Column #170. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Sep. 3, 2021; in print (minus the final five paragraphs) Sep. 5
I’m sitting next to the college president in the gym. We are both here to give blood. He turns to me and says – in words I recall verbatim even after 50 years – “Patrick, I always look forward to Red Cross Blood Day because giving blood is the one thing a college president can do that nobody can find fault with.”
Finding fault. These days it seems part of the job description for “human being.” What used to oil the mechanisms of civic life – cutting slack, benefit of the doubt, giving a break, easing up or, even better, lightening up – has all but disappeared. Social media feasts on our gluttonous love of “Gotcha!”
“You betcha!” so essential to Minnesota-speak, gets drowned out. We lie in wait, ready to pounce, listening not for the strength in the other person’s argument but with antennae alert to any flaw – and “flaw” by definition is anything I disagree with.
Our wallowing in controversy is of course not unique in the human story. One particularly fraught time was half a millennium ago.
It’s early in the 16th century. The tidal forces that would be unleashed when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517 were already gathering momentum.
In the midst of the coming maelstrom, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam published in 1511 a witty satire called “The Praise of Folly.” The goddess Folly surveys the ancient and medieval past. No one in all those centuries had celebrated her in a grateful oration. So, she puts into the mind of Erasmus an encomium to herself.
Nearly everything Folly says is a rebuke to authorities, institutions, traditions – so you may be wondering why I am hoping for new Erasmuses to emerge among us. Isn’t he playing “Gotcha!” even if it’s in Latin?
By creating a fictional character (today we might call it an avatar) who does the speaking, Erasmus distances himself. He can say things that are deadly serious and yet come across as funny. Ours, like his, is a time ripe for satire, but we have precious little of it.
These words of Folly that I read half a century ago have stuck with me. She is warning against the thirst for perfection, the passion for efficiency and certainty, that now rules the world. What does she say? People will not long bear with each other “unless they make mistakes together or individually, . . . [and] wisely overlook things.”
Making mistakes together or individually – this is what happens when people do things, when they risk the unknown, a gamble that life mostly is. And while we love to point the finger and say “You made this mistake!” it’s well to remember words of the late great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Wisely overlooking things – this is what must happen if the mistakes that inevitably follow from doing things – see “unintended consequences” – are not to dismantle human community. This doesn’t mean “anything goes.” It does mean recognizing that some overlooking is wise. I wish the worthies gathered at Philadelphia in 1776 had put into the Declaration a fourth inalienable right, so we would recite “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and permission to make mistakes.”
I know of a CEO who required mistakes. He said to his corporate foundation executive director, “If you come to us at the end of the year and report that every project we supported has been a huge success, we will conclude you are not doing your job.”
Another CEO, a few days after a rebuff, was the soul of cordiality to the person who had thwarted him.
“That’s business for you, smiling and smiling while being a villain,” you say? No. He knew what every good businessperson knows: You never burn your bridges behind you – you wisely overlook things – because you never know when you may have to cross them again.
I recently read something by New York Times columnist (and native Minnesotan) Tom Friedman that has an Erasmian ring. He states one of his “ironclad rules”: “When big events happen, always distinguish between the morning after and the morning after the morning after. Everything really important happens the morning after the morning after.”
At a time when popes and princes and peasants and reformers were literally at each other’s throats, Erasmus modeled a way of safe space conversing (mnsafespaces.com) that focused on the morning after the morning after. He remained committed to the value, the virtue, of conversation even during a time when many were shouting at each other.
Erasmus – through the mouth of Folly – reminds us that there is a wise foolishness that makes it possible for us to “long bear with each other.”