The Wisdom of Folly
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly...
—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
“Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” —Matthew 21:5
My father was of the opinion that a boy ought to learn how to ride a horse shortly after he learned how to walk. Accordingly, he decided that his youngest grandson, my nephew, David, should have a pony. David was about three years old at the time.
For some reason I could never fathom, my father bought instead a little sad-faced, flop–eared donkey colt about three feet high at the withers. His name was Charlie.
Equally unfathomable was my father’s decision to transport the animal in his automobile rather than a horse trailer, of which we had several. When queried he replied that the little fellow was too small to ride in a trailer and might be injured.
My father at the time drove a ’48 Mercury convertible, and the bench seat in the back became the locus of the little beast. I, as chief custodian and care–giver, sat beside him.
Off we went to Memphis, Tennessee, the little donkey sitting up in the car, looking for all the world like the family dog, his long ears flapping in the wind, and (I swear) a goofy grin on his face. Again, inexplicably, my father insisted that we make the trip with the top of the convertible down.
We were a marvelous spectacle. People would drive alongside us, pointing, shrieking with laughter and snapping pictures. Town–folks along the way doubled over with glee. My father and the donkey were in a high state of hilarity. I, on the other hand, was mortified beyond measure, my fragile adolescent ego on the line.
When we finally delivered the donkey my nephew was underwhelmed: “Paw Paw,” he wailed, “I wanted a real horse.” The trip was an overall disaster as far as I was concerned. I just wanted to get in the car and go home. (If you think this story is apocryphal, think again. I can show you the scars on my psyche!)
My travels with Charlie were not my final humiliation, however. I have had many more opportunities to know ignominy and shame, especially as a pastor when my tomfoolery had more public and painful implications. I must say, however, that humiliations are good for the soul. They clear the head of the illusion that we’re somebody special.
We should then accept each one as a gift from God to keep us from thinking too highly of ourselves. C. S. Lewis says we need these embarrassments so we will “take off a lot of the silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots that we are.”
I think of C.S. Lewis’ story of the warhorse Bree, who humiliated himself by panicking in face of a pride of lions and running away. “Slavery is all I’m fit for now,” Bree moaned. “How can I ever show my face among the free Horses of Narnia?—I who left a mare and a girl and a boy to be eaten by lions while I galloped all I could to save my own wretched skin... I’ve lost everything.”
“My good Horse,” said the Hermit, “you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humble as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another (The Horse and His Boy).