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A Spoon full of Oil – The Secret of Happiness?

I recently listened to the audiobook of the The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I had not read the book itself, but the audio book was fantastic. I was struck by a particular metaphor , which I have quoted below (in italics). Following on from my post on Greta Thunberg, and our obsession with money and economic growth, I thought this was topical.

“A merchant sent his son to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of men. The young man wandered through the desert for forty days until he reached a beautiful castle at the top of a mountain. There lived the sage that the young man was looking for.

However, instead of finding a holy man, our hero entered a room and saw a great deal of activity; merchants coming and going, people chatting in the corners, a small orchestra playing sweet melodies, and there was a table laden with the most delectable dishes of that part of the world.

The wise man talked to everybody, and the young man had to wait for two hours until it was time for his audience.

With considerable patience, he listened attentively to the reason for the boy’s visit, but told him that at that moment he did not have the time to explain to him the Secret of Happiness.He suggested that the young man take a stroll around his palace and come back in two hours’ time.“However, I want to ask you a favor,” he added, handing the boy a teaspoon, in which he poured two drops of oil. “While you walk, carry this spoon and don’t let the oil spill.”

The young man began to climb up and down the palace staircases, always keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. At the end of two hours he returned to the presence of the wise man.

“So,” asked the sage, “did you see the Persian tapestries hanging in my dining room? Did you see the garden that the Master of Gardeners took ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”

Embarrassed, the young man confessed that he had seen nothing. His only concern was not to spill the drops of oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“So, go back and see the wonders of my world,” said the wise man. “You can’t trust a man if you don’t know his house.”Now more at ease, the young man took the spoon and strolled again through the palace, this time paying attention to all the works of art that hung from the ceiling and walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around the palace, the delicacy of the flowers, the taste with which each work of art was placed in its niche. Returning to the sage, he reported in detail all that he had seen.

“But where are the two drops of oil that I entrusted to you?” asked the sage.

Looking down at the spoon, the young man realized that he had spilled the oil.

“Well, that is the only advice I have to give you,” said the sage of sages. “The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”

This metaphor made me think of money, the accumulation of wealth and physical possessions. The keeping of them, and concern about loss. How many people obsess about their “two drops of oil”, and go through life without seeing any of the beauty around them? Of experiencing the joy of life because they are obsessed with not losing their material place in the world.

Is is easy to do, and I have been there. Prior to my divorce, I was the boy with the two drops of oil, moving through life, carefully watching that they don’t get spilt. Always looking out for a spare reservoir of oil to use, just in case I lost attention and did spill a drop. There was very little else in life that I noticed, other than the importance of holding on very tightly to what I had. The pressure of this built up, and life became very “grey”, an increasing dark shade of grey. It was not about money, or possessions. It was about the obsession to worry about them. It could have been a spoon of oil, a bucket, or a truckload of oil. It wouldn’t have mattered. I still would have obsessed about not losing any, no matter how much I had.

I look at life quite a bit differently now. I am drawn to the boy who walks through the palace paying attention to all of the wonders around him. To the freedom of not having to worry about “stuff”. But I have come to the conclusion that this has the potential to be just as damaging. In this day and age, society dictates that we pay our own way. With a young family, I am responsible to provide, to educate, to give them a good experience of life. I also see it as important to raise my kids with a healthy relationship with money, work, and the relationship between the two. 

It is a question of balance. When I first read this passage, I actually missed the main message

“The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”

I saw it as being about letting go of the materialistic, and being more present, and appreciative of life. But in discussing it with my Mum, she brought to my attention that it was about balance. The wise man is very clear about seeing the wonders of the world, but never forgetting about what you have. Is this about attention? About being present in the now? It could be. Or is it also a message about enjoying what you have, and not obsessing with the fear of loss?

As you can guess from all of the question marks, I’m not sure. I just know that it made me think….alot. 

I’d love to know your thoughts. Feel free to comment below.

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