A few days ago, I introduced my personal credo that I composed about thirty years ago.  We here at A Better Angel believe that character is everything, and if one wants to be a person of character, one must have some idea of what that means.  Character does not happen by accident.  One tool to help develop character is a personal credo.  To write down the values one wishes to embrace helps with the embracing.

My credo is stated in the negative.  I want to avoid being seen as a fool, a fanatic, a miscreant, a malcontent; pretentious or prejudiced.  Instead I want to be seen as being wise, level-headed, righteous, grateful, humble, and unbiased.  So I’ll start out by discussing foolishness and wisdom.

John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem entitled “Maud Muller.”  Maud Muller was a beautiful young farm girl who falls in love with a wealthy judge who is also smitten with her.  Through a series of missteps, they never get together.  One of the lines in the poem becomes famous for its profundity.  “Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”  It is an axiom admonishing us to not waste or botch up opportunities.

There are two ways to be foolish.  To not do what you ought to have done, and to do what you ought not to have done.  The following is a short list of some of my greatest foolish hits.

  • My mother ended up in the hospital for an extended stay, suffering from short term dementia. I was supposed to pick her up on the day she was released.  Instead I went to a high school basketball tournament.  Talk about dementia.
  • I once locked the keys in the car and left the lights on. At the end of the day, I had to break into my car and get a jump start.
  • I took some students on a field trip out west along the Lewis and Clark Trail. In Idaho I cruising along at the end of a long line of cars and was following the pickup in front of me too closely.  When a near accident at the front of the line caused all the drivers to slam on their breaks, I got caught looking in the rearview mirror and plowed into the pickup, totaling our van and causing some minor injuries.

You get the idea.  This list could go on for pages.  Like you, over my lifetime, I have made many foolish mistakes.  The three I listed were foolish accidents.  I may have been negligent, but I didn’t behave foolishly on purpose.  The times when I intentionally played the fool are the ones I really cringe over.  When I was about ten, my parents dropped me off in downtown Rugby, North Dakota, while they moved my grandmother from a retirement home into a swing bed in the hospital.  My dad gave me two dollars to spend, which was a lot for us in 1965.  He told me, “Don’t be stupid with it.  Buy a book.”

I bought a book, and I was stupid with it.  The book was about self-defense.  It was filled with pictures of men demonstrating various karate chops and judo throws.  When I showed my purchase to my dad, he gave me one of those looks that only a disappointed father can give.  “What I waste of money that was.” He said.  It was.  I practiced a few stances and karate moves in front of my bedroom mirror.  Then I put it on my book shelf and never looked at it again.

When I was in the third grade, Mrs. Sandeen warned us to stay out of the water puddles on the playground.  My friend Darrell and I decided to head straight for the water puddles.  When we came in after recess, Mrs. Sandeen made us go in the closet, take our wet pants off, wrap our jackets around out legs to hide our underwear, and take our seats in class for the rest of the day.  MYdad was on the school board.  As soon as I got home, I told him about what happened, certain that he would send Mrs. Sandeen to teacher jail.  I think he sent her a fruit basket. Nine years later on graduation night, my classmate, Tangee, devoted a full third of her salutatorian speech recalling that single event.

Oh, yeah, believe me when I tell you that I have played the fool too many times.  Foolish sins of omission and foolish sins of commission, a multitude of foolish choices.

Wisdom is all about looking beyond the choice right in front of you and seeing all the consequences of each choice.  If we can’t do that, we will continue to make choices that will lead others to count us among the fools.  The better angel in each of us would have us slow down and look ahead.