The Wisdom of Fools
Fools get a bad rap. Yes, they have obvious flaws and are often the brunt of jokes, but despite all of that, they wear the capes. The fools we read about are usually the ones who save the day, and when we applaud them, we are applauding our own feeble pursuits to do what’s right. One fool, in particular, has become like an old friend to me; my students and I get to enjoy his company while reading Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing every year around . . . wait for it . . . April Fools’ Day. His name is Dogberry, the night constable of Messina, and although he is incredibly awkward, full of himself, and usually makes very little sense, he does something that is typical of fools in literature—he holds the truth. One of the villains, after he is caught, confesses, “What your wisdoms could not discover, these fools have brought to light” (Act 5). The Prince and Claudio are deceived until Dogberry and his men bring the truth to “light”. The fools are the heroes!
Dogberry has a refreshing truth not only for characters in the play but for all of us. During the criminals’ interrogation earlier in the play, one of the villains, Conrad, calls Dogberry an “ass” (Act 4). At first, Dogberry is upset, but then he tells his men, “Masters, remember I am an ass. Though it not be written down, forget not that I am an ass” (Act 4). My students and I always laugh at this, but then a question follows. Why is he telling his men to remember that he is an ass, not that he was called an ass, but that he is an ass? And why does he bring it up twice more in Act 5? What at first insults him becomes something he embraces. The audience gets a good laugh because asses are associated with fools, but Dogberry declaring that he is an ass goes much deeper than Shakespeare just having some literary fun. There is something there for us, something much more profound than a good laugh.
It was mid-April a couple of years ago when my parents invited me to a history symposium. Somehow, I got it in my head that one of the speakers was the author of The Blood of Heroes, a book I was looking forward to reading about the Alamo. A few minutes before this speaker’s lecture on Custer, I walked up to shake his hand. With an eager teacher’s smile, I introduced myself, and then, speaking above the noise of people finding their seats, I practically shouted, “I’m really looking forward to reading your book on the Alamo.” His polite smile disappeared. I felt my face get red as the reality of my mistake washed over me like hot wax. The words I got out afterward amounted to a whole lot of “Didn’t you . . . I’m sorry . . . I mean . . . Are you . . . I need to go.” I walked away humiliated, muttering to myself, “Oh my goodness . . . stupid, stupid”. I dropped into my chair hoping to disappear, and in the midst of my self-berating, Dogberry got my attention. Dancing around in the back of my imagination, I heard him shout, “You are an ass,” and I agreed with him. But this wasn’t more self-berating; it actually felt good. Who was I kidding? It’s true; I can be an ass, but Dogberry was giving me permission to ask, “Who cares?” We all say and do stupid things, we all get wrapped up with ourselves at times, and in the midst of the hard things in life, we all could use some counseling. The condemnation and shame that hung over me melted away, and I was free. The recognition of my imperfection, my “assness”, took away the stickiness of shame because I was no longer pretending I was perfect. I didn’t need to be.
A year later driving home from school, I felt beaten down and turned the radio off. My mess was screaming condemnation at me. For a moment, I was lost, but then a voice much more powerful than Shakespeare’s spoke with grace, “That’s why you need the cross,” and with a wink, He reminded me that I just introduced my students to Dogberry earlier that day. With that simple connection, the light of God’s presence was suddenly very real to me. Accepting that I am an ass is the beginning of embracing the purpose behind Jesus’ brutal walk to Golgotha and eventual crucifixion. Dogberry’s truth leads not only to freedom from the opinions of people but a spiritual freedom from sin when we realize we need Jesus, when we stop trying to be perfect and rest in the cross where Jesus said, “It is finished!”
A few teachers where I work meet on Tuesdays to pray. We always open by reading from the Bible, and one of those mornings, we read the last part of Psalm 73. It lifts God up as the strength of our hearts even when our flesh and hearts fail. We read together, and one line caught me by surprise: “I was a brute beast before you” (vs. 22). When the Psalmist uses “brute beast” to describe himself, like Dogberry, he is referring to himself as an ass. With our eyes closed, the wonder of that connection came to life in my heart. Only God saw it, but I smiled as we prayed. Dogberry was not on my radar until God hit me with that verse; it was April, and my students and I were right in the middle of meeting my favorite fool. The Author of all creation was weaving together pieces of my life to create meaning. Right after that verse when the Psalmist feels like a “brute beast”, an ass, before God, probably the most powerful line in that Psalm makes its entrance: “Yet I am always with you.” That’s the gospel, the good news, in 6 words. We’re not perfect. That’s something Dogberry teaches us not to hide, but there is a greater truth that defines us; even in the midst of our mess, because of a man who spoke the truth and chose to be mocked as a fool for the world, love makes its entrance to the stage and freedom calls us out of the shadows.