Lessons From Stories: Kafka On The Shore

Kafka On The Shore is a novel by Haruki Murakami. The narrative follows two central characters, Kafka and Nakata, as they interact with other humans, cats, spirits, and even figures like Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. Murakami uses aspects of magical realism in order to explore concepts such as fate and past trauma. It’s in this exploration of life that we can find valuable lessons.

Lessons:

Embrace The Storm

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.

[…]

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Fate is at the core of Murakami’s novel. Kafka’s fate is to confront his mother, who abandoned him at a young age. All his actions lead him towards this fate. He tries to run away from it, to hide from it, but he is constantly driven towards his fate. He eventually relents to the inevitable and faces his fate/storm in order to grow.

Such storms are always present in our life. We can view them as fate or perhaps challenges and obstacles life has set in front of us. Trials for us to complete and mature or to ignore and hide from and remain the same person. These storms can involve our career choices, relationships, habits, or ideologies. The very thing that causes us discomfort is what we need.

Of course, real life is not like a story. Our life isn’t a plot that will cause us to confront the uncomfortable aspects. Here is where the story of Kafka can influence us. If Kafka never confronted his mother, then he would always be a prisoner to his past feelings. But because he was able to come to terms with his abandonment issues, he was freed.

The story urges us to face our storm or fate, so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and move forward in life freely.

Take Responsibility

It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.

This is significant in two ways. First, the more practical approach. Taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. We have to imagine that we have some control over our circumstances, whether good or bad. Our actions matter. Our choices matter and so, through our imagination, we can then develop ownership of our actions and thus create order.

Second, the potentials that imagination opens up also require our responsibility. If we imagine ourselves running a marathon, then it becomes a responsibility to work towards that imagination. This is true with creating art, traveling, setting goals, and so on. We have to imagine it first and then bring it to life.

Be Open

“If I had to say anything it’d be this: Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

Nothing ever comes exactly the way we expect. There has to be a sense of letting go when we seek whatever it is that we want. To give up control and accept whatever it is that life thinks is best suited for us.

Otherwise, with a close mind, we can overlook the blessings presented to us.

Have Empathy Towards Others

“Miss Saeki’s life basically stopped at age twenty, when her lover died. No, maybe not age twenty, maybe much earlier…I don’t know the details, but you need to be aware of this. The hands of the clock buried inside her soul ground to a halt then. Time outside, of course, flows on as always, but she isn’t affected by it. For her, what we consider normal time is essentially meaningless.”

[…]

“Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

The character of Miss Saeki is portrayed as a shell of a human being. Her essence, her spirit, is stuck in a time when she was happily in love. However, a traumatic incident caused her to be severed from the present and to live in the past.

Miss Saeki is a fictional character, but her portrayal is very much real. From an outsider’s point of view, Miss Saeki appears perfectly normal. Just as we may think of the people we encounter in our daily life. We cannot know what is going on inside the person’s head. We don’t know what past events still haunt them. This is why empathy and kindness need to be at the forefront of our actions.

These two qualities can be viewed as a luxury, for we may not receive them from others. However, we all have the capability of showing these qualities and it becomes an obligation to do so, regardless of whether others show it to us.

As long as there’s such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

“Man doesn’t choose fate. Fate chooses man. That’s the basic worldview of Greek drama. And the sense of tragedy—according to Aristotle—comes, ironically enough, not from the protagonist’s weak points but from his good qualities. Do you know what I’m getting at? People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues.”

Too much unselfishness can breed greed, as others can take advantage of the unselfish nature. Too much love can breed resentment, as the person can be viewed as overbearing. We can have a boundless work ethic in order to improve our life or our family’s life but can end up with a broken home because of overworking.

In themselves, no virtue is good or bad, but when the human element is added to the mix, then there needs to be some kind of boundary. Otherwise, what we imagine being a good thing can cause negativity.

The Ebb and Flow of Life

“Picture a bird perched on a thin branch,” she says. “The branch sways in the wind, and each time this happens the bird’s field of vision shifts. You know what I mean?”

[…]

“It bobs its head up and down, making up for the sway of the branch. Take a good look at birds the next time it’s windy. I spend a lot of time looking out that window. Don’t you think that kind of life would be tiring? Always shifting your head every time the branch you’re on sways?

“I do.”

“Birds are used to it. It comes naturally to them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it. So it’s not as tiring as we imagine. But I’m a human being, not a bird, so sometimes it does get tiring.”

“You’re on a branch somewhere?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she says. “And sometimes the wind blows pretty hard.”

We can see the natural rhythm of life as the individual trying to remain stable as events outside of their control create disorder. The actions of other people, chance events, unlucky instances, absurd misfortunes are to us what the wind is to a bird. Knocking us about, disrupting our flow, causing us to readjust. So, there is a constant ebb and flow, push and pull, as we adjust to the new rhythm of life and just as we master the new, another challenge arises.

The cycle is endless, and it is by accepting this cycle that can gain some peace of mind. So that when we are knocked off balance, we don’t view it as some grave misfortune but as the natural rhythm of life. And perhaps we can even be prepared for the next gust of wind.

True Inner Strength

“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.”

Too often we wish that nothing bad happens to us. But that just isn’t realistic. Hoping gets us nowhere. What we need is to cultivate certain characteristics so that when misfortune strikes, we can manage them in a calm and orderly manner. One practice is to meditate on the worst possible scenario, as the Stoics advised. So when bad things happen, we aren’t surprised by them.

Another way to cultivate inner strength is by purposely exposing ourselves to suffering. Whether it be physical training, which can help with mental endurance, or by constantly trying new things and failing, and trying again. Both of these tactics can bring us insight into how to endure. How to be patient. How to deal with that inner voice which wants comfort and ease. How to dust ourselves off and keep going.

This type of thinking puts the control in our hands. Gives us an understanding of how to behave when faced with difficult challenges.

Overcome Yourself

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about.”

We all have our defects. No individual is perfect. Part of living is about finding the pieces of yourself which are broken or maybe even missing and mending them and creating them anew.

“Even though she loved you, she had to abandon you. You need to understand how she felt then, and learn to accept it. Understand the overpowering fear and anger she experienced, and feel it as your own—so you won’t inherit it and repeat it. The main thing is this: You have to forgive her. That’s not going to be easy, I know, but you have to do it. That’s the only way you can be saved. There’s no other way!”

“Mother, you say, I forgive you. And with those words, audibly, the frozen part of your heart crumbles.”

The core of the novel is Kafka coming to terms with the abandonment by his mother. He gets angry; he lashes out; he runs away from home but wherever he goes; he carries with him this burden that his mother left him. Until he can come to terms with that, he’ll never truly evolve and grow. Once more, this requires Kafka to overcome himself. To forgive someone requires us to subdue our own feelings and our ego. Kafka is able to do so and move on with his life. But many people get stuck in the past. They harbor a singular event or person and let the past dictate their present. To be free in the present, we have to face the past and deal with it and in turn, deal with our own issues. This is what Kafka’s journey is all about.

Great Lines

“Mr. Nakata, this world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence. Please keep that in mind. You can’t be too cautious. The same holds true for cats and human beings.”

“There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story.”

“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to.”

He lived in a world circumscribed by a very limited vocabulary.

“Having an object that symbolizes freedom might make a person happier than actually getting the freedom it represents.”

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

Lessons From Stories: Siddhartha

Siddhartha had a goal, a single one: to become empty—empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. To die away from himself, no longer be self, to find peace with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfed thinking: that was his goal.

The story Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, deals with the human ego, desires, needs, vices, and the attempt to overcome all of it. In this journey of self-discovery, Siddhartha learns the important lesson that to find himself, he has to go his own way. To make his own path through personal experiences. All the good and bad that comes along with it is his own, as is the wisdom he achieves.

Lessons

There Is No Permanence

He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped from his ego into a thousand different formations. He was animal, was carcass, was rock, was wood, was water, and he always found himself again upon awakening. Sun was shining or moon, he was self again, swinging in the cycle, felt thirst, overcame thirst, felt new thirst.[…]Bu though the paths led away from the ego, in the end they always led back to the ego. Though Siddhartha fled his ego a thousand times, dwelling in nothingness, in animal, in rock, the return was inevitable since he found himself again, in sunlight or in moonlight, in shade or in rain, and again was ego and Siddhartha, and again felt the torment of the onerous cycle.

There is no permanent solution to the problem of human ego. Neither is there a simple solution to desires. The ego will always return and new desires will rise. We cannot truly be egoless or live without desires. We can only overcome these things in the present moment and then prepare ourselves for the next time ego or the cravings for desires show themselves.

This can overwhelm us in one sense because we know that by overcoming the ego once, we haven’t truly won. But there is also freedom in this notion because by losing one time doesn’t mean we are completely lost.

You Have To Find Your Own Way

You (Buddha) found the deliverance from death. It came to you from your own seeking, on your own path, through thinking, through meditation, through knowledge, through illumination. It did not come through a teaching! And—this is my thought, O Sublime One—no one is granted deliverance through a teaching![…]But there is one thing that the so clear, so venerable Teaching does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself has experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard the Teaching. That is why I am resuming my wandering.

Buddha became Buddha by going his own way and finding his own path. So, just because we can recreate Buddha’s steps, it does not mean we will become him. Ideally, the point of seeking and self-reflection is to find ourselves, not to become someone else. There is a leap of faith involved in this by walking away from a set path that was successful for another individual and making our own way.

Slowly walking away, Siddhartha pondered. He realized he was no longer a youth, he had become a man. He realized that one thing had left him like the old skin that leaves the serpent, that one thing was no longer within him, a thing that had accompanied him throughout his youth and had belonged to him: the wish to have teachers and hear teachings.

The Importance Of Self Reflection

“There is only one reason, a single one, why I know nothing about myself, why Siddhartha has remained so foreign to myself, so unknown. The reason is that I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing myself! I was seeking Atman, I was seeking Brahma. I was willing to dismember my ego and peel it apart in order to find the core of all peels in its unknown innermost essence: to find Atman, Life, the Divine, the Ultimate. But I myself was lost in the process.”

We all have an inner voice that is always speaking if we listen. By following the directions of others, we can drown our inner voice. Too often we follow someone else’s instructions because it takes away self-responsibility and ownership and this comforts us.

If we listen to ourselves and then act upon that, then all the disappointments and failures of life result from our own actions. This possibility can overwhelm us, which causes us to go along with the herd instead. That way we aren’t alone in our mistakes. However, this also takes away our ability to live our own life.

Both thought and sense were pretty things; beyond them the ultimate meaning was concealed. Both had to be heard, both had to be played with, neither was to be scorned or overrated; and the secret voices of their innermost cores had to be listened to. He wished to strive for nothing but what the voice ordered him to strive for; stay with nothing but what the voice advised him to stay with. Why had Guatama once, in the hour of hours, sat down under the bo tree, where the illumination struck him? He had heard a voice, a voice in his own heart, which ordered him to seek rest under this tree, and he had not preferred castigation, sacrifice, bathing, or praying, eating or drinking, sleeping or dreaming; he had obeyed the voice. Obeying like that, not external orders, but only the voice, to be ready like that—that was good, that was necessary, nothing else was necessary.

By listening to others, we are molded. By listening to ourselves, we are created. Individualism is at the heart of Siddhartha’s decision. He believed in it so much that he was willing to turn his back on Buddha’s teachings and find his own way.

“I will learn from me, from myself, I will be my own pupil: I will get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha.”

Life Is In The Sensation

“But, I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my being, I, for the sake of a presumed meaning, scorned the signs and the letters, I called the world of appearances deception, called my eyes and my tongue random and worthless. No, that is past, I have awakened, I am truly awake, and today is the day of my birth.”

By trusting our own senses, we can strip away old values and find what we truly like and dislike. We cannot understand ourselves or the world through the teachings of others. We cannot teach the deepest understandings. We have to feel and experience them in our own unique way.

A Practice In Living in the Moment

But now his liberated eyes remained on this side, he saw and acknowledged visibility, he sought his home in this world, did not seek reality, did not aim at any beyond. Beautiful was the world if you contemplated it like this, with no seeking, so simple, so childlike. Beautiful were moon and stars, beautiful were brook and bank, forest and rock, goat and rose beetle, flower and butterfly. It was beautiful and delightful to go through the world like this, so childlike, so awake, so open to what was near, so without distrust.

Do These Three Things: Think, Wait, and Fast

“I can think, I can wait. I can fast.”

These are the three things Siddhartha can do. They may not seem like much. But, if we look deeper into the statement, we can see the value in these three disciplines. Thinking allows Siddhartha to find the best course of action. Instead of following the first thing that comes to his mind, he can dissect, poke holes in that line of action and come up with a better alternative.

Waiting is akin to patience. To gain the skill of patience is essential in navigating life. Patience plays a key role in attaining any goal that we set out for ourselves.

While fasting is summed up by Siddhartha in the following passage:

“It is very good, sir. If a person has nothing to eat, then fasting is the wisest thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned how to fast, he would have to accept any service today, whether with you or someone else, for hunger would force him to do so. But now Siddhartha can calmly wait, he knows no impatience, he knows no plight. He can stave off hunger for a long time and he can laugh at it. That, sir, is what fasting is good for.”

And all three of these virtues come together and allow Siddhartha to be committed and disciplined towards his goals.

“If you toss a stone into water, it takes the swiftest way to the bottom. And Siddhartha is like that when he has a goal, make a resolve. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like the stone through the water, never acting, never stirring. He is drawn. He lets himself drop. His goal draws him, for he lets nothing into his soul that could go against his goal. That is what Siddhartha learned among the samanas. It is what fools call magic and what they think is worked by demons. Nothing is worked by demons, there are no demons. Anyone can work magic, anyone can reach his goals if he can think, if he can wait, if he can fast.”

A Mindset To Practice

“Certainly, I traveled for my pleasure. For what else? I became acquainted with people and places, I enjoyed trust and friendliness, I found friendship. Now, dear friend, if I were Kamaswami, then the instant I saw that my purchase was thwarted, I would have angrily hastened back, and time and money would indeed have been lost. But instead I had good days, I learned things, I experienced joy, I harmed neither myself nor others with anger or haste. And if ever I go there again, perhaps to buy a later harvest or for whatever purpose, friendly people will give me a friendly and cheerful welcome, and I will pat myself on the back for not having shown haste or anger.”

This mindset comes down to perspective. We can look at a loss as a loss and allow it to have an influence over our feelings and emotions or we can look at a loss as a lesson and become a better person thanks to it. We can force ourselves to look at the positives of a failed action and discover the successes. In this way, we remain in control of our attitude.

Importance Of Experiencing The Good And The Bad

Slowly, the way moisture creep into the dying tree stump, slowly filling it and rotting it, worldliness and slothfulness had crept into Siddhartha’s soul; slowly they filled his soul, made it heavy, made it weary, lulled it to sleep. By contrast, his sense had come alive; they had learned a lot, experienced a lot.”It is good,” he thought, “to taste everything that one needs to know. As a child I learned that wealth and wordly pleasure are not good. I know it for a long time, but I experienced it only now. And now I know it, know it not only with memory, but also with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach. Good for me that I know it!”

As a child, Siddhartha attempted to overcome worldly desires and his own ego without actually having experienced these things. This is one reason he struggled with practicing and following Buddha’s teachings. How can he overcome something he has never experienced before?

True enlightenment comes through our own experiences. So, Siddhartha had to experience for himself vices such as greed, lust, and sloth before he could find a way to overcome them. And when he did, those lessons then became imprinted in his mind.

You Can Start Over Again

“Well,” he thought, “since all these so ephemeral things have slipped away from me again, I am now standing again under the sun, under which I once stood as a little child. I have nothing, I know nothing, I can do nothing, I have learned nothing. How wondrous this is! Now that I am no longer young, now that my hair is already half grey, now that my energy is ebbing—-I am starting all over again, like a child! I had to go through so much stupidity, so much vice, so much error, so much disgust and disillusion and distress, merely in order to become a child again and begin afresh.”

As we grow older, we become set into a form of thinking and acting. We come to believe that the person we are and the life we are living is how it will be. However, there is always an alternative. To start fresh again. This may require a great deal of humility as Siddhartha expresses. Siddhartha has to come to terms with the reality that he has gone the wrong way in life. Also, that he had given into vices which he had laughed at when he was younger. Acceptance is the root of all change. Siddhartha had to accept his failures and missteps in order to start all over again.

How To View Others

He now saw people in a different light, less cleverly, less proudly, but also more warmly, more curiously, more sympathetically.[…]He understood them, he understood and shared their lives, which were led not by thoughts and insights, but solely by drives and wishes.[..]Their greed, their vanity, their silliness had lost their silliness for him, became understandable, became lovable, became even venerable for him.

Everyone is just trying to make it through life with their own demons and insecurities. Some try to overcome them through overcompensating, which can cause friction with other people. Other’s project a certain image of themselves in order to satisfy their ego and pride.

In reality, we should look at these moments as reminders to check our own bad behaviours and actions instead of condemning others. We are all alike. We share the same basic emotions, desires and needs. So, it is easy to see why someone gives into their vices because we all have at some point in our lives. This is why Siddhartha leads with sympathy after coming to the understanding that all humans are one.

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the insight, the knowledge of what wisdom actually is, what the goal of his long seeking was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think the thought of oneness, to feel and breathe the oneness at every moment, in the midst of life.

Perspective On Life

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these “times to come” are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life.

[…]

Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.

Great Lines or Quotes:

But be warned, you who thirst for knowledge, be warned about the thicket of opinions and the fight over words. Whether beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, opinions are unimportant, anyone can follow them or reject them.

 

For, it seemed to him, thinking is recognizing causes, and that is the only way in which sensations become insights: they are not lost, they become substance and begin to radiate what is within them.

 

Everything not fully suffered, not fully resolved came again: the same sorrows were suffered over and over.

 

“Each person gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teaching, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish.”

 

“Writing is good, thinking is better. Cleverness is good, patience is better.”

 

“Most people, Kamala, are like a falling leaf, that wafts and drifts through the air, and twists and tumbles to the ground. Others, however, few, are like stars: they have a fixed course, no wind reaches them, they have their law and their course inside of them.”

 

“And now, Siddhartha, what are you now? I do not know, I know it as little as you. I am on the move. I was a rich man, and am no longer; and I do not know what I will be tomorrow.”

 

“Ah, Siddhartha, I see you suffering, but you are suffering pains that others would laugh at, that you will soon laugh at yourself.”

 

“Wisdom cannot be communicated. Wisdom that a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.”

 

“I see his greatness not in speaking, not in thinking, but only in doing, in living.”

 

“I am Siddhartha! And there is nothing in the world I know less about than myself, than Siddhartha!”

Lessons From Stories: Zorba The Greek

Zorba The Greek is a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. It was first published in 1946 and it is essentially an interaction between the narrator, who has learned about life through books, and Alexis Zorba, who has learned about life through actual experience. In the course of the story, which centers around the re-opening of a mine in Crete, practical philosophical questions such as how to live life, what is happiness, what it means to be free, how to reduce anxiety, how to be yourself and many more are discussed.

Lessons:

Live in the moment:

“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned round 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?”

[…]

I kept silent. Two equally steep and bold paths may lead to the same peak. To act as if death did not exist, or to act thinking every minute of death, is perhaps the same thing. But when Zorba asked me the question, I did not know.

[…]

“Everything in good time. In front of us now is the pilaff; let our minds become pilaff. Tomorrow the lignite will be in front of us; our minds must become lignite! No half-measures, you know.”

Two paths that lead to the same peak, meaning either way what is being taught is to live in the moment. Whether you achieve this clarity by reminding yourself of death every day or you reach it by forgetting that death even exists, it is the same.

Pilaff now. Lignite tomorrow. Whatever you have to focus on in the present moment is life. In this manner, life is also simplified.

“A fresh road, and fresh plans!” he cried. “I’ve’ stopped thinking all the time of what happened yesterday. And stopped asking myself what’s going to happen tomorrow. What’s happening today, this minute, that’s what I care about. I say: ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘Well, sleep well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m working.’ ‘Well, work well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m kissing a woman.’ ‘Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while you’re doing it; there’s nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!'”

How To Find Happiness:

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realize of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”

To leave the rat race behind. To get off the track of materialistic pleasure, which forever seeks the new thing that will bring short term gratification. Instead, lose yourself in what you are tasked with, enjoy the company of your neighbor, and build a refuge within yourself that you can always go to.

We stayed silent by the brazier until far into the night. 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. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

Happiness is a constant search. You have to seek the small, minute, frugal things like eating roasted chestnuts and find happiness in that fleeting moment. If you tie your happiness to grand moments like a promotion or buying something expensive or achieving a long-term goal, then in your entire life you will only have a handful of happy moments because those grand experiences are few and far between. While searching for happiness in the everyday occasions can result in a handful of happy moments daily.

Be Passionate:

“You can’t understand, boss!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I told you I had been in every trade. Once I was a potter. I was made about that craft. D’you realize what it means to take a lump of mud and make what you will out of it? Ffrr! You turn the wheel and the mud whirls round, as if it were possessed while you stand over it and say: I’m going to make a jug, I’m going to make a plate, I’m going to make a lamp and the devils knows what more! That’s what you might call being a man: freedom!”

Live with passion. Whatever you are presently doing, you should do it with your entire existence. The aim is to achieve a flow-like state where an entire day passes, but to you, it feels like it has only been a few minutes. That’s when you know that time was spent wisely.

“Throwing yourself headlong into your work, into wine, and love, and never being afraid of either God or devil…That’s what youth is!”

Be Yourself:

“As for you boss,” he said, “I think you do your level best to turn what you eat into God. But you can’t quite manage it, and that torments you. the same thing’s happening to you as happened to the crow.”

“What happened to the crow, Zorba?”

“Well, you see, he used to walk respectably, properly–well, like a crow. But one day he got it into his head to try and strut about like a pigeon. And from that time on the poor fellow couldn’t for the life of him recall his own way of walking. He was all mixed up, don’t you see? He just hobbled about.”

Much of life can be uncertain which causes us to seek other people to follow and be like them. Although this isn’t inherently a bad thing, you still have to be careful not to abandon your own individuality in order to gain comfort. It’s easy to do and mimic what other people say. It’s much more difficult to trust your own way of walking. You don’t want to spend so much time being like someone else that you forget who you are.

How To Live And How Not To:

“Life is trouble,” Zorba continued. “Death, no. To live—do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble.”

I still said nothing. I knew Zorba was right, I knew it, but I did not dare. My life had got on the wrong track, and my contact with men had become now a mere soliloquy. I had fallen so low that, if I had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.

The truth is that by being active you open yourself up to trouble. By acting you have to face the possibility of failure, disappointment, and even humiliation. However, the passive way of life is no way to live. You are merely an observer when you live passively. And passivity isn’t a habit you want to master, for like all habits, it will be difficult to break.

What It Means To Be Free:

That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.

Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God? Or does it mean that the higher the model the longer the tether of our slavery? Then we can enjoy ourselves and frolic in a more spacious arena and die without having come to the end of the tether. Is that, then, what we call liberty?

To be better than who you were yesterday is the beacon of light that we need to move towards. We have to overcome ourselves, constantly, to overcome lowly passions which pleasure drives in order to achieve higher passions which enrich our souls and our lives. These high passions have to be tethered to our souls rather than to a concept or idea made up by others. That can allow us to escape slavery.

Simplify Life and Thus Reduce Anxiety:

That man has not been to school, I thought, and his brain has not been perverted. He has had all manner of experience; his mind is open and his heart has grown bigger, without his losing one ounce of his primitive boldness. All the problems which we find so complicated or insoluble he cuts through as if with a sword, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. It is difficult for him to miss his aim, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground but the weight of his whole body. African savages worship the serpent because its whole body touches the ground and it must, therefore, know all the earth’s secrets. It knows them with its belly, with its tail, with its head. It is always in contact or mingled with the Mother. The same is true of Zorba. We educated people are just empty-headed birds of the air.

The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weight, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.

Often stress and anxieties are man-made. We overthink and over-complicate our lives. We give in too much to the mind and don’t use our bodies to feel.

“Boss, everything’s simple in this world. How many times must I tell you? So don’t go and complicate things!”

Our mind gets overwhelmed easily, especially in our current information age. In reality, what we need is simple, the basics, and if you listen to your body and feel life it’s easy to realize this.

Many are the joys of this world—women, fruit, ideas. But to cleave that sea (Aegean Sea) in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise.

You Only Have One Life:

Once more there sounded within me, together with the cranes’ cry, the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.

A mind hearing this pitiless warning–a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate–would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.

Great examples come to your mind and you see clearly that you are a lost soul, your life is being frittered away on petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

Simply put, you have one life and it can go quickly so don’t waste it chasing petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists.

Great Lines/Quotes:

“As far as I can see, your lordship’s never been hungry, never killed, never stolen, never committed adultery. What ever can you know of the world? You’ve go an innocent’s brain and you skins never even felt the sun.”

 

Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.

 

At the far end of the room a ladder or a few wooden steps lead up to the raised platform, where there is a trestle bed and, above it, the holy icons with their lamps. The house appears empty, but it contains everything needful, so few in reality are the true necessities of man.

 

“Ha! Man is a wild beast,” Zorba said suddenly, overexcited with his singing. “Leave your books alone. Aren’t you ashamed? Man is a wild beast, and wild beasts don’t read.”

 

“All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?”

 

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, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.

 

I walked rapidly along the beach, talking with the invisible enemy. I cried: “You won’t get into my soul! I shan’t open the door to you! You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tup me over!”

 

Lessons From Stories: The Plague

The Plague is a story written by Albert Camus and it details the spread of pestilence in the city of Oran and the response of the civilians. The story stands as a reminder of the inevitable, death, which can linger in all moments but it is also a reminder of the decency, goodness, and selfless actions human beings can take in the face of such inevitability. 

The Lessons

On Life – Be Prepared For The Worst Case Scenario

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Rarely does anything happen in the world for the first time. Human history is rich and can be cited whenever a seemingly new event occurs. Yet, we are quick to forget the past, quick to forget what has happened and what has gone wrong in our timeline. The Plague concentrates on pestilence and on death in general as a reoccurring theme of life which is often pushed into some deep corner of the mind so that we don’t have to think about things that make us uncomfortable.

This uncomfortable reality was something the Stoics believed we should meditate on. One aspect of Stoic philosophy is that we should constantly think about what could go wrong in order to lessen its effect on us.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. (Seneca)

The bad will always exist. That is part of life and that is part of nature. It’s better to confront this reality so we can be prepared instead of shying away from it which in turn amplifies the damage done.

How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

On Mindset – Hardships Are Opportunity For Growth

“However, you think, like Panelous, that the plague has its good side; it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought?”

The doctor tossed his head impatiently.

“So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

A mindset that seeks growth and possibilities rather than a mindset that wallows in sadness, blaming the circumstances or other people. The latter leads nowhere but to further despair, while the former can help the person come out of hardship as a more capable individual.

On Character – Do Your Duty

“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

“What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.

“I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”

To do your part in a crisis means to show common decency towards your fellow human beings. Common decency for the doctor means to do his job the best he can. Common decency for other civilians would be to abide by the health guidelines. It may also be to show sympathy and care, two elements that can easily be forgotten during a crisis because our own ego takes over and we come to think about ourselves first.

On Life – Attaining Peace

Torrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.

“Yes,” he replied. “The path of sympathy.”

Commonly sympathy is used for other people. We sympathize with our loved ones or our neighbors or maybe even strangers when we see them going through hardship. But we rarely sympathize with ourselves. When we make mistakes we respond to ourselves with harshness and judgment rather than sympathy. But in order to attain peace, that sympathy we show others must also be used on ourselves because we are flawed beings, imperfect, so the occasional mistakes are bound to happen.

On Character – Self Reflect and Think For Oneself

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

One way to fight against ignorance is to apply the Socratic method as demonstrated by Alain de Botton in his book The Consolations of Philosophy.

The Socratic method of thinking can help you examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of your own but those of the society you’re living in:

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

A Reminder About The Nature Of Life

“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”

Rieux’s face darkened.

“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”

“No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.”

“Yes. A never ending defeat.”

Tarrou stared at the doctor for a moment, then turned and tramped heavily toward the door. Rieux followed him and was almost at his side when Tarrou, who was staring at the floor, suddenly said:

“Who taught you all this, doctor?”

The reply came promptly:

“Suffering.”

Nothing lasts. Struggle is part of life. Defeat, which is death, is inevitable. There is suffering. Yet, we have a choice in how we act and respond to all of this. The character of doctor Rieux demonstrates this. Faced with this knowledge, he goes about his life still trying to help his fellow human beings.

Great Lines or Quotes

“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. […] that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”

 

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret.”

 

“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”

 

That a man suffering from a dangerous ailment or grave anxiety is allergic to other ailments and anxieties.

 

And to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

 

 

Lessons From Stories: Unconditional Love Can Be A Bad Thing

Honore de Balzac wrote the novel Old Goriot in 1835, and he explored the social and cultural changes that were taking place in France at the time. There are several themes associated with this novel, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. The theme of parental love and family relationships, specifically the relationship between Goriot and his two daughters, Delphine and Anastasie. The lesson derived from this relationship is that there is such a thing as too much love. That, in fact, a parent’s unconditional love can have negative effects on their children.

(Obvious spoilers ahead)

To set the stage, at this time in France, one’s reputation was everything. This theme is largely explored through the lens of the character Rastignac. He is a young man with dreams of becoming rich and successful. In his story, he interacts with the elites of the Parisian society including both Delphine and Anastasie. The two daughters are married to successful men but the daughters constantly struggle with finances as they attempt to buy rich gowns and wear expensive jewelry in order to keep their high societal image.

It is in this struggle to stay relevant we see how unconditional parental love can be damaging.

But first, we must understand who Goriot is. Goriot is portrayed as the ideal father. He embodies the parenting view that it is the parent’s responsibility to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children. We meet Goriot living in an old boarding house along with several other characters. Soon after that, we are given background information about how once upon a time Goriot was a rich merchant and the reason why he went from living comfortably to now having to spend his old age by himself in a small room was because he gave his wealth to his two daughters in order to maintain their image of wealthy Parisian women so they can keep getting invitations to dinner parties and get-togethers.

This idea of Keeping Up with the Joneses is as relevant today as it was in that time period. As people attain more wealth they upgrade their living situations trying to maintain a certain image that they believe is associated with their income level. Goriot’s two daughters are no different than the people we see walking around now. Both of them find themselves in this rich sphere of influence and both constantly struggle to stay in that sphere. When our self-worth and our identity comes to be tied with our reputation and image, we can fail to see what really matters. Such as the love and care of people around us.

The daughters fall into this trap as well. They care little of how their father has downgraded in his living conditions over the years and how he’s had to sell what is precious to him in order to raise enough money to keep a steady flow of income which the daughters can use for material possessions. The daughters are too self-absorbed and here is where too much love and care can be a bad thing.

The overwhelming love Goriot had for his daughters stopped him from thinking rationally. Instead of teaching his daughters about self-worth or raising them to make their own wealth, he kept on feeding their addiction. Love clouded his logic to the point he was essentially causing self-harm in order to keep his daughters happy. His love for his daughters stopped him from putting proper boundaries which would allow the daughters to take on responsibility for themselves. He wasn’t able to raise independent human beings. Instead, even as adults his daughters relied on him to help them and because his love was boundless, he kept on loving and sacrificing until his final breath. Worse of all, the tragedy of the story, the father dies without either one of his daughters there to comfort him and even at his funeral, the daughters don’t come.

Often we hear how moderation in all things is the key to a successful life. When I think of moderation my mind automatically goes to bad habits and vices that we can practice and how we must be aware of such things in order to keep ourselves from overindulging in the bad. Old Goriot opened my eyes to a new perspective. Overindulgence in the good can also be harmful. Too much love, comfort, and support can rob someone’s possibility of being their own individual. The daughters never had to stand on their own two feet because Goriot was there to support and guide them the whole time. It is easy to identify when we are imbalanced due to our bad actions but much harder to pinpoint the imbalance when we are acting out of love and care. This story is a good reminder of the latter. Even our love and care must be disciplined and moderated. Especially if we are to raise proper human beings.