Two Zorbas on Aging

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Summer reading recommendations are a feature of many publications. I have two for readers of Over65.

For some reason, I didn’t read the novel Zorba the Greek when I was younger. Nor did I see the popular movie or musical based on the book. Fortunately, our book club chose it recently. In retrospect, perhaps it was a blessing to wait until I was older, for Zorba presents an intriguing vision of aging.

For those who are unfamiliar with either the book (1952), movie (1964), or musical (1968), Zorba the Greek is the story of a reserved and timid English writer who hires a stranger name Zorba to lead the work in a mine the writer has inherited on the island of Crete. Among other adventures, Zorba chases women, plays music to sooth and seduce, enjoys nature, cooks soup, faces perils in the mines, and defies a large group of men bent on revenge on a young widow who rejects their advances. In watching and interacting with Zorba, the writer, who narrates the story, becomes more active and daring himself, ultimately spending a climactic night with the widow herself. Though much more subtle, there seemed to be some sense that Zorba becomes more thoughtful in response to the English writer’s ways.

Zorba is a committed atheist. His response to the prospect of death is to live each day as if it is his last, with as much physical gusto as he can muster. The narrator is more uncertain in his thoughts about death. He enters the story as a Buddhist more concerned about karma and rebirth and detached from earthly life. But under Zorba’s influence he shifts his attention from the next world to this one.

Wouldn’t we just know it, but Zorba is about 65, while the narrator—his “student”–seems to be a generation younger. Zorba dies at the end, but the narrator lives on with Zorba’s life lessons. For Zorba, the narrator tells us, the essential meaning of life was to create joy in himself and others.

Surely, this Zorba has little resemblance to Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle, the Greek philosophers we know best. However, there may be more than passing resemblance to the Greeks of myth and to Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus, as described in Thomas Cole’s post here.

How might Zorba the Greek’s approach to aging apply to us, especially us intellectual bloggers 65 and over? In contemplating the answer to this, I associated to another Zorba, Zorba Paster, M.D. Though I tried to find out, I’m not sure if the latter Zorba was named after Zorba the Greek. Fondly, I think of him as Zorba the Geek from the United States. He is host of Public Radio’s long-running, entertaining educational show, “Zorba Paster on Your Health.” Though I’ve listened often to the show for its practical medical advice, I didn’t know that he had written a book on aging –The Longevity Code–that was published at the dawn of this new millennium in 2001.

He lists and discusses what he calls longevity “boosters,” behaviors and other factors that add to good health, a life of quantity and quality. Dr. Zorba identifies 76 boosters and emphasizes that individuals need to consider the ways in which each booster is meaningful to their own lives.]  

The boosters fall into five spheres: physical, mental, social, spiritual, and material. These spheres are supposed to evoke the five interlocking rings of the Olympics. There are 21 boosters that rank the highest. Some of them Zorba the Greek did not follow: no tobacco, alcohol in moderation, a loving long-term partner, an aspirin a day, and regular blood pressure monitoring, among them. However, many others did seem to fit: anger management, coping skills for stress, optimism, resilience, job satisfaction, and exercise. Maybe even “explore the spiritual within you” fit if one gives that wide latitude, for Zorba the Greek wanted to achieve a kind of “sacred awe”.

Certainly, since the publication of both of these books, the literature on successful aging has exploded. And, just as certainly, both these books can easily be enjoyed, even if you disagree with what they convey, or if some of the specific details are outdated. Perhaps it is neither alone, but the combination of the two Zorbas that provides important lessons for those of us already over 65 and those who want to prepare for that august phase of life. Most fittingly for this time of year, these lessons can lead to the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” from our country’s Declaration of Independence that is celebrated each Fourth of July.

The paradox may be this: to be able to live best in the moment, we must also prepare for the future. That maxim holds for our health, our retirement, and our environment. Zorba the Greek did not live much past 65, and he also seems to have missed some of life’s greatest pleasures, such as successful long-term relationships. As much fun as it appears to be, we can’t all dance wildly like Zorba when we are over 65, though we can enjoy that pleasure vicariously. In his book’s dedication to his wife and four children,  Zorba Paster connects the physical joys of Zorba the Greek with his own relationship joys:

“To Penelope, Zak, Deedee, Eli, and Vanessa, whose laughter and insight skillfully weave the five spheres together”

H. Steve Moffic, M.D., 66, recently retired from clinical practice. He identifies himself as “psychiatric gadfly.” His book “The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare” (Jossey Bass, 1997) was the first extended discussion of the ethics of managed mental health care.

3 Responses to “Two Zorbas on Aging”

  1. Herb Bateman

    I am always intrigued with thoughts, plans and research about aging and retirement since I seem to have neglected this as 65 slipped past a few years ago. I appreciate your insights and subtle nudging for some of us like me to wake up and get with the program. Zorba’s 65 is our new 85. I guess I have successfully planned and implemented one retirement step: I started taking baby asprin years ago. I look forward to reaping the results. Thank you and keep those blogs coming!

  2. Steve Moffic

    Thanks so much for your comment, Herb. As Zorba tries to teach his boss, and us, it is almost never too late to respond to life with more gusto. The book doesn’t say how Zorba died, but maybe he should have taken a baby aspirin, too (as well as not drinking so much alcohol)!
    -Steve

  3. Steve Moffic

    Another reader, Miriam Camitta, who is also a writer, wrote to me (and gave permission to comment here) that the importance of friendship in aging should not be forgotten. How right she is! The friendship of Zorba and his boss could even be considered the essence of the story. How fortunate are we “over 65” who have close friends like her.