10 Things Zorba the Greek Taught Me About Life

by Keith Savage · 58 comments


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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.

Beach on Crete, Greece

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.”

Original photos by Karmin photography and zsolti_dugo via Flickr under Creative Commons


Frank Simões-PereiraNo Gravatar August 26, 2015 at 9:23 AM

Wonderful. Zorba the Greek is among the books I have read and have brought about the greatest changes in my view of life and of myself. Some of the great lesson I learned from it: be authentic, be yourself, be human, and above all things, be tough and gentle, and kind at the same time.
Frank

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PaulNo Gravatar December 27, 2014 at 12:39 AM

I really enjoyed your article about Zorba and the life lessons you learned from him. In fact your article inspired me to write my own article:
5 Life-Changing Lessons Zorba the Greek Taught Me
http://www.realfarmacy.com/life-changing-lessons-zorba-greek-taught/

“Let people be, boss; don’t open their eyes. And supposing you did, what’d they see? Their misery! Leave their eyes closed, boss, and let them go on dreaming!”

OPA!

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ray buckleyNo Gravatar November 5, 2014 at 2:37 AM

when my sails lack wind, when my spirit is under a dark cloud, the name zorba pushes me on. your list is in this name. push on with a great spirit

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ZerihunNo Gravatar October 25, 2013 at 4:26 PM

This is a wonderful summary of Zorba the Greek, one of the most influential fiction work of the 20th century. For some one like me who read the book five yrs ago, there can’t be a brief and yet highly descriptive excerpts (summary) more than those 10 points elaborated here! My heart felt appreciations once again!

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tracey kimberleyNo Gravatar May 12, 2013 at 4:27 AM

I so enjoyed this post, I too stumbled upon Zorba the greek as I did your post.
Fear nothing, neither God nor the devil, look your fear straight in the eye and dare it! tis life! enjoy x

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Bill32712No Gravatar February 23, 2013 at 8:10 PM

At my age and not being that thoughtful of life, I watched Zorba the other night for the first time. Since then I have tried to figrue it all out. To me it was a “black” movie. I just could not understand the horrable things depitced in the movie. But I do have to say that since having watched it, I have been thinking about it more and more.

I guess that my views of life are much in the past.

Bill

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 24, 2013 at 10:32 AM

Hi Bill, I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t speak on that. However, I found the book to be extremely uplifting – hence, this post.

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MarjorieNo Gravatar August 16, 2011 at 8:51 PM

Awesome post!! I am writing about my trip to Greece and I read Zorba a long time ago. Great writing Keith! I wanted to ask you if I can use your lessons in a book I’m writing.

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sonyNo Gravatar October 8, 2010 at 11:24 AM

hats off for a nice post. zorba is one of my favorite books. out of this ten commandments 2 and 4 makes me crazzy. i need a glass of wine right now dear.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 8, 2010 at 12:45 PM

Number four is especially tough. Have a glass for me 🙂

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RumShopRyanNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 4:15 PM

Hey Keith,
Just found your blog. I look forward to following.

Cheers!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 22, 2010 at 7:27 PM

Hey Ryan, glad you found me – stick around!

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SuzyNo Gravatar July 23, 2010 at 8:27 AM

I’ve never read Zorba, but who knew such a name would have these profound insights. I always remind myself of #4. The best stories you come away with on travels are often moments where you struggled. At least they have been for me. Love that last quote. Incredibly true and obvious but something few put into place.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 4:39 PM

I agree with you, #4 is one of my favorites because I hardly ever do it in the moment of hardship. I think that’s trick. It’s easy to look back on hardship later and be thankful for it.

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JoyaNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 11:23 PM

Great post Keith. I love books that I need to dogear pages because I know I’m going to want to remember some things. I agree with all 10 lessons but that’s easier to do than actually living them. Thanks for the reminder though.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 22, 2010 at 9:15 AM

It is incredibly difficult to keep all 10 fresh in our day to day lives. I know I’ll do a lot better at it, though, if I periodically reread this list.

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WayneNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 8:50 PM

Hey Keith,

My friend Nancy (above) just sent me the link to this post you wrote about Zorba the Greek and the lessons learned from the story. A book I’ll soon have to pick up myself.

I can really relate to the part about “reason” right now as I’ve just sold the last remaining pieces of furniture that I own. The apartment I’ve lived in for the past 4 years is a stark shell that echoes my keyboard strokes as I type. In 4 days I will technically be “of no fixed address” and after September 10th I will be on the road trip of a lifetime, hopefully to the outermost four corners of North America. It’s my dream to be a travel photographer so I’ve thrown all reason out the window and am putting what I need into my truck and going. Planning to explore and shoot every day, building a massive portfolio as I go.

Anyway, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself. Tell you that I’m a fan of your blog and your writing. Thanks for sharing and inspiring. All the best in your future travels.
Wayne

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 9:53 PM

Hi Wayne, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m with you on the “reason” front. I’m horribly prone to over-thinking just about everything. For all my past dissatisfaction, I’ve got no one to blame but myself. But I believe there are things that outside the realm of “making sense,” things you just need to do. To me, your trip around North America sounds like one of those things. And I gotta say, it sounds amazing. I’ll be following along.

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NancyNo Gravatar July 20, 2010 at 10:31 AM

Fantastic post! I don’t think I could pick just one to live by, I agree with all 10. Everything said in your list are topic my close friend Wayne and I have said many times to each other as he plans his travels around North America & I take off for Australia. I mow know what book I reading on the plane. Thank you!!!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 10:40 AM

Hi Nancy, you’re welcome. This list seems to be a kind of universal belief system, and, while we all seem to subconsciously understand them, there’s some extra power in writing them down and reading them. Read Zorba – it’s great! Good luck on your trip to Australia.

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singlewithluggageNo Gravatar July 20, 2010 at 10:10 AM

Wonderful post! I think reading Zorba the Greek is in my near future. Your blog always sparks insight and inspiration to go out and DO something joyful.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 10:37 AM

I’m really glad to hear you say that. Too bad we couldn’t connect today, but we’ll have a chance to talk sometime in the near future I’m sure.

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AliNo Gravatar July 20, 2010 at 1:00 AM

Great post, really made me think. I just turned 30 at the end of June so I can relate on the age thing. I love how you throw a little humor (carpe diem with jazz hands, live in a van down by the river) into a deep topic like this. Always enjoy reading you blog 🙂

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 10:39 AM

Hey Ali, thanks for the props. I admit that I have a bit of a strange sense of humor, so I’m glad to hear you like the little injections. 🙂

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Globetrooper ToddNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 9:43 PM

I think this list from Zorba is proof that the study of what makes life great is timeless.

Keith, have you read Shantaram? The lessons aren’t so profound, but they taught me a little something about the value of adventure in life (not the climbing mountain type of adventure, but the adventure of experience).

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 10:29 PM

Hey Todd, I have not read Shantaram but I’m always open to suggestions. Adding it to reading list now!

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Globetrooper ToddNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 11:24 PM

I very strongly recommend Shantaram. One of my favourite books. It’s a true (though arguably embellished) story about an Australian that breaks out of prison and escapes to the slums of India. A truly epic story of survival and adventure. Many points in the book have been verified (e.g. he really did escape from prison).

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 4:40 PM

Sounds really cool. Thanks for the recommendation Todd!

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Caz MakepeaceNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 9:28 PM

I love all of these lessons. What struck me about them all is that I discovered them myself through 2 pathways-
#travel
# my daughter, who reminds me every day to live in awe of even the tiny miracles of life that we so often overlook.
Another lesson that struck me as truth was that nature is good for the soul. If I spend too long away from nature I feel such a strong sense of disconnection from all things. My whole body will crave to get lost in the forest as I know that nature provides us with the purest of energy and gives us a view to the perfection of life. I am really excited to be returning home to live near the beach again, so my soul can be nourished daily.
Once again, an inspiring post Keith!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 10:37 PM

I can see how having a little one would help with a lot of these points. It seems like we really want to meet the world for the first time every day; travel helps us do that.

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EricaNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 5:50 PM

#7 means so much to me. I have to take advantage of this one weekly – even if its just going to my favorite swimming hole for a while. There is nothing as refreshing as taking part in Mother Nature. Thank you for your deliciously refreshing splashes in 100 degree heat. It calms my soul and I emerge a new person every time. 🙂

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 8:31 PM

Hey Erica, I’m with you on #7 as well. It’s actually why I didn’t really like Venice – no trees or vegetation of any kind!

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Naomi EstmentNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:34 PM

Love this, Keith, thank you! Brilliant list, beautifully explained…and congrats on your 1000th comment 🙂

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:40 PM

Thanks Naomi! I just clicked over to your site and see that you’re situated in South Africa – it’s a country on my short list after Argentina.

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Naomi EstmentNo Gravatar July 21, 2010 at 5:32 AM

Great to hear that, Keith. You’ll love it here for sure! South America is very much on my list too 🙂

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 4:40 PM

I might have to pick your brain if South Africa winds up being one of my destinations.

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Naomi EstmentNo Gravatar July 28, 2010 at 5:39 AM

Any time 🙂

rossNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 10:50 AM

Interesting posting! Like the first point Experience awe daily! I try and do that each when I have time.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:11 PM

Isn’t it hard though? I feel like our brains filter out the things we already understand out of necessity. We need bandwidth upgrades.

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MonicaNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 10:49 AM

This is a fantastic list. Sometimes I forget a lot of these things because working 10 hours a day is so draining. I know the reason why I’m so miserable sometimes and I really think that incorporating some of the things you’ve listed might make me happier person.

Thanks for the reminder Keith!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:13 PM

I’m considering keeping this list on me at all times, in paper. There’s no question it’s a huge challenge to simply remember these things in our daily lives.

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MichaelNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 8:25 AM

Loving #9. Actually all of them are so true. Looks like a good read. Might have to check this out.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:10 PM

Hey Michael, the book is beautifully written and well worth a read.

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ayngelinaNo Gravatar July 18, 2010 at 10:49 PM

#2 is so important, while I always thought I lived young, I feel like I’ve become 10 years younger on this trip – in a good way – not in a dancing on the bar kind of way.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:08 PM

I agree. All too often I hear people say (myself included) “I feel old.” Well, start thinking young and you might fix that. I don’t think dancing on bars is bad : /

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Schnee WolfeNo Gravatar December 8, 2014 at 2:41 PM

When the opportunity happens and someone, male or female extends their hand for you to come, don’t hesitate, DANCE: Dance on the Bar, or the Table or the Terrace. Cut the String and Be Your Wild Self. The opportunity may never come again.
of course, DANCE is a metaphor, or a time of testing and learning. You will discover which after you decide.

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AndrewNo Gravatar July 18, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Great post – I like to think I live to most of these but good to be reminded. Will have to read Zorba the Greek myself!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:07 PM

It’s a hard list to follow, and I’m spotty at best. But I’m ok with that – I love a challenge!

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MarcelloNo Gravatar July 18, 2010 at 10:23 PM

While I like them all… I live my life by numbers 1-4 and 8-10. The whole thing with happiness is that ppl dont search for what makes them happy. They assume that what they see on TV is what will do it for them. While we are a tight nit of travel minded ppl. Look at what you did!! (which im very impressed by) Your passion is travel and you have managed to figure out a way to it… even if its just 1 month at a time 🙂

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 19, 2010 at 2:14 PM

Thanks Marcello. Hm, I like your point that people don’t search for what makes them happy. Something for me to chew on.

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