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.