Coelho's book tells the story of a fictional pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (a journey which I really want to complete for myself one day in real time: I have already lived in several cities along the Camino for extended periods of time, working as an LDS missionary, and Spain will always be a part of me). The chapter on "personal vices" includes a prayer by the pilgrim guide (Petrus), which really speaks to me. I will quote it here (pp. 150-154):
Pity us, O Lord, for we are pilgrims on the road to Compostela, and our being here may be a vice. In your infinite pity, help us never to turn our knowledge against ourselves.These days I find myself often in a strange position: on the one hand, my religious friends see me as secular apostate; on the other hand, my secular friends recognize that I am still very deeply religious (if anything, my real religious faith, a faith in humanity that I have always had, has become stronger). Intellectually, I am keenly aware now of the difference between history (what happened) and myth (what we say about what happened). I am also very keenly aware that I cannot ignore my own myths and blithely follow someone else's (even if that person claims a divine revelation, popular support, or a Nobel Prize). I see all people as human beings: most of us want good things, for ourselves and others, good things that we often fail to achieve. Failure would not be such a problem if it came alone: more damaging is the illusion of success. Some of us stumble upon happiness (historical fact), and promptly concoct some absurd story (myth) explaining (1) how we did it and (2) how you can do it too (often this involves paying the myth-maker). There is nothing terribly wrong with this universal tendency (even down to paying for myths that won't always pan out), until we insist on ignoring the fact that we are just playing (pretending to understand things that have actually eluded us). Life is a game--a deadly game: our existence is on the line all the time. But it is still a game, a farce, a joke. It is meant to be laughed at (after the tears: they have their place, and I would never deny that). If we pretend that the game is serious (i.e. that it has regular rules that make some kind of continuous sense that we or someone smarter understands), we lose the chance to live for real. We become focused on the myth more than the reality that it describes (but does not and cannot contain). We avoid some small tragedies (facing the realities of unfairness and death), but at what cost? What profiteth it a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? I want to suffer my own life. I don't want to lose my experiences. I don't want the edge of my suffering dulled by long drafts of intoxicating myth lying to me, telling me that all is well, that the ruin I see around me is unreal, just a bad moment in kindergarten before an eternity in heaven (with mansions and virgins and gold and whatever else the fashionable prophet du jour promises). The only thing worse than suffering terribly in life is failing to suffer what one actually suffers. The only thing worse than being crucified myself is letting Jesus be crucified in my place.
(1) Have pity on those who pity themselves and who see themselves as good people treated unfairly by life--who feel that they do not deserve what has happened to them. Such people will never be able to fight the good fight. And pity those who are cruel to themselves and who see only evil in their own actions, feeling that they are to blame for the injustice in the world. Because neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'But the very hairs of your head are numbered.'
(2) Have pity on those who command and those who serve during long hours of work, and who sacrifice themselves in exchange merely for a Sunday off, only to find that there is nowhere to go, and everything is closed. But also have pity on those who sanctify their efforts, and who are able to go beyond the bounds of their own madness, winding up indebted, or nailed to the cross by their very brothers. Because neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Be ye therefore as wise as serpents and as harmless as the doves.'
(3) Have pity on those who may conquer the world but never join the good fight within themselves. But pity also those who have won the good fight within themselves, and now find themselves in the streets and the bars of life because they are unable to conquer the world. Because neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'He who heeds my words will I liken to a wise man who built his house on rock.'
(4) Have pity on those who are fearful of taking up a pen, or a paintbrush, or an instrument, or a tool because they are afraid that someone has already done so much better than they could, and who feel themselves to be unworthy to enter the marvelous mansion of art. But have even more pity on those who, having taken up the pen, or the paintbrush, or the instrument, or the tool, have turned inspiration into a paltry thing, and yet feel themselves to be better than others. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known.'
(5) Pity those who eat and drink and sate themselves, but are unhappy and alone in their satiety. But pity even more those who fast, and who censure and prohibit, and who thereby see themselves as saints, preaching your name in the streets. For neither of these types of people know thy law that says, 'If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.'
(6) Pity those who fear death, and are unaware of the many kingdoms through which they have already passed, and the many deaths that they have already suffered, and who are unhappy because they think that one day their world will end. But have even more pity for those who already know their many deaths, and today think of themselves as immortal. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Except that one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'
(7) Have pity on those who bind themselves with the silken ties of love, and think of themselves as masters of others, and who feel envy, and poison themselves, and who torture themselves because they cannot see that love and all things change like the wind. But pity even more those who die of their fear of loving and who reject love in the name of a greater love that they know not. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.'
(8) Pity those who reduce the cosmos to an explanation, God to a magic potion, and humanity to beings with basic needs that must be satisfied, because they never hear the music of the spheres. But have even more pity on those who have blind faith, and who in their laboratories transform mercury into gold, and who are surrounded by their books about the secrets of the Tarot and the power of the pyramids. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.'
(9) Pity those who see no one but themselves, and for whom others are a blurred and distant scenario as they pass through the streets in their limousines and lock themselves in their air-conditioned penthouse offices, as they suffer in silence the solitude of power. But pity even more those who will do anything for anybody, and are charitable, and seek to win out over evil only through love. For neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Let him who has no sword sell his garment and buy one.'
(10) Have pity, Lord, on we who seek out and dare to take up the sword that you have promised, and who are a saintly and sinful lot scattered throughout the world. Because we do not recognize even ourselves, and often think that we are dressed, but we are nude; we believe that we have committed a crime, when in reality we have saved someone's life. And do not forget in your pity for all of us that we hold the sword with the hand of an angel and the hand of a devil, and that they are both the same hand. Because we are all of the world, and we continue to be of the world, and we have need of thee. We will always be in need of thy law that says, 'When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, you lacked nothing.'
There are few things we can actually do in life. One of the most precious of these things, in my experience, is to be present in the moment, especially those moments that are emotionally charged (whether with joy or sorrow). I cannot determine the circumstances of my birth or death, but (as it happens) I have some control over the dance that I execute between entrance and exit. I can strike a heroic pose, embracing the truth that I find (whatever it is), or I can worry about what someone else thinks the whole time (and pass him all the panache of living my life: the risks, the fear, the elation, the sorrow, the anticipation). I choose to live my life myself: ultimately, I think this will make me a better person, my associates better people, and the world a better place (no matter what happens: some of it is always going to be awful).