Nikos Kazantzakis’ bestseller Zorba, the Greek is one of the best books I’ve ever read. As I wrote in a previous post, I enjoy reading novels about my next destination, it’s like packing my brain’s suitcase. I’ve finished the book in Corfu, on a rocky beach in the small village of Roda. Zorba would probably tell me I shouldn’t be reading.
His lingering voice inside my head stating: “How could I, who loved life so intensely, have let myself be entangled for so long in that balderdash of books and paper blackened with ink!”
Books have been fundamental to my personal growth, and besides books, I crave experiences, I crave sensoriality. It’s a hunger that will never go away. As the Salomonic proverb says, there’s time for everything under the sun: there’s time to read books, and a time to burn them.
This is what I’ve learned from Zorba, the Greek:
Life is the best teacher
“The longer I live, the more I rebel. I’m not going to give in; I want to conquer the world!”
Living life to its fullest with all fire and totally free of expectations will finally teach us over anything or anybody can. As soon as we begin living authentically with no barriers that society kindly place ahead of us, we begin to become whole. We were all born to learn through our senses.
This way to interact with the world reminds me of the poem Auguries of Innocence by William Blake, for whom the imagination (see through the eye) is bound up with the operation of the senses (see with the eye):
“We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night”
Life only opens its chest of wonders for those with eyes to see.
Experience amazement daily
“What’s that? He asked stupefied. ‘That miracle over there, boss, that moving blue, what do they call it? Sea?Sea? And what’s that wearing a flowered green apron? Earth? Who was the artist who did it? It’s the first time I’ve seen that, boss! I swear!”
Zorba, a full grown man, never really grew old, retaining this pristine sense of awe towards the beauty and mysteries of nature. This sensation of amazement is so evasive, but its existence constantly slows my measure, grabs my breath, and needs every ounce of my attention. Zorba was liberated of societal boundaries, living with a profound feeling of awe, gratitude, and wonder. For him life was about living and experiencing the sensual joys of existence, he was the antithesis of the intellectual and railed against the”pencil pushers.”
“It’s difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that; folly, d’you see? You have to risk everything! But you’ve got such a strong head, it’ll always get the better of you. A man’s head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts: I’ve paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. Ah no! It hangs on tight to it, the bastard! If the string slips out of its grasp, the head, poor devil, is lost, finished! But if a man doesn’t break the string, tell me, what flavor is left in life? The flavor of chamomile, weak chamomile tea! Nothing like rum-that makes you see life inside out!”
How often do we procrastinate on doing things we truly love, do we neglect our Ikigai because rationality outweighs our instincts and intuition?
Reason can be as stifling as anxiety. While anxiety is a crude response that can leave you immobile, rationality is a higher-order frontal lobe function which may have exactly the exact same effect. I am trying to pay more attention to instinct, which is often inappropriate, risky and ridiculous.
Acting spontaneously and being ridiculous provides us with our best memories and many gratifying experiences. It was Zorba’s absurd mindset and foolish authenticity that got him hired by the narrator, ‘the boss’.
Don’t overthink death
“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandfather!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned around and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’
Which of us was right, boss?”
This is a common knowledge but a difficult lesson. When we live like death is knocking on our shoulders we begin embracing the fullness of existence. We wake up each day, marvel in life and feel thankful for what we typically take for granted. The challenge is to be conscious of our finitude, but can we imagine how’s to be dead? How’s to cease to exist, if existing is all that we know?
Grown through hardship
“When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seem to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.”
Zorba had fought many wars for his nation, Greece. He watched and has been involved in several atrocities. He left the military and spent years traveling and meeting many individuals around Europe, and these experiences forged his character, finally turning him into a better version of himself.
Challenges reveal what we are made of. Only when we’re about to break we discover that we can cope with more, much more than the ‘comfortable self’ thought possible. We discover what is there in our core. Don’t be afraid, let the pain temper your soul and make a warrior of you.
Be Conscious of this instant
“I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
Life is happening at this moment, and each moment is fleeting. Zorba’s day may start afresh without holding what happened. He talked about his dreams. He cried when he was unhappy, laughed when happy and functioned when he had to put food onto the table. He performed the santur and sang when his heart wanted. He lived entirely in the flow.
“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”
Happiness resides in simplicity. Happiness costs nothing, needs nothing. A hug, a purring kitty, a wind-blown blossom. These easy happy moments often go unnoticed, and it is why delight can be difficult to consciously identify.
Simplicity also means being picky. Fewer decisions require less energy, and less is really more. Don’t spread yourself too thin, focus on the precious little things and cherish them alone or with those who really care about you.
We are all born free
“No, you’re not free…The string you’re tied to is perhaps no longer than other people’s. That’s all. You’re on a long piece of string, boss; you come and go, and think you’re free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don’t cut that string…”
Our ultimate goal as human beings is to be liberated and nonetheless we allow ourselves to cling to every sort of enslavement possible.
Can we remove the shackles that we have put on? In Zorba’s opinion, only individuals who wish to be free are individual beings. Authorities, passions, beliefs, and thoughts would be the binding tethers of captivity.
Our main success would be to free ourselves completely and return to those days when we’d been free of guilt, stress, and anxiety. We’d been born free, and to this initial state we must return.
Zorba epitomized independence, especially when dancing sirtaki. Through his dance he would embody freedom and deliverance: his language had no words and yet his message was crystal clear. Traduttore, trahitore (translator, betrayer), says the old Italian expression, and Zorba instinctively knew that: words cannot convey the full gradient of human experience.
Nature heals the spirit
“For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.”
Zorba, a man that wasn’t severed out of nature. His activities are like primary colours: easy, loud, and basic. This lesson reminds me of another book, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which tells the story of two kids, marked by abandon and lack of affection, who find solace and eventually get emotionally healed through the progressive awakening to nature.
The Biophilia Hypothesis suggests that humans have an innate tendency to look for connections to nature and other forms life, and I know by experience that this is true. When I’m stressed and overwhelmed I go run in the woods and all that burden is suddenly released from my back.
The Japanese even have an expression to convey this therapeutic practice: Shinrin-yoku , or forest bath. This medicine of the forest invites us to come closer to nature, its harmony, in order to reconnect with our innate ability to heal. The art of forest baths is to connect with trees, plants, to embrace nature through our senses.
Probably the best scene of the homonymous movie, casting Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates:
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