Editor’s Comment: My dear friend, Bob Miller, sends me his self-reflections and I learn. Bob is one of the widest and deepest thinkers I know, particularly in matters of the soul. His success as a marketer, philanthropist and musician are of local legend. This recent passage centers on the age old character of the Fool, then probes more deeply in search of the fool within each of us. One of the key points which I find alluring is that being the fool requires we take ourselves less seriously which can in turn help us and others through the worst of times. As Bob and I age, and certainly within the limits of social grace and empathy we are choosing to be more The Fool. Mill
By Bob Miller
Present-ness is one hallmark of a Fool, the nonconformist who is neither mulling over the dark images of the past nor previewing the frightening cinema of the future. Without the chimeras of past and future, is our Fool then only one-third of a man? Or is he, as Izaak Walton might say, really the Complete Angler? One who is immersed in the flowing stream of the present and doing what he loves?
Although “Wise Fool” may seem like an oxymoron, the “fool” part allows him to speak the truth, no matter how painful or abrasive it may be to his audience. Why? Because he is seen in the context of theater, not-quite-reality. Like a character in a play, he has license to say outrageous, but true, things because we see him, like a court jester, as an entertainer. He can speak to the king (authority and conventionality) those truths that everybody knows but is afraid to say. What he says often flies in the face of tradition, but as a comic, he is protected by humor. Although he may be rebuked for his candor, he bounces back, not caring about what people say about him. He may laugh at situations that seem anything but funny.
An example. At a trendy party in Los Angeles in 1975 I saw a vivacious red-haired beauty speaking animatedly to a cluster of listeners. What seemed to draw people to her was the irreverent but humorous way in which she disparaged sacred institutional cows― organizations, people and Western values most of us respect.
Later, when she was alone for a moment, I said hello. She was wearing a pretty, short-sleeved dress. Then I noticed a faded string of tattooed numbers on her left forearm. Here’s what my journal records from that conversation:
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.
“Yes, I spent some time at Bergen-Belsen. I was the only survivor in my family.”
Shocked, I replied with sympathy for what must have been a horrible ordeal.
“Yes, it was beyond description. I knew Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Both died of typhus just a month before the British liberated us. Just two weeks before der Führer checked out. And I’m writing a book about it: the humor of the concentration camps.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said. What could be amusing about it?”
“It was the Germans! They were so funny! They were all prisoners themselves, bound by their heel-clicking rules and having to maintain a spotless, perfect image. When something didn’t go as planned they came unhinged.”
“I never would have thought of that,” I admitted.
“It was the only way we could have survived,” she said quietly―“finding ways to laugh.”
She recalled a prisoner who accidentally bumped into a guard. The Nazi screamed “Schwein!” (“Pig!”) With a smile, the prisoner bowed and replied, “Cohen. So glad to meet you.”
In Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, he echoes what our wise, red-haired, straight-talking Fool said. “I would never have made it if I could not have laughed. Laughing lifted me momentarily . . . out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it livable.”
The Fool is a major archetype in the collective unconscious―more complex than the Hero, the Mother, the Shadow or the Child. Since he is a contrarian and catches us by surprise, he is sometimes thought of as a trickster. Although his contributions to human enlightenment have been vast, he is often portrayed as naïve. Or confused with the really foolish fool, the ignoramus.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has a lot to say about the Fool― “the most dangerous person on earth, the most threatening to all hierarchical institutions. He has no concern for naysayers, and no one has power over him. He is unlimited, unstoppable, uncontrollable. He does what he has to do regardless of consequences.”
With his characteristic wry humor, Campbell sums it up: “As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you. Don’t bother to brush it off. Getting a comedic view of your situation gives you spiritual distance. Having a sense of humor saves you.”
Fortunately, as I get older I tend to care less about what others think―how I look, what I choose to do, my reputation. I am learning to deal with adversity and loss. Act with more integrity. Become sensitized to the pain of others and seek ways to help them. Less diplomatic and more outspoken in saying what I really believe, although it might rankle others. I am on the way to becoming a Fool myself.
In other words, I am re-inventing myself. Making my own rules. Poking fun at myself. Playing more. Living in the moment. Taking more risks. Gravitating to where the magic is―what makes me feel alive, energetic and productive. Seeing life as a play of light and shadow in which I enjoy the fun moments, tremble at the scary, but try to remember that it is all theater. Trusting more that this drama, filled with paradox, will in due time find resolution.
Old Fools like me have license to be subversives, sowing doubts about our institutions, laws, calcified religious beliefs, leaders, societal goals. We’re permitted either to enjoy a Zen indifference to both painful and pleasurable experiences, accepting what happens to us and then moving on; or as St. Paul advised, to become “fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10) anchored in faith. Or both. Or neither.