My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho is a sad but beautiful story about a young shepherd who leaves Spain and goes to Egypt in search of his treasure buried, he believes, somewhere near the Pyramids.
Instead, Santiago finds his Personal Legend. What is a Personal Legend, you might ask? In an introductory letter written in 2002, Paulo asks a similar question, one to which he is willing to answer:
“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” (viii).
Many will argue, so what? Paulo asks a similar question, because many people choose not to follow their childhood dreams:
“So, why is it important to live our personal calling if we are only going to suffer more than other people?
“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, each hour, is part of the good fight. We start to live with enthusiasm and pleasure. 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” (ix).
What is far more interesting than this philosophy Paulo offers us in The Alchemist is how the book came to be.
In the section “About the Author” at the back of the book, we can find how truly special one’s personal calling can be and how it can help shape the world:
“He tried his hand at writing but didn’t start seriously until after he had had an encounter with a stranger. The man first came to him in a vision, and two months later Paulo met him at a café in Amsterdam. The stranger suggested that Paulo should return to Catholicism and study the benign side of magic. He also encouraged Paulo to walk the Road of Santiago de Compostela, the medieval pilgrim’s route.
“In 1987, a year after completing the pilgrimage, Paulo wrote The Pilgrimage: Diary of Magus. The book describes his experiences and his discovery that the extraordinary occurs in the lives of ordinary people. A year later, Paulo wrote a very different book, The Alchemist. The first edition sold only nine hundred copies and the publishing house decided not to reprint.
“Paulo would not surrender his dream. He found another publishing house, a bigger one. He wrote Brida (a work still unpublished in English) that received a lot of attention in the press, and both The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage appeared on bestseller lists. The Alchemist went on to sell more copies than any other book in Brazilian literary history” (194-195).
Despite how fickle this shows the publishing industry in any country to be and the simpleton’s greed that goes with such behavior, The Alchemist went on to become an international phenomenon due to one writer’s personal calling. Have faith, the Universe calls, in yourself.
Like Paulo, Santiago (so named from the pilgrimage and the historical figure) goes in search of his own Personal Legend.
One night as Santiago settles his flock in an abandoned church, he has a dream of the Pyramids and an ancient treasure buried there. Over time he contemplates giving up his sheep and heading to Africa, just two hours away by boat. And as we follow Santiago on his struggles to achieve his dream, we cannot but help to look into the pages of the book and see a reflection of our own lives (I know I did mine). And Paulo offers a bit of philosophy to meditate on while we join Santiago on his hero’s journey.
“When someone sees the same people every day, as had happened with him at the seminary, they wind up becoming a part of that person’s life. And then they want the person to change. If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own” (16).
I know I have had people like this in my life. Have you?
Then one day as Santiago is reading he meets an old man who turns out to be the King of Salem and a sort of an oracle whose name is Melchizedek.
“It’s a book that says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say,” continued the old man. “It describes people’s inability to choose their own Personal Legends. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world’s greatest lie.”
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie” (18).
Since I turned 25, and looked ahead to the next quarter of a century before me, I promised I would make the most of these precious years. I left my comfortable job at Capital One Bank, two years before the market crashed — which we all knew was going to happen before the public did, and this is another reason why I am glad I left — I left America and came to Southeast Asia in search of my own Personal Legend. And I have never regretted it since.
But every day I see people like the ones the old man is talking about. Those people so blinded by conformity that they have forgotten how to choose their own Personal Legends, and they writhe in agony each day, unknowing that each present day is the sum of all their choices made in the past. Do you know people like this? Do you know what your Personal Legend is? Are you on the path to finding it?
Like Santiago, you might not know what a Personal Legend is supposed to be.
“The boy didn’t know what a person’s ‘Personal Legend’ was.
“It’s what 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, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend” (21).
When I first learned to read — I remember well — I sat in the classroom over my basic reader companion and found that dead men could speak to me through words, language. And it was at that very moment the Universe opened up to me and I told myself that I wanted to become a writer, a published author, so that I too could share the knowledge that would come to me as I grew. And as I grew more and more things and people in life tried to convince me that my dreams were foolish and impractical and selfish. And yet, the more I follow the Universe which guides me to my own Personal Legend, the more I am rewarded, both financially and spiritually. I cannot explain it. It just is.
“In order to find the treasure, you will have to follow the omens. God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you” (29).
Santiago, our young hero we cheer onward, follows such omens. He sells his sheep, leaves Andalusia, and makes his way to Tangier, where he is robbed by the first kind man he meets. Broke and alone, Santiago spends the night on the empty streets.
“That morning he had known everything was going to happen to him as he walked through the familiar fields. But now, as the sun began to set, he was in a different country, a stranger in a strange land, where he couldn’t even speak the language. He was no longer a shepherd, and he had nothing, not even the money to return and start everything over” (38-39).
But Santiago keeps the faith and follows the omens which lead to a hill and a merchant who sells crystals. A year passes away while the boy works for the merchant and both prosper. The boy, however, does not give up on his dream of going to the Pyramids.
One day Santiago discovers that the merchant once had a dream, and that dream was to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
“The old man continued, ‘You have been a real blessing to me. Today, I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.”
Many people I have met are like the merchant. They would rather continue to dream their dreams than to have their dreams become real and tangible. Perhaps it is because of fear. Perhaps it is because of wanting to remain comfortable. Are you like the merchant or are you like Santiago?
Nevertheless, Santiago joins a caravan to cross the mighty Sahara, never giving up on his vision and his Personal Legend which is leading him to the Pyramids.
Santiago keeps learning along the way. He was learning “that there was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language [he] had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired” (62).
I’m an over-achiever, and most people who know me know this is true. But what they don’t know is why I do what I do. Most people who know me don’t really know me at all and they make false assumptions about me. They think I’m an over-achiever because I’m a pretentious ass or someone who thinks he’s far better than others. In short, they think I’m arrogant and filled with hubris. And I look at them with tired eyes as old as the Universe and remain quiet.
I’m an over-achiever, and most people who know me know this is true. But what they don’t know is that I’m an over-achiever because I’m filled with enthusiasm for life and knowledge. I’m filled with love and purpose. I’m on a personal journey for something I believe in and I alone desire. And more often than not this confounds people, confuses them, frightens them, and bewilders them into a state of negativity that even they cannot explain, let alone comprehend. But the reason most people are this way is because long ago they gave up on their own Personal Legend and chose to ignore their one true calling. And this, too, is why I remain silent and suffer when people think ill of me. For they have a fate far worse than I.
Because ‘when you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it’ (62) and ‘the closer one gets to realizing his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being’ (72).
As Santiago sits atop a camel crossing the grand desert of northern Africa he recalls his mother and what she had once said about omens.
“‘Hunches,’ his mother used to call them. The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there” (74).
Are you someone who listens to intuition or do you choose to ignore it?
Along the way, if we are lucky and blessed, we meet people who help us to listen closer to our own intuition, like how a camel driver is able to teach young Santiago.
“The land was ruined, and I had to find some other way to earn a living. So now I’m a camel driver. But that disaster taught me to understand the word of Allah: people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.
“We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand” (76).
Later the camel driver adds,
“Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man… Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now” (85).
He’s right. Living each moment fully — what many business leaders and educators are now calling ‘mindfulness’ — is a step toward happiness. Most should be so fortunate. So how about you? Are you living in the past, present or future? Is life a grand festival for you?
Then one day, after the caravan reaches an oasis, Santiago meets a young woman named Fatima.
“At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke—the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert. Something that exerted the same force whenever two pairs of eyes met, as had theirs here at the well. She smiled, and that was certainly an omen—the omen he had been awaiting, without even knowing he was, for all his life. The omen he had sought to find with his sheep and in his books, in the crystals and in the silence of the desert.
“It was the pure Language of the World. It required no explanation, just as the universe needs none as it travels through endless time…
“Because, when you know that language, it’s easy to understand that someone in the world awaits you, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in some great city. And when two such people encounter each other, and their eyes meet, the past and the future become unimportant. There is only that moment, and the incredible certainty that everything under the sun has been written by one hand only. It is the hand that evokes love, and creates a twin soul for every person in the world. Without such love, one’s dreams would have no meaning.
“Maktub, thought the boy” (92-93).
All my life I have believed in such a great love, one that is divided into ‘twin souls’ and only feels at peace when the two are made whole. Have you found your great love?
“You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t true love…the love that speaks the Language of the World” (120).
For the past two years I have struggled with a divorce and only when I read that ‘love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend’ did I finally understand why I was not happy and not in tune with the Universe. For you see, my ex-wife, from the moment I met her, constantly made life difficult for me because she could not possibly imagine my Personal Legend and how important such a calling is to me and to the world. Not many people can understand another person’s Personal Legend, and that is exactly why it is not love, especially the true kind.
But we cannot be angry at such people who are blinded by their own misgivings and failures. They have given up on their own Personal Legend long ago and they simply want to drag you down with them. Don’t let them. By any means necessary, follow your heart and see it to the end. Much like the young Santiago, who constantly gains and loses only to find himself getting closer to achieving his dream (and in this story it is both a figurative and a literal dream that he seeks to accomplish).
Much like Santiago, with each passing day I find my dreams becoming reality. But this, too, comes at a great cost. Most people are not willing to pay such high prices nor make such costly sacrifices. And why is that?
“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. We, their hearts, become fearful just thinking of loved ones who go away forever, or of moments that could have been good but weren’t, or of treasures that might have been found but were forever hidden in the sands. Because, when these things happen, we suffer terribly.”
“My heart is afraid that it will suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.
“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.”
“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve…”
“Why don’t people’s hearts tell them to continue to follow their dreams?” the boy asked the alchemist.
“Because that’s what makes a heart suffer most, and hearts don’t like to suffer” (130-131).
As the alchemist and Santiago head away from the oasis and towards the Pyramids, they encounter a small band of devious men. They ask the alchemist what the stone and the liquid are. The alchemist tells them it is the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. They laugh and leave the sacred possessions behind.
“Are you crazy?” the boy asked the alchemist, when they had moved on. “What did you do that for?”
“To show you one of life’s simple lessons,” the alchemist answered. “When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed” (134).
This is certainly one lesson I learned long ago. When I was just starting to listen to my intuition and before I had begun to follow my Personal Legend to Asia, I told my sister about those ‘treasures within’. She didn’t believe me then, and I doubt she even cares today.
But imagine and consider: if your own sister or brother or parents or spouse or lover choose not to believe in you, then how much more difficult will it be for strangers?
But regardless, our young hero continues on alone and unafraid to the Pyramids, where he comes upon them late at night.
“The boy fell to his knees and wept. He thanked God for making him believe in his Personal Legend, and for leading him to meet a king, a merchant, and Englishman, and an alchemist. And above all for his having met a woman of the desert who had told him that love would never keep a man from his Personal Legend…
“But here he was, at the point of finding his treasure, and he reminded himself that no project is completed until its objective has been achieved” (160-161).
I would so much like to tell you that Santiago came to the end of his Personal Legend, as did I, and that he found his buried treasure, as I have.
But I can’t. You will just have to wait and read the book.
As for me, I am also still waiting. But now I know I am not alone.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers