As I was preparing to launch this blog, I decided on April 1 as the start date. (My accountability group meets that evening, so in true procrastinator’s fashion, I’m waiting until the last minute to get it done…)
As I thought more about the date, though, I started to wonder whether or not April Fools’ Day was the right day to start a “serious” blog.
But the idea of the Fool wouldn’t leave me. And as I thought more deeply about the core ideas of this blog—the power of stories to teach and entertain and heal and connect—I knew that the Fool should have his place here at the beginning of things.
The Fool from folklore is often portrayed as an innocent and somewhat gullible-if not simple-minded-youth, who must complete a set of difficult tasks to receive his reward, whether it’s the hand of the princess, the throne of the kingdom, or both. The Fool has few skills, few friends, and few possessions to help him as he begins his quest. Yet somehow, through the power of the things he learns, the prizes he wins, and the friends he makes along the way, the Fool triumphs and becomes the brave hero and wise ruler by the end.
For a long time I didn’t want to identify myself with the Fool. I wanted to be wise and poised and perfect. But more and more I’ve come to see that there is wisdom inherent in the figure of the Fool—he has more to teach me than I thought.
Here are three wisdoms of the Fool (for everything in fairy tales comes in threes…)
Fool’s Wisdom #1: Simplicity
Sometimes the Fool begins his tale as the butt of jokes for his simple-mindedness. Yet this simple-mindedness is most often not some intellectual deficiency—often it’s a function of youth, or enthusiasm, or innocence about the world, in contrast to the Fool’s adversaries, who are older, clever, worldly, and sometimes even bitter or world-weary.
The Fool’s Simplicity of mind is powerful. The concept of beginner’s mind is the Fool’s birthright: the Fool is the blank slate upon which the world writes. He brings no preconceptions or assumptions or scars to the task at hand. His mind is open, ready to learn, and with the capacity for wonder.
There are many ways to return to our own simplicity of mind. Here are just a few:
We can find ways to simplify our lives. My wife and I have been de-cluttering our home, selling or donating possessions we don’t need. We’re still far from where we’d like to be, but each thing we “purge” from our lives makes us feel like we have a little more room to breathe and think, and one less thing to worry about. The same is true of our calendars. As we have learned to say “no” to events that are less important to us, we have been able to focus on those things that truly need and deserve our attention.
We can reconnect with the natural world. The Fool often received help on his quest from animals or other beings of the natural world. The natural world can inspire us, astound us, calm us. In our modern world, though, we often don’t take the time to connect with the natural world like we should. When was the last time you got out and just walked around your neighborhood, or took a walk in your local park, or left your town or city for a day of hiking and exploration? Our lives are busy, our schedules are packed, our entertainments are electronic… so much that we sometimes lose that sense of connection to nature and our place in it. One thing our family has done to reconnect to the natural world is to do “no electronics” weekends. Everyone gives up their cell phones and game consoles and other devices in favor of the sounds of nature, the crackle of the fire, and some genuine conversation. The withdrawal is a bit difficult the first day (for all of us), but by day two, we’ve all but forgotten them.
We can start at the beginning again: we can try something new. We might start a new venture, take up a new hobby, or meet a new group of people about a topic we’re interested in but don’t know much about (check out Meetup.com—you’ll be amazed at the world of options happening right in your own town). We’ll have to start with the Fool’s open mind, at the start of the journey, with a whole world of possibility out there for us. We’ll ask lots of questions. We’ll stumble sometimes. But we’ll see things in a new way, we’ll learn something new about ourselves in the process, and we’ll offer our beginner’s mind to others as we go. I took up Tai Chi several years ago, and that discipline teaches me something new every time I practice. I make mistakes, and I learn, and I build on what I’ve learned. It’s like a permanent state of beginner’s mind.
Fool’s Wisdom #2: Humility
The Fool’s lesson on Humility is this: All the greatest stories have humble beginnings. The Fool often begins his quest with nothing but the clothes on his back, with few skills, and little knowledge of the wider world. The Fool knows these things about himself; he knows he is not smarter or stronger than his adversaries. He knows his shortcomings, and realizes that he must look to others to teach him and help him in his quest.
And his humility (even his ability to laugh at himself) and openness to learn and his simple goodness are the things that attract helpers to him (most often mystical beings of the natural world). The Fool is not shy about asking for help when he needs it, and he readily and graciously accepts it when it is offered.
As I mentioned in my last post, learning that I can’t do everything myself has been a difficult lesson for me, and has taken many years. But in recent months I’ve taken the Fool’s humility to heart, and began reaching out to others to help me, and offering my help in return. Not only do I feel like I’m making more progress in my personal quests, but I feel like I’m enriching the lives of others, too.
That’s another part of the Fool’s humility: the Fool is ready to help others in the pursuit of what he desires. Often he must complete some task to help those who’d help him, and is rewarded with the (often magical) object that he needs to complete his impossible quest. He builds the friendships, and the skills, and the self-confidence he’ll need to reach his goal.
Fool’s Wisdom #3: Perseverance
Another benefit of the Fool’s Simplicity is his focus: he commits to the task in front of him, and is not distracted. He knows he has nothing to lose (those humble beginnings) and everything to gain.
And the fool’s Humility allows him to persevere when others might give up. He knows he will fail sometimes along the way, but he does not let his failures stop him from achieving his ultimate goal. He learns from those mistakes, and he keeps moving forward.
This second part has been a challenge for me. Instead of learning to embrace failure as a part of the process, I tried to be perfect. I only took on those things I knew I could do without failing. I didn’t take risks. And in doing so I limited myself and what I could accomplish, because I didn’t dream big enough. I was successful in what I did, but how many opportunities did I miss over the years because I was afraid to fail?
So I have taken the Fool’s advice. Each day I strive to be humbler, to recognize that I will fail in my efforts sometimes. But I keep a simple-minded focus on my goals, and a faith that if I keep striving I’ll persevere. And I seek the help of others and offer my help to them, so that we all can benefit from the results of our collective life’s quests.
I encourage you, on this April Fool’s Day and in the days to come, to embrace your inner Fool and consider how his simple wisdom might apply to your own life.