Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has been around for quite some time but, for whatever reason, I just got around to reading the 25th anniversary edition (2014). That it took me so long to discover The Alchemist is strange because of my previous use of the “Presence” model coupled with other ideas about how important it is to seek one’s own purpose (Coelho’s language is “personal legend”) in life as a way of exhibiting authentic leadership as well as living a fulfilling life. Reading Coelho’s words often felt so familiar that it seemed as if I had read the book before or that I was reading my own words.
The main character in The Alchemist is a shepherd who travels from his home in Andalusia (the region most influenced by Islam when it spread from the Middle East through Northern Africa and across the Mediterranean to Spain) across to Africa and eventually to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, only to return again to where he started in Andalusia. These are places that are familiar to me in culture, language, dress, religion and so many other ways – they are comfortable places with many beautiful people who have led difficult yet fulfilling lives, always striving for better ways to be in the world.
The shepherd boy meets an unassuming man early in the book; the man ends up being a wise king who reappears numerous times throughout the book but in different personages. The wise man challenges what he says is a common belief and repeated lie – that we are all controlled by fate, a power beyond ourselves. The myth of fate is countered by the real truth – that “whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.” Through many difficult and sometimes catastrophic experiences, the boy gains and loses fortunes, finds and loses loves, and encounters fascinating guides along the way. When things don’t go well, the shepherd has to decide if he will let himself be a victim or will rise above the calamity to see himself “as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.” Ultimately, he chooses to be an adventurer and adopts the “language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”
If making the choice to pursue our personal legend and adopting a positive outlook is all it takes, why don’t more of us surrender to the potential within? When the shepherd boy finally meets the alchemist in his journey to the Pyramids, the alchemist explains, “People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them… Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
The Alchemist is a short and powerful read. I wish I had read it earlier in life but I guess it’s message has been in my soul all along…