July 7, 2020

The Alchemist


1st Implication: The Value of Trials and Tribulations

The crystal merchant talks to Santiago: “I don’t know anyone around here who would want to cross the desert just to see the Pyramids,” said the merchant. “They’re just a pile of stones. You could build one in your backyard.” To the crystal merchant a quest to the pyramids has no meaning – they are just a ‘pile of stones’ – his context is one of being in the same place for 30 years, whereas Santiago’s context includes him giving up the honored work his family wanted for him (priesthood) to become a lowly shepherd who then sacrificed those sheep to reach his next destination only to have the money he had saved from the sale stolen from him. 

Santiago’s father discourages him from seeing the world for himself: “People from all over the world have passed through this village, son,” said his father. “They come in search of new things, but when they leave they are basically the same people they were when they arrived. They climb the mountain to see the castle, and they wind up thinking that the past was better than what we have now. They have blond hair, or dark skin, but basically they’re the same as the people who live right here.” “But I’d like to see the castles in the towns where they live,” the boy explained. “Those people, when they see our land, say that they would like to live here forever,” his father continued. “Well, I’d like to see their land, and see how they live,” said his son. The people who come here have a lot of money to spend, so they can afford to travel,” his father said. “Among us, the only ones who travel are the shepherds.” “Well, then I’ll be a shepherd!” Ultimately, it is Santiago who is most able to appreciate his home when he returns because of all that he has been through. His father has had to bury a desire to see the world and must continuously do so.

“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who have never plucked them.” —  Henry David Thoreau

“One should not wish to enjoy where one did not contribute to the enjoyment.” —  Nietzsche

What is being said in all these quotes is that if you have not labored, sacrificed and invested a part of yourself – time, money, resources – in the quest for that which you claim to value, then you do not truly value it. Valuing includes an action component. Actions must follow words. When you do not follow through by investing in attaining that which you claim to value then you’re going to cultivate a contemptuous attitude towards it like the father who has never seen the world but claims there’s no point since where he lives is the best (all the while burying an actual desire to see the world), or like the crystal merchant who cannot conceive of the pyramids of being anything other than a ‘pile of stones’ since he himself has never traveled and ventured out of the market place for fear of change and disappointment. 

‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ is another aspect of this. We tend to undervalue what is a given in our environment, what we do not have to sacrifice for, e.g., the inheritor of great wealth who owns a beach house perceives its value and place in his life completely differently than someone who has labored to attain it. 

2nd Implication: The Value of Ideals & Goals

Santiago after selling his flock – everything he had – to realize his dream and then having all his gold stolen:

“As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure. “I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure,” he said to himself.” An implication of trials & tribulations having any value at all is that there is some wider purpose to which one is striving, an ideal. Otherwise all suffering becomes meaningless. If Santiago did not have a goal, if he did not have a treasure, then every point of difficulty in his journey would’ve been a complete loss. He multiple times lost his entire fortune. But his dream, his treasure, his ends transmuted every instance of suffering and loss into something to be overcome, and an investment. The loss was either a lesson or a cultivator of valuing and appreciation. As suffering is omnipresent in all our lives from the trivial to the deep we need an ideal to either justify the suffering or all us to surmount it and continue living.

“Another trick, the boy thought. But he decided to take a chance. A shepherd always takes his chances with wolves and with drought, and that’s what makes a shepherd’s life exciting.”

“He was alarmed by what had happened. He had succeeded in reaching through to the Soul of the World, and now the price for having done so might be his life. It was a frightening bet. But he had been making risky bets ever since the day he had sold his sheep to pursue his Personal Legend.”

“The closer one gets to realizing his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being, thought the boy.”

The Alchemist speaks to Santiago when he’s questioning his quest:

“Then you’ll die in the midst of trying to realize your Personal Legend. That’s a lot better than dying like millions of other people, who never even knew what their Personal Legends were.

“Man, the bravest of animals, and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals


“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” ― J.K. Rowling

On thinking more about suffering in all its forms, see “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl: it is an account of his surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, his attitude throughout, the retaining of his humanity in spite of the terrifying circumstance, and constructive ways to think about suffering.

On thinking more about the psychology of living by design, by a long-term directed ideal vs. by proximity, by emotional reactivity, i.e., being buffeted back and forth by the winds of circumstance see:  Jon’s video on “Aesop’s fable ‘The frogs and the well'” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOFkuKfQeZo

3rd Implication: The Phenomenon of Escapism

After Santiago’s father briefly tries to discourage him from seeing the world, Santiago makes an observation:

“The boy could see in his father’s gaze a desire to be able, himself, to travel the world—a desire that was still alive, despite his father’s having had to bury it, over dozens of years, under the burden of struggling for water to drink, food to eat, and the same place to sleep every night of his life.”

King Melcheizedek as the “Old Man” to Santiago:

“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.”

The King is explaining that a series of evasions eventually leads to a life-shaping lie. Once you engage in escape, it can become a cycle: one tangentially negative emotion leads to another which you must continuously work to evade. Each negative emotion is a seedling of detriment. It begins small but can flower into something large and unexpected. Each small step in the spiral of avoidance provides the quick hit of dopamine, but long range the small steps explain how someone ends up suffering from extreme depression or nihilism. Long-range what was once a small seedling becomes something orders of magnitude more impactful.

Santiago entertains cutting his dream short to enjoy what he has attained so far and the Alchemist illustrates to him the consequences of that decision:

“Let me tell you what will happen. You’ll be the counselor of the oasis. You have enough gold to buy many sheep and many camels. You’ll marry Fatima, and you’ll both be happy for a year. You’ll learn to love the desert, and you’ll get to know every one of the fifty thousand palms. You’ll watch them as they grow, demonstrating how the world is always changing. And you’ll get better and better at understanding omens, because the desert is the best teacher there is. “Sometime during the second year, you’ll remember about the treasure. The omens will begin insistently to speak of it, and you’ll try to ignore them. You’ll use your knowledge for the welfare of the oasis and its inhabitants. The tribal chieftains will appreciate what you do. And your camels will bring you wealth and power. During the third year, the omens will continue to speak of your treasure and your Personal Legend. You’ll walk around, night after night, at the oasis, and Fatima will be unhappy because she’ll feel it was she who interrupted your quest. But you will love her, and she’ll return your love. You’ll remember that she never asked you to stay, because a woman of the desert knows that she must await her man. So you won’t blame her. But many times you’ll walk the sands of the desert, thinking that maybe you could have left … that you could have trusted more in your love for Fatima. Because what kept you at the oasis was your own fear that you might never come back. At that point, the omens will tell you that your treasure is buried forever. “Then, sometime during the fourth year, the omens will abandon you, because you’ve stopped listening to them. The tribal chieftains will see that, and you’ll be dismissed from your position as counselor. But, by then, you’ll be a rich merchant, with many camels and a great deal of merchandise. You’ll spend the rest of your days knowing that you didn’t pursue your Personal Legend, and that now it’s too late.”

The Alchemist tells Santiago of the long-range consequences of ignoring and avoiding that which speaks to us emotionally:

“We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them. We speak of them only to children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction, toward its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them—the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place. So, we, their hearts, speak more and more softly. We never stop speaking out, but we begin to hope that our words won’t be heard: we don’t want people to suffer because they don’t follow their hearts. “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.” From then on, the boy understood his heart. He asked it, please, never to stop speaking to him. He asked that, when he wandered far from his dreams, his heart press him and sound the alarm.”


Lesson / Application #1: Invest In Yourself & Your Journey

What does this mean? it means invest time, money, attention, resources into those things that will lead you closer towards your ideal self. Our ability to do this, to take risks big and small, is directly proportionate to our belief and faith in our future and the importance of that ideal to which we are striving. Clearly conceptualize and map out what it is you want – your “Personal Legend”, your treasure; imagine a clear picture, capture concretely on paper in great detail what it is you want and are striving towards in all the pillars of your life – health, career, relationships, finances, family, etc. And once that is clearly imagined think about how you can direct your resources (time, money, attention) most effectively to help you get closer to those ideals. This exercise is both to help you take the risks you need but also to prevent you from being like the characters in the story like Santiago’s father, the crystal merchant, the camel driver (refer to the 2nd and 3rd implication for quotes) who are thrown back and forth by chance circumstance rather than being as self-determined as possible.

“If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Lesson / Application #2: Constantly Test & Push Boundaries

See the quote under the “3rd Implication” where Santiago entertains cutting his dream short to enjoy what he has attained so far and the Alchemist illustrates to him the consequences of that decision.

Growth happens at the boundary of what we know and what we’re comfortable with. And you don’t know where those boundaries are until you hit them. Seek to push yourself in all aspects: in books – by reading and learning from thinkers that challenge you; in relationships – by having the difficult conversations you need to have, by asking for those things you want, etc. Nothing organic in nature is stagnant – everything is growing, expanding, evolving. The biggest tragedy is unrealized potential. 

“Success is not owned, it is rented – and that rent is due everyday.” ― Rory Vaden

“Perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained” ― Dostoevsky (Notes from Underground)

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” Seneca

Lesson / Application #3: Your Are Responsible

Santiago after selling his flock – everything he had – to realize his dream and then having all his gold stolen:

“As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure. “I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure,” he said to himself.”

Ask yourself where in your life you need to take more responsibility for who you are and what you want to be. How can you cultivate better skills to cope with escapism? To say you are responsible for your life does not mean that everything in your life that happens to you is your fault. Fault sometimes accompanies responsibility, but not necessarily so. To say you are responsible for your life is to say that on some fundamental level you chose how to think, and to react to the things that happen to you, and that you choose over time what to value. See ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (Viktor Frankl).

Posted in Extraction Essays