Out of step with the millions

It’s got to get better, I thought. There’ll be a point where it all makes sense. A moment where I say, “Aaaah!” and join the 21 million people worldwide who love this book. If that many millions have read it, it must be something worth reading, right?

I kept slogging, and it didn’t get better. Life-changing? A modern classic? The superlatives on the cover and in the first three pages spun round and round my head as I read. I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it. I’m not enlightened. That’s it.

The book had been chosen by the reading group at my place of work, a rag-tag bunch of people including current and retired faculty, staff, an occasional interim administrator. “What’s all the hype about?” said the person who suggested it, a college counselor and psychology teacher. “I’m really curious.”

I had already come to the conclusion that I should stay away from bestsellers. But this was an “International bestselling phenomenon.” It has been translated into 60 languages. People in Israel and Poland and Germany and Japan loved it. Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for literature, endorsed it. In 2005, Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and nobody at the local bookstore had heard of him, which is usually an endorsement as far as I’m concerned (twisted, I know. I also think there are political reasons Pinter won that year — which is not to denigrate his writing, but to say something about the way many educated people in the rest of the world view American Imperialism.) So although I hadn’t read anything by Kenzaburo Oe, I figured his endorsement meant something. It had to be worth giving Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist a try.

I hope none of my readers are amongst that group of 21 million who loved it so much, because if you are, just stop right here. Keep the magic. Enjoy your relationship to a work that epitomizes — in my opinion — the downward spiral in which we Americans — ummmm, scratch that, all humans — seems to be caught. If it inspires you, lifts your heart, makes the day worth waking up to, then just stop reading right now. But comment, too, so that I can see a different view! I really do want to know what the attraction is.

Because I hated it.

Hate is a strong word. I try not to use it. But the book was so vapid, and so ultimately irritating, that I found myself resisting every word. I finished it only because I had the reading group to attend, and I wanted to hear what the others had to say.

Why did I hate it so much? It seems the culmination of a line of thinking that has taken us seriously astray, a line of thinking woven from self-help books and New Age fuzzy thinking. It’s a line of thinking that elevates the individual above the group, that says our individual happiness is worth more than our ability to serve others. In the introduction Coelho 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.” In other words, it’s our job to follow our “Personal Legend” and all those who love us are to fall in behind us as a cheering squad, even if it means they can’t follow their own Personal Legends because their dream is in opposition to ours.

I’d love to be a published writer. I’d love to give up my job, and ignore my daughter, and neglect my relationships in order to pursue my dream of being a writer. But doing so would hurt the one person in this world for whom I have the greatest level of responsibility, my daughter. Writing is all encompassing. It involves giving up relationships (the boy left his family). It involves a single-minded pursuit of treasure that matters to the individual and the individual alone. It is not simply a matter of saying, “Hey, man, this is my Personal Legend, and if you loved me, you’d support me.” My daughter loves me, but I have no right to ask her to suffer for my dream. And if I followed my dream, she would be suffering.

Essentially, Coelho’s book is about finding happiness. It’s a fable, in which a boy goes on a journey to find treasure. In the end he finds it essentially where he started. In the process, he finds his “soul-mate,” and discovers awesome powers in himself. In the epilogue, he is seen looking at the spoils he has found under the tree where he had the dream that took him to the Pyramids in search of the treasure in the first place. He receives from the wind a kiss from his beloved who waits for him in the desert. He is complete, rich both with treasure and with love.

But the book only fuels the magical thinking that sends people in search of an unrealistic and selfish joy. It’s the kind of thinking that says, “If things don’t go your way, it’s your fault. You haven’t pursued your Personal Legend, because if you had, the universe would give you what you wanted.”

No. Life isn’t that simple. Part of learning to find joy in life is recognizing that joy is found in the present moment, not in pursuit of a glorious goal. It’s found in helping others, not in insisting that others support you in whatever grandiose dream you have. It’s found in accepting the present moment, being mindful within it, and in offering to others your love and compassion. A book I’m reading currently, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation, by Charles Barber, quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness” (131). For Jefferson, happiness lay in serving others, in offering up one’s life to help others rather than oneself. “Virtue transcended the selfish interests of the individual,” Barber writes of Jefferson (131).

That vision has been altered in the last few decades. We’re living in the “me” culture, in which people’s desire for continual, unabated happiness is conversely contributing to their misery. A book that fuels the “me” philosophy simply adds to the problem. I have the right to do what I want to do to find my treasure, and if you love me, you’ll go along with it. If I pursue my Personal Legend, the universe will “[conspire] in helping [me] to achieve it.” But what happens if, in pursuing my dream, I get cancer? My kid gets killed by a drunk driver? My husband gets irritated because I’m neglecting my son because my dream is more important than my child is, so he divorces me? Suddenly it looks like the universe is conspiring against me, not with me. I’m miserably unhappy, because things weren’t supposed to happen this way, not according to Coelho.

Life is not simple enough to capture in a single, simplistic fable. It’s complex, and it’s multi-faceted, and whether we like it or not, it’s inhabited by in a network of people who depend on us and for whom we must sacrifice. And by the way, sacrifice is not a negative, martyr-making word, here. I simply mean that when we enter a relationship, whatever that relationship, we must be willing to compromise, to be compassionate towards the needs and dreams of others. If we give life to a child, then that child’s welfare becomes more important than our dreams of grandeur. Even if we don’t have children, we must find ways to love everyone, not just a perfect soul mate that we have conjured from our imaginations.

That 21 million people worldwide have read The Alchemist seems to signify a global change in attitude away from community, selflessness, and compassion. People are looking for simplistic, feel-good answers that give them permission to be selfish, and the book gives them that. Review after review on the internet elevates the book’s “profound,” “symbolic” message to the level of gospel. If it were well written, it might at least have the merit of providing a sense of joy in reading it. But it isn’t. It’s composed of short, choppy sentences, uninspired images, stock New Age cliches.

At least — at least! — my colleagues felt similarly to me, all somewhat bemused that something so shallow could have struck such a universal cord. I suppose it’s heartening that I’m not the only one to feel so out of step with the millions.

5 responses to “Out of step with the millions

  1. 🙂 yes. (not having read it, nor planning to.)

    You do end up picking a way between doing what’s important to you and doing what the people in your life need. And I see plenty of people, even in this supposed “me” culture, who are “living for others” in a distinctly unhealthy way; for them I can imagine such a book might be an awakening. But mostly I imagine, yes, that it’s pandering to that fantasy of the endlessly aggrandizing self.

    I like that: “virtue is the foundation of happiness.” I think that gets it exactly right.

  2. Yes, I hadn’t thought of those relationships in which “serving” the other becomes dysfunctional. I was thinking of serving in more the general sense, not being unhealthily attached to one person, but living your life in the most generous, compassionate way you can — towards all others. But perhaps, as you said, there are some who see the message as permission to take a path in which they consider their own right to happiness, not just being obedient to someone else’s dubious whims.

    That entry was hard for me to write, for some reason. Maybe I’ll try to pursue why.

  3. I read the book years ago. Didn’t hate it, just thought it was DOPEY, and not particularly interesting or well-written.

    I’m not immune to inspirational literature, but for whatever reason, that one didn’t inspire me at all.

  4. It’s kind of weird, because I agree with everything you wrote about that book, about our culture, and yet I like the book. I like it because there are moments when the Mystery shines through -when you see something beyond what we know even if you can’t describe it and I think the book does a good job of discussing those moments.

    There’s a book called The Holy Man which has not been loved by millions which does the same thing and with less focus on the individual.

  5. Pascale: Good to hear from you again. I don’t know why I reacted so strongly to it. Perhaps because I wanted to like it, and felt the potential elements were present, but somehow it just felt cheap and shallow. Dopey’s a good word, though. The Dopey Alchemist. Hmmm. 🙂

    Em: It’s nice to hear from someone who likes it. Gives me a different perspective. I’ll have to check out The Holy Man. Thanks for the recommendation.

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