What Is the Secret of Life?
My best friend of forty odd years has recently sent me a number of texts written by a man who in 1957 lost the Nobel Prize for literature by just one vote to Albert Camus. That man was Nikos Kazantzakis, better known outside of Greece as the author of ‘Zorba the Greek’. My friend thankfully sent me the texts in the original Greek and, unlike previous readings of some of them at a less mature period of my life, this time I was able to begin to comprehend something of what this relatively little known philosopher wanted to say and to see how powerfully connected his thoughts were to other great philosophers.
I want to share this new understanding with the twenty or so friends I have made here who regularly and faithfully take the trouble to read what I write, though in truth I do not always consistently return the compliment – shamefully using one feeble excuse or another.
In the simplified words of a plagiarist as unqualified to teach as I, let me try to pour the acquired reading of a lifetime into a cauldron of theoretical knowledge and to try to extract from this mixture the thoughts from it that might give you my understanding of what some great philosophers have tried to say.
Essentially, we are born from nothing and we end up in nothing, just like Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography. But imagine the following imagery: We are born with one foot levitating over a long ditch which is our grave and the other foot on a bar of soap, which constantly slides along a two lane asphalted road running parallel to the ditch, a road at times straight and level and beautifully maintained and at other times badly in need of repair, winding in every which way. From the moment of birth we slide along this road initially without any control at all, fully dependent on the luck of birth as to whether our bar of soap will glide smoothly over a well maintained part of the road, or trip over an unrepaired hole in the section that is badly maintained. If you are a child born in the least advantageous parts of Africa, it just might be your fate that you are born straight onto the badly maintained part of the road and before you take your first breath even, you hit a pothole in the road and you fall right onto oncoming traffic or the abyss over which your other foot is levitating. Your life ends before it has begun.
If you are born anywhere in Europe, you are practically guaranteed to be born on a stretch of asphalt that is in perfect repair, at least for the first number of miles. Depending on your parents’ financial situation, that well maintained stretch of road can be extended or minimised while you adapt to the experience of travel in this soap mode.
As you grow and as you acquire more confidence, you begin to learn how to move about on your travels and how you can experiment in order to enjoy the experience more. Most of us try to learn how to avoid hitting other travellers on the same road, how to avoid causing them – and ourselves- pain. We learn how to find the time and skill to pick up flowers along the way as we slide along and to hand those to fellow travellers as they come from the opposite direction heading for places which we cannot access and shall never see. Or we give the flowers to those going in the same direction as we, some of them keeping up with us and sharing the experience of travel in each other’s company and we discover how much more pleasant travel can be when accompanied by others who fit in with our way of progress through this adventure.
Occasionally we trip and we are ready to fall, but the hand of one of our travelling companions or the hand of a complete stranger reaches out to steady us and we avoid falling into the abyss. We begin to feel emotions of gratitude and we look out for the opportunity to return the favour either to the same person who helped us or to anyone one who might need our help and we discover the satisfaction of giving without expecting anything in return.
Each such incident is a rebirth. And each such incident is inevitably also a partial death as we are hurtling towards the only destination possible, the other abyss waiting for us at the end of the road.
But it is each such rebirth that we should celebrate, because each such incident confirms our humanity and our need for each other and our love for each other, confirming the truth of what Walt Whitman said in ‘Song of Myself’.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
This is the period between the abyss we have come from and the abyss we are hurtling towards with an inexorable absolute certainty, a period of our very own personal eternal Spring, a period of Light, of LIFE!
And while we pick our flowers and laugh or catch our breath at our wobbling and at our friend’s swaying and while we exchange smiles of thanks with some and kisses with others, there are the inevitable monsters who instead of picking up flowers they pick up fallen tree branches to hit others with in order to better clear a path for themselves. These are the people who want to bring darkness to the light, to hurt, to terrify, to control and to profit. These people sometimes end up becoming rulers of Conglomerates or Countries and these conglomerates or countries implement the principles and thinking of their rulers.
In order to avoid being accused of directing my words against any one country of today, let me just say that if you read Thucydides’ ‘The Peloponnesian Wars’ you will see all of us living today described meticulously in that book written almost 2,500 years ago. In it you will find the best of us and the worst of us being described as if the years have not passed and as if progress and civilisation has stood still. WE SIMPLY HAVE NOT CHANGED! You will find the Athenians saying to the inhabitants of the island of Milos “If you are not with us, you are against us” and then proceeding to exterminate all the men and enslave all the women and children, because the people there said that they were peaceful people and did not want to make war on their relatives the Spartans. When the Athenians spoke of freedom and democracy, they meant freedom and democracy for themselves, not for anyone else.
And so through the years the strong have imposed their will on the weak while they themselves also travel on their own bar of soap to the inevitable end along with everyone else, some of them even succeeding in slowing down a little and delaying the inevitable. Just think of leaders who have been in power for many years, how they seem to outlast everyone else. Think of Mugabe using his country’s wealth as his personal fortune to do with as he wishes and how he apparently manages to extent his life using that wealth to buy the best possible medical care that money can buy. Think of the Queen of England and her husband, how with their wealth they seem to be able to cheat time.
So, Brothers and Sisters, we come out of a nothingness, out of an abyss and immediately we arrive we begin the return journey to where we have come from; the abyss. Along the way we learn and we teach, we hurt and are hurt, we help and are helped, we love and are adored, and we invent gods to salve our pain and our fears and we use those gods as crutches hoping that they will keep us on our bar of soap safer than anyone else, or at least just that bit longer. But in reality the aim of life is death. It is up to us to make that period of Spring called Life as pleasant to those around us as we can. Notice that I do not say make life as pleasant for ourselves as we can, because by aiming to make the lives of others pleasant, we end up with the wonderful friends we need to live a life that is complete.
Injustice is everywhere and will cause us some scary moments on our travels, trying to push us off our soap, but it is our duty to resist this injustice to the full extent of our power and more importantly to teach our children how important it is for them to be just to their fellow man and to extent a helping hand whenever they see a fellow traveller wobble unsteadily on his piece of soap. In other words explain to them the value of justice and how their own just acts elevate them spiritually, even though they may not find material benefit by being just.
An example of injustice is the case of my countryman George Papanicolaou, who has saved literally millions of women’s lives with his well known ‘Pap Test’. Like Kazantzakis, he died without receiving the Nobel Prize, perhaps because he was from a tiny country without much influence. But every woman reading this either owes him her life or at least her peace of mind.
- Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.
- Δε φοβάμαι τίποτα.
- Είμαι λέφτερος