This book is one of my all-time favorites. I read it with 10 years within 2.5 hours (on the back seat of our car on the highway, I still remember) and I have read it again 15 years later.
The world Michael Ende designs in this book is for all ages. You can tell it your kids, you can read it yourself.
“Momo” is about embracing the moment, spending time with your friends and live your life according to your own ideas, not somebody else’s blueprint.
Momo lives in an old amphitheater in the woods, far away from the city center. She has no significant material possessions – she has all she needs to survive, and her friends often come to visit – because she has the unique gift to listen to them. Thus, she gives people the gift of time.
She just sits there while her friends tell her everything that goes on in their life. That way, they often answer their own questions. Things become clearer, conflicts are solved simply because people are able to talk to her about their problems – and it often turns out that there was no conflict to begin with. Often, people lock themselves away by making the wrong assumptions. When Momo listens to them, these assumptions are not important anymore and vanish from people’s mind. They become happy again.
“Just go to Momo” becomes a phrase for everyone who needs to talk or needs a problem that he or she can’t solve.
Momo has an abundance of time, because she lives in the moment.
“She merely sat and listened with the utmost attention and sympathy, fixing her large, dark eyes on them. And when they finally stumbled upon an idea that they had never even dreamt of before, they felt like it had come from deep within them.”
“Even as he spoke, it would become clear to him, in some mysterious way, that he was fundamentally mistaken, that among all the people in the world there was only one of him, and that he was therefore important in his own particular way. This was how Momo listened.”
“Some things simply take time, and time was the only thing that Momo had in abundance.”
The way Momo lives her life reminds me a lot of meditation and mindfulness. She focuses on her friends and gives them her full attention.
“On some nights, when all her friends had gone home, she would sit alone for a long time in the old theater’s large, stone rotunda listening to the deepening silence while the starry sky arched high above her. Whenever she did this, she imagined that she was sitting in the middle of a giant ear that was listening in on the entire cosmos, and she often thought she could hear soft but powerful music that went straight to her heart. On those nights she always had especially beautiful dreams.”
I can only say but one thing about passages like these: beautiful storytelling.
Focus on the next step only.
One of Momo’s friends, Beppo Streetsweeper, goes about his work in this way:
“You can never think about the whole street all at once, understand? You can only think about the next step, the next breath, the next broom stroke. Only ever the next one.”
Only focus on the next step, never the complete task.
But there is a big danger arriving in paradise.
An epidemic of ‘Gray Men’ – they slowly seep into people’s live and claim to help them by saving their time for them.
“Even old Beppo, who saw many things that other people missed, didn’t notice the increasing number of gray men who were busily hurrying around the big city. But it wasn’t as if they were invisible. You saw them, and yet you didn’t really. Through some eerie trick, they knew how to make themselves inconspicuous — your eyes would pass over them or you would immediately forget that you had seen them — and because no one noticed them, naturally no one asked where they had come from or where they kept coming from, even though there were more of them every day.”
“Their numbers are growing. Now even our old friends are beginning to act the same way, and I’m beginning to ask myself in earnest if there isn’t some kind of contagious madness that’s spreading around.”
These Gray Men visit people and tell them to get rid of all “unnecessary” activities, like visiting and caring for their friends and enjoying their time. Instead, they open an ‘account’ with the ‘Time Savings’ bank. People now only focus on doing what is useful and productive, not on what is important for them, so they can earn more money, save time and deposit that time with the gray men. They think that:
“Anyone who goes further, makes more of himself, and earns more money than other people will get all the rest automatically: friendship, love, marriage, etc.”
This, of course, is a big fallacy – the belief that amassing more goods will automatically make them happier. Instead, they follow the gray mens’ blueprint. People think they are successful and work towards a great future, when in fact they give away all control of their life. They become slaves, because they abolish their most precious resource: time.
This is the Gray Mens’ real goal:
“Whoever controls human time has unlimited power!”
To me, that sounds eerily like an allegory on the modern corporate world and ‘wage slavery’, making everything bland and looking the same. They hold people as slaves by making them desire worthless stuff, forfeiting their time that they ironically want to preserve. But you don’t preserve time, because it moves through you.
The Gray Mens’ actions don’t stop with the adults – children are indoctrinated as well:
“Soon, buildings known only as “child-depots” sprang up all over the city. They were big houses where all the neglected children could be dropped off and then picked back up whenever their parents got a chance.”
“The new games all had to have some kind of useful or educational purpose. The children learned these new games, but they forgot something else, something much more valuable: they forgot how to have fun, how to be fascinated, and above all, they forgot how to dream.”
Later in the book, Momo talks to Master Hora
You have to live time.
“Time is the very essence of life itself, and life exists in our hearts. The more of it that the people saved, the less they actually had.”
When Momo tries to listen to one of the grey men, she realizes there is only a big void, not a human behind.
Stuff is useless and inferior to spending your time with your friends
Whereas Momo and her friends did not need any special items to play with, after the Gray Men arrive, new toys appear:
“More and more frequently, children would bring all sorts of toys to the amphitheater that no one could really play with.”
All these toys, all this ‘stuff’, constricts Momo’s freedom:
“Momo, who was sitting on the floor trapped by all the different things strewn around her.”
Stuff, as Aaron Clarey mentioned, is useless. It can not replace friendships. It traps you instead.
Momo sets out to save people from the Gray Men.
Momo talks to Master Hora, who is the guardian of time.
“Every person has his or her allotted time, and the time only stays alive as long as it continues to belong to that person.”
“Then the gray men aren’t even really human?”
“No, they have merely disguised themselves as humans.”
“So what are they really?”
“Strictly speaking, they are nothing.”
“So where do they come from?”
“They exist only because humans let them. That’s all they need. Now humans are even giving them the opportunity to rule them, and that too, is enough for them to take power.”
The Gray Men only have power because people give it to them.
The meaning of time
Master Hora tells Momo a riddle.
“Three brothers live in one shared house, they look quite different from without, but if you ever try to choose, each becomes like the other two. The first isn’t there; he’s on his way to the house. The second isn’t there; he just went out. Only the third brother is there, the smallest of the three, yet without him, the others wouldn’t be. But the third, about whom we presently reckon, only exists because the first becomes the second. If you look at him, you only ever see the first or the second of the three! So tell me: are the three of them one? Or just two? Or perhaps— none? And if you, my child, can tell me their names you’ll know three rulers of limitless fame. They rule together over one large realm; they are it themselves! That’s how they’re the same.”
Momo solves the riddle – the first is the future, the second brother is the past, and brother #3 is the present.
“If you look at him, you only ever see, the first or the second of the three.”
The present does not really exist. Time’s arrow moves through it from the future into the past.
“‘It must mean that the present only exists because the future turns into the past!’ She looked at Master Hora with surprise. ‘That’s right, isn’t it? I’ve never thought about that before, but I guess the moment itself doesn’t really exist.’”
You can’t do what you love when you hate what you currently do.
This I found the most controversial idea in the book. If your job ‘sucks’, shouldn’t you just do something else that you can enjoy more?
Yes and no. You may want to leave your profession, but you can’t start a new job based on the hatred of your previous one. For example, if you hate being an accountant, it will make no sense to just quit your job and offer consultations for accountants. You will only carry your negativity into your new job.
Signor Fusi, a barber, loved his job, and after the Gray Men are visiting, he hates it now:
“‘But,” he thought gloomily, “my work doesn’t leave me any time for things like that. For the proper life you need to have time. You need to be free. But I’ll be trapped by scissors, gossip, and foam for the rest of my miserable years.”
But now… at some point when I’ve earned enough I’m gonna pack it in and do something else.”
I think it is really important to embrace the present and become happy and content with yourself first, before you can move on. A life you love is not the opposite from a life you hate.
To me, that is the toughest lesson to learn. If I want to improve my life, I can easily fall into the trap of just hating the life I am in right now. And I can not leave a job that I am absolutely unhappy about and then expect to be happy all of a sudden.
Michael Ende’s Momo is a beautifully told story. The journey of a hero – “Momo”, who must eliminate an omnipresent danger – the “Gray Men”.
To me, this book is very relevant to today’s society. Many people strive to do what society expects of them, and in the process become a streamlined corporate citizen, attaching themselves to material possessions, becoming more and more isolated in the process.
Even though no one rushes people to ‘save time’, they are neglecting this important resource, instead looking towards their retirement as the period when they will have time.
Time is of no consideration to a lot of people. But it is our most precious resource, because time is your life!
The book has been made into a movie – you can watch it here (I can’t directly embed it) I loved that movie as a kid, although I have to say, it sometimes is a bit cheesy.
You can buy the book here.
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