Paul Coelho (translated by Alan R. Clarke)
New York: HarperCollins Publishers/HarperOne ©1988, 1993, 1998, 2008
Life is full of interesting synchronicities. Messages from the Universe. Insights. Awareness. A-ha moments. Gentle nudges that briefly register somewhere deep inside and accumulate into a solid foundation.
Although the book itself is now twenty years old, the first time I read The Alchemist, I was on a business trip that required more than one plane flight, and each flight had more than one leg. Hence, I had time. But I was also in the midst of new work for an old friend, a client whose business and career focus deal with insight. I've lived long enough to feel strongly that such "omens," as the author of The Alchemist calls them, are not accidental. What seems like coincidence is an opening, an opportunity for learning, a metaphorical whack on the side of the head, a message from the Universe, a nudge encouraging us to pay attention to what's happening right now, even if we can't immediately intuit any meaning.
Sometimes, the message blares loud and clear. Other times, the fog thickens and the idea remains shrouded. Still, the clues are there. What's more, the opportunity continues to knock on our attention ever more strongly until it cannot be escaped without serious mental and emotional contortion. We always have the option of listening and responding before the pain becomes overwhelming, even if we don't think we can. Perhaps, ours is a road that requires many repetitions, many different methods to get our attention. No matter what, such omens (or nudges or messages) are life's way of showing us how to fulfill our purpose and make the most of our talents and circumstances.
In The Alchemist, Brazilian writer Paul Coelho weaves this premise into an intriguing tale, a story that's simple yet profound and seems to emerge from the spells of The 1001 Arabian Nights or the mists of Arthurian legend.
Santiago, a shepherd boy from Andalusia, seeks his fortune by traveling to the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way, he meets a Gypsy woman who interprets his dream and a wise old king who presents him with challenges and tools. As he travels, Santiago makes and loses his money, works for a merchant selling crystal and tea, encounters an Englishman who is crossing the desert to meet an alchemist, faces down a band of warriors and his own fears, and, ultimately, discovers his treasure in a most unexpected place.
Coelho's version of the hero's journey, intended to remind us of what we already know, rings a familiar tone, resembling sources as disparate as the Bible, Joseph Campbell, Richard Bach, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Dan Millman, Karen Armstrong, Marianne Williamson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Parker Palmer, and Yann Martel. Such tales take the hero traveling into encounters with the outside world — ostensibly, as he seeks his life's purpose ('treasure,' 'fortune') — only to bring him back to the necessary and perpetual examination of his internal self. Those literal travels often jump-start the larger awareness of the internal voyage needed, "so as not to flee from one's own Personal Legend," as Coelho calls this goal-directed journey.
After Santiago sells his sheep, books passage on a ship to Tangier, and is robbed and left alone in this unfamiliar city, he realizes he always wanted "to know new places." And he sees that "even if he never got to the Pyramids, he had already traveled farther than any shepherd he knew." He also recognizes what the other shepherds are missing: "Oh, if they only knew how different things are just two hours by ship from where they are, he thought. Although his new world at the moment was just an empty marketplace, he had already seen it when it was teeming with life, and he would never forget it.... As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief or as an adventurer in quest of his treasure. 'I'm an adventurer, looking for treasure,' he said to himself."
At the age of twelve, I faced a similar decision when my family moved less than thirty miles to a new town. I hadn't been happy in the school and city where we lived, so it seemed the perfect opportunity to reinvent myself. During the drive to the new house, I remember gazing out the car window and running an internal dialogue about what an opportunity this was to change myself because nobody in the new place would know who I had been before. Besides, in a time when thirty miles was a very long trip, it was highly unlikely that anyone from the 'old' town would ever show up in the new one.
My adventure, like Santiago's, had its ups and downs, but, over time, I could see enough progress to make it worth continuing. We all have opportunities to take leaps of faith, large or small, when circumstances 'tell' us the time for change is now. Like E.L. Doctorow's remark comparing novel writing to making a cross-country journey at night when able to see only a short distance ahead of the car, Coelho reminds: "Making a decision is only the beginning of things." One choice leads to another and creates options you couldn't have imagined. You don't need to know all the possibilities ahead of time; you just need to be willing to make that first decision, take the first step, and remain open to whatever happens.
I remind myself on a daily basis, 'Just do what's in front of you.' Interestingly, the next moment always takes care of itself.
As the Englishman of Santiago's adventure explained it: "Everything on earth is being continuously transformed, because the earth is alive...and it has a soul. We are part of that soul, so we rarely recognize that it is working for us." Santiago realized that "in reaching for the Soul of the World...the price...might be his life. It was a frightening bet. But he had been making risky bets ever since the day he sold his sheep to pursue his Personal Legend."
And as the alchemist advised, "Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You've got to find the treasure, so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense." Besides, what better work do we have to do?
Yes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud famously quipped. But, more often, the messages from the Universe have meaning. The interconnections of the world are at work to wake us up, nudge us on the way, test us throughout the journey, and support our remembering what we already know about why we enrolled in Earth School.