Reading Coelho

I’ve been sad today.

Several years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to an aspiring writer. I heard, afterward, that he’d had a play produced. Every once in a while, my friend would tell me that the writer was following my career, glad that it looked as though I was doing well. I never actually knew him, but I heard news of him from my friend. Yesterday, I learned that he had committed suicide. It took a week for people to realized what had happened. (Sometimes, he would stop answering emails and the telephone for a week or two. So people weren’t worried that he wasn’t getting back to them.)

I didn’t really know him, as I said, but somehow I’ve been thinking about him all day. My friend has organized a tea in his honor, and so far over a hundred people are planning to go. It’s funny how you can feel lonely even though over a hundred people want to remember and celebrate your life.

Today, I went into the bookstore and picked up Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. It’s part of my ongoing research into being a writer. It’s such a popular book, and I want to understand why.

I haven’t started the book yet, but I did read the introduction. I’m going to post a few excerpts here.

” . . . we all need to be aware of our personal calling. What is a personal calling? It is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream.”

(I should make clear here that to me, God translates as whatever power there is in the universe that directs our ends, that has a purpose for us. I believe there is such a power, and that we can call it whatever we like, and that it’s immanent in nature rather than separate from it. I want to make that clear because God is such a loaded term, loaded with two thousand years of history and controversy. And what I’m talking about is completely separate from religious doctrines, which are created by human beings. So when Coelho says God, that’s what I mean by the term, which may be completely different from what he means.)

He says there are four obstacles to following our personal calling.

“First: we are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible.” I remember being told that I would never be a great writer because English was not my first language. And I remember having the general sense that being a great writer was impossible – that great writers were geniuses, and of course I wasn’t one of those, so why write? I mean, I wasn’t going to be Hemingway.

The second obstacle is 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.” Coelho goes on to say that we eventually realize “that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” You know what? I think that’s overly optimistic. Often it’s the people who love us most who sabotage us, because they love us and want use to be safe and comfortable. Following a personal calling is likely to make us unsafe, uncomfortable.

The third obstacle is “fear of the defeats we will meet on the path.” Here Coelho says something very useful: “The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” He also says that we “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.”

And he talks about why it’s important to follow a personal calling: “Because, once we have overcome the defeats – and we always do – we are filled by a greater sense of euphoria and confidence. In the silence of our hearts, we know that we are proving ourselves worthy of the miracle of life. Each day, every hour, is part of the good fight. We start to live with enthusiasm and pleasure.” Which I think is true. He also says, “Intense, unexpected suffering passes more quickly than suffering that is apparently bearable; the latter goes on for years and, without our noticing, eats away at our soul, until, one day, we are no longer able to free ourselves from the bitterness and it stays with us for the rest of our lives.”

I think what he means by that last statement is that the suffering you endure while trying to follow your personal calling is more bearable than the suffering of not following it, of choosing to be comfortable, doing what other people tell you to do, but knowing that you’re not doing what you’re supposed to.

He says, “Having disinterred our dream, having used the power of love to nurture it and spent many years living with the scars, we suddenly notice that what we always wanted is there, waiting for us, perhaps the very next day.” This is the part that made me think of the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this post. You have to keep waiting for the next day. I understand, very well, how it can become too hard. But that’s the key, isn’t it? To wait for the next day and see what it will bring. Because it will probably, at least, bring something different.

The fourth obstacle is “the fear of realizing the dream for which we fought all our lives.” Because we think we are unworthy of it, because we feel a sense of guilt about our achievement. As though we did not deserve it. He says, “This is the most dangerous of the obstacles because it has a kind of saintly aura about it: renouncing joy and conquest. But if you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here.”

I don’t think I’ve made it to the fourth obstacle yet! But I do feel as though I’ve fought the other three. And the fight is never over, because you encounter those obstacles over and over again. You always return to doubt, guilt, fear. You’re always confronted with them.

This has been a rather dramatic blog post, hasn’t it? I didn’t mean it to be. But it’s difficult to talk about a death, particularly that kind of death, without becoming dramatic. Without making a vow that you will overcome the obstacles, follow the dream that seems to keep calling you onward.

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