I believe in purgatory, as should anyone who passed through junior high. Seventh grade, I believe, and I was on the basketball squad. I didn’t play much, only at the end of games when we were behind so far that there was nothing for the scrubs to screw up. I was tubby and uncoordinated, not the best year of my life. We were playing Reicher, the Catholic school where all the guys were at least a foot taller, had hair in all the right places and seemed oh, so incredibly cool.
Thirty minutes or so before game time, I walked in front of a small cadre of Reicher toughs. Nerve-wracking, let me say. Intimidation. I wore my green and white uniform, too tight, too short, too polyester. I was directly in front of them when I heard: “There goes Santa Claus.” Followed by lots of snickering and chuckles.
I kept walking, exposed, like a fish flopping on the beach while everyone gathers round and points. It was the gym shower-scene every boy fears, only it was out in the open, with total strangers.
We all have a story like this. The fear of being foolish, of being mocked or scoffed or dismissed, taunts most of us. For my boys, it shows up strong the first few weeks of school. They are desperate to go chameleon and blend, just blend. One of our boys has become obsessed, when in public, about whether or not his hair sticks up. This, the boy that would go weeks without showering if we’d let him. Somewhere in his elementary-school world, he’s been told that hair sticking up is totally not cool, foolish.
Later, our tactics to keep from ever appearing foolish grow more sophisticated. We become snarky or sarcastic, knowing that if we make others seem foolish, the light never turns on us. Or perhaps we grow distant and aloof because, if we never show desire or passion (nothing that would get us noticed), then there is nothing for others to ridicule. Some of us choose our words with impeccable care. Some of us spend many of our waking hours gulping down shame. Some of us are crass, mean and cold. Our words slice others up. Everyone supposes we are the rocks, the ones who even though we’re SOBs are exceptionally self-assured. But if anyone could see, they’d know we’re shivering inside, a flopping fish stuck in junior high.
This must be why I like so many characters in the Bible who come across as brazen, unashamed holy fools. Peter, David, Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. They cried and ranted and slept with the wrong women and stormed off and were generous to a fault and unleashed fits of rage and joy that were in every way unseemly. If you’re looking for models for careful, calculated un-foolishness, look elsewhere.
But, they loved. Oh, how they loved. And they lived. And God called them friends. Proverbs rejects “the fool.” However, for the wisdom writer, the fool is the one who arrogantly stands apart from God, detached and wooden (but entirely “together”). The ones who stumble toward God, awkward and a screw-up and forever on the verge of making a scene – that person is beautifully foolish and God’s friend.
Buechner put it well, “If the world has never lacked for damned fools, it has never lacked for holy fools either.” I should hope not.
Let it loose, I say. Live wide-open. Live. Foolishness is underrated.