Sunday, April 1, 2012

Celebrating the Wise Fool

While completing residency training in a hospital providing pastoral care as a chaplain, I began to see how the role or image of a wise fool is helpful. The chaplain in the midst of the medical temple in some respect is a figure that can be understood through the caricature of the clown in the circus when juxtaposed with the overly objectifying medical diagnostic and treatment team (a relationship I also perceive as a counselor and social worker in terms of the hegemony of the mental health profession). In this brief focus, this is how the chaplain is perceived and operates no mater how serious or pious he or she might be. This relationship and tension is described by Heije Faber this way (Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings, Robert C. Dykstra, Ed. St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005, 88):

[T]here is an element of solidarity with the patient, but the role of the doctor towards the patient demands objectivity. Here lies the real difference in the role of the minister. His solidarity with the patient is peculiarly his own, different from that of the doctor; it springs from a familiarity with the boundary situation. The solidarity of the doctor and the patient is that of comrades-in-arms; that of the minister is that of standing with the patient in the difficulties and opportunities of boundary situations. In this solidarity the minister, like the clown, will seek to make himself small, but in doing he will point towards the great things, which can set the sick man free, show him the (divine) humor of the situation, so that in the midst of his suffering he will raise a smile.

This highlights the need for care verse cure which Stanley Hauerwas wisely argues, '[M]edicine has traditionally had a role in caring for the body, the development of ever increasing possibilities of "cure" has burdened medicine with expectations bordering on the idolatrous.' ("Salvation and Health: Why Medicine Needs the Church" in Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church, 1986)

Erasmus In Praise of Folly provides a contrast between the simpleton or “natural fool” (a term used in medieval times) and the “artificial fool” (i.e., the professional court jester). Like the natural fool, the chaplain may fail to completely understand the more complex aspects of the medical disciplines as well as a capacity to predict consequences in relation to the patient’s condition. However this lack of “sophistication” gives a refreshing directness to the simpler person’s manner of relation to the other. This is then a physical immediacy in responses of affection and anger and a lack of hypocrisy in the things said. One can understand how the “natural fool” was the precursor of the professional court fool, who had license to speak hard truths to the king. This force is well portrayed in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, e.g., when Prince Myshkin’s honesty and simplicity exposes the corruptions of those around him while through his gentle and perceptive manner offers people a way back to their true selves. This effect is summed up by Ganya this way, “What made me think this morning that you were an idiot? You notice things other people never notice. One could have a real talk to you, though, perhaps, one had better not.” [Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot]

Alastair Campbell, who finds the wise fool as a necessary figure for reflection and imitation, cites Paul’s advice, “If anyone among you thinks he is wise by this world’s standards, he should become a fool, in order to be really wise.” (1Co 3.18)

The major characteristics of a wise fool as described by Campbell are simplicity (reflected in a refreshing directness and refusal to put on personal airs or engage in professional gamesmanship), loyalty (reflected in an undramatic but persistent loyalty to others in disregard to self), and prophecy (reflected in a tendency to challenge the accepted norms, conventions, and authorities within the society).

The major function of “wise fool” is to help us to see ourselves in a clearer light, most dramatically in the prophetic role and less in the simplicity and loyalty. Through personal simplicity, the wise fool challenges us to conduct our professional lives with less self-serving distortion. Through personal loyalty, the wise fool challenges us to be more truthful in our interpersonal relationships. Within a revisionist model the wise fool challenges the preference for darkness, deception and illusions for light and truth, inviting us to view our/others situation from a higher/cosmological/universal/God’s perspective. It is no accident that Saint Francis of Assisi, a prototype of foolish wisdom, who regarded himself as a frater minor, a fool deserving nothing but contempt and dishonor, is also celebrated for his tender love for God and for God’s creatures, big and small.

Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, tells of such a figure. She witnessed Trudy, a bag lady, from whom there lived the “kind of madness Socrates talked about, a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention. “ She is a modern-day Wise Fool, whose loss of sanity opened her mind to the cosmos. Pearson interprets the character a Trudy as one who explains “reality” as nothing more than a “collective hunch” which is “the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.” She decides to let go of it through the natural use of humor—jokes. (Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help us Find Ourselves and Transform our World. New York: Harper Collins, 1991)

“The Triple Fool”

John Donne

I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry;
But where's that wise man, that would not be I,
If she would not deny?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain,
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To Love and Grief tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when 'tis read;
Both are increasèd by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

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