It turns out that alchemy, the ancient preoccupation with turning base metal into gold, is relevant to my life. The practice, or tradition, as it is sometimes referred to, is a concept I have relegated to the far corners of my cognition as handy to dust off for trivia games, but of no practical value.
Since I finished The Alchemist, by the Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo, I have begun to think of alchemy in the abstract, rather than the concrete. It does apply, more than a little, and here’s why.
Alchemy is about perfection and transformation. That perfection come about as a result of a separation from the constraints of the world. Lead, a bright and silvery substance when first excavated, becomes a dull blue when exposed to the air. That its original gleam tarnishes in the real world would make its subsequent transformation to gold remarkable for more than the wealth that would follow. That’s the concrete side of alchemy.
There’s a spiritual side, too. Transformation applies to humans, as well. In fact, the author Coehlo emphasizes that “each thing has to transform itself into something better” (p. 150). Has to. Not could, might, or has been known to. Must. An obligation. A duty. As I see it, the transformation has two possible pathways—ourselves, and others.
We are required to be the best we can be. We must take our given set of physical characteristics, our innate talents, propensities, or interests, and develop them. I can point to a few personal metamorphoses in my own life. One would be interacting with large groups of people, which required overcoming a natural shyness that still lurks sometimes in the untended brush of the frontiers of my personality. Another would be music. Somehow, thanks to a transformative friend-teacher who took me under her wing to further my piano studies and the patience of musician colleagues, I learned not only to overcome the chasms in my musicianship, but also to silence the voices of inadequacy chanting in my head since childhood. The confidence thus mortared through the years brick by brick has enabled me to learn to play the harp. The base metal of my lack of talent has become the gold of my actualized abilities.
We are also required to help others be the best they can be. That’s the second pathway of spiritual alchemy. A smile and a sincere question for a harried cashier elicits a sparkle in the eyes and relaxation in the shoulders; a few minutes of conversation with students at the beginning of class creates a connection; support for people at the start of their careers provides encouragement; patience and feedback help a learner achieve confidence and vanquish demons. The base metal in the people we encounter every day becomes the gold of their best selves at little cost to us.
In transforming ourselves and our surroundings, then, we become alchemists. “That’s what alchemists do,” Coelho says. “They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too” (p. 150) What might happen then, when we strive to become better than we are and encourage others to exceed their perceived possibilities? Understanding, maybe, and patience; dialogue and openness. The refusal to use random assassination, kidnapping, or massacre to make a point. Lead transformed into gold. Alchemy relevant still.