April 2018

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How my English Literature BA informs my life

Billy Shakespeare often used the character of a wise fool in his plays. This character was often a bit bawdy and low class and wise in ways that the audience was more likely to perceive than the characters in the play. Think of Trinculo (“Misery 
acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”) in The Tempest or Feste  (“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage” and “There is no darkness but ignorance”) in Twelfth Night.

There’s a guy called the fool in King Lear, the story of an old king who struggles with his place in the world when he loses both political and familial power. The fool runs away when he encounters Poor Tom, a man who seems to have lost everything, including his mind. It’s easy to imagine that Poor Tom is a wise fool, but he’s just poor; in meeting Poor Tom, Lear sees into a mirror and recognizes his own powerlessness. In this, King Lear confronts the realization that he is no tragic hero, and he becomes the wise fool—a man of low stature and, redeemingly, of wisdom.

The playwright makes it clear to the audience who is the wise fool, but in real life, it’s hard to tell who’s a wise man and who is simply a madman.

I met a guy in the bus stop the other day who, it seems to me, was in real life a wise fool, and I’m not sure what percentage was wise and what percentage a fool…or maybe he was 100% of both.

I turned my book in at the Douglas-Truth library and went to the bus stop to take a bus down a hill that is hard to navigate with my disabilities. It was drizzling out. (As Feste who must have been from Seattle says, “The rain it rainith every day.”)

I usually wait for a bus right at the curb, but I was chilled and moved under the shelter where a well-coiffed man in his sixties sat reading. As I pulled out my kindle to continue reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Reflections on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, this well-coiffed man spoke to me. 

When I gave him my attention, he said, “You are present. Most people are not.” I imagine that most people are following the bus riders’ code of conduct, which is to ignore any stranger because it’s likely that they’re crazy and won’t stop talking.

This man had a lovely, gentle aura, though, and he was interesting, so I listened. He said that he was born in Boston, lived in France during his thirties, lived in India with his master for eight years, and now lives in Seattle.

I asked about his master (not like a ruler; more like a Buddhist teacher), and he said, “He’s with us now. Right here.” In this, I gathered that his master had died but had inspired him with a new understanding of the transitory nature of the world.

This wise fool shared with me his ideas of the world and reality. He stood up and moved closer to me. Though my eyes are crossed, I did my best to maintain eye contact. Ellie, who is in my yoga class, walked by head down: she would not be caught in this man’s philosophical meanderings.

At some point, he stopped talking and noticed my pin. “Why are wearing the image of a car?” he asked me.

“It’s a bus,” I said. “It’s in support of our county’s bus system and in protest of upcoming cuts in service that will most impact the most vulnerable people in our community,” I explained.

“It won’t do any good,” he replied, applying his wisdom to the situation.

I just nodded, but to myself I thought of one of my life’s mantras: “Do the right thing, even if it has no effect.”

That’s how I want to live my life, doing the right thing even when doing the right thing will have no effect. I adopted this mantra when I was working at a school for many students who were living in poverty, and I was at times overwhelmed by all there was to do to make their lives better.

Beside my desk in that school, I posted a Thomas Merton quotation that had followed my overly busy self from school to school:

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist...destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

“So what do I do?” I thought. “I want to make this world a better place." So I decided, I will do the right thing. Sometimes, the right thing will make a difference. Sometimes, it will not. Often, I will not know whether or not diong the right thing  has made a difference. But I will know in my heart of hearts if I have at least tried to do the right thing.”

And so I do. And so I listened to the wise man who might be a fool at the bus stop. Because a person should be attended to, should be listened to, not just politely but with heart.

That listening can blur the black and white clarity of things. So that must be right, too.

As Feste sang:
And hey, the ho, the wind and the rain.
The rain it raineth every day.

And the bus came and this wise fool and I said good-bye as he continued downtown to the International Film Festival, and I went to my yoga class. 


  1. Ah, Mary. Right then and there, while reading this post, I shook the cobwebs loose from my brain and resolved to maintain contact and be present. As you always are. You blow me away, time and time again.

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  3. Love the trip down memory lane to English classes--like continuing one of our late night conversations in college. Your insights are always intelligent, thoughtful and seasoned with a healthy dose of humor. Thank you so much for sharing and letting me know about the post. Dan and I did a joint presentation for a Sunday school recently. I sang and we both interspersed comments about our life as a couple and how music is so integral to my way of communicating with people. We also reached back to college days and talked about Karl Plank's class on parables (where we really bonded). We were talking about some of these same ideas you are expressing in a different form. I quoted Martin Buber's "I and Thou": "Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.... The purpose of relation is the relation itself--touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by a breath of eternal life." Thank you, Mary, for continuing to connect to those around you now and those of us from your past. Much love!


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