There’s a medieval legend about an alchemist who discovers how to turn common materials into gold. Of course, we know that adding a piece of the philosopher’s stone to molten lead will not turn it into gold, yet the story provides a beautiful metaphor for life.
If we look at the life of any great and inspirational person, we almost always find that they passed through a time of hardship. Many endured years of torment before coming out on the other side.
Could it be that suffering is the valueless material, the great discovery one comes to is the philosopher’s stone and the eventual triumph is gold? In other words, is the legend of the alchemist the story of finding the meaning to life?
One of the most misunderstood writers and philosophers regarding human suffering is Friedrich Nietzsche. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl borrowed heavily from Nietzsche’s work as he tried to make sense of the hell he experienced as a Jew in Nazi Germany.
Nietzsche wrote of “amor fati,” or the love of fate. In other words, when we embrace an attitude of accepting all that happens to us in life, including things we find unpleasant, we can grow from the experience and find meaning in our suffering. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” resonated deeply with Frankl and his fellow inmates.
Nietzsche also stated, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” This is not a masochism that seeks out suffering, it’s a strength of spirit that recognizes our capacity to triumph despite unforeseen and unmerited challenges. It’s the philosopher’s stone that allows us to turn lead into gold.
Surveys among political scientists, historians and the American public consistently rank Abraham Lincoln as the most highly esteemed president in their history. This is astounding, given that Lincoln led the United States through the most divisive period in their history.
Though there’s much debate about the exact details of Lincoln’s life, we know he faced many challenges. He lived much of his life in poverty and experienced significant political setbacks. It’s also likely he struggled with depression.
Though Lincoln didn’t profess to any religion, he lived his life guided by solid moral principles, primarily compassion and integrity. Could that be the key to his personal triumph and the fact that he’s still rightly admired more than 150 years after his death?
Lincoln was not unique in his triumph over diversity. Nelson Mandela was humiliated in prison for 27 years before becoming the first black president of South Africa and a great diplomat. Martin Luther King Jr. suffered the indignities of being a black man in racist America. The Dalai Lama is a refugee who will likely never return to his native Tibet.
We see the same greatness all around us. Many of the finest teachers I know dealt with learning disabilities as students. All of the Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege to meet have a deeper dimension to their being, though words to describe this are difficult to find. One sees the same wisdom in Indigenous elders who teach us and our children, largely by their quiet example.
Life is a beautiful thing. We’re all on a unique journey to find the philosopher’s stone. The key to finding it, however, is not to run away from life but to embrace every challenge, to find its meaning and the lesson it has to offer us.
If we can, we’ll find the eternal elixir to turn what’s undesirable into the greatest of treasures.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.