Do you believe you have a unique ‘personal legend’?
This last week amongst other things, I have been reading the biography of Paolo Coelho, author of many all-time best selling books such as The Alchemist and Pilgrimage. It has been a fascinating read for many reasons – including his very colourful past – and I was reflecting upon his popularity and what that means for the world at this time of Great Confusion.
Coelho’s history is pretty fascinating. He was certainly a non-conformist – a ‘divergent’ in modern parlance perhaps – and this was a source of great anxiety for his father who was an engineer. In the end his family put him in an asylum 3 times and he was even given electric shock therapy. Its truly quite shocking (sorry, that wasn’t actually meant to be a pun). Coelho also lived through a dictatorship in Brazil, and was abducted by the authorities’ secret police at one stage because of his political views. He ended up becoming a very successful lyricist but always dreamed of becoming a world-renowned author. He frequently had bouts of depression and led a very colourful, and promiscuous lifestyle. It’s all there in the book. I guess I just wanted to understand how this man ticked, and I was also intrigued by his phenomenal success despite how badly he was treated by many of the critics.
For those who haven’t read his books, The Pilgrimage was about his journey walking the famous pilgrimage trail, the “Camino De Santiago” or “The Way of Saint James” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camino_de_Santiago . The book is a voyage of self-discovery and marked a huge turning point in his life. When Coelho first wrote the book there were less than 5000 people walking the Camino trail each year. In 2017 there were over 300,000! I am a big fan of long distance pilgrimages – I haven’t done the Camino yet but will. In fact, this year felt called to walk across the Celtic country of Western England and Wales.
The Alchemist is an allegorical novel, and follows a young Andalusian shepherd – Santiago – in his journey to the pyramids in Egypt, having had a recurring dream of finding treasure there. He overcomes many ordeals on his journey but eventually finds his treasure.
I can think of a few main reasons why Coelho’s books are so popular.
First, basically he speaks to a different part of our consciousness than the writers who are more recognised by the literati, who think his work is oversimplified and even technically poor.
Second, I think that this notion of being called to adventure is something quite universal in all of us. And this accounts for part of his success. Many people around the world are stuck in 9-5 jobs, perhaps products of the industrial revolution, mindset. They know deep down that if they could take a risk, there is an adventure waiting for them….
Third, I also think that people want to know that their lives actually mean something.
“No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.”
James Hillman, who is often regarded as Carl Jung’s successor, wrote an excellent book called “The Soul’s Code” where he suggest thats we all have a calling. He starts out in the book:
“There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow. Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember ‘something’ as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is why I’ve got to have. This is a book about that call.”
He goes on to talk about the acorn theory: that each person has some innate uniqueness which asks to be lived. Its already present within us. The task is to water our own acorn and let it unfold. I can already hear some people thinking that this is all a bit narcissistic and unrealistic, that people have to pay the bills and fulfil responsibilities.
Personally, I have really struggled on this front. I was really excited and energetic by my post-university career. But I passed a threshold in about 2010, perhaps earlier, when I was totally lost. What was my true destiny or personal legend? I really had to meet so many people and look inside to gradually find it.
Finally, Coelho’s books capture the magic of this world:
“We are travelers on a cosmic journey,stardust,swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
There is something quite mysterious about the universe. Science cannot explain everything. Yes, its true that humankind endeavours to push back the boundaries of knowledge little by little. But most things are still beyond us. And true scientists are actually excited by the Universe’s mysteries – many of them are romantics and mystics. In fact, a number of years ago I started reading the biographies of the greatest scientists. What really surprised me was their reverence towards nature and the universe – I had previously thought that all scientists were very ‘rational’, left brained individuals:
In fact, look at this Wikipedia list of all time selling books and you’ll see adventure and magic throughout the list – Tolkien and Harry Potter stand out for me: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books
Many of my friends might think all of this as baloney: that everything is random. But when I look at some of my most successful friends – and the happiest ones – they live as though these points are true: life is an adventure, we have an innate place in the world and that the world is truly magical and mysterious.
Why is this all important to a futurist? Well, I am very interested in where the world is heading. And many barometers I follow, suggest that humanity is turning a corner. People are looking for meaning everywhere. All across Europe and the world, ancient and new pilgrimage sites are being rejuvenated. And looking at demographics, millennials and younger generations don’t want to merely join the ranks of the industrial workforce. If we do start following our calling, then I believe there will be less mental health issues, less addiction, fewer conflicts, more passion, more creativity and greater net happiness. And no I don’t think this is all utopian.
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