How ‘The Alchemist’ Made Me Realize New York City Was My ‘Personal Legend’
Paulo Coelho’s dreamlike classic has guided me like its levanter winds.
It whispers to me like the waves of the ocean in the southern Caribbean or a beautiful southern sunset inviting me to pause, contemplate, wonder, and dream. It invokes an inexplicable tugging that beckons me to open its now tattered pages once more, to go on a familiar journey which still produces quiet a-ha moments. Santiago, the shepherd boy in Paulo Coelho’s beloved allegorical classic The Alchemist, is one of my dearest friends. He has been in my life longer than I can remember and each time I embark on his journey, I simultaneously embark on one with myself.
The story on its surface is a simple one. Santiago has a series of recurring dreams that he can’t seem to shake. After a gypsy woman interprets the dreams, he leaves Spain and sets off for Egypt to seek his treasure. Like Santiago, I suppose many of us have dreams that take hold and root themselves in the recesses of our minds and hearts. These dreams are too often quieted because the gulf between dream and reality feels a bit too wide. My dreams, or rather visions for my life, have visited me time and again in the form of daydreams. I lose myself amid a busy morning commute or a quiet moment on the living room couch watching the tree outside sway in the breeze.
Still, like Santiago, some dreams return and arrest you until you act. Santiago sets out for Egypt reluctant, a tad fearful, but hopeful he will find his treasure without ever knowing what it is, if he will even find it, where that journey might lead him, or perhaps most sobering, what it might cost him. I set out for New York City unsure of whether the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” would welcome its daughter home once more to pursue a journalism career after college. It was that time period, which included the daily ritual of filling out job applications— the in-between place of hope and expectancy—and then my initial move back to New York—planting seeds in hopes of reaping a professional harvest—that Coelho’s words opened my eyes anew.
Santiago had been fine living his life as a shepherd but in his heart he knew there was something more. The journey to the pyramids to find the treasure is in part about Santiago’s “personal legend.” As explained to him by an older man named Melchizedek, the concept involves being able to control one’s destiny to accomplish the greatest desires in your life. Melchizedek reasons that most people have their legend revealed to them at an early age but time and life have a way of diminishing their belief in making it come true. College was my regimented cocoon but New York—with its frenetic energy and the air of possibility—was a step in realizing my own personal legend. Melchizedek, though a mere mortal (albeit with magical abilities), was a necessary mentor and guide as Santiago embarked into the unknown. As I reflect on that period of my life, I see the work of several Melchizedek-like people who steered me as I navigated the unfamiliar territory of interviews and corporate American politics. He gifts Santiago magical stones which essentially represent “yes” and “no” to help inform his choices at critical junctures. I didn’t have magical stones but I had my dad and aunt, who were always just a phone call away to listen and counsel me through tough situations.
Santiago leaves the comfort of home and begins his journey alone. In Tangier, he feels uneasy at his outsider status and befriends a young man whom he thinks can be his guide to the pyramids, only to be duped and robbed. He’s forced to reset, now in need of food and shelter, and begins working for a crystal merchant who discourages him from making the journey. In my first year in New York City, I had to reset constantly as I cleared a hurdle only to find another waiting in my line of vision. I knew my decision to make the journey was right but always encountered the trite but perhaps well-meaning advice, “you’re young, you’ll figure it out, and you can always move back home.” That was true. I could, because thankfully I have wonderful parents. But I had to chase my personal legend, so onward I trekked in blizzards on a bottom-of-the-totem-pole salary, eating fast food for lunch toward my pyramids. In his seemingly menial role working for the crystal merchant Santiago disrupts the status quo, bringing him new business while accelerating his earnings to continue on his journey. I too, found that starting at the bottom allowed for a type of growth and appreciation for the professional climb that would pay dividends years later.
As he ventures into the desert, Santiago meets an alchemist who plays a critical role in helping him along the journey as he faces external and internal battles. The alchemist is part cheerleader, part coach and appears in Santiago’s life just as he needs him. Fittingly, as Santiago nears the pyramids, the alchemist tells him he must travel the rest of the way alone. This time, unlike at the beginning of the journey when he enters Tangier, Santiago doesn’t seem to be nervous nor does he let the fear of being alone keep him from moving forward. He’s learned to lean on the support of wise counsel but he’s also learned the value in, and being secure in, walking alone. As he nears the pyramids he falls to his knees and is attacked and beaten. As Santiago tries to explain his dream, one of the attackers reveals that he had a dream about a treasure in Spain under a sycamore tree. Santiago realizes in an instant that his treasure is not in the pyramids but under the sycamore tree he frequented as a shepherd—a truth his father foreshadowed when he first set off on his journey. His journey ironically comes full circle and interestingly, Santiago doesn’t seem to be frustrated by his pursuit of treasure ultimately leading him home.
My journey is still unfolding and with it, the twists and turns of unlocking my personal legend. Like Santiago, I am reminded that the blessing of the journey is that of self-discovery and of meaningful relationships. The destination is merely a fleeting moment of everything that preceded it anyway. In one of my favorite lines from the book, Coelho writes: “... and, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” As I stand on the threshold of another transition, I do so without fear, without reservation. So, conspire universe, conspire. I’ll be here ready and waiting to take the next step.
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