Monday, March 15, 2010

A Fool Such As I

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (1 Cor. 1:25)

I have not been able to publish a post for the past several weeks because I have been studying to take the Propaedeuticum, otherwise known as the Stage 1 exams, at the Jung Institute. This set of exams is major rite of passage at the Institute, as it marks the transition from the theoretical and academic phase of the program to the practice-oriented phase. To be in this second stage of training is roughly equivalent to beginning a residency in medicine. With the guidance of experienced analysts, the Stage 2 diploma candidate now becomes immersed in learning to become a practicing Jungian Analyst.

As my exam date drew nearer, I had this dream: I am getting ready to be tested. I introduce myself and say, “I am a fool. I don’t care what you think.”

Now, being a good Jungian, I tend to take my dreams very seriously. That this one refers to my exams seems quite clear. However, it’s that last phrase that I take to be the key to the dream. On the one hand, you could read the last part of the dream to mean, “I would be a fool to not care what others (the examiners) think.” After all, the point of an exam is to submit yourself to another’s judgment. It matters what others think because they have the power to pass you or fail you.

Being concerned about what others think, though, is not my problem. Or, rather, it is my problem, because I tend to worry too much about what others think about me. I spend far too much mental and emotional energy trying to accommodate myself to what I perceive to be the needs of others, trying to make myself into an “acceptable” version of myself. And though this can appear humble or self-effacing, it has a strong narcissistic quality to it. I want people to like me, so I present a likable self. In the end, I lose myself. In Jungian terms, I defend my persona, but am cut off from my Self—the wholeness of my being.

Given my tendency to care too much about what others think, perhaps the way to read the dream, then, is as an unambiguous statement regarding the attitude I needed as I approached my exams. That is, I needed to be able to say, “I am a fool. I don’t care what you think.” Jung’s attitude to dreams is very different from Freud’s. Where Freud sees the dream as a disguised fulfillment of an unconscious wish, Jung believes that the dream is a self-portrait of the individual’s psychic situation. In other words, the dream doesn’t disguise anything. It says what it means.

So, what does it mean to be a fool?

The classic image of the Fool is found on the card numbered ‘0’ in a deck of Tarot cards. It is the prototype of our modern day Joker in a regular deck of cards. The Joker has taken on sinister implications, being associated at times with the devil and, more recently, in the identification of this figure with the ultimate arch-enemy of Batman. We think of the Joker as creepy, frightening, dangerous and cruel.

The figure of the Fool, however, does not originally have those connotations. It is a symbol of freedom and wisdom. As Joseph Campbell describes this image, it signifies a condition of human consciousness in which the individual is “careless of the bites of the world … a wandering sage.” It represents a state of being where the individual has attained a certain detachment from the cares of the world, in particular, from those cares that keep us limited in our narrow ego perspectives—wealth, possessions, achievements, social pressures. It is, to be sure, a subversive figure, but not a malevolent one. This subversive quality of the Fool is most clearly seen in those characters that populate Shakespeare’s plays. The Fool, like the one in King Lear, satirizes the dominant attitudes of the court. He speaks truths to the King that no one else has license to speak.

Now, I am nowhere near being a realized sage, but in light of all these considerations, I took this image from my dream as pointing to the danger of taking myself too seriously. If I went into my exams trying to prove to my examiners how good I was, I would be in danger of going off track. On the other hand, if I could say, “I don’t care what you think,” then I would be freed to confidently express what I thought and not try to present myself in some imagined “suitable” way. It was important that I owned and trusted my particular understanding of the material. (Just to be clear: This was not a kind of multiple choice test. The exams included both essay questions and an oral examination. It was not so much a test of discreet bits of knowledge, but of how that knowledge was integrated and presented.)

I determined that instead of continuing to be anxious about learning the material, I needed to focus more on getting myself in the right frame of mind. To do this, I decided watched the greatest motivational speech ever committed to celluloid. Win one for the Gipper? Too obvious. Kenneth Branagh’s St. Crispin’s Day speech from HenryV? Wonderful, but too bloody. Besides, I needed some Fool energy, not Kingly power. No, this masterpiece was the cure for what was ailing me:

The figure of the Fool is a surprisingly common one in the various religious traditions. St. Paul says, “If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise.” In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the figure of the “Fool in Christ” was a venerated figure who was understood to have given his life completely over to God. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu says:

I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.

The Sufis describe themselves as drunkards and madmen. The image of the Fool can be glimpsed in this quatrain by Rumi. Here he is called the lover:

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absent-minded. Someone sober
will worry about events going badly.
Let the lover be.

What is the lesson of the Fool? I think it would be a mistake to understand the message of the Fool as “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s not that if we stop worrying about life, only good things will happen, or we will finally get all that we want. Besides, as Bill Murray wisely reminds us, winning is no guarantee of happiness. The other team may still get all the girls.

Is the Fool’s message that we should have trust in the universe, or, if we are religious, trust in God? Well, yes, up to a point. As long as that trust doesn’t cause us to abdicate any responsibility for our own lives. An illustration of this pitfall is a recent story about Minnesota’s Governor, Tim Pawlenty, who has been talking up the idea of “God’s in charge” as a key principle of conservative politics. For this he has earned the rebuke of a group of Lutheran ministers, who issued this statement:

Governor please, stop talking to us about God. The governor is going around saying 'God is in control.' We elected you. We elected you to be making decisions for this state that will help everyone in this state. Things that will lift up the poorest in this state. Don't pass this on to God. That's no God we've ever heard of. And please stop lecturing us about God. It's offensive.

Trust in God without personal engagement in life is sterile. The formula that makes the most sense to me in this regard comes again from Joseph Campbell who says, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” The point is essentially this: Bad things can and will happen. Some of those bad things will be the result of getting things you thought you wanted. And some of the best things in your life will look like failures or losses at first. Beyond this, expect to encounter great suffering in the world. Do what you can to alleviate it, but don’t get caught in the delusion that you can eliminate it. And to the best of your ability, have a good time while you’re here.

This is one of the main teachings of the Bhagavad Gita: “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the actions sake. And do not be attached to inaction. Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure.”

In our bottom-line, results-oriented, winning-is-everything world, this ancient wisdom sounds foolish. But every now and then it helps to remind ourselves: “It just doesn’t matter.”


Gail Hildebrandt said...

I was so happy to see that you have had the time to write another blog. I so look forward to them. I am trusting that you did very well on your exam, but if I had anything to do with it you would get an A+ but then I know nothing about Jungian ideas, and in my tiny mind "that just doesn't matter". I admire your intellect, your sense of humour and the wisdom you have for such a young age. How fortunate we are to have persons through the ages that have given us knowledge to help us to think, if not understand ourselves better . Some of us who are not so well educated or not particularly well read have trouble putting our thoughts to words and therefore are not always helpful to others at times of need. I guess we are the listeners, who just help by being there or perhaps we are procrastinators who think good things but have difficulty putting them into action. Gosh! I think that's me - I usually know what to say long after the time it should have been said. I have heard of Freud but not Jung. Interpreting dreams is scary. I have always had dreams of getting lost and no one caring to find me - I would hate to think what that is supposed to mean. Keep them coming Jason, I know you must be very busy. Happy St. Paddy's Day.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this perspective...

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of Ecclesiastes, everything is meaningless, chasing the just doesn't matter.

Anonymous said...

every day i try to get a bit closer to "it just doesn't matter." but truth be told, there seem to be so many things in my way each day that at the end of the day i feel that all I tried to do this day really mattered. is this a dilemma or what?