26 September 2006


I read two different books, very different, having nothing whatsoever to do with one another and concerning entirely different topics. I'm going to try to relate them here because it amuses me to do so. The first was The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This book showed up in the library and it had a pretty picture on the cover and was fairly thin, and those were both important at the time so I took it home. I've been reading it for some time, though it is not only thin but has huge margins and double spaced text. The cover gush says that this is the sort of book that "changes the lives of its readers forever."

Of course right now I'd accept the small change of being able to sleep through the night. But that's beside the point.

Incidentally, for those who feel they might like to read The Alchemist at some point, this post is laden with spoilers and gives away the ending, so you should skip it.

This is a nice little tale, magical realism and all that, about prophetic dreams, fulfilling your destiny, and finding the fullness of your life along the way. It's all well and good. Listen to your dreams. Believe in omens. Follow your path and you'll be satisfied in life.

Who sets the path, though? Is there but one path for each of us? If the only way to find satisfaction is to do precisely what fate has laid out for you, then why bother living? Fatalism makes life into little more than a board game; what point is living each day if you have only to follow the signs to happiness? Why not just condense life down into a simple choice, presented to your soul the day you are born: will you live the life of fate, or not?

I don't think this was Coelho's point, but talk of fate and destiny always raises in me these questions. What point is free will if every choice but one is wrong, every path but one a dead end road to failure? This reduces all of creation to a grand experiment, the Earth to an infinitely complex maze with us as rats. Navigate each turn correctly and you get the cheese; otherwise you're damned. How does Grace enter into such an experiment? Why should it?

I'm not much for fate or destiny. God may have a plan for us, but I don't believe He damns us for failing to get it right. If so, well, I'll be… you know.

The Art of Headless Chicken Management, by Elly Brewer, was intended to be a funny look at inept managers, at how some people escape the peter principle and rise far above the level of their incompetence. It was amusing, of course. All who've worked in the business world—and make no mistake, the AF is the business world in nearly every respect, save the need for profit—will recognize the Headless Chicken Manager and can surely point to at least one example thereof. So it goes.

Are the Headless Chicken Managers (HCM) following their destiny? Are incompetent boobs who succeed in spite of themselves while making life more miserable for their colleagues and subordinates really doing the right thing? They seem to be happy. They seem to be quite full of themselves, in fact. So they must be following their destiny to be so happy.

That, or all us underlings are not in our correct path and need to listen harder to the omens. This seems a bit of a stretch; there are far more underlings in the world than managers, Headless Chicken or otherwise.

Thinking on this I considered that I've no desire whatever to be the sort of person, ten years from know, who would understand the jokes in The Art of Headless Chicken Management. I'd rather have left that world far, far behind, a distant memory of a dark period. I don't honestly care how I manage this.

Oh, I know. Every field has its HCMs. Every job has a boss and every boss, being just as dumb as you are, seems even dumber (the peter principle again). This sounds to me suspiciously like fate: you can't escape this horrible plight, so why bother trying? In fact, this sounds worse than fate. At least with fate, you get one correct path to happiness, one slim source of hope; the "it's like that everywhere" mantra offers none. I reject that notion, too.

Given the choice between destiny and hopeless misery, I, like the hero in The Alchemist, would choose destiny. In following said destiny our hero undergoes terrible hardship. When he seems to be just at the end of his journey, he is set upon, robbed, and beaten. The robber leaves him with naught but a few sentences to chew on: Don't be so stupid. I had a prophetic dream once, but I wasn't dumb enough to follow it across deserts and oceans. Look where it got you. And in that sentence the robber tells our hero about his prophetic dream, and the hero realizes that his fortune, his destiny, all along lay right where he came from, under the very tree he'd been sleeping at when he had his own dream.

So. I may not buy into the fate thing, but sometimes there's meaning in the words of others that they didn't intend. Life is hard. It isn't fair, and sometimes you get robbed blind and beaten up just trying to make your way. But if you keep your head on, you may find something valuable even in the beating. Strength and wisdom come through hardship, not a life of ease (a life of ease may grant you bullheaded stupidity, which can look like strength or wisdom and is enough to get you elected, but it's a pyrrhic victory). And strength and wisdom are what help you to make wise choices and good decisions. Wise choices and good decisions will get you far enough in life to have the opportunity to think about fate, and destiny, and God's chosen path. And once you have the capacity to do that, what does fate matter?


Anonymous said...

Either you and my Brad should spend lots and lots of time together or you should spend none at all as you would just feed off each other's uncertainties about the future and living dreams and spiral completely out of control. I can't tell which.

Smitty said...

I'm all for spending more time with a fine Belgian ale and both Williamses.

Anonymous said...

while you're in the soul-searching mode and looking at works with mystical overtones, may i recommend (if you have not read them lately) a couple of works?

- self-reliance, emerson
- siddhartha, hesse

i'm actually reading rand's the fountainhead right now and enjoying it.

Smitty said...

You're up rather late this evening.

I've been meaning to read Siddhartha for a while but it's way down my list right now. I shall have to move it up.

Actually, the book I'm reading now is outstanding; not especially thinky but wonderfully simple and elegant.
I read the Fountainhead in high school. I hated it. I don't know why anymore, but I can't bring myself to pick it up again; some powerful anti-Randian mojo must be at work. Perhaps I could try Atlas Shrugged instead.
Actually, I have the same aversion to Fahrenheit 451, which I recognize as a good book but still hate irrationally. I must have really loathed the class that I was reading it for.

Anonymous said...

i've developed some irrational dislikes over the years too. i've never seen much special about american realism or naturalism, although i enjoy british realism. i absolutely detest hawthorne although i really enjoy many of his contemporaries (emerson, poe, melville, etc.). many notable 20th century authors don't do anything for me... for instance, hemingway's and steinbeck's fiction bores me to tears.

i am surprised to hear you dislike rand and bradbury. i figured you'd dig analyzing (though perhaps not agree with) the underlying philosophies.

heather says she remembers disliking rand too, although she can't quite remember exactly why she didn't like it either. like you, she's hesitant to pick up a 700-page novel to re-read it to find out exactly why she disliked it. understandable.

hope all is well. glad to see you're at least getting a lot of reading done in your downtime.

take care.