Strange as it may seem, I like to think of myself as a fool. Once I embrace my essential foolish nature I no longer have to pretend to be wise or hip or awesome. Instead I can just be me, someone a little weak of will, usually caught up in some mundane drama, and completely clueless as to the meaning of life or what I am doing here. Knowing that I’m a fool, I take great comfort in the observation of the Taoist rascal Chuang Tzu, who says, “Those who know they are fools, are not the biggest fools.”
A simple exercise in foolish realism is to look at yourself in the mirror, not with an eye to grooming but just to see who is there. First check out your personality, “Give us a smile, then.” And how about one of those looks of gravitas that you can put on at a minute’s notice: “It is my considered opinion….” Try the sly come-hither glance, the one that you use for seduction. “Hmmm. I’m so cool I’m hot!” And how about the look of sincere interest that Andrew Carnegie recommended for winning friends and influencing people. While looking at my various guises and masks, I almost always start to laugh.
Then I look beneath the personality and check out the self-conscious primate, not that far from the jungle really, still driven by barely conscious instincts, trying hard to walk around on two legs and still look cool. Then I look even closer and notice the outline of my skull, waiting to make its appearance as soon as the wind blows my face away.
Foolishness goes hand in hand with me through life. I had to laugh at myself during a recent meditation retreat after reflecting on the irony of what I was doing, sitting on my zafu. I realized that I had spent the first half of my life in school developing the ability to think, and now I was spending the second half of my life learning how to ignore my thinking. What was I thinking?
I have long ago convinced myself of my own foolishness, but if there is anything I’ve learned from meditation it is not to take myself too personally. I am not my fault. What it comes down to is that I am mostly foolish just because I’m human, and the truth is that we are a species of fools. The poet Gary Snyder called us, “a gang of sexy primate clowns.”
One example of our collective foolishness is that humans seem to be heating up the planet, all of us thinking we are so smart as we motor around in our individual steel boxes, burning up two or three geological epoch’s worth of the sun’s energy in one big choking bonfire of the vanities. What it comes down to is that we are cooking ourselves, and the only choice we might have left is which cooking method to use. More greenhouse gases will trap the heat of the planet and put more moisture into the air and we will end up poached. However, if we destroy the ozone layer first we will be micro-waved. And would you like fries with that?
For further proof of human foolishness, take our religions. Please. In recent years we have learned that not only does the emperor have no clothes, neither do the priests. And although I find it hard to believe, all these years after the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, we still have hoards of people running around saying they know who god is, and the rest of us are going to hell where we will be tortured for eternity by ugly little creatures with horns and pitchforks. Isn’t it time to let go of this spiteful, vindictive, juvenile fairytale? I can only pray: “May God save us from the people who believe in Him.”
Of course, if you need still further proof of our foolishness, just consider that George W. Bush managed to get himself elected leader of the free world. I rest my case.
Looking back through history we find that every few centuries, all that we humans know about the world gets overturned, and yet we continue to believe that our latest facts and stories are the final word. Once upon a time everybody knew that the earth was flat and stationary. And how many humans prayed fervently to Isis or Zeus or Jupiter with the unshakable faith that these gods not only existed, but cared deeply about us? And although now it seems so obvious, it took many thousands of years of self-consciousness before a few of us looked at the apes and asked, “Could we possibly be related?”
I wonder which of our contemporary stories about ourselves and the world will be overturned in the near future? As the Firesign Theater once said, “Everything you know is wrong.” As the Tibetan yogi Thangapa says, going even deeper, “To see truth, contemplate all phenomena as a lie.”
Our biggest mistake, however, and really, the only thing that makes us into fools, is that we don’t acknowledge our foolishness. Although regarding ourselves as smart and clever may have some evolutionary benefits, it is also a cause of our suffering. For instance, it was a very stupid idea to rename our species “homo sapiens sapiens,” which means twice wise humans. The scientists say this designation means that not only do we know, we also know that we know. But that sets up an ideal that hardly any members of our species can achieve, at least for any length of time.
People who practice meditation know how difficult it is to be twice knowing, which may, in fact, be another name for “mindfulness”. We have also discovered how tricky it is to make knowing itself the object of knowing. As someone who has personally struggled with “twice knowing,” I think maybe we’d all be better off if we let the designation “sapiens sapiens” just mean that we have to learn something at least twice before we know it.
When all is said and done (and it never is), I think the best thing for all humanity would be to celebrate our foolishness. Our most important holiday would then be April Fool’s Day, celebrating all humanity, regardless of religion, skin color, nationality, or political persuasion. We could even designate a “fool’s day” once a month, on the full moon. Just imagine how good it would feel if we all got together regularly in large public gatherings and admitted that we don’t know why we are alive, and that nobody knows “for sure” if there’s a “higher” being who created us, and really, when it comes right down to it, nobody knows what the hell’s going on here.
For our fool’s day celebrations we will need some good rituals. How about a simultaneous, world wide, 7 billion-person kazoo concert? Everybody knows “row, row, row your boat.” I also thought a mass mooning of each other might be appropriate, but it may be more than the collective psyche can stand.
Here’s a very simple Fools’ Day ceremony that can be performed in local communities or with groups of friends. It’s the Homer Simpson forehead-slapping ritual, accompanied by a loud, collective “dooh!” This is somewhat reminiscent of the ritual that Jews perform on Rosh Hashanah, when everybody beats their chest and confesses to everybody else that they have sinned. On Fool’s Day we would confess our foolishness to each other.
Let’s practice. Just spread out your palm and get ready. Now, all of you who thought that after the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended things would get better in the world–slap your forehead and say “Dooh!” Okay, now anyone who believed in the Democratic party, or the purity of major league baseball or the Catholic priesthood… “Dooh!” Okay, now anyone who thought that doing yoga, wearing crystals or meditating would solve all of their problems…slap it right on your third eye and say, “Dooh!” Okay, one more time, everybody who thinks that someday they will get it all together…Dooh!
Embracing our foolishness, whether collectively or individually, is a practice of liberation. Don’t think of it as defeat, or in any way demeaning or mean-spirited, but rather a bemused acceptance of our predicament. On the fool’s path, (headed for the edge of the cliff, of course) you are free to stick out your tongue at the gods, let your hair grow wild, speak in rhyme, and stumble along without any idea of where you are going. Feel the freedom? It’s a fool’s paradise, and at the very least, you are fool enough to know it.