Monday, April 2, 2012

The Wisdom of Folly

Mark Twain said, “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year."

His point is that we’re fools EVERY day. On April 1 we stop to appreciate the wisdom of folly and the gift of surprise.

It’s a rare occurrence for April Fool’s Day to fall on a Sunday, and even rarer for it to fall on Palm Sunday. It’s the perfect storm of shifting perspectives. Where did the idea of April Fools come from? It likely goes back to when the New Year was connected to the beginning of Spring rather than January 1. In 1564, France moved New Year to January 1. But news travelled slowly and many country folk didn’t realize. So French city dwellers pulled pranks on naïve country dwellers by sticking paper fish on their backs, and so it became a national holiday called April’s Fish, or April Fool’s Day. April Fools is so popular in Scotland that they run it for two days, the second day is totally dedicated to pranks involving the backside. Kick me signs are common. So if you visit Scotland in April, watch out or you might end up the butt of someone’s joke.

I have to say, I’m right behind the Scottish ritual. I like their cheek. And I like the idea of setting aside a day where we have permission to kick each other’s butts, physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. Not in a cruel or heartless way, but to remind each other to get off our butts, get active and not to take ourselves too seriously in the process.

There are so many challenges in the world, so much suffering and so much need. Personal responsibility is paramount. The future of the world is in our hands. Each of us basically has a couple of decades to find our passion, make a mark on the world and get busy making a difference. That’s a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility. Both April Fool’s Day and The Palm Sunday kick the butt of your passion, and question how you plan to effect change. You won’t have fun all the time, and obviously we all work through tough times, but if there is a quality of joy and cheeky determination to the way you do your work it will be so much more effective.

The inner trickster comes out to play on April Fools Day and tickles your ego with the feather of surprise to remind you not to let the power go to your head, not to become overwhelmed with the burden of choice and not to get locked into perspectives. Perspective is like a deck of cards. Choice is an ace up your sleeve, the card that responsibility pulls out when the deck seems stacked against you. In the game of life, it’s always your move and there are always more options than you realize. You have multiple plays, diverse skills, and creative strategies to regroup and respond in the best way possible. Whenever it starts to feel heavy or joyless, you can always play the joker and lighten your own load. This is the wisdom of folly.

The Sufi trickster Nasrudin went every day to beg at the market. People made fun of him by playing a trick: they would show him two coins, one worth ten times more than the other, and Nasrudin would always choose the smaller coin. The story went round the whole province. Day after day, groups of men and women would show him the two coins, and Nasrudin would always choose the smaller one. Then one day, a generous man, tired of seeing Nasrudin ridiculed in this fashion, beckoned him over to a corner of the square and said: ‘When they offer you two coins, you should choose the larger one. That way you would earn more money and people wouldn’t consider you an idiot.’
‘That sounds like good advice,’ replied Nasrudin, ‘but if I chose the larger coin, people would stop offering me money, because they like to believe that I am even more stupid than they are. You’ve no idea how much money I’ve earned using this trick.
There’s nothing wrong with looking like a fool if, in fact, you’re being really clever.

The trickster is a mythological character in many traditions. The trickster is more than a hero, whose self confidence and skill wins the day and not quite the joker who is able to find the light side in a situation. The trickster appears clueless but gets results, like Sacha Baron-Cohen asking a priest at a pro life rally if he was aborted when he was younger, or Michael Moore wrapping Wall Street in crime scene tape. The trickster paints the world in a new light.

Byrd Gibbens said,
Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. 

In one classic trickster story from Africa, a village trickster taught two friends a lesson in perspective. The two friends had houses that faced each other, both with nice gardens and a path that ran between them.
The trickster dressed in a two-color shirt that was divided down the middle, black on one side and blue on the other side.  He then walked along the narrow path between their houses
The two friends were each working across from one another in their gardens.  The trickster made a lot of noise to attract their attention as he walked the path.
At the end of the day, one friend said to the other, “Wasn’t it strange the way that guy with the black shirt walked right down our path making so much noise?”  His friend replied, “Yes, it was strange.  But he had a blue shirt on.”
They started arguing about the color of the trickster’s shirt. “It was black.”  “Blue,” shouted the other.  “Black!”  “Blue!”  “Black!”  “Blue!”
Just then the trickster returned, walking back along the path between them.  The two friends stopped and stared.  Now they saw only the other side of the trickster’s shirt.
The first friend quickly apologized.  “I am so sorry, my friend.  I don’t know how I could have been so mistaken.  You are right. His shirt is blue.”  And his friend said, “Oh, no, I apologize.  You were right.  The strange fellow’s shirt was clearly black as you said!”
Then they both stopped and frowned at each other.  They both thought the other was mocking him. They began to wrestle and roll on the ground fighting.
Just then the trickster returned and faced the two men who were punching and kicking each other and shouting, “Our friendship is over!”  The trickster walked right in front of them, displaying his two-color shirt.  He laughed and danced around because of their silly fight.
The two friends saw that his shirt was divided right down the middle, both black and bright blue.  They stopped fighting and stood silently.  They turned to each other and both said, “I’m sorry.” They had both been right, and they had both been wrong. It was all about perspective. From that day, when either one said something the other disagreed with, they would listen to one another.  Different views could indeed both be true, and partly wrong at the same time.  Each person has a different perspective, a different point of view. Their friendship became unbreakable.

The role of the trickster is to remind you that life is rarely one way or another. It ebbs and flows from one extreme to another. I heard about an April Fool’s prank at a hospital maternity ward. On the entrance door, they put the sign, “Push. Push. Push.” On the door of the Sperm Bank along the corridor was the sign, “Pull. Pull. Pull.”

You’ve got to respect the push and pull of life. Life is never all one way or another. Its joy and pain, independence and connection, action and acceptance, yin and yang. The trickster occasionally visits to remind us that we only have a partial view of life and not to get locked into conclusions. There is always more. If you’re pushing too hard, the trickster tickles your ego until you have to let go. The trickster is within, always prodding your expectations, popping the bubble of your assumptions and shining light on new possibilities.

Author Christopher Paolini said,
The trickster, the riddler, the keeper of balance, he of the many faces who finds life in death and who fears no evil; he who walks through doors.

Palm Sunday and Creative Protest
Let me see if I can offer a slightly different take on Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey before his execution. The story seems to emphasize the trickster side of Jesus’ character. It’s intended to kick your butt. Think about the donkey in the story, and another trickster donkey, the donkey in Shrek.

In the beginning of the move Shrek, the king’s soldiers are buying up all the fairy tale creatures. A woman comes forward to sell a donkey. “I’ve got a talking donkey,” she says. The donkey refuses to speak. The woman says, “Go ahead, say something.” The guard isn’t buying it and tells his men to take her away. But they knock over a container of fairy dust that flies into the air and then lands on the donkey. He begins to float up into the air. Donkey says, “Hey, I can fly!” The crowd is amazed. The guard says, “He can talk.” Donkey responds, “That’s right fool. Now I’m a flying—talking donkey. Maybe you’ve seen a housefly or a maybe even a superfly, but I bet you never saw a donkey fly.” At that point he begins to drop back to the ground. As he lands he runs for his life, with the guards in hot pursuit. The only thing that saves him is running into Shrek, the ogre, who scares all the guards away. From that moment on, Donkey doesn’t stop talking. At one point later in the movie, Shrek is so tired of listening to Donkey’s nonstop chatter he says, “Maybe there’s a good reason why donkeys don’t talk.”

It’s not healthy to live in a Disney style fantasy world. Donkeys DON’T talk. People DON’T rise from the dead. The trickster in the story, whether its Shrek or Palm Sunday, bypasses the literal details. The multiple versions and many inconsistencies in the Palm Sunday story make an ass out of anyone who tries to take it literally. Just a quick snapshot will give you a sense. The different versions of the story don’t gel. Some of them include just a donkey and some have a donkey and a colt. How can one man ride both a donkey and a colt? Then there are the palms. Some versions have people waving leafy branches. Others have people laying their clothes on the road. One version took place in Spring. Another took place in Fall.  The trickster has other interests. It wants to excite your inner activist’s imagination. It encourages you to consider the power of creative activism.

The story is told of the Sufi trickster Nasrudin.
Every month he brought a caravan of donkeys into Persia from the East, laden with goods. The government inspector becomes suspicious, sensing that the Mullah is smuggling something into the country, while avoiding taxes. But he can’t seem to find it. He goes through every item in every bag, and still he can’t discover what it is. This goes on month after month and he increasingly becomes convinced that the Mullah is a smuggler, but he is never able to catch him.

After some years the government inspector retires. He then confronts Nasrudin: He says, “all these years I’ve inspected your caravans bringing goods into our country. I know that you are smuggling goods, but I haven’t been able to find what they are. Now I haven’t the power any longer to prosecute you, would you tell me, just to give an old man some rest, what it is that you are smuggling?”
After a moments pause, Nasrudin replies, “Donkeys, inspector, I’ve been smuggling donkeys.”
Not that I’m encouraging illegal activity or smuggling. Apply the same creative thinking to constructive activism and protest. 

The most effective protests include an element of surprise, like riding into a major city on a donkey. A few years ago, a female contortionist curled herself up in a transparent suitcase. Someone placed her on the baggage conveyor at a European airport. She was protesting human trafficking. The Free Hugs movement is another creative protest, challenging the mindless and heartless lifestyle we so often live.

Another one of my favorite protests was from a group in New Zealand called Madge, Mothers Against Genetic Engineering. We lived next door to the woman who started it. She and her husband were two parts of the 80s pop group The Thompson Twins.  Madge used some very eye catching protests. A group of Madge women got into the New Zealand parliament and stripped down to their pink undies and bras, to serve notice that they should take these women and their concern for food safety seriously. Madge also placed billboards around town of a woman with four breasts, being milked, the point being that if you are going to design the milk we feed our children, why not just design women to produce the milk.

The protest that I especially loved was when a group of women went to the local store. They all filled up shopping trolleys and went to the check out. They timed it so that they were next in each line. Once they had unloaded all their stuff on the checkout counters, they walked out, effectively bringing the store to a standstill. Their message was that women have purchasing power and their demands need to be taken seriously.
In more extreme actions, people set themselves on fire to create the element of surprise (shock!) in their protests. At least 30 Tibetans have burnt themselves to death in China so far this year to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. Not to forget the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire and launched the Arab Spring.
What issues fire you up? What causes capture your imagination and your full conviction? Work out what makes your blood boil and get active. You WILL offend people in the process. You can’t be both an activist and universally loved. But the people who get you will stay with you, and the people who don’t get you were likely never with you to begin with.

Trickster and Appearances
One of the things we get locked into is expectations and appearances. The lesson of the trickster is that things are not always as they appear. A great prophet riding on a donkey is not quite the picture you expect. The Palm Sunday story tells us that Jesus wept when he saw the city of Jerusalem. He was overcome with grief and anger. He both wept and he rode in to Jerusalem as trickster activist. Therein lies the balance. Tears and surprise. Compassion and skill. Intensity and humility. Focus and perspective.

What’s the relevance today? Think about this in terms of the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida last month. We spend most of our energy talking about WHO killed Trayvon. In a brilliant eulogy that MLK gave at a white Unitarian pastor’s funeral, Dr King said the better question is WHAT killed Pastor James Reeb and in this case WHAT killed Trayvon Martin. One man pulled the trigger and needs to be brought to justice. One state struggles with some absurd and oppressive laws and needs to be challenged. But we ALL killed Trayvon Martin because we ALL play a part in perpetuating a culture based on appearance and prejudice. We need compassion, indignation and self reflection.

This is what Dr King said in his eulogy in 1965-
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam, yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice...

Powerful words! He questions the whole culture of hypocrisy, prejudice and indifference. King was no trickster. He was in the hero category, pure passion and intensity. The trickster directs the light back on unseen, individual prejudice. The point is made by the Sufi trickster Nasrudin.
“What is Fate?" Nasrudin was asked by a Scholar.
"An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other."
The scholar answered, "That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause and effect."
"Very well," said Nasrudin, "look at that." He pointed to a procession passing in the street.
"That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?"

When you look at the injustices of the world, both weep AND get creative. We can’t solve the problems of the world with the same type of thinking that created them. We can’t conquer despair with more despair. We can’t beat violence with more violence. We can’t beat hatred with hatred.
We beat despair, hatred and violence when we overcome thought patterns and systems based in prejudice, beginning with our own minds.

Let the trickster kick your butt this year. What sort of a world do you want to live in? What are you going to do about it? How are you going to do it? Find your passion and get to work. When your self aware passion coincides with the world's needs, the effect is phenomenal.

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