Alchemist – Four Obstacles
One of my favorite units to teach to my 11th/12th grade English classes was based on The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. There are so many life enhancing teachable moments within this text, that this journey would inevitably take us over six weeks to complete. If you haven’t yet read this book, you should. Slowly.
Things I kept reminding my students as we read:
- This is a work of fiction.
- If the religious material turns you off, simply replace the term “God” with “You”
- Believe some, all, or none.
- Stay present, with an open mind, and Listen to your Self.
An underlying current throughout this book is what Coelho deems “The Four Obstacles.” For the most passionate of souls who desire to actually obtain their “treasures” in this life, these obstacles must be faced, and overcome, time and time again. For my students, and all readers, it’s where our journey into this text starts. So, let’s begin…
OBSTACLE #1: “We are told from childhood that everything we want to do is impossible.”
How many times did our parents, teachers, or friends dissuade us from our true personal calling? How many silenced our dreams, which had once filled our lives with the songs of hope and possibility? Did you want to be a dancer? A doctor? An artist? An astronaut?
What about now? What are your passions, and are you living them? If not, who made you believe that you shouldn’t…or couldn’t?
I am one of the lucky ones. Lucky enough to have been raised within an unconditionally loving and supportive family. Lucky to have never heard “you can’t” or “you won’t…” But, unfortunately, I am in the minority. The vast majority are made to swallow the energy of “prejudice, fear, and guilt” force-fed by the authority in their lives. The vast majority, were my students.
So I taught them to listen deep, within themselves. And I asked them to write about what they heard. What were they passionate about? How did they envision their future? What did they “hear”, what did they “see” when they truly let go?
Some wrote pages, but most wrote nothing. No hopes, no dreams, no vision for a future at all – Patience. This too shall change. – And over the course of six weeks, it did…for them all.
OBSTACLE #2: Love.
We may finally come to know, and embrace, what we want to do, but we “are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream.”
For many of my students, they could relate to this obstacle, for, underneath all their teenagery stuff, they truly did not want to disappoint their parents. If their parents wanted them to become a lawyer like “all of the other men in the family” then they would. If they were told to join the family business, then that would be the plan. Writers and artists don’t make any money anyway, right? Actually leaving their family to pursue their dreams would take a heap of courage, independence, and strength, which many of them simply did not possess.
For me, this obstacle reared its sorrowful head when my wife and I decided to move from our hometown of Philadelphia, PA to the lovely valley of Northampton, MA. Even though we were moving to a naturally beautiful region rich with warm, creative, and accepting energy, our entire family and our dearest friends would be left behind.
For many, the binds of family are too strong. The guilt of taking a different path too great. The fear of disappointment too overwhelming to embrace the dream.
What my wife and I held in our hearts was the belief that if our family and friends truly loved us, then they would support us on our journey. Love should not fuel guilt, and it didn’t. Love should propel us forward, and it did.
OBSTACLE #3: Fear of the defeats we will meet on the path.
So many of my students, and so many people in general, are defeatists. Why even try if there’s a possibility to fail? Especially if it’s something that you invest your whole heart into.
“I’m not smart enough. Not fast enough. Not pretty enough.”
“What if I invest all this time and energy into something and then it doesn’t work out? Then how would I feel?”
For many of my students, self-confidence and self-worth were non-existent. Years of “I’m not(s)” and “I can’t(s)” had numbed out any sense of abilities within them. Patience? Patience has been replaced with instant – everything. If it’s not happening right now, then it’s not worth the investment of time and energy. Reality? Have you seen what our society defines as reality these days?
Like I said before, I am one of the lucky ones. Patience and the understanding of life’s ups and downs and all arounds were ingrained in me from day on, for I was born and raised in the city which spawned and embraced Rocky Balboa. Failures, defeats, and knock-outs, are simply a part of life. They will indeed happen no matter if you follow your heart or not (so you might as well follow.)
Hope. Determination. Persistence. “The secret of life is to fall seven times and get up eight.” This lesson my students understood, for they had fallen and raised themselves up over and over again over the course of their short lives.
Their lights were starting to turn on.
OBSTACLE #4: The fear of realizing the dream for which we fought all our lives.
This was the hardest for the kids to grasp. Probably because they were only in high school and couldn’t necessarily relate to the “fought all our lives” bit. The word “realizing” also caused some confusion, for in this case “realizing” really means “attaining”.
I shared stories with them about people who gave up or fled at the very moment they were about to attain what they worked so hard, and suffered so much to get. Those who sabotaged their “moment” because they either felt guilty or undeserving or simply afraid of potential success. Blowing off the final interview, never taking their final college course, or simply not reaching out to grasp the brass ring shining before them so as to “renounce joy and conquest.” Martyrs of their own happiness and success.
As I stood in front of my students, planting little seeds which I hoped would one day bloom and blossom from their own inner lights, I realized how easy it would have been to allow these fears, these obstacles, to prevent me from attaining my dreams. But I have always believed that no matter how dark the clouds, or how powerful the storm, if we truly follow our hearts and continue down the road one step at a time, the world will conspire to help us attain our dreams.
Today, as I continue down my road with clear eyes and a full heart, old dreams are realized and new dreams come into focus. And as I walk, putting one step in front of the other, I face, and overcome these obstacles time and time again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Winston writes our monthly column, Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom, illustrating the life lessons that he taught, and just as often learned, both in and out of the classroom. Jeff has lived in Easthampton since 2007, after moving up from Philadelphia with his wife, Alli, and their 3 dogs, Murphy, Zoey and Maggie. Jeff has a private tutoring business, Tap Your Truth, specific to enhancing writing and study skills, focusing on empowering individuals through their own written and spoken words. Jeff writes a blog called Better Out Than In…, a place to read creative expressions of his life’s experiences, samples of his student’s work, and tidbits that will enable readers to gain insight into their own lives.