to that, refusing to see anything else. Ultimately, it ended up breaking our friendship (although as I’ve said, there were other factors as well).

And as I roll this all around in my head, I think back to the Four of Cups, where we see someone so intent on their narrative—their conviction that the three cups in front of them are disappointing and insufficient in some way—that they can’t see anything else. A goddamn magical hand from out of a cloud is offering them a new cup, a way out, a solution to the problem, but they can’t see it. All they can see is what they’ve decided is the truth.

This is something we all do from time to time. Sometimes it’s in relationships, as in my friendship with Dave. Other times, it’s with a problem at work, or a personal issue, or whatever. We get caught up in something bad, and we decide that it just is that way. It’s bad, full stop. Nothing can be done about it. Nothing can change. We refuse to let ourselves see any change that might come, or any solution that might present itself.

What happens when we allow ourselves to fall into this Four of Cups trap? We start interpreting every new thing through the lens of the narrative we have created. Maybe the figure in the card does see the magical floating hand, but has decided that it’s also a disappointment. The wine isn’t good enough, or the cup is going to turn out to be empty, or it’s a trick being played. But something has to be wrong, because they have decided that this is a hopeless situation, and therefore everything gets interpreted through the lens of that hopelessness. In interpersonal relationships, once we decide that someone just is a certain way, nothing they can do will break us of that perception, because we’ll interpret each new thing they do as further evidence of our foregone conclusion. No matter how someone grows, or changes, or isn’t the person we thought they were, we’ll still convince ourselves that they’re just the same as they always were.

To put it another way, the Four of Cups is a card of prejudice. Not just prejudice as in bigotry, but prejudice in the literal sense of having pre-judged. You form your judgment, and no matter what evidence comes after, you find a way to make that evidence conform with what you’ve already decided.

This can be, ahem, unhealthy. It can damage our relationships, it can damage our own mental health, and it can keep us mired in a pit of self-congratulatory dissatisfaction with ourselves and everything around us. But it’s also an incredibly different cycle to break. Even if you recognize that you’ve stuck yourself in a particular perception, how do you break yourself out of it? How do you remove the grey-tinted glasses?

To be honest, I don’t quite have the answer. I look back at my friendship with Dave and I don’t know how I could have shaken myself loose of the incorrect ideas I had about him. There’s a reason prejudice is so hard to get rid of, and why (in much more drastic and dangerous forms) it continues to riddle our society. But I think the first step is just acknowledging that it’s there. Even if you can’t quite get yourself to accept the magical fourth cup—even if you can’t bring yourself yet to accept that the world might be different than you’re trying to see it—at least acknowledge that you’re forcing yourself to see it a certain way, and that your preconceptions are coloring the way you interpret everything else. That doesn’t blow the door wide open, but it splits it open just a crack. And hopefully, over time, it gives you the opportunity to peek through that crack and ask how you might see the world if you hadn’t already decided it has to be a certain way.

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