Recently, I discovered something new about myself. This was exciting for a woman of my years, who thought that discovering anything new about herself seemed, by now, a statistical impossibility. But while reading The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, I came across an idea that explained, to some degree, why I think the way I do. And perhaps it will do the same for you. It’s a theory offered by (who else?) the ancient Greeks, who had two words—zoe and bios-–to distinguish two fundamental, differing perceptions of Life (capital intended, forgive the pomp.)
Says Tharp: “Zoe and bios both mean life in Greek, but they are not synonymous. Zoe…refers to life in general, without characterization. Bios characterizes a specific life, the outlines that distinguish one living thing from another. Bios is the Greek root for ‘biography,’ zoe for ‘zoology.'”
In short, zoe means the big picture, bios, the details. Though most of us think somewhere in between the two, we all lean to one side in how we interpret and define the world around us. Do you like to see things close up or far away? Do you look at the grand and sweeping or the minute and measurable? Do you read a book for its plot or its rhythm? Do your favorite movies tell a story or convey a mood?
You’re probably thinking: both! And you are right. We all want a great plot that creates a great mood; we all want to see the big picture of life while relishing in the details. But think about what headlines grab your attention, how you relate an anecdote to a friend and, for that matter, which anecdotes you choose to relate at all. What makes you the happiest about the world we live in? What are you most afraid of?
Your answers may reveal whether you operate in the theater of zoe or bios. One is no more valid than the other; they are simply different ways of engaging, different means to an end. Bios tells a story with Life as the backdrop; in zoe, Life is the story itself. Bios is defined; zoe, more abstract. Zoe vs. Bios is why paintings on a blank canvas with a big red splotch dripping down it get swooned over by some people and rolled eyes from others; the first crowd sees their own feelings of isolation or anger in the big red splotch; they are the zoes. (Is that a word? let’s make it one.) The bios crowd, on the other hand, interprets the story of Life by following the actual life of its subject (thus biography.) Bios folks are inspired by the hero’s valiant actions in the movie; zoe folks are likely more inspired by the soundtrack.
So, which one are you? At first I thought I was bios because, well, its important to me to be able to describe the smell of sour cream–obviously an up-close, detailed approach to things. But then I realized that my finding relevance in the smell of sour cream plops me squarely into the zoe camp, because my interest isn’t really in the smell of sour cream, it’s about what that smell of sour cream means on a larger scale: Anticipation. Memory. Ordinary, and Ordinary’s many wonders—all things that zoe concerns itself with. A bios gal, on the other hand, seeks meaning by determining who’s smelling the sour cream, and why. (Good question, bios. Smelling sour cream in the first place is never, ever a good sign.)
You may wonder: why figure this out about yourself? I think it’s because the better you know how your mind functions, the better use you can make of it. If you’re zoe, forget trying to be bios, and if you’re bios, don’t try to pull off zoe. Read and learn and see and create in the sphere your mind requires–and, more importantly, enjoys. You can switch-hit to some degree, but it will require vastly more effort to exist in the one if you’re naturally inclined to live in the other.
As for me, I’m just glad to finally understand why I like movies like Shadowlands, books like Crossing to Safety, and tv shows like Seinfeld—the original “show about Nothing.” About Nothing? About Everything. At least that’s the way we zoes see it.