Writers don’t always relish public speaking.
But we sure love to put words in other people’s mouths.
Author, Nikos Kazantzakis, for instance.
In Zorba the Greek, Zorba and the anal Englishman, Basil, are strolling past the widow’s house. Zorba notices her in the window, then, excited for Basil…
ZORBA: Boss! Listen—you knock—you say, ‘I have come for my umbrella. She would say, ‘Please, please, come in…’
ZORBA: Boss, boss, don’t make me mad.
BASIL: I don’t want any trouble.
ZORBA: Boss, life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!
(Watch the scene on YouTube.)
I’m preparing a talk titled: “Life is Trouble”. If Zorba is right and life is trouble, then, “Trouble is LIFE,” which begs the question: What is meant by LIFE? And why the capital letters? To answer that I’ll take my audience on a journey:
When I was a young man on the verge of life, I had a girlfriend who was also on the verge. On the verge of getting married. Life is trouble, is right!
Zorba also said: “A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.”
So I escaped. To Africa. For two years. What was I thinking?
London – Rome – Entebbe – Nairobi – and then 2500 km into the heart of the continent, into the bundu on single-track trails into the back of beyond, off the map, to the ends of the earth.
Free, at last.
Six weeks later, I received a letter. From her. She was engaged to someone else. Thunder rumbled overhead (I’m not kidding). I felt sick. Tears. Dark night. Existential void. Who am I? I don’t know, anymore. I’m falling apart. There is nothing left.
I begin to paint. I take flying lessons. What’s happening? I acquire a 16mm camera, some Russian film, and start to shoot movies. I have never felt more alive.
You can understand the mechanics of this burst of life—old dreams falling away, new ones filling the void. Loss left me available to hidden yearnings.
Trouble is LIFE because trouble opened me to more of me.
But a worse kind of trouble was stalking me.
As I said, I was making movies. I shot everything that moved, including, one day, a cheetah. I set out a joint of meat and waited in the tall grass. She took the bait. Great shots! When I got up to leave, that cat bolted toward me and took my hand in its mouth.
I could feel her, the grumbling in her belly. My guide, an older woman, said, “Don’t move.”
That grumbling became a rumbling that I felt in my own belly. I was inside that beast. This is the worst kind of trouble, but how is this LIFE?
The woman knelt beside the cat and whispered in its ear. Massaged its neck! I couldn’t move, couldn’t even panic. Couldn’t think! This was the end. What good was thinking? What good was anything I believed in?
(Do you see where I’m going with this?)
I was leaving myself behind. It was an odd kind of freedom—a sea-change into something rich and strange.
I felt compassion for the cheetah.
Trouble is LIFE because, for me, trouble was and has been many times since, a portal to transcendence.
Transcendence: adj. a state of being beyond the ordinary range of perception.
I’m 22 years old and the doors of perception have swung open. I have just been delivered to that “beyond”. Before my African sojourn was over, those doors would swing open again and again.
Transcendence—that’s what trouble can lead to. That’s where LIFE earns its capital letters.
I’ll end my talk by quoting Kazantzakis again:
“Every man has his folly… but the greatest folly of all is not to have one.”
Writers are like Zorba. We demand that our protagonists “look for trouble!” It’s for their own good because “to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!”
We force the Basils of our stories to bait the cheetah. Only in the jaws of the beast does that special madness arise.
Look! The rope is cut. I am free.
(Public speaking—it can’t hurt any more than the teeth of the cheetah.)