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!”

 

The Black Swan and Seeking Randomness

The Black Swan is a theory by Nassim Taleb which concentrates on the randomness, probability, and uncertainty in life. It has three main attributes:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Essentially what Nassim Taleb says that the events which actually shape and transform our lives are random, unpredictable and it’s only after the event has happened do we come up with an explanation for it. For Taleb, this explanation falls under the retrospective distortion fallacy where our history seems clearer and more orderly when we look back. Even though when it happened it was unexpected.

Taleb attempts to showcase how these Black Swans have shaped our society but I’m more interested in the personal Black Swans. The random moments in each of our lives which has brought us to the present moment.

Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know.

The teenage me had his life almost set in stone, that me would have never imagined himself years from now spending his time writing stories and poetry. Hell, back then I barely even read a book, let alone had the desire to write one. The desire to be a writer was a random thought I had on a random day which wouldn’t leave my head. Upon acting on this thought, my life took a whole new direction. Just like that the plans of old tossed out the window. And with each action down this path, it confirmed the initial action to be the right one. Now if I think back I can see hints of wanting to be a writer here and there but as Taleb would suggest, that is just my attempt to find some stability and order.

The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history.

This notion can be scary to comprehend because you have to accept that you lack control. It also means that you never know what will attract you until you do it. The last thing I imagined myself doing when I was younger was dissecting literature and trying to unpack a novel. Now, I look forward to when I sit down with a book and pen and paper and slowly work through a book. You only find your likes and dislikes after you try something. The more attempts you make in life, the more certain you can be with what you want to spend your time on.

The best we can do according to Taleb is to focus on antiknowledge which are the things we don’t know. Don’t get molded into just one way of thinking. Rather, be flexible and try to open yourself up to new experiences because you never know what random thing you do that will bring about a breakthrough in your life. Which is why Taleb advocates you to focus on maximizing the opportunities that are presented to you. Especially nowadays, through the use of the internet, you can rapidly improve your understanding and attempt new things without it costing you much.

History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between. Yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression.

Life is happening and we don’t know what will be important and what will impact our lives. Whatever your current life is it may be completely different a year from now. One decision could lead to a chain reaction of decisions which results in you moving to a new country or starting a new relationship or working in a different company.

The randomness and uncertainty can be off-putting but at the same time, there is excitement in this understanding.

There is excitement because not every failure is permanent because life is constantly changing and moving. Failure just needs to be assessed and studied. Then you move on to the next attempt and see if that’s the one that will hit. Mario Puzo, the author of the Godfather had only hoped that this book would be the one to make him money. He even said he believed his two novels prior to the Godfather were better. But it just so happened that the Godfather hit and the rest was history.

This also gives you the push to be aggressive in life. Highly aggressive. The idea urges action because life is random and because there is rarely predictable progress. It’s only through action do we find different paths and directions. Who knows what random conversation you strike up with a stranger can lead you. Who knows who you’ll meet when you go volunteer or when you join a club or when you start putting yourself out there. This constant aggression can lead to new jobs, relationships, friendships, failures, successes, and growth. For you never know exactly what life has in store for you. And when that opportunity presents itself, as Taleb said before, you can’t let it go to waste. You can’t hang around waiting for the perfect opportunity because such a thing doesn’t exist.

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered.


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Poem: Outside/Inside

Article: The Black Swan and Seeking Randomness

Short Story: Everything Work’s Itself Out

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

In the course of our life, we face many obstacles. Financial hardships, relationship problems, disruptions in our plans, moments of weakness, environmental barriers, cultural barriers and many more.

To Epictetus, almost all of these disruptions fall into the realm of things that are out of our control. Except for moments of weakness. We have influence over such a thing because Epictetus believed that we have the power to control our positive and negative impulses. The power to make good use of impressions. Impressions being things that have an effect on the mind.

The ability to reason allows us to controls these impressions. With reason comes judgment about what is good for us and what is bad for us. Reason allows us to plan a course of action that is the most beneficial for us. Reason can also halt any negative temptations, for we always know what the right thing to do is, while the right action is what can be troublesome and can cause moments of weakness because the right action can be difficult. However, reason can show us that it is the correct path.

Reason is twofold: It can analyze other objects but it can also analyze itself and see whether or not we are applying the correct reason or if decisions and actions based on reason are correct. Because reason can correct itself, it is considered to be one of Man’s greatest gifts. For Epictetus, the ability to reason is superior to other abilities like writing or music for example, because words cannot tell you if it is a good thing to write them or music cannot tell you when is the proper time to play an instrument. Reason, on the other hand, can analyze itself and tell you what the proper use of itself is.

Rather than worrying about things we have no influence on, we must dedicate our thinking to what we can control, such as our ability to reason. Another thing under our control is our attitude.

Attitude towards the hardship one faces in life can be the difference between moving forward or allowing the hardship to break you. Death and your dying are not under your control but your attitude towards it is. We can face our mortality by either being weighed down by the inevitable or by making use of the limited time they have. It’s an attitude towards life and time that needs to be practiced.

Epictetus referred to this practice as the practice of what is necessary. What is necessary is the use of reason, control of one’s emotions and molding an attitude towards life. Practice is the key term here. By using such a word, Epictetus puts forth the notion that we need to develop, hone and enhance the things under our control. That you are not innately born with the ability to make use of what is in your control. We have to use life and the obstacles it presents as opportunities to improve upon our reason, attitude, and control.

An example of someone we can emulate is Agrippinus. He was well aware of the lack of control he had over his life and was not bothered by things which were out of his control. So much so, that he would often say that he did not add to his own troubles. Which is the right attitude. Life will add many troubles, it doesn’t need your assistance.

And so, one should learn from Agrippinus and try to emulate his reason and behavior for he had this to say of his exile and eventual death:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.

Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to others. I’m currently working on my first novel and by currently I mean it’s been several years where I’ve gone back and forth between different stories, characters, scenarios trying to find the perfect one as if something like that exists. Often times I’ve found myself planning more than writing. It’s a form of procrastination or pleasure-seeking where you feel accomplished because you planned something that you’ll soon do. Like a false start at a 100m sprint, I find myself restarting over and over again and I believe the main reason for this is that I focus on the big picture too much. I’m constantly thinking about 20, 50, 100, 200 pages from now when I should be focused on this blank piece of paper in front of me. This habit of wanting to get to the end can be overwhelming because it takes you out of the present. It gives you unnecessary doubt or stress because the present may not be going well. So, that doubt can take over and cause you to abandon the project altogether, as I have in the past.

Here is where Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird comes in. In her memoir, she recites a piece of advice she came across in her journey to become a better writer. This advice hit home for me and perhaps it will for you as well.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Lamott likens this to her idea of the “one-inch picture frame” which is the idea of just focusing on this one sentence, get that right, get this one paragraph right, this “one small scene, one memory, one exchange” correct.

Often times our anxiety kicks in when we focus too much on the future. The reason for this is because everyone’s future is uncertain to some extent. Self-doubt creeps in with uncertainty and this becomes a recipe for a false start.

So, in order to avoid this, we just have to remember the one-inch picture frame or take comfort in the light your headlights are casting and enjoy the ride.

 

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