THE FOOL WITHIN US

Seeking a More Profound Meaning

Happy April Fool’s Day!

But do you know the origin of this celebration? In 1564 King Charles IX of France proclaimed the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in his country. This meant that New Year’s Day would thereafter be officially recognized as January 1, not March 25 the way it had been. The latter day had been picked because it was also the beginning of springtime, which meant a weeklong celebration, culminating on April 1.

Well, there were those French who absolutely refused to give up their partying at that time of year and continued to party until April 1.

Some of those who switched calendars made fun of those who didn’t by playing little tricks on them. These included sending silly gifts and party invitations to nonexistent parties. Anyone who became the butt of such foolishness was known as an “April fish” – a reference to the fact that at this time of year the sun is leaving the zodiacal sign of Pisces, the “fish.”

How “April fish” became “April fool” is anybody’s guess, although when the concept came to the United States 200 years after the French established it, it signified a foolish rather than a fishy holiday.

Now, what does this have to do with the subject at hand: The Fool Within Us other than to be an interesting historical aside? Because it might not be true! Some historians believe something else.

For instance, Jesus gets into the picture, but so do pre-Christian cults.

The theologian Harvey Cox in his book Feast of Fools speaks of the Christ figure as the archetypal fool. Jesus is the outsider, the loner; he is apart from society, and it is his mission to comment on its values.

The words of the poet e. e. cummings come to mind when he says of Jesus: “he was made up of nothing, except loneliness.”

The fool, the trickster: never quite   what he/she/they might seem! This is Jesus, too, according to Cox, and all others throughout legends and myths who hold up the mirror before society to reveal who the rest of us really are. It is a solitary, lonely task they undertake; indeed, one which might just get the fool crucified.

Holding up a mirror to say: “Look! Look, this might just be reality, not what you think you are! How foolish you are!” This is the message of the archetypal fool: to tell us that because we cannot always see reality ourselves (nor have a closer approximation of it than we usually have), we are the bigger fools – not they.

Cultures throughout time have honored these tricksters as our reality checks. As they play tricks on us, or at least take us off our guard, we gain clarity. This activity is illustrated in the German fool Eulenspiegel; the French Reynard the Fox, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Punch and Judy; the Greek Zeus, Hermes, and Karagoz; the Turkish Nasr-eddin; the Norwegian Loki; the Native American Coyote.

What one author (source unknown) says of the Greek god Hermes illustrates this archetypal concept of the fool or clown which Harvey Cox talks about:

As both a creator and a deceiver Hermes rests at the margin of society. He uses humor and wit to gain control over others, while at the same time using his ability as an interpreter to aid others…He guides people by using his insight into the deeper meanings of actions, events, and relationships.

I believe that Jesus as archetypal fool “deceives” others by the use of his parables—which are always more than just stories to be interpreted literally. Their symbolic, ethical messages lie beneath the surface. Like Hermes, Jesus points others toward a more significant appreciation for the depth of existence.

Indeed, there are many dimensions of the subject, “fool.” But always there is a sense that as “foolish” as they might appear—and by this I mean “different” from others—the classic fools throughout history have forced the rest of us to look at who we ourselves might be in relationship to the common humanity of us all. Although observers of the fools’ behavior might have reason to laugh, a serious intent often lay beneath the clown’s behavior or appearance – whether or not the “performer” was always aware of it.

For instance, the early fools did, indeed, have physical and/or mental challenges. We see that the Pharaohs as far back as the 5th Dynasty in Egypt kept court fools. They provided “amusement”; the same was true for the wealthy citizens of the Roman Empire, and the English and French kings of medieval and later times.

And yet, by simply being who they were (these early “court jesters” did not wear clown’s makeup or fancy costumes), they illustrated human behavior (usually in the extreme), but human behavior, nevertheless.

Of prime importance is to realize that the negative aspect of The Fool Within Us is that which makes us believe we can hold onto anything or anyone forever; said in another way, that we believe reality is static and can be viewed in only one way.

The positive aspect of The Fool Within Us goads us to play the role of humanity’s looking glass, gaining clarity for others and ourself. This is often a solitary act that leaves one open to scorn and ridicule.

Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, who when writing in the exclusive language of his time said: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist…Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

The fool is certainly that nonconformist! Whether or not humor is used to make a point.

Sometimes a life is given to make a point. Consider the 21st Century martyr, the foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny (murdered in prison on Feb. 16, 2024).

To go against the grain of the majority when it comes to beliefs and practices can be a frightening reality: in our family of origin, in our workplace, at a fiesta, at the ballot box.

And yet the work of the true archetypal fool, be it Jesus or Hermes or you is to bring depth to relationships between human beings and the world we live in. It is not to alienate others from us, or us from others. That’s a different kind of fool, one who is too often seen these days in politicians seeking to get elected!

The “I am better than you are” approach to life is undoubtedly the easier route, whether we do it in a church or a political rally. But it is much harder and nobler I believe, to ascend to the higher road as we to attempt to see the dignity and worth in each person.

And may we rejoice that our foolishness is part of our human condition.

So in tribute to Alexei Navalny, I would like to quote his words as he attempted to say to all of us in every country, not just to those in Russia and to its leaders:

I’ve been reading this little book. It’s called the Russian constitution. And it says the only source of power in Russia is the people. So I don’t want to hear those who say we’re appealing to the authorities. Who’s the power here?

Rest in peace, Alexei.


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Don Beaudreau
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