A fool finds pleasure in wicked schemes, but a person of understanding delights in wisdom
I stood beside the almost 60 year old tractor staring at the sky and wondered which would come first the rain or sunset. Either way I’d be done for the day and I had promised myself to get our orchard bush-hogged before going in for the day. The sky seemed to me unreal, like watching an old black and white film played at a faster speed than real life. The clouds seemed to just stream by and the air smelled like rain. The tractor, and old Ford 8-N, belonged to my wife’s Grandfather and had been sitting in the same spot that it had for the previous week and a half. The battery was dead and we had just got a new one to get it going again.
I hurried to remove the battery terminals of the dead battery and put it off to the side, “I’ll see if I can charge that later”, I can remember thinking. I grabbed the fresh battery and set it on the half rusted away platform intended to hold it and grabbed the wires to reconnect the terminals. Red to positive, Black to negative – a universal system. So handy when you’re in a rush. I jumped on top of the tractor, turned the key, primed it a little as I tried to get the engine to start. Chicka-Chicka-Chica-Vroooooooom! Payday! I threw it in gear and was off to the orchard!
You have to bush hog an orchard kinda like you would draw a checkers board – down one row in between the fruit trees then up the other, then when you finish with the rows in one direction, you switch directions and go in between each row of trees the other way. I guess you don’t have to do it this way but the alternative involves cutting down your fruit trees which is kind of self-defeating so that’s the way I do it. I went down between one row of trees, up another, down another, then halfway up the next I thought I smelled leaves burning. “That’s funny”, I thought, “I didn’t burn anything today”. Now smoke, “What the heck”? Now I feel heat, “That’s not good”! I looked down at the engine block and saw flames. “Oh, there’s just a little fire on top of the gas tank”. . . “FIRE ON TOP OF THE GAS TANK”! I must have been quite a sight barreling through that orchard, trying to get the tractor out of gear so that I could bail before the fire shooting up between my legs became an explosion between my legs.
Did y’all know that some old tractors have what they call a “positive to ground” set up. I didn’t before that day. “Positive to ground” means, at least for the setup of my tractor, that you don’t put the black wire on the negative terminal – you put the red one. Universal system my ass!
I finally was able to reach between the flames to put the gear shift in neutral, let the engine stall and started running to the house to find a fire extinguisher. As I ran out of the orchard I could hear the glass gauge covers on the dashboard pop one by one from the heat. “Oh, Lord”, I thought as I was running “He just bought that tractor a month ago, he was so proud of it. Now what’s he going to think of me”? I’d been trying to impress this man since the day I met him. I don’t know why it’s so important to me that he likes me; my wife love’s him, he owns the land that our farm is on, maybe I just respect the old country savvy in him. I’m not sure, but I do know that to date I have not been particularly successful in this endeavor. I honestly believe the man thinks my name is “Boy, you don’t know shit about farming!!!”
By the time I had returned, fire extinguisher in hand, the fire had put itself out, but there would be no hiding the damaged it had done. The incorrect installation of the battery had send so much current through the old wires that it melted the insulation off of them and lit them on fire. The fire had spread to a clump of pine needles that had gotten caught beneath the wiring harness and gauge panel. The wires and harness was completely burnt up and the gauges would need to be replaced as well. It was late Saturday evening – too late to go to town and try to find the materials I needed to fix the tractor and I didn’t really have the money to get them anyway. I left the tractor sit where I had left it in the middle of the orchard and went in the house feeling dejected about what I knew was to come.
The next afternoon after church we were sitting in the yard and I heard the familiar rumble of his old Chevrolet making its way around the curves in our long dirt road. My wife had phoned him the previous night and told him about the fire, I knew he was coming to see the damage for himself. He pulled in the yard and we walked slowly over to the orchard as he tried to navigate over the terrain with his cane. Not a word. Nothing. He grabbed each wire and inspected it closely. He opened the hood and looked under the gauge panel to see the harness walked around to look at the burnt up gauges and their shattered glass covers. Then, after he had confirmed for himself the damage that had been done, he looked down at the ground, shook his head and said “Boy, let me tell you what: you don’t know shit about farming”! I really wasn’t in the position to argue with him, after all I had just lit them man’s tractor on fire. “What kind of a fool cannot look at that engine and see that the positive wire is grounded on the block? My Granddaughter married a fool”!
If you don’t live in a farming community, let me just explain how very insulting it is for someone to point out to you that you don’t really know what you’re doing on the farm, when you live on a farm. A farm, in my view, is a naturally self sustaining mechanism. Every thing on a farm has a function a purpose. Every crop, every animal, every person there has a roll. Chickens give eggs, Pigs give bacon, Dogs protect the animals and family, cat’s keep the mice/snake population down. At the risk of sounding sexist, there is men’s work, woman’s work, children’s work and the result of all this work is the self self sustaining reward of the farm’s production. I recon this is true for 1000 acre commercial farms as much as it is for our little 210 acre family farm. My labor produces a harvest of grain, the grain produces food for the livestock, the livestock produces food for me and that food sustains my ability to preform the work necessary to begin the process again and again. The surplus from this can be sold, traded or otherwise reused to secure the money needed to buy more seed, fertilizer, fence post etc. , in order to meet the farm’s needs and allow it to continue to be productive. There is a rhythmic cadence to it that has echoed for hundreds probably thousands of years. Farms that are unable to sustain themselves in this way, at least around here, quickly become trailer parks or just sad monuments of the way things used to be. To a small farm family nothing is worse that something that doesn’t pull it’s weight: a dog that kills chickens, a crop that destroys the land’s fertility, a sickly billy goat kid, who despite being cute, you know should be killed to preserve the quality of your stock, and apparently farmers who accidentally light the tractor on fire. The insult extends beyond “you’re a dope for doing that” into the realm of saying that you don’t serve a purpose. Your simply using up resources and not contributing in any positive way to the farm’s survival. You’re disrupting that very delicate rhythm and in doing so threatening everything.
What’s worse is for that status to be coupled with being a “fool”, because now not only are you simply using up the farm’s precious resources without contribution, but you can never hope to remedy that by learning how not to. I wanted to write about our reputation and why we value it so much. In particular I wanted to talk about why we fear being considered a fool.
Why is it that that word hurts us so badly? Fool! Nobody wants to be a fool. It’s such a silly little word with such a profoundly undesirable meaning. I’m nobody’s fool, a fool and his money, no fool like and old fool, a fool’s paradise, fool’s gold, play the fool, act the fool, make a fool of, an April fool ; the is like fuel for generating idioms.
It’s clearly not something that anyone wants as part of their reputation. If you’re thought to be a fool no one will trust you with responsibility, they’ll snicker and make fun of you behind your back, or worse, they’ll use that against you or to try and take advantage of you. This was and is I think one of the hardest things about being cheated on – it makes you feel like a fool! I can remember in the beginning not even wanting anyone to look at me. Going to work, to the bank where she worked, to the market where she used to work and meet him during her breaks; there was no place in this small town where I could be seen by people and think to myself “I wonder how much they know. They must think that I’m such a fool”! I’d sit in my office with the guy I work with knowing that his uncle is a deputy and just know that he was privy to everything that happened and wonder what he was thinking as we did our work.
I can remember one time sitting on the marriage counselors couch with my wife talking about this and them both saying “well, why do you care what these small town, small minded people think. You’re just the gossip of the week and by next week they’ll be onto something else”. I remember thinking that I would always be the guy whose wife had an affair with her black drug dealer, whether or not it was forefront on their mind. It’s who I was now. What’s ironic is that now, several months later, they both are nervous and have raised objections about me writing about this in any kind of a public way. Why, because if it should effect my wife’s reputation and make her relive her experience of the last year, it would be detrimental to her recovery. What kind of horseshit is that?
The truth is that extends far deeper than simply wanting to protect our reputations. We have an archetypical fear about being a fool. I think not so much because we worry about others might think that we are fools but because we ourselves may. We don’t want to believe that we are fools ourselves because to do so would be to admit that we have no control over the things that happen to us. We have no control over the world around us and that’s scary. We want to be in control. We want to be confident that we are able to navigate the world around us in order to get what we need. We want to know that the little scripts we have about how to act and what to do and where to go to get this done or that done are correct. “When you’re hungry go in the kitchen and open the refrigerator and get something to eat”; What would happen if we felt hungry one day, went to the kitchen opened the refrigerator only to realize that this was no longer the place to find food but rather the place where firewood was stored? That schema would be threatened and we’d feel an associated anxiety, because we no longer know where to find food when we’re hungry – I hate to see what’s in the woodshed now. We all have this intricate set of schemas such as this and want to know that we may rely on them. If we can’t, then we also can’t feel confident that the next time we’re hungry; we’ll know what to do. But if we admit that we are fools, then we must also admit that all of those schemas are questionable. It’s something that we cannot tolerate considering so we dismiss it and react strongly to anyone else’s suggestions that it may be true.
There is therefore something especially hurtful therefore about calling someone a fool, because we know how much we fear it ourselves. Maybe that’s why Jesus specifically tells us not to call people fools:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
But then does it himself.
Matthew 23:17 (ESV)
You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?
He’s not really meaning the use of the word “fool” is in and of itself sinful, but rather illustrating that the use of words in anger is. What he’s saying is “hey, I know y’all know that murder aint right, but I’m here to tell you that acting with unrighteous anger in your heart is bad no matter how you let it manifest itself”. The word “fool” provides an excellent illustration for this, because there really is no way it cannot be taken as an insult. When he speaks to the Scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23 it comes from a place of righteous not unrighteous anger. They were fools and I’m sure the word meant as much to them as it does to me.
My poor Little Fool is hanged…
In the third act of Shakespeare’s King Lear, we find Lear and his loyal fool amidst a raging storm. Lear, who had decided to divide his kingdom proportionately between his daughters and their suitors in accordance with their demonstrated love for him, realizes that once they receive their wealth, their actual love for him was far different than the amount of love he had been shown before. In a tantrum and going mad he flees one of their castles in order to demonstrate his objections to his daughter’s selfishness.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulfurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
Now Lear’s fool is anything but a fool. He’s often referred to as the “wise fool”. His purpose in the play is, seemingly, to serve as a sort of narrator, however he just sort of disappears after the third act. In addition, and probably more importantly, he serves as Lear’s conscious. He speaks openly and frankly to Lear, in a way that Lear would not tolerate from anyone else. Now, in peril and with nothing to gain fool demonstrates true love and loyalty by still remaining at his beloved master’s side, Fool has already shown his wisdom to us and perhaps foreshadows what’s to come in act 2:
That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly.
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
Now there’s a lot there. Here not only is the fool demonstrating his integrity “but I will tarry; the fool will stay”, but he also seems to be telling us that he is fully aware of the reversal of his own and the king’s conditions. The word “knave” was often used interchangeably for “fool” but has a slightly different meaning. It means more of an older, outdated, archaic and unscrupulous person. Given that and the context in which the word is used, it seems clear that what fool is saying; “the knave turns fool that runs away; the fool no knave, perdy”, is that everything now is reversed. The king, who most would assume is not a fool – he did manage to become a king after all, has now fallen into peril as the result of his own foolishness and the fool, though in the exact same peril, but in his case via loyalty not foolishness, now speaks words of wisdom. It is through this council, through this wisdom from the fool and through his own madness, that Lear is able to see his error and regain his love for his one daughter that refused to kiss his butt in the beginning because she knew it was all phony.
Then everybody gets hanged – it is after all a tragedy! Sorry for the spoiler, but you really should have read it in high school like you were supposed to.
Now Shakespeare’s intention here, in these lines, this scene and really the entire play, is clear to me. His intention is far nobler than the endeavor to make high school students miserable some 600 years later, though I likely would have disagreed with myself in high school. What he’s trying to say is that we are often wrong when we assign the designation as fool or not a fool to someone. Than in some ways we are all fools and we are all wise. Now I suppose you can be a fool and become a king, but I don’t think that you can be a fool and become and old king and I suppose that you can be a wise man and become a court jester, but it takes, at least to a certain extent, wisdom to show integrity.
We fear being fools because we fear the outcome destine to what it means to be a fool. Fools end up dead, because they don’t have enough sense to get out of the way of a speeding bus. Fools end up in the jailhouse because they don’t have enough sense to realize that their not as clever as they think they are. Fools end up poor, hungry, cold, because they cannot develop the skills necessary to provide for themselves and their families. Nobody wants to be a fool not so much because they don’t want to be thought of as a fool, but because they don’t want to think of themselves as one. Bad stuff happens to folks that are fools! The potential consequences are simply too unbearable to think about. Paul echoes this sentiment in 2 Corinthians:
2 Corinthians 11 (NIV)
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
I wonder what my wife’s grandfather would have to say about Paul! Now here’s a guy who didn’t just accidentally light his grandfather’s tractor on fire; he’s been in and out of jail, has had constant trouble with the law, can’t handle a ship, gets his butt whipped all the time and can’t manage to provide for himself. That’s how we justify calling someone a fool – by the things that happen to them. If you end up in jail, you’re probably a fool, because you didn’t have the sense to keep yourself out of jail. Now we justify to ourselves that it could never happen to us, we could never end up in that horrible wrenched condition, because we are not fools. We don’t have to worry about it. Right? Well not really, because bad stuff has happened to all of us. We excuse these things. Justify them by saying that our situation was in some way exceptional or that we were sacrificing our outcomes for some higher cause.
Freedom Inside the Jailhouse…
We had to go get my wife’s grandfather himself out the jailhouse only a few month age, because the man refuses to get a driving license and keeps driving his old Chevy around. To get a driver’s license you have to have a social security number and he is dead against doing so. “That which the federal government subsidizes, the federal government controls” – he refuses to be controlled. For him it’s about freedom. He’ll go to jail to preserve his freedom. And I’m the fool?
That seems to be a common theme here; fools invariably lose their freedom. Paul ended up in jail many times. At the end of the Play in King Lear, Lear dies in prison of a broken heart. If my wife’s grandfather had his way, I’d be doing 5 to 10 right now for tractor abuse. Oxford had 5 separate definitions for freedom:
- 1 the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants:
- 2 the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved
- 3 (freedom from) the state of not being subject to or affected by (something undesirable
- 4 (the freedom of ——) British a special privilege or right of access, especially that of full citizenship of a city granted to a public figure as an honor
- 5 archaic familiarity or openness in speech or behavior.
What’s ironic, as in the case of my wife’s grandfather, is that we often sacrifice one definition for the sake of another. Well often sacrifice the second definition for the sake of the third or the third for the second – we do so whenever we stand up to injustice, tyranny or corruption or chose to ignore such for fear of the repercussion. We’ll often sacrifice the first for the third, by holding our tongue because we just don’t want people to fuss at us for our opinions or beliefs or the third for the first, when we talk to people about something they don’t necessarily want to hear – this is often the situation we face when talking to others about Jesus, we often know in doing so we will be met with resistance, judgment even distain. How often do we chose not to simply to avoid the reaction?
My point is that the way the word is set up, it really is impossible for to maintain our “freedom”, for each of its definitions, simultaneously. It is, because of human nature, simply impossible. We all make these sacrifices one place or another; we’re all prisoners to something, slaves to something: our morals, pride, drugs, religion, money, power, beer. We’re all fools in one way or another.
As Christians, we are told that true freedom comes only through Jesus. When you think about it in these terms, that makes sense. I mean, who do you believe is more free; the slave who knows happiness inside his heart or the master, who knows only of anger and selfishness, abusing him? One has attained his freedom in the physical sense, but is a slave to his own cruelty and greed. The other hides his freedom within his heart, even if he must do so in chains. Which freedom would you choose?
Because, it occurs to me that we all must make these choices. Choices about which types of freedom we will sacrifice to preserve others. Choices about what we will become slaves to – fools for. It’s not a matter of choosing to be a fool or not, but rather for what will we be willing to be foolish. Are we willing to go to jail because we truly believe that we shouldn’t have to have a social security number or do we sacrifice our beliefs in order to preserve our physical freedom? Should I stay in the house and let the weeds take over the orchard, because I may not be the most highly qualified tractor mechanic in the South, or do I get off the couch and try to do what I need to and maybe learn that sometimes old tractor engines are set up positive to ground. Both choices represent becoming a fool; it’s really just a matter of which we find preferable – for what we choose to be a fool.
A common reaction from family and friends when you are trying to reconcile a marriage after your spouse has had an affair implies that you are a fool for staying; “how could you stay with someone who’s done that to you?, How could you ever trust them again? They’ll play you for a fool again! Fool me once shame on me…” It becomes forefront in your mind – “am I being a fool for trusting this person again”?
I would submit that I am, but I am making a choice. I’m choosing to be a fool for my family, for my children, for my wife and the love that I feel for her rather than choosing to be a fool for the pain, the fear, the mistrust and the resentment that her affair has caused. Resenting the affair is not going to erase it from history, nor is holding on the pain that it caused or the fear that it may happen again. But I love my wife, truly love her and to me not serving that love, not forgiving, not allowing us to move on, to heal, not allowing her to love me because she doesn’t deserve to; these things represent being the far greater fool.
Paul again (the guy could write some now!) in 1 Corinthians 4(ASV):
10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye have glory, but we have dishonor.
11 Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place;
12 and we toil, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure;
13 being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things, even until now.
Is it really so bad to be a fool, so long as we are being a fool for something good, something decent, something worthy of being considered a fool for? And if it is, than what are we giving up? Living our lives in fear, hiding from the world, afraid to take chances for fear that someone might call us foolish. I think that’s the greater fool and it’s not who I want to be. I want to be a fool for Jesus! I want to be a fool for my family! I want to be a fool for my wife! I want to be a fool for love, for forgiveness, for trust and for hope.
Please Lord never stop allowing me to be a fool for these things and thank you for giving me the opportunity to choose them. I know that the only thing that will truly make me foolish is to not trust in your love, your plan and your will for me. Thank you for helping me see that and thank you for being patient with me.