Black Lives and the Wise Fool

Beauty and My Back Yard

Last week, I gave myself a gift. I sat in the shade of our back yard and watched.

Not much happened. Insects fluttered past my face, a scrub jay pecked at an apple in the neighbor’s tree, a breeze touched my cheek, swallows sailed over houses. I heard traffic noises, the trilling of a bird, a dog barking, someone talking. With their blue flowers flared open, the borage plants attracted big honey bees and fat, black ones, their heads marked with yellow, their legs dabbed with the orange leavings of stamens.

A bee harvesting nectar from a borage flower - the wisdom of nature

All this happened, and more. In places I couldn’t see, like the recesses of the kiwi vine, or the rambling rose, or beneath the surface of rocks, small creatures were busy, but from where I sat, life seemed quiet. The world spun on its axis, time flowed, the air smelled sweet with grass, fruit, and flowers. Peace held me tight.

The Urban Camper

I thought of a young woman I worked with in a residential treatment center. She had no home, she told me. For years, she’d lived outside, preferring it that way. Inside buildings, she felt hot, trapped, insecure, and she wanted to leave treatment. The walls felt oppressive. The windows wouldn’t open. There were too many rules.

In my yard that evening, I imagined her, clean and sober or not, sitting on the edge of the river, enjoying the coolness, the light, the smells and sounds of summer. No engagements, no job, no bills. Was she hungry? Had she eaten a big dinner at one of the soup kitchens. Was she tired, lonely, addicted, free? With the wind on her skin and the smell of the waterfront seeping into her pores, did she feel safe? Surely not all was perfect in this world she’d created. No one’s world is perfect.

Yet I hope she is happy, for if ever there were a day when I might not mind being homeless, it would be a day like this, with the sky unmarred by clouds, the air cool, yet with no hint of rain.

Of course, not everyone wants to be an urban camper. That same day I sat outside, another homeless person I’d worked with called to tell me he was leaving town, flying back home where his family would take care of him. In Oregon, he couldn’t keep a job and the women tried to control him, but he wasn’t a man you could control. He needed a woman who knew how to treat a man like a man, and he needed work. In Ohio, he’d find both. Besides, he didn’t want to be homeless any more. Yet like the Fool archetype, he was excited about new opportunities, hopeful about possibilities.

The Wandering Fool

In the tarot deck is a card called the Fool. He wears the motley outfit of a jester, carrying his belongings wrapped in a cloth tied to a stick, the sun shining, a flower in his hand, a small dog at his heels. For him, life is a grand adventure, his face upturned to catch the breeze, yet he stands at the edge of a cliff. Does he know where he is? Will he look down in time to stop himself from falling?

The Fool is starting over, embarking on a new quest, a new job, a new relationship. He doesn’t have a destination; he doesn’t know what he’ll do once he gets there. For him, the journey is the goal. He wants to experience the world, enjoy adventures, be free. Uninhibited, spontaneous, and childlike, the Fool trusts in the flow of life.

Would the Fool choose to sleep under the stars, wander whither the whim guides him, take crazy chances? Yes. Would the Fool choose to take off in a new direction, without planning or purpose, believing things will work out? Yes. Sometimes, of course, the Fool falls on his face. Sometimes, she gets bruised and battered. Does this mean the Fool is foolish? Not necessarily.

The Wise Fool

Kristen Lentz, a middle school teacher, explains the fool archetype this way: “The wise fool archetype reveals a character who is outwardly very silly, distractable, and often provides comic relief; but for all the wise fool’s antics, this character has moments of deep insight and clarity.”

What if, in our silliness and foolishness, we, too, revealed transforming clarity and insight?

Many years ago, I attended a seminary class about trauma. One of my class mates had been severely abused as a child. We were talking about naming the abuse, speaking out. I said we needed to speak in a way people could hear us, so they wouldn’t get defensive. She said it didn’t matter if they could hear, at least not if the perpetrator could hear. We had to speak up, just speak up any way we could.

The wise fool, I think, would agree with both of us. Sometimes we just need to speak up. At other times, we need to be careful how we speak.

Black Lives Matter

As I was in the middle of writing this column, Philando Castille was murdered. A few days before that, it was Alton Sterling. My heart broke. Will the killing never stop? How do I make sense of such horror in the face of the beauty of borage and sky? What do I say?

I wonder, how would the carefree Fool respond? Would he pay attention? Would he cry out? What words would he use? Would he care who listened or understood? Yet who can stay silent? Is it wisdom or foolishness that prods me to verbalize my shock, shame, dismay, and despair?

At work that day, I met with an African American patient. One of his African American peers joined us. They were sad and scared. For themselves and their children, they worried. For the black brothers and sisters who died at the hands of those who are entrusted with protecting citizens, they mourned. Were these black men who died not citizens?

I listened to the pain the patients felt, and I wondered what could bring healing to us all. Can we mend the centuries of hatred and misunderstanding that have grown between the different races in this country? As if race were real. As if our fears had any justification beyond the fact that, yes, sometimes we hurt one another. No matter what color skin we have, we hurt.

What, I wondered, would the Wise Fool do? What would she say?

Teachers and Wise Fools

After talking with the African American men, I went to see an 80-year-old white woman. She had probably not heard of the shootings. Certainly, she never referred to them. Interestingly, none of the white patients I met with that day, nor the white staff I spoke with, said anything about the murders of black men.

Instead, this white woman talked about love. She said that at three years old, she felt a special relationship with God and decided to dedicate her life to serving God. She strove to respect others and be kind. Having told me about how she and her husband kept their relationship close by respecting and being kind to one another, she then shared stories of what she called her service.

In one of them, she was waiting to check out at a grocery store. She noticed the cashier was snappish and gruff. As she felt herself stiffen in distaste and judge the cashier as somehow bad, she caught herself. She reminded herself that she didn’t know what was going on in the cashier’s life. Her job was not to judge, but to love and be kind. With a sudden inspiration, she turned to the woman behind her in line and said, “I forgot to get something. Will you please go in front of me?” Then she hurried off to grab whatever she could find off a shelf.

When she returned, it was almost her turn again. As she waited, she noticed the cashier was chatting with the woman who’d taken her place in line. The cashier even smiled.

The Wise Fool and Transformation

Was the change due to the kindness the woman had committed when she yielded her place? Who knows? It might have been. Certainly some of the times the woman modeled generosity of spirit, it was, for all the woman’s stories had this same flow: someone was being grouchy or thoughtless; she felt judgment rise up, yet caught herself and concentrated on expressing love through some action that allowed the grouchy person to see the world in a different way. She didn’t shame them by calling them on their grouchiness; she didn’t grouch back. Instead, she changed her own perspective and modeled behavior based on her new compassion.

This patient taught me how to be a Wise Fool.

Wisdom and the System

Can I learn from her how to respond to the violence of “peace officers”? In the face of immediate threat, the Wise Fool does protect herself. Centuries of black people played the fool to survive. Not that such false deference always works. Sometimes the fool falls off the cliff. Some people die no matter what they do, whether they simper and bow, speak out, or make jokes. Some die even when they love, like Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi.

I don’t know how to change a broken system. To change a broken person, the first thing I do is love him. Sometimes I ask questions or prod or challenge, but I do this gently, with compassion and respect.

How do I love a system? What is the system that I might offer it kindness? To whom do I model generosity, gentle touch, inside voices? In a system, is there a crack, an opening, a place to prod and tickle?

If I can’t find the system, can’t meet with her or chase after him, perhaps I can reach out to people. Yet who do I approach? It’s easy to provide transformative listening for people who ask to see a chaplain. How do I do that with people who cannot hear the voices of the wounded, who turns their backs, who cannot bear to acknowledge their own pain? So whom do I invite into a chair, to sit beside me, to tell me about his life, to share her hopes, fears, and shame? Whom do I guide, gently and slowly? With whom do I patiently listen, reflect, wait?

Breathe Out Love

I’ve had a long day. As a chaplain, I breathe in pain and breathe out love. My work feels like Tonglen practice: breathe in the suffering, transform it with compassion, and breathe out an invitation to merge with the holy, to become whole. Some days, I feel sad. Some days, I just don’t want to know about pain once I get home.

The Wise Fool doesn’t let me rest, however. Sure, the fool inside me seeks adventures, gulps in the smell of flowers, relishes the call of birds and the fluttering of bats. I revel in being alive in a world that is so beautiful. But the wise part of me seeks the wounds and festering of the world. The wise part urges me to reign in my judgment, to learn to love even the murderer, and to find a way to model the kindness and respect I would like to see in the world.

It’s not enough. I understand it’s not enough. We must cry out, we must rewrite laws. Yet until we repair the brokenness of a centuries-old racism, until we find wisdom enough to love and challenge, nothing will change. Our hatred falls on anything different or threatening. Even the homeless are attacked. Gay people are murdered. ISIS declares war on the infidel. Native Americans, Jews, Latino/as – all are dying. It all matters, so I pray for love, challenge, and healing for all of us.

Yet right now, we must declare that Black Lives Matter. For the black children who are not safe in their cars, on the streets, in parks, or sometimes even in their homes, I breathe in pain and breathe out love. And I invite the Wise Fool into my heart to guide me in what I must, afterwards, do.

In faith and fondness,