Saturday, December 29, 2012

the "sufferin' succotash" diet

If pressed in some imaginary world to choose between Lord Acton, Buddhism and Sylvester, the cartoon cat, this morning I would choose Sylvester: Sylvester was silly and yet seriously on target with his exasperated, "Sufferin' succotash!"

-- Lord Acton (1834-1902), a British historian, is frequently misquoted as saying, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." The actual quote is, "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." I may be picking nits, but I find a subtle if noteworthy difference between misquote and quote.

Either way, power is an interesting thing. White-whiners of various stripes can use Acton's observation as a means of deconstructing or just plain dissing the halls of established power -- the halls that leave those not endowed with power gasping and wounded in the dust. The observation is apt ... power does depend on forgetting about the little guy or the little issues that can be so telling and painful for those who can do little or nothing about it. In this realm power forgives itself for its depredations ... after all, there is a greater goal, a greater good and frequently a greater wealth to be considered.

Lord John Acton
The trouble with using Acton's observation as a touchstone for critique is that it frequently skips over the goal or good in question. Complaining is easy, proposing and activating is more difficult because all action requires some power and the exercise of that power leaves us all in Acton's clutches. It's easy to call someone else on their misuses of power, but less easy to activate an agenda that would be free of its own corrupt flaws. (This recognition is one that those in corrupt power frequently employ as a means of further excusing their depredations: "You got a better mousetrap?! Show me!")

There are already enough columnists, blog artists, social 'scientists' (a very peculiar designation) and other whine artists to oversee the social implications of power. What interests me is the individual and how the individual's heart or mind might address power, whether his own or that of another.

And my best guess is this: There is no such thing as an activity that does not require intent and effort. And effort is power and ... "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." If this is so, and I think it probably is, then corruption is simply part and parcel of individual activities. That corruption can be wildly or mildly apparent, but to recognize it as part of the scenery is just something worth noticing within. Corruption does not stand in contrast to some well-imagined and much-decorated purity, it is just part of that purity, that scenery, that vision. And for the individual, the recognition -- gentle, yet firm -- simply implies that corrections may be necessary ... so make 'em.

-- Buddhism, for those who practice its sometimes long and arduous hours, is often posited in the mind as a great and desirable purity... a pure land that stands in sharp contrast to the confusions and cruelties of the world at hand, the 'ordinary' world of greed, anger and ignorance. Subtle or gross, how kool it would be to enter a realm of peace and freedom and emotional comfort and decency and ... well, write your own pure scenario. But it requires effort to step from the realm of belief to the realm of action.

Effort to step away from corruption ... through corruption.

In Zen, there is a verse that reads, "There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth ...." For those like me who remain well-watered in the worlds of heaven and earth and all the wonderful and atrocious things that they imply, "prior to heaven and earth" sounds deliciously inviting. And the greater the pain and suffering, the more delicious it can sound.

It's nothing extraordinary -- all spiritual persuasions do the same thing in one way or another ... offer a way to sidestep this veil of tears or this sense that things are incomplete or out of kilter. But there is some intention, some effort and some power required in order to take that step. The longing for what is pure and serene and happy and free and at ease holds out a loving hand ... a hand that requires a corruption of the very promise that is longed for. Spiritual life holds out an alternative to what is unsatisfactory and seemingly incomplete. And yet buried deep within that alternative is the inescapable question, "when was there ever an alternative?" Seriously. Personally... when was there ever an alternative? Finding a satisfactory answer to that question requires some effort, some power ... and some willingness to enter fully into the corruption that cannot be escaped.

Tweety Bird
-- The cartoon character Sylvester was on a similar quest. His endlessly fruitless adventures often centered on attempts to capture and hopefully eat the small bird, Tweety Bird. Through 103 episodes beginning in 1945, Sylvester would plan and connive and figure and devise and ... always come up short. Each new and improved plan sounded excellent in the making and then fell flat in the execution.

And it would be at that point that Sylvester might utter his lisping hallmark interjection: "Thufferin' thuccotash!"

What a nifty interjection -- "Sufferin' succotash!" Silly, meaningless and yet packed with a perfect expression of exasperation. "Sufferin' succotash!" was as close as a cartoon character might come to the equally delicious, "Oh, shit!"

The Buddha was alleged to have said, "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern." Doing requires power -- the power that tends to corrupt ... the corruption anyone might seek to escape in the first place. Without doing, there is just more hot air and spiritual posturing. Doing requires meticulous planning, over and over again, just like Sylvester. Meticulous, determined, courageous, patient ... planning.

Is it any wonder that human beings, like cartoon cats, can be heard exploding, "Sufferin' succotash!!!!"?

And yet because "sufferin' succotash" is as much a part of the scenery as the power that corrupts, what's the matter with sufferin' succotash? Is failure somehow not a success? Sure, caterwauling is part of the agenda, but really, is sufferin' succotash all that bad?

"Sufferin' succotash" makes me smile.

How could a smile go wrong?

Sufferin' succotash!

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