Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

100 Books by 40 – THE ALCHEMIST

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Book: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Published: 1988

It’s not what you thought
When you first began it
You got what you want
Now you can hardly stand it, though
By now you know
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
Till you wise up

You’re sure there’s a cure
And you have finally found it
You think one drink
Will shrink you till you’re underground
And living down
But it’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
Till you wise up

Prepare a list for what you need
Before you sign away the deed
‘Cause it’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
Till you wise up

No, it’s not going to stop
Till you wise up
No, it’s not going to stop
So just give up

– Aimee Mann “Wise Up”

Stories serve different purposes. Some stories represent reality in no way, but they paint the world in an ordered and intentional way that sooths us in times of suffering. It’s psychologically critical to believe that life has meaning when we hurt. Facing how arbitrary life is only makes that pill more bitter to swallow.

The Alchemist describes the adventures of a boy seeking his true destiny by being present in nature and with people. The boy travels and learns from those he meets along the way that the universe is ordered and is God manifested. His heart never steers him wrong. He gets riches and the woman he loves. And it’s all so precious. So very precious.

And that’s lovely, but there’s a reason books and movies like this exist. This sort of happily ever after ending only happens in fiction. In real life, the boy would have died in the desert. In real life, his love wouldn’t have waited endlessly for him to return. In real life, treasure isn’t buried, and the universe isn’t directing us to it. In real life, stunningly shitty things happen. In real life, those stunningly shitty things are meaningless, arbitrary.

If meaning can be taken from suffering, it’s because the sufferer has willed it to be so. A 102 year-old WWII survivor was awarded her PhD last week. She’s chosen to live past her suffering by sheer will and determination, and not because the universe is whispering to her heart about bullshit treasure.

And this, fundamentally, is what our culture gets wrong about success. Nothing is free. People who perservere in the face of terrible circumstances have nothing special aside from will. They manage to pull themselves out of bed in the morning in spite of their body screaming to stay.

Objectively, Ingeborg had her life forever altered by the year and place she was born in. If just one of those variables were different, she would have achieved her PhD years ago. She wouldn’t have fleed human cruelty. The fact that she is still chosing life, is an act of will and suggesting a benevolent universe is guiding her along robs her of her strength.

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