Sunday, March 4, 2012

"living well is the best revenge"

Reaching idly into the bowl of hard candies of this mind, this morning I found metaphysical poet and English clergyman George Herbert (1593-1633) lolling among the succulent and colorful treats. It was Herbert who is credited with the line, "Living well is the best revenge."

How's that for zippy stuff... tart and sweet in the same moment ... a micro-mind-bender. Like all other bits of philosophy, it either bangs your chimes or it doesn't. No big deal. You either agree to suck on this candy or you don't. Today, I rolled Herbert's wit around on my head's tongue. Wisdom has a way of going poof over time and I played a bit of poof with Herbert.

At first blush, "living well is the best revenge" seems to be about banking the fires of rage and revenge. Those fires can burn hotter than an acetylene torch ... consuming, blinding, white-hot. At first blush, the clergyman may be suggesting that all that heat is off-course as an effective tool for addressing real or imagined wrongs. But speaking virtuously is not the same as coming to terms with what is sometimes called virtue... watching the desire for revenge simply wither and wisp into the wind as time passes.

And once revenge has run its course, Herbert's observation is reduced to "Living well is the best."

But with attentiveness, "the best" has the same characteristics as "revenge." It may find expositors jumping up and down with glee, but with attention, glee has a way of fading as a matter of fact and announcing or seeking out "the best" is just another ego-tripper's odyssey. Philosophically and ethically, it's fine. But in point of living fact, it has a way of wisping away in the wind. "Good, better, best" is a pastime for clergymen with too much time on their hands. It takes an energy that might be better spent.

And that whittles Herbert's bon mot still further... down to simply "living well."

Living well ... it's succulent too ... sort of like the Tootsie Roll center of a surrounding hard candy ... ahhh, at last, something chewy and juicy and filling the mouth of things with a perfected satisfaction ... living well. But then "well" seems to wisp away with "revenge" and "best." It's not that it is bad or naughty. It just doesn't seem to hold sensible water. Living is living, isn't it? Is it really necessary to crown or dilute it with something called "well?" Yes, I can imagine the ethically-inclined stamping the floor in irritation, but if living makes a mistake it corrects itself if it has a lick of sense. And if it doesn't have a lick of sense, that too is living ... life ... unadorned.

And finally there is "living" -- free-standing and no longer a bon mot of wit or wisdom. Just plain. Just living. Just d'oh. Until the moment arrives when even "living" is saying or thinking or believing too much. Why burden the scene with what is, after all, just the scene?

Wispy, wisping on the wind.

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