The way of the wise fool

We put a high value on being smart in our society. Intelligence, defined in a “get-ahead, beat-the-others” kind of way, is rewarded in school and required in order to get a high-income, high-status job.

The thing is, this kind of intelligence is not very smart at all. It’s pushed us to the brink of the next great extinction of life on this planet, and to a global state of hostile tension that’s generated enough weaponry to blow us all up many times over. We have to look again at the idea that each person needs to succeed by pushing down others, that there must be a Number One, that any war can have a winner. There is a deeper wisdom at work in the world and in our lives, which is revealed when we dare to turn our ordinary way of thinking on its head.

This is expressed in folklore when the fool or “Dummling” is the one to conquer the monster, win the princess, heal the kingdom. Nobody thought he could succeed, yet his very lack of the qualities everybody else is seeking leads him to find inspired solutions where mere intelligence fails.

In my work, I spend much of my time with people who resemble those fairy-tale noodleheads, who do not fit into our conventional definitions of intelligence and smart behavior. Developmentally disabled is the label we put on them, expressing that their brain development has deviated in some way from the so-called “normal.” But as I’ve lived with them over the past six years, their way of being has come to me to appear more and more an ideal to strive for, and less a defective state to avoid.

They have taught me about openness, honesty, and bravery, about removing the imprisoning, muffling “lid” of the intellect to focus on what is real and true. With all they have to suffer, they do not complain, blame, or judge. They face each day anew, never giving up, always trying to express themselves even when I don’t understand them, always forgiving my mistakes. They offer unstintingly their own remarkable talents and abilities, taking joy in doing whatever they can. In return, they expect nothing, but trust that what they cannot do themselves will be done for them by others.

Some might say this all shows they are less intelligent than I am. I say I believe they are wiser.

The core of this wisdom is the fact that no human being can live in isolation. We all need each other and depend on each other for caring and mutual support. To become vulnerable enough to admit this need is perhaps the hardest thing any adult can do, since we’ve generally not had our needs perfectly fulfilled through life, and pain and trauma have made deep wounds.

It’s frightening to admit that by myself I can’t hoard all the wealth or pile up the resources or gain all the knowledge to make myself secure and happy. It’s hard to open myself to being hurt again by failed, abortive relationships. So I persist in my grabby, selfish ways, and the world suffers.

To shed this kind of security and become present to the dangerous unknown reality represented by the challenge of encountering another person may be foolish. But, as I step into this new year, I want to try — inspired by the courage of my wise friends.

Have you ever experienced how foolishness can represent a higher wisdom? How do you want to challenge yourself to step into the unknown this year?

Tarot Card – The Fool


0 thoughts on “The way of the wise fool

  1. I haven’t been in quite your position before, but what strikes me as a retired teacher is this: when teaching a class one has always to consider the Innocent Learner. This is the notional individual (and there was always at least one of these in every class) for whom the concepts you were expounding were alien, the language and terminology you were using was ‘foreign’ and the mood as well as the mode wasn’t right, however much you wanted to promote the spirit of Earnest Enquiry.

    I regret those times I lacked patience, and clarity, and yet more patience — pursued by tiredness, irritability, managerial accountability and the dictates of syllabus and curriculum — when I failed to see in the faces before me the incomprehension of wise fools that I’d failed to address. Times like those were when I was both unwise and foolish.

  2. What a wonderful post. Lory!! I so agree with you. It so reminds me of the New Testament where the rich are shown how poor they actually are and the wise men are shown to be fools. In this modern world, we have success, money, material possessions, technology, friends (although we must question if the people who show up on our social media “friends” menu are friends in the truest sense), good jobs, houses, etc. but we can severely lack kindness, understanding, wisdom, care, a true desire for beauty and truth, etc. which boils down to a sort of conceited self-interest. Even those who say they care, then disparage others for their views, showing the same lack of consideration of those they are criticizing. I wonder sometimes if the world has gone mad. We all need to question what is valued in society nowadays, look further than at what appears on the surface, focus on changing ourselves to be better, kinder people and therefore hopefully make a difference.

    1. The world is mad — but there are pockets of sanity and people who can connect us to reality. Only we really do have to look beneath the surface to find them.

    2. A true desire for beauty and truth, yes. And I agree, there’s pockets of sanity, as Lory says. Cheers to those willing to question the bad ways of our times.

  3. This is a very thought provoking post. I believe that wisdom can come in many forms. The kind that you describe here seems pretty wise to me. You work sounds like it can be both rewarding and challenging. May you continue to find it challenging in 2019.

  4. What a formidable post, Lory, and Chris post. As a former teacher, I relate. Now I’m subbing, and a recent assignment was with the “special ed” students. What a lesson that was in kindness and respect. Intelligence and wisdom. Yes. I see the difference. Very though provoking.

    1. Any real educator knows that her students are her teachers. We have to be always open to learning from that which is “unschooled” — otherwise we become locked in the deadness of what we already know.

  5. Lory, I appreciate the connection you make between the lucky or successful fool of folklore, and your experiences with those who seem to embody the wisdom of the open heart, rather than the head (as we often see it). You ask, “Have you ever experienced how foolishness can represent a higher wisdom?” and the first thing that comes to mind is our emotions. So-called “negative” emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are often seen as foolish and to be avoided but, I have been learning, all contain valuable messages and impulses from our subconscious. Anger, for example, can be embraced as the honorable guardian of one’s boundaries, (description by Karla McClaren) and give us the energy to act (though when suppressed can explode into rage), and sadness helps us let go and release attachments. I recently saw it put that challenging emotions are not the problem; rather they give us the insight and support to address a problem. If we don’t resist them, we can enjoy the power of the experience, and the sense of aliveness they bring– as part of the full spectrum of the human experience. That all may seem off on a tangent, but I wanted to join the enchanting conversation. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Susan! It’s a very open question, so I don’t think anything that springs to mind is irrelevant.

      I think emotions are a very challenging part of our lives, where the intellect often steps in to suppress and dominate where we would do better to listen and try to understand what our feelings want to tell us. Certainly unbridled emotion can cause a lot of damage, which is no doubt why we try to restrict it, but I’ve come to believe, as you do, that a lot of wisdom is hidden within those mysterious, surging impulses. Mindfulness and contemplative practices are helping me personally to find a space of listening without being overwhelmed by them, for which I am so grateful (though a mere beginner).

  6. As I read your wise and perceptive post, I kept thinking of these verses from Matthew 18: “Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” We never think of little children as being wise, or widely-read, or learned… but Jesus says very clearly that children have the qualities we need to enter the kingdom of heaven. What are those qualities? Love, kindness, and acceptance, certainly; very young children often haven’t absorbed the prejudices of the adults around them, and are more open to loving and accepting those who are different from them. A thirst to learn and grow, and an understanding that there is much we don’t yet know; all too often, adults assume they know everything they need to, or “know better” than someone else, when in fact, we don’t. Playfulness, which is something too many adults (including me) have lost, but is key to learning and to discovery and creativity. The capacity for wonder is another quality many adults have lost, but how can we contemplate the mysteries of the universe and of the spirit without it? I could go on, but just that list has given me a lot to think about and work on in the coming year.

    1. Yes, that verse is key to this theme. Children are predisposed to openness, wonder, and loving acceptance of the world. It’s natural that we lose that openness through the inevitable painful experiences in life, but to avoid becoming completely disconnected we have to work hard to regain it — while also protecting the vulnerable part of ourselves from harmful violation. This dual activity is certainly something I want to work on during the coming year.

  7. I have a nephew who has Aspergers and he is the wisest person I know. 💜

    I always think of Mr. Dick in David Copperfield. I recently read The Essex Serpent and it had a similar character. 👍✨

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