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?