Someone had recommended Paulo Coelho‘s books to me, so I picked up a couple of his titles and this week I read through The Zahir. On the whole it feels like he’s telling a story infused with a worldview, with the story being just a vehicle for the ideas, a kind of mystical interpretation of love as a force in the world. At times this wore on me because I wasn’t completely buying the worldview but I wanted to hear the story, to make it move faster… which is ironic, given theme the book. It’s a quick read though, and setting aside major portions of its theme, I wanted to appropriate an excerpt that had me thinking in metaphoric terms. Back in January 2005 I wrote some early thoughts about The Importance of Story, and more recently I wrote a piece about Coffeeshop Poets and the ways in which an older story was rejected in favour of a new one.
So I’m thinking this time about the stories we have in exiting the church… our CLBs or whatever, and considering a passage from Coelho’s book (p.177-179). One of the characters is relating his account of a meeting between a journalist (Esther) and a wise old man, a guru of sorts.
“At last, we are ushered in. By acting as interpreter at that interview and by reading Esther’s article when it was published, I learn several things I needed to know.
“Esther asks why people are sad.
“‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs of or it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’
“Esther remarks that many people say to her, ‘You’re lucky, you know what you want from life, whereas I don’t even know what I want to do.’
“‘Of course they know,’ replies the nomad. ‘How many people do you know who say: I’ve never done what I wanted, but then, that’s life. If they say they haven’t done what they wanted, then, at some point, they must have known what it was that they did want. As for life, it’s just a story that other people tell us about the world and about how we should behave in the world.’
“‘Even worse are people who say: I’m happy because I’m sacrificing my life for those I love.’
“‘And do you think that the people who love us want to see us suffering for their sakes? Do you think that love is a source of suffering?’
“‘To be honest, yes.’
“‘Well, it shouldn’t be.’
“‘If I forget the story other people have told me, I’ll also forget a lot of very important things life has taught me. What was the point of struggling to learn so much? What was the point of struggling to gain experience, so as to be able to deal with my career, my husband, my various crises?’
“‘Accumulated knowledge is useful when it comes to cooking or living within your means or knowing where particular bus and train lines go. Do you believe that your past loves have taught you to love better?’
“‘They’ve taught me to know what I want.’
“‘I didn’t ask that. Have your past loves taught you to love your husband better?’
“‘No, on the contrary. In order to surrender myself to him, I had to forget all the scars left by other men. Is that what you mean?’
“‘In order for the true energy of love to penetrate your soul, your soul must be as if you had just been born. Why are people unhappy? Because they want to imprison that energy, which is impossible. Forgetting your personal history means leaving that channel clear, allowing that energy to manifest itself each day in whatever way it chooses, allowing yourself to be guided by it.’
“‘That’s all very romantic, but very difficult too, because that energy gets blocked by all kinds of things: commitments, children, your social situation…’
“‘…and, after a while, by despair, fear, loneliness, and your attempts to control the uncontrollable. According to the tradition of the steppes—which is known as the Tengri—in order to live fully, it is necessary to be in constant movement; only then can each day be different from the last. When they passed through cities, the nomads would think: The poor people who live here, for them everything is always the same. The people in the cities probably looked at the nomads and thought: Poor things, they have nowhere to live. The nomads had no past, only the present, and that is why they were always happy, until the Communist governors made them stop traveling and forced them to live on collective farms. from then on, little by little, they came to believe that the story society told them was true. Consequently, they have lost all their strength.’
“‘No one nowadays can spend their whole life traveling.’
“‘Not physically, no, but they can on a spiritual plane. Going farther and farther, distancing yourself from your personal history, from what you were forced to become.’
“‘How does one go about abandoning the story one was told?’
“‘By repeating it out loud in meticulous detail. And as we tell our story, we say goodbye to whet we were and, as you’ll see if you try, we create space for a new, unknown world. We repeat the old story over and over until it’s no longer important to us.’
“‘Is that all?’
“‘There is just one other thing: as those spaces grow, it is important to fill them up quickly, even if only provisionally, so as not to be left with a feeling of emptiness.’
“‘With different stories, with experiences we never dared to have or didn’t want to have. That is how we change. That is how love grows. And when love grows, we grow with it.’
“‘Does that mean we might lose things that are important?’
“‘Never. The important things always stay; what we lose are the things we thought were important but which are, in fact, useless, like the false power we use to control the energy of love.’
What I’m wondering is whether this is a true depiction of the retelling of our stories (verbally or blogging or whatever) — does the process distance us from the pain and loose their grip on us so that we can embrace a new story? Or does it just dredge up the pain and bind us to it more inextricably than before? I tend to think of it as a cathartic process, but is that universally true?