Arts/Literature

Reading The Alchemist as omen

“Never stop dreaming,” said the king. “Follow the omens.”

Caught as I’ve been in the throes of personal transformation—a life relaunch drastic enough that I call it “Chris v2.0”—it was hard not to look at Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist as an omen.

That’s not surprising, I guess, since the book is about the power of omens and how following them can help a person achieve his or her destiny. “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation,” the book says.

The novel follows the adventures of a young shepherd who has an encounter with a mysterious stranger. The stranger, who turns out to be a king, encourages the shepherd to seek out his own Personal Legend. In the language of Joseph Campbell, it would be akin to following your bliss.

A Personal Legend, the king explains, is that thing in life “you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives.”

As people age, forces conspire that make it harder for them to realize their Personal Legend. “We are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible,” Coelho writes. That’s the first of four major obstacles people must overcome.

The second, Coelho says, comes from a false perception about love. “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream,” he writes. “We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.”

If we take the journey, we can be held back by “fear of the defeats we will meet on the path,” he says. And even if we forge on, he says there’s one last great fear to face: “Fear of realizing the dream for which we fought all our lives.” It’s Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman Cometh writ large across our souls.

“And even then, before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way,” Coelho writes.

When everyone starts out on their journey, they’re given a boost from the universe in the form of beginner’s luck. Along the way, when people need help the most, the universe provides omens for direction, although people need to be aware of them and understand how to read them. “We warriors of light must be prepared to have patience in difficult times and to know that the Universe is conspiring in our favor, even though we may not understand how,” Coelho writes.

As I said, then, plucking The Alchemist off my bookshelf when I did had to be an omen.

I might be the only person in the free world who’s not read the slim novel, first published in Brazil in 1988 and translated into English in 1993. It is, after all, an “International Bestseller,” or so boasts the cover of the edition I have—which I’d picked up from a buy-one/get-one-half-price table at a big-box bookstore—in purple foil-ink letters. The back cover challenged me to “discover the book that has changed millions of lives.” As one of the as-yet-unchanged, I bought the book—and then let it sit on my bookshelf for half a year.

The choice to read it now could not have been mere happenstance.

The launch of Chris v2.0, which started off gangbusters back in late August, has bogged down, and if history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, it does, at least, rhyme. It feels like it’s last spring all over again, before Chris v1.0 even knew there was going to be a reboot, when life seemed at its nadir.

My marriage had been over for some time, and we’d been living apart for months, although we were still waiting on the official finality the divorce papers would bring. I’d been dating, but the much-young woman I’d fallen into a serious relationship with finally gave me a first-class heartbreaking. My daughter wasn’t speaking to me because of the divorce and because I’d been dating. Even at the university, political battles and an over-heaped workload sucked the soul right out of me.

The sad irony is that all of this came about after I had resolved to find happiness. To use Coelho’s language, I had set out to seek my Personal Legend.

And while I found happiness, the months from spring into mid-summer were, overall, calamitous times.

That’s when I did my reboot. Along with the advent of the new semester, I got a new apartment, reconciled with my daughter, straightened out my love life, reenergized my writing life, and generally cleared the clutter from my schedule. I started the school year with lightning in my veins.

But now that the white-hot launch of v2.0 has cooled, I can hear that insidious rhyme of history.

A couple of the women I dated in the spring are once more orbiting the periphery of my life—including the woman who gave me the first-class heartbreaking. She and I have since settled into a strange but well-entrenched friendship. She’s the one who first introduced me to Coelho’s work when she encouraged me to read By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept last winter. Here I am, reading him again.

Stress at work is mounting again, although in different forms and from different politics. (Can’t I just go in there and teach?) My new apartment, although superior to the old one, is tucked away in a location that’s proving to be an impediment to spending time with my kids—although my daughter is again not speaking to me for much the same reasons as before. My former wife and I are getting along well; the temptation is there to hang out with each other more and more, not because any of the old problems have gone away but because we are both at least comforted a bit by the security that nostalgia brings.

And so, like anyone in my shoes might be, I’m bedeviled by lots of second-guessing. Was it worth it to trade away the security and routine I knew to go on my quest to find happiness? Have all the downs been worth all the ups, especially when it seems like the ups never last? Wouldn’t it be easier to throw in the towel and beat a hasty retreat toward ground more familiar? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t I maybe just hunker down and live a hermit’s life for a while?

No, The Alchemist suggests.

“Why is it so important to live our personal calling if we are only going to suffer more than other people?” Coelho asks. “Because, once we have overcome the defeats—and we always do—we are filled by a greater sense of euphoria and confidence…. We start to live with enthusiasm and pleasure.”

At one point in the novel, the shepherd gets sidetracked from his quest and settles into an unintended life as a shopkeeper’s assistant. After months, he realized that he’d abandoned his quest in favor of a comfortable little existence. “He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have,” Coelho writes.

That’s where I was last year, just before I decided to set out on my own Personal Legend. And now that I’m along the path, the obstacles seem hard and the inertia to pull me back to safer territory seems strong.

If I am to believe Coelho, and look at the tale of the shepherd as an example, then I need to forge through my “fear of the defeats we will meet on the path.” Just at a time when I was wondering if the struggle was worth it, I got a book that told me so.

If I’m reading the language of omens, that’s a hard one to miss.

4 replies »

  1. When I became suddenly single at the age of 38, I also went through several tough breakups. The thing that surprised me most of all, was how the pain felt the same, just like it did when I was 16. Same pain. Life is a journey, but the rest stops suck. But I think it’s a far better thing to chase a dream and fail, than to abandon it, be successful in a different field, and wonder, at life’s end, why I didn’t have the balls to try?

  2. I’m suddenly perturbed. If the novel wasn’t translated into English until 1993, i wonder how i got a copy from a family friend as a high school graduation present in 1992….

    Like you, my copy sat on my bookshelf for quite some time. Six years it sat, and also like you, i opened it because i needed something. I didn’t know that the book would be that something; at that point i needed anything…even just to escape the treachery of my own mind for a short while. I never expected what i found. It inspired me to walk away from my life. I didn’t choose Russia because of the book, but i choose to pick up and leave because of it. I read the omens, and even thought that i had found my Fatima. It took years of searching, and just like in the book i ended up finding what i was really looking for where i least expected it.

    I haven’t read it in years now, but it is what myth is supposed to be: a key to unlock what’s inside each of us. It’s a means to bring that which is bigger than all of us into individual scale. The old myths are hardly accessible to most modern readers. Their meaning is lost in a changed context and buried under centuries of religious belief. The Alchemist is not. The writing isn’t “young adult”, it’s the simple writing of myth…thankfully accessible to young adults because they need it more than anyone.

    I know that i’ll be giving it as a gift just as it was given to me.

  3. “Why is it so important to live our personal calling if we are only going to suffer more than other people?” Coelho asks. “Because, once we have overcome the defeats—and we always do—we are filled by a greater sense of euphoria and confidence…. We start to live with enthusiasm and pleasure.”

    A number of years ago I realized my marriage was dead and it was pretty much killing my spirit. I made the hardest decision I’ve ever made, which was to leave. At the time, my son was only 3 years old. Even now, thinking back on it, I feel that awful hole in my chest that I experienced when I committed to this decision. But, I knew without any doubt that it was what I needed to do to live the life I was meant to live and to be able to provide a healthy and happy role model to my son.

    Many years have gone by, and I have found a happiness and contentment that I always hoped would be mine. There have been plenty of ups and downs, but, as noted in the passage above, I have overcome the defeats, and the path has consistently led in the direction of the light of bliss. It seems only to get better, even with life’s predictable pains and losses.

    Hang in there, Chris. If you’re on the right path, it will be right for you.

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