As someone who generally takes herself much too seriously, I believe in the humbling and liberating power of irreverence. I first became acquainted with that power through my little sister, Megan. She discovered at about age five that our formidable mother had a funny bone where her Achilles heel should be. Given a direct order that she had no intention of following, Megan would look right into Mom’s eyes, all a-twinkle. Mom would first insist: “I mean it. No dessert until you’ve taken five bites.” But Megan would brazenly hold her gaze, and the hard line of Mom’s frown would start to shiver and fracture. Suddenly the two of them would dissolve into laughter, a shared fit of giggles that would last until Mom had completely forgotten why she cared whether or not Megan ate her broccoli. I’d be left sputtering on the sidelines: “Mom! Mom! You said five bites!”
I later indulged my own mischievous streak in the classroom, where I favored guerilla tactics. Let the other guy or gal mass an army of facts out on the open field—I wanted to pull the pin on some unexpected insight and lob it in from the shadows. Little wonder that I wound up in theatre. Studying adults at play, I finally married my passion for structure with my joy at seeing it dismantled.
As a teacher, however, I often feel like an impostor. Most students look to their teachers for authority, and that expectation makes me itch. A belief in irreverence shouldn’t be so difficult to combine with a teaching vocation—Socrates himself was a terrible smart aleck, one who continually poked fun at his students and their cherished but untested convictions. He relished the role of the eiron, pretending to be dull-witted and thereby inviting others to expose the gaps and absurdities in their logic. But it’s risky to forget that Socrates’ irreverence eventually got him killed.
Serious times demand serious fools. Shakespeare knew this. He whipped the French neoclassicists into a fury by filling his tragedies with filthy jokes and ironic commentary. But this is what makes them so savory and so morally sustaining. The comic gravediggers in Hamlet, tossing out one set of bones to make way for another, inadvertently teach the prince how best to honor the dead. To act as if nothing is sacred helps to emphasize that everything is precious. Every idea we have, every settled conviction we champion, will soon turn to dust. Mortal, too, is the world that inspires those ideas and convictions. The ironist and the iconoclast remind us of the essential fragility of everything we know. They sometimes rescue us from the violence and self-delusion that invariably accompany our fantasies of permanence. They free us to live in gratitude for the gift of this fleeting moment.
So any time that cloak of authority gets too itchy, I’ll tear it into rags. I’ll wear the fool’s motley in honor of Socrates, who wisely knew that he knew nothing.
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