What Zorba The Greek taught me about being free (prepare for f*cking gold!)

I flagged a post ago about why Zorba the Greek is a book that must be read that I’ll be sharing several Zorba lessons. Such is the impact it’s had on me. The first was about my uneasiness in the face of the “is-ness” of life. Here’s another. It’s possibly the most succinct overview of what it takes to truly let go.

I cover this notion – the challenge of letting go – rather deeply in first, we make the beast beautiful. I may just spend my entire life trying to find a way to release my A-type grip on life, and to be free. Oh well.

But to Zorba’s lesson in Zorba the Greek. He and The Boss are parting ways after an epic adventure. It’s the saddest kind of breakup (where you dearly love the other person, but the forces of This Big Life dictate that…it’s time). I cried reading this section, sitting in a Taverna in Chania in Crete on a hot Sunday afternoon with pigeons coo-ing. I cried for all my past partings.

The Boss, the pen-pushing writer who’s stuck in his head, can’t cope with the sadness of it. He, flayingly, suggests Zorba come with him. “I’m free,” he tells Zorba by way of invitation.

Zorba replies, emphatically, that the Boss is not free.

“The string you’re tied to is perhaps 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 …”

The Boss interrupts, hurt by what he knows is actually the truth. “I’ll cut it some day!” he says. My God, if I haven’t desperately cried the same, if not to a loved one, to myself.

Zorba sets things solidly, however. And this is the bit that grabbed my heart so ruggedly:

“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!”

The gold gets even shinier:

“But if a man doesn’t break the string, tell me, what flavour is left in life? The flavour of camomile, weak camomile tea! Nothing like rum – that makes you see life inside out!”

Camomile tea! What flavour is left in life! Goddamn, I, too, kid myself with a long string!

I kid myself I’m en route to cutting the string, but I’m only drawing it out with tame, chamomile-tinged demonstrations of braveness and risk. I live my life telling myself, “I’ll do it one day”. But the string just gets longer and longer. I have a lovely long leash, but I’m not free falling. Free floating. Free. I travel, let go of possessions, walk away from unnourishing relationships (into the lonely 40-something unknown). But I remain rigidly bound by codes of achievement and acknowledgement. Or ego.

Zorba argues you have to have a touch of folly to be free. I’d always thought it took conscious bravery. This is what I’d relied on to get as far as I have on my leash. I summon all my boldness and plunge. But perhaps he’s right –  to be truly Kamakazee-like (with no bungee cord attached) you need madness, not brave work and focus.

As Zorba also says, folk like us who work hard to have a long leash have made it difficult for ourselves. But as I write this post sitting in a taverna eating wild greens, this consoling thought rises: My long string does enable me to see what freedom looks like. I get glimpses. And more and more of them as I get older, like the Boss. And this is wonderfully fulfilling in itself. My long leash enables me to meet people like Zorba (I’ve certainly had similar encounters), as well as to come back and write about it, which, too, is wonderfully fulfilling. Even if it’s not full freedom. Oh well.

I hope I haven’t lost you in my wild kite flying today. We can blame the Cretan heat, if so.

Share this post