I heard a Ted Talk by Devdutt Pattanaik, a Hindu mythographer, about two differing perspectives on life as typified by an exchange between Alexander the Great and a gymnosophist. As it goes, Alexander while conquering India comes across a guru sitting naked on a rock.
Alexander asked, “What are you doing?”and the gymnosophist answered,”I’m experiencing nothingness.”Then the gymnosophist asked,”What are you doing?”and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.”And they both laughed.Each one thought that the other was a fool.The gymnosophist said, “Why is he conquering the world?It’s pointless.”And Alexander thought,”Why is he sitting around, doing nothing?What a waste of a life.”
The naked guru thought it ludicrous for a man to conquer the world whereas Alexander thought it ridiculous for a person to waste his life doing nothing. So which of the two chose the better path? Pattanaik explains that their truths depended on the worlds each one came from. Alexander came from a world that believes you only live once and what you do matters, a world of heroes who accomplish spectacular feats who gain glory for their memory and immortality in Elysium, the heaven for heroes. The gymnosophist lived in a world where one lives and dies many times, where even death comes and goes, where even when one tries their hardest their actions might not amount to much, where the more things try to change the more they stay the same because they are constantly changing. His presumption was that cultures that believe in YOLO tend to have standardized black and white ways of thinking; they work with schedules and logical progressions. Cultures that believe everything is changing and is relative tend to be more laid back, work “mostly.” Their thinking is cyclical and long-winded.
And then I started to think: “Well my culture is sort of a mixture of the two world views.” Even if Alexander the Great was the one who stood in for logic, accomplishment, and glory through immortal deeds, modern day Greece is fuzzy as sometimes the rational urgency of the West is embraced while at others the lackadaisical fatalistic Eastern sensibility wins over. I think this is what makes Greece such an interesting place. On the one hand, Greeks work hard; they study in advanced institutions become cardiologists, researchers, found start-ups, work 14 hour shifts in the hospitality sector. Yet given a choice, they would be lying on a beach chair sipping ouzo on ice. Because they reside on the cusp where West and East rift, they still believe in “tixi” or “moira”. They understand that at times even when you try your darnest, you will still fail. “It’s not your fault,” they explain when your marriage fails, your business flops, “it was not meant to be.” They do not push things when they are not going well; they believe there is an opportune time for things to happen, sort of like the gestation period for a fetus, push it out too quickly and the baby will die. Many things you can do nothing to control; your business could be a hit but the country’s economy goes to skata; that’s not your fault: it’s just the milieu you swim through. Sometimes the universe conspires against your every wish. Ti na kanoume; they shrug their shoulders. It is a rhetorical question, “What can we do?”
I find that the older I get the more East I embrace. After wishing and struggling for decades, I do not own a successful business; I have two failed marriages; I have been unable to publish any one of my books. I have tried, really I have tried. But the universe is just not letting me. I have quit trying to conquer the world and plot myself in its center as hero. Ti na kanoume; I am content to sit on my armchair and think on the nothingness. I am nothing. I can accomplish nothing. I have nothing. I sit and embrace nothingness and instead of feeling miserable, vulnerable and worthless, I feel content. I feel content that I am part of a greater whole, a universe where I am but a speck. I understand that all my struggles wane into the massive fabric like a dust mite. I have come to understand that the world will go on with or without me. I have little control over how my life turns out. The day after tomorrow will be much like the day before yesterday. If my wishes should manifest, they will do so organically, without much effort on my part. The older I get the less I struggle to fulfill my will; I understand there is a greater will at work. Instead of feeling defeated through all this, I feel peaceful. I cannot save anyone but me. When you are young, full of energy, dreams and ambitions and things are going in your favor, you tend to stand behind Alexander the Great. But as you grow older, with diminishing returns, broken dreams and broken hearts, you take a seat next to the gymnosophist and contemplate the stars in broad daylight.
And then, from the beam of light from the sun’s rays, I feel the energy of the universe pulsating through my veins. I am stardust! I am sunshine! I am the center of the universe after all! I feel the call to greatness within me. I am the hero of my life! I have accomplished so much: I have lived in three continents and five countries. I have raised two beautiful daughters, I have improved myself and made the world around me a better place. I can still accomplish my dreams. I can be Alexander and the naked guru sitting on the rock. I am East and West. A