It is a new year, 2022, the year of the Fool. It is the first card of the tarot, and when the 22 cards of the Major Arcana have played their hand, the cycle begins again. I am interested in the Fool personally, because the Fool is often associated with mental illness, something that has shaped my own life. These are both stories I tell my daughters.
The first story is about a girl who loses her family to illness and cannot keep her house because of debt. She leaves her house with only her winter clothes and a loaf of bread, and begins walking down the road with no-where to go. As she walks the day goes by, and a beggar comes and asks for some food. The girl gives half her loaf of bread and keeps walking. But then she meets another beggar on the road who asks for food, so she gives her other half of the loaf. Again she meets a beggar on the road who says he is cold, and she gives him her coat. And again, a beggar with bare feet asks for her shoes, and she gives. Finally it is night on the road, and she has only a little cloth to wear. As the stars come out, they fall down to her feet. She picks them up and realizes they are gold. So many stars fall that night, that she lives the rest of her live without a worry for food or things.
The second story is about a man who works for his employer five years and after completing his work is paid a lump of gold as big as his head. The man takes his wages, the lump of gold, and begins making the day-long trip down the road to his mothers house. As he is walking he meets a man on a horse. The man on the horse explains that a horse can make a lot of money because it can do a lot of work on a farm, and can carry him home to his mother as well. So the Fool agrees to give his 5 years wages to the man with the horse, in exchange for the horse. As the Fool rides down the road on his new horse, he meets a man with a goat. The man with the goat explains that a goat can give milk, and can be shorn for its coat of hair to make clothes. The Fool agrees to exchange his horse and takes the goat, walking on down the road. The Fool meets another man, who is standing next two millstones. This man explains that millstones can do great work grinding the wheat for bread, and so the Fool agrees to exchange his goat for the millstones. Now the Fool is heavily burdened by the stones and grows tired. He finds a well, and thanks God that he can drop the millstones into the well to make water come up so he can have a drink. Finally he reaches his mother with nothing for his 5 years of work.
These two stories at first seem to have two very different ideas about what a Fool is. In one, the girl is not at fault, but continues to give everything away. The idea being that there is an accountancy in an invisible world of magic that repays her for her selflessness. It is rather easy to see that the second Fool is not being selfless, because he is being duped into making bad exchanges for his wealth. The second Fool makes no gain in any invisible world, or so the story goes. There is a strange part of the second story, taken from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where he thanks God for easily being able to give up his millstones at a well in exchange for a drink of water. Here the logic of the story admits that there is an invisible world, and even though he has failed in this world, as well as the material world, God cares for him anyway, and relieves him of the burden of the stones out of mercy. The girl getting gold coins from magic is not mercy, I think, but the universe paying the debt incurred in the invisible world in the form of gold coins.
We can see clearly here that the world of the invisible and the material world is getting confused. If the girl knew the universe would repay her, she would not be repaid, of course. And if the Fool in the second story knew his exchanges were not savvy in the material world, he would have gained some repayment from the invisible world, beyond mercy. So we see a complex interplay between the material world, the invisible world, as well of not only the less insightful requirement of good intention, but also the more interesting role of knowledge and ignorance. Ignorance (perhaps faith, but maybe not) is repaid by the invisible world if it is ignorance of yourself. If you use knowledge, you had better get it right, because even though the trades for the second Fool were done with knowledge of the merits of millstones, etc, the loss incurred from this knowledge was complete. There is a reverse notion of trade and exchange: it is basically a bad thing in the invisible world. The Fool who plays the game of exchange to lose, wins; and the Fool who plays the game of exchange to win, loses. It is clear that if you know you are a Fool, you should play to lose. And, well, it is rather easier to be a Fool and play to lose than to be wise and play to win… isn’t it?
Speaking as a diagnosed Fool, I have to attest that the game of losing is a lot harder than it seems. Eventually you will find that you are wise in spite of yourself, because if you do things for people expecting to gain in the invisible world, you and gain nothing. Eventually you have to learn to control your mind and do things without expectation, and what do you end up doing then? Forest-wandering I suppose, which is practiced by fools, and as an ascetic practice of the wise.
I will end with Whitehead’s quote in his masterwork on process philosophy. “God is the Fool of the World.” The World card is the end of the Tarot (last year), and the Fool is the beginning.