Return to Zero: Everybody Plays the Fool

February 19, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Introduction to the Series:

This is the first of a three-part series on what I call "Spiritual Stumbling Blocks." Part of the covenant of this church is to "promote spiritual growth and ethical commitment," which is a serious and complicated endeavor, and we're not always clear how to go about it. First of all, people wonder, "what is spiritual growth? What does it mean to be spiritual?" For some people, "spirituality" is a word that fills them with suspicion, as it sounds New-Agey and like something you have to check your brains at the door in order to have.

Not so. To be a spiritual person is to be attentive to the realities that lie beneath, and within, material realities. To be a spiritual person is to be in touch with the holistic nature of being human; to respect that we are multi-dimensional beings with a physical, emotional and spiritual component. To be spiritual is to respect the existential questions that come to us unbidden, that are a part of every human life. It means to honor those questions (even when they come at 3:00 a.m.) to make the time to reflect on them, to consider them important, and not to brush them off on the way to the next Thing To Do.

I hope you won't mistake being a spiritual person with being pious or beatific or holier-than-thou. I think we know a spiritual person by the quality of their presence, by the way they respect the interdependence of all life, and by the way they intentionally seek peace and peacefulness. Spiritual life is life that is awake and aware, even when there is suffering, and there is always suffering. To be spiritual people, we don't need to renounce all our worldly possessions and live as hermits, although some deeply spiritual people have done that (and there are people in monasteries who are just hiding from the world and who aren't in the least bit spiritual!). Spiritual people intentionally pursue a path to deeper compassion, and intentionally develop their consciousness of a deeper unity.

So many things interfere with our ability to pursue a meaningful, sustaining spiritual life: materialism, active addictions (including workaholism). Cynicism and easy sarcasm; addiction to the fun of being nasty and hyper-critical. Self-hatred that shuts us of off from others. Phobias and prejudices indulged. Spending all our time controlling others. Fear and compulsive anxiety and terror. Obsession with accumulating wealth or power. These are just a few things. In this series, I will focus on three spiritual stumbling blocks, ones that are incredibly common to us all: over-seriousness about ourselves, being caught in the prison that is jealousy, and the refusal to believe that there is any worthy truth to follow.

Today, we being with the first spiritual stumbling block, the trap of being old, dry bones who think we know all the secrets our hearts and souls ever have to yield. We might call this stumbling block “false sophistication.” Whatever we call it, it comes from the fear of being a fool.

I got the idea for this because many years ago I was reading the gospel of Matthew for the first time and I heard Jesus say, "To enter the kingdom of heaven you must be as a child." (Mt 18) And I was just so disgusted by this.

I thought was so syrupy and sentimental, and it really stuck in my craw. It stuck in my craw so much I had to ask myself, "Why is this bothering me so much?" And the answer came back, "Because one of the things I most fear in life is being unsophisticated, unlearned, and looking like a fool. And here is this wise man telling me that there is total grace in that, and I don’t like hearing it AT ALL.”

I am willing to be a fool in love, a fool in social situations, and a fool at the gym. I am willing to be a fool in my travels, and a fool in some life skills, like knowing which fork to use. But when it comes to spiritual understanding, I do not want to be a fool. I want my spiritual growth to be, in the old Unitarian slogan, "onward and upward, forever and ever" -- achieving more and more wisdom until I die and go straight to some kind of heaven. A linear proposition, up, up, up -- even a bit of a competitive one, if I'm honest, just like the old slogan -- "every day in every way you're getting better and better!"

It’s not only me who thinks this way. We’re taught that life is a linear proposition of achievement, are we not? You learn more, you go up through the grades, you graduate, you get more stuff, you get promotions, you buy a nicer, bigger car, you build a bigger bank account, and like that. Straight on down the road, running for the great touchdown.

What the Fool teaches us, though, is that life is not a linear path at all, really, but a circle, a spiral, a journey back again and again to the beginnings, to our great original ignorance and innocence. Whether we like it or not.

The Fool is an archetype; a quintessential symbol of a character or state of being that appears through all of history and all cultures, and is part of what Jung called "the collective unconscious." When we look upon, read about, or dream an archetype, it stirs within us deep truths and a connection to the broader human experience.

The Tarot deck is an ancient form of divination, or fortune-telling, that has murky origins in ancient Egypt or in the Renaissance, depending on whose version you believe, and uses archetypal images to "read" the future of the seeker.

For me, Tarot is not as a form of fortune-telling but as an artistic, spiritual practice to exercise the more visually-oriented, imagination-enhancing parts of the brain. The images evoke fascinating insights.

The image you see on the front of your order of service is an image of the Fool in a traditional Tarot deck. He represents the Zero of the life journey, the beginning point, the point of original innocence and unknowing. When he appears, it is a signal that the person getting the reading is really profoundly ignorant on some matter of great life importance, and will be soon beginning (if he or she chooses) the always-painful, always-rewarding process of achieving some kind of understanding about something. Almost always, the questioner was under the impression that he or she already had a good grasp of understanding of the issue at hand! When the Fool appears, it's a joke on all of us, but a gentle joke, a loving joke. It’s not a disastrous card to get at all, but it is a definite poke in the ribs.

It is absolutely essential to spiritual development to be willing to return to Zero. One of the most spirit-denying phenomena of adult life is how often we anxiously avoid seeming ignorant about anything, insist that we've learned our lessons, know who we are and what we believe, thanks, I read the book, I took the class, I had the life experience, I was there and I know what I think about it, you can’t convince me, I’m done.

We all have such hardened parts of our being-- places in our hearts and areas of learning we feel are either developed well enough, or that are too painful to re-open for consideration, or where we're actually just blissfully unaware of our closed-offness, the unyielding stiffness of opinion or feeling or response. It’s an interesting exercise to think about this: “In what areas of my life might I be resisting the truth that I’m pretty ignorant? If I let myself be a Fool about something, what would it be, and how might it help?”

What we often think is well enough left alone is really a dead part of ourselves. This is the very place the Fool likes to dance up to and poke with his baton, and then dance around us laughing and jingling bells.

I have to tell you this story about a time I was a total Fool.

When I began Divinity School, I had a notion that spiritual people were everything that I am not: naturally patient and kind, sweet, soft and gentle people who were comfortable sitting on a cushion meditating all day. I admire those qualities and set about becoming Spiritual like some people set out to learn how to learn algebra.

A few months into my studies, I was also serving as the Director of Religious Education at a very small UU congregation in Fall River, here in our district. I would drive down there -- about an hour and fifteen minutes -- every Sunday, in my trusty red Toyota, Dolly. I was working very devotedly to develop spiritual practices and had started to get kind of swoony during some of my times of deep meditation and reflection. One afternoon, driving home from Fall River, I had a kind of mystical flash of oneness with the universe -- the autumn leaves seemed exquisitely, almost preternaturally colored, and I felt like I was flying. I felt I had finally gotten there: I am a spiritual person! This was a huge source of pride for me and I went around for some days talking about my mystical experience. Just like you can learn algebra, I had learned how to be Spiritual. I gave myself an A for Spirituality.

Soon after that time, I took my car in for some repair or other. The mechanic phoned me to say I had a pretty badly cracked manifold and should he replace it? I said, is it serious? Is this something I have to do? (I didn't know what a manifold was!) And he said, well lady, I expect you've been having some pretty bad headaches lately, breathing all that carbon monoxide. You can fix it or you can drive around poisoning yourself. It's up to you. Just keep your windows open.

I told him, well go ahead and fix it, I had no idea! And as I hung up the phone and considered what he had told me, it hit me that I wasn't getting more spiritual at all. All of my swooning headaches and cosmic experiences of Oneness in the car had been the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I gave myself an F for Spirituality, a big F for Fool!! And I was, and that's okay. I said, well, back to the drawing board. I don’t know bupkus about being spiritual. Maybe I’ll just be myself and see what happens. And I’m still figuring it out, circling around the idea and taking one step forward and two steps back.

The Fool is an archetype and the Fool is a role. We've all known people who are self-appointed jesters, twinkly-eyed deflaters of balloons of pompousness and seriousness. Most families have at least one Fool -- the comedian, the class clown, who can't stand to let things get too tense and who is always willing to make a jerk of him or herself in order to relieve the tension. Today we have professional comedians who do this for us. Hundreds of years ago, powerful people had jesters and court clowns who were professional Fools fulfilling this function, who pranced around and tumbled and told filthy, politically incorrect jokes that might get another person beheaded. Marina Warner has written a wonderful book about fairy tales and writes illuminatingly about the role of the jester, or fool, in her book:

"The fool fools because he makes no difference . . . [this joking] shakes out the mind, airs it from a new window, lightens it, like laundry in the breeze. . . The laughter of the clown, the mockery of the fool, can be the expression of freedom, the gesture that abolishes hierarchy, that cancels authority and faces down fear."

Some of you will recall how beautifully Shakespeare employs fools in his plays. My favorite is Bottom, the outrageous, swaggering hammy weaver-turned-actor of A Midsummer Night's Dream, who winds up enchanted and turned into an ass. Interestingly enough, the ass’s ears – symbols of sexual licentiousness and stupidity – became the basis for the traditional jester’s hat of antiquity.

Touchstone, the clown figure in As You Like It, saves the play from over-sentimentality and romance, and serves as a bawdy counterpoint to the melancholy philosopher Jacques, the character who delivers the famous "all the world's a stage" monologue. Touchstone has this wonderful line about the wisdom of knowing ourselves fools. He says, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."

Perhaps the most touching of all of Shakespeare's fools is the gentle jester who stays by the tragic King Lear throughout that magnificent character's journey from proud monarch to tormented madman. Fool (for he has no other name), is Lear's pet -- his "pretty knave” he calls him -- who from the start knows that Lear has made a terrible mistake in coercing his daughters into a competition to prove their love for him. You may recall that the cold, manipulative daughters Goneril and Regan claim to love their daddy lots and lots, and get a big inheritance each. Cordelia, the youngest and truest of the three, refuses to play such games and is banished by her petulant father. She is, of course, the one who loves him best.

The Fool tries to warn his master of his folly -- always in the charming "hey diddle diddle" manner, but Lear ignores him and proceeds on his course of destruction. But Fool is nothing if not loyal, and he stays by his master even through the terrible ordeal of wandering the stormy nights through England's forests and moors, accompanying Lear through his nervous breakdown, his epic grief and madness. With Fool at his side, we feel so much more sympathy for Lear's predicament than we might have felt if he was simply out there raging in the night alone. The Fool brings poignancy to Lear’s shattered ego. Within the tragedy of the moment, he reminds us of the comedy of it all, how we screw ourselves over.

The Fool archetype reminds us to love and laugh at ourselves even when we're at our most stupid and wretched. We suffer because we can't admit our foolishness, yet in our suffering we are always returned to zero, and the beginnings of new wisdom.

At the dreadfully sad end of the King Lear, the bodies are piling up as they do at the end of any of Shakespeare's tragedies, and virtuous daughter Cordelia's dead body is brought in, she having been murdered in prison. King Lear grieves over her with these remarkable words: "And my poor fool is hanged!" The daughter and the Fool are the most loyal souls Lear has known. They have spoken truth to power; they have courageously and honestly revealed his profound folly. Finally, Lear himself knows himself to be the biggest fool. He has been brought painfully back to the place of Zero. We walk away from the theatre thinking, how has my own pride alienated me from those I love? In the words of the famous show tune, What kind of fool am I?

So why avoid it? Life will make fools of us all at one point or another. There’s no shame in it, and much grace, to be truthful. If we learn to welcome and accept the Fool (however reluctantly), we can survive getting knocked down, and can even bounce back up knowing more than we knew before, being far less afraid of losing face than we were before. Life gets looser, we realize we’re not running a race, actually, but finding our way through a labyrinth, where the goal is not to go further, but to go deeper. We learn to laugh at ourselves, to say Here I am again, wearing my fool’s hat. And we learn that even as great Fools, we still have our dignity.

My friends, may the holy Fool bless you and sustain you, preserve your going out and your coming in, with laughter and truth and folly, until we meet again.