Why The Alchemist Is Better than The Chemist

This year I have been enthralled by two stories: first I re-read Paolo Coelho’s wonderful book The Alchemist and then later, I watched the American TV series Breaking Bad, written and produced by Vince Gilligan. They could hardly be more different.

Breaking Bad, acclaimed as one of the finest TV series ever written, is the story of Walter White, a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and decides to provide for his family financially by becoming a crystal-meth producer.

Stating that the end justifies the means, however immoral, he changes from good guy to a cheating, violent and remorseless murderer over the course of the 62 episodes. He will do anything to get what he wants.

Apart from anything else, it illustrates how unhappy we make ourselves and those around us by ruthlessly pursuing our desires and expectations. Walter White deliberately abandons the light for the darkness.

TV critic Chuck Klosterman says that the central question of Breaking Bad is “what makes a man bad – his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person?”

The Alchemist, on the other hand, is a beautiful, symbolic and inspirational tale of a boy named Santiago who is on a quest for treasure. He meets an alchemist who shows him that to find his real treasure (i.e. fulfilling his destiny) he must follow his heart.

The book is about the wisdom of listening and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path. These are things that Walter White deliberately chooses not to do.

Two very different stories then. But there are similarities. For a start, both Walter and Santiago are on a quest for treasure and both find it, though with very different outcomes: Walter ends up trying to hide tens of millions of drug dollars that he does not live to enjoy, whereas Santiago realises that the gold he can have is unimportant compared to the happiness of fulfilment.

Again, they both have choices to make and they go about making them in very different ways: Walter’s choices are made entirely on the basis of doing things his way, so as to achieve the result he wants, no matter what the cost. Santiago’s choices are made on the basis of listening to others and to his own heart.

The main theme of The Alchemist is about finding one’s destiny. According to The New York Times, The Alchemist is “more self-help than literature”. An old king tells Santiago, “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true”.

This is the book’s main philosophy. But, just as in Breaking Bad, Santiago has control over how he wants to live, although here he makes the right choices through seeking guidance.

Towards the end of Breaking Bad Walter tells his horrified wife (to whom he is trying to pass on his ill gotten treasure), that his behaviour was a deliberate choice and actually he enjoyed all the violence, stealing and murdering because it made him feel alive.

In contrast, at the end of The Alchemist, Santiago thinks of the strange way that God had chosen to show him his treasure – he says to himself “the path was written in the omens, and there was no way that I could go wrong”.

So what has been the message from these two powerful experiences? I think it is this: as formulas for living go, divine guidance always beats my way. In the end, the Alchemist turned out to be a lot wiser than the Chemist. But then, followers of the 12 steps already know that.

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