This year has been filled with spectacular reading for me. I’ve delved into genres and authors I wouldn’t have taken a second look at had I not entered in this chrysalis of spirit. Linchpin, The Art of Pilgrimage, and The Thing Itself, have been particularly invigorating. Oh, and there was also this old story about a wild miner named Zorba.
As much as Zorba would have you believe that words are wind, that books are worthless and wasteful pursuits, Zorba the Greek, the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, is a gleaming, brimming example of words as life-altering wisdom. This book hit shelves back when McDonald’s was a start-up and bomb shelters were about as common as Starbucks. So yes, I’m six decades late to the party, but this book is right on time for me and my future travel plans.
There are two miracles here: 1) that I happened to stumble upon the book in the musty back pages of another book’s bibliography, and 2) that I stuck it out through the slow beginning. The book was in my backpack ready for an express return to the library dropbox when I decided to go one more chapter.
And then it had me.
The narrative of Zorba and “the boss” on the island of Crete ensorcelled and drew me through 300+ pages in record time. What a book. The pages, like some mine, were crammed with nuggets of wisdom and the insights crackled in my brain like Pop Rocks. Credit goes out to the Greeks who really know how to create things that withstand the test of time.
I waited until page 267 (of 311) to start flagging said wisdom nuggets, but all was not lost: I went back and canvased the book like I was back in college writing a term paper. There were important lessons in this book, mottoes and mantras to live by, that I knew you, too, would find as timely refreshers.
Here are the 10 things Zorba the Greek taught me about life:
1. Experience awe daily. The feeling of awe is so elusive, but its presence always slows my step, catches my breath, and demands every ounce of my focus. We grow more experienced and oblivious to the simple, miraculous everything around us. Zorba awakes each day and marvels at the simplest things like a child with virgin eyes. If I can keep an ember of that astonishment at everyday things, it would be a blessing.
2. Youth is mental, age is physical. Zorba is like the original Benjamin Button: as he gets older he becomes more youthful and reckless. Age is the only enemy he fears because he cannot stop its accumulating tolls. Having just turned 30, I’m starting to understand this. To some, I’m old. To others, just a young’n. Traveling frequently, as Zorba does, provides a kind of permission to be a kid at heart, without the pressures of cultural norms, well into the later years of life.
3. Reason can be as stifling as fear. While fear is a primitive response that can render you immobile, reason is a higher-order frontal lobe function that can have the same effect. I’ve alluded to my propensity to over-think ideas. Ultimately, I find some weak point and exploit it rather than pouring energy and effort into the idea’s strong points. I’m trying to pay more attention to intuition, which is often right, risky, and unreasonable.
4. Welcome hardship. Hardship is the ruler by which we measure ourselves, and knowing the measure of ourselves is a joy. What hidden talents and abilities hide deep inside just waiting to be tested? To live is to look for trouble. Lately, I’ve seen this common wisdom a lot: every event is either a good time or a good story. Words to grow by.
5. Living happens only in the present. The past is dead and the future is yet to be born, so why always look behind or ahead? This is common knowledge but a hard lesson. I’ve written posts about appreciating the present while traveling and experiential travel as exercises toward improving here. The past fades and the future is unpredictable; focus on now. Carpe diem with jazz hands.
6. Freedom is man’s natural state. In Zorba’s view, only people who want to be free are human beings. Governments, passions, beliefs, and ideas are the binding tethers of slavery. Most of us aren’t Marxist humanists, but drawing this theme out of the book made me take a critical look at my life. What shackles had I turned a blind eye toward in mute acceptance?
7. Nature nourishes the soul. The boss describes Zorba time and again as a man not yet severed from Mother Earth. His actions are primary colors, simple, loud, and base. Men are rejuvenated beneath a big sky. I understand the power of nature to refresh the self; while Zorba and the boss basically live in a van down by the river, most of us city-dwellers need some time in the back country to feed the animal inside.
8. Inaction is a waste of life. Zorba hates books. He is the antithesis of the scholarly boss, a kind of modern druidic hedonist that rails against so-called “pen pushers.” The point is bluntly taken: life is for living, for experiencing its sensuousness and simply doing what can be done. It took me three years to internalize this one. Here’s hoping it takes you no time at all.
9. Happiness lives in simplicity. Happiness costs nothing, requires nothing, and can be found in the simplest of things. A hug, a purring cat, a wind-blown flower. My happiest memories are mundane moments: hours of playing Halo with Tim, playing a board game with Sarah, laughing with my family over wine. The simple things are often what escapes notice, and it’s why happiness can be hard to consciously identify when it’s there.
10. It’s never too late to change. On a slope, even a stone comes to life. This was such a hopeful message to find in the midst of so much berating. We are animals with powerful minds. We can freeze ourselves in place, content in the grind, or become location independent digital nomads and everything in between. I’m 30 years old, married, with a house and two cars, but soon I will be traveling and writing and making it all work.
Finally, some parting advice from the boss:
“…there is only one life for all men…there is no other…all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here.”