Modern Alchemy

27 Aug

For centuries, humanity was fascinated with the prospect of changing one thing into another.

In the classic example, there was a deep, mystical pursuit for how to turn one material (lead) into another, ostensibly more valuable one (gold). This journey became the stuff of legend for some; a lifelong pursuit for others.

And in many ways, I don’t think that pursuit has ever really ended.

A friend’s recent trip to Costco came with the summary: “the wallet is now empty, but the larder is full.” The empty wallet may hurt, but the full bellies will be a blessing.

We live in a transactional society. Many of our interactions are based around the premise of changing one thing into another. Our labor turns into dollars, which in turn become food…or electricity…or clothing…or movie tickets.

Our party invitation to a friend becomes a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers…and perhaps a reciprocated invitation as well.

There is even a model of organizational theory known as “transactional leadership.”

From business to relationships and back to business again, we act, expecting to change one thing into another.

Modern alchemy.

True enough, not all of our “ingredients” are necessarily offered for the purpose of transformation or exchange. We likely don’t invite a friend to dinner so that we get wine or flowers, but often times, there is that expectation, that cultural norm of responding to an overture by giving something in return.

As social conventions, as acts of politeness, no problem; as sincere acts of gratitude and blessing, even better.

But what about when the intent is otherwise, when there is a desire, a seeking, to get something in return? An expectation, a sense of entitlement attached to the investment?

I think of how many areas of life I function realistically as a modern alchemist. I certainly have expectations. I think of how often my sense of fairness and equality is based upon a tit-for-tat mentality. “I did this for you, and I expect you to do something in return.”

Now, rarely do those words actually get said. But I think them.

I work, and I expect salary and discretionary time (aren’t I a shrewd investor to obtain such a multiplicity of returns!). I take care of the garbage, and I expect meals. I clean dishes and I expect meals. (I have an apparently high demand for meals in my economy.) I give time and I expect thanks. I listen and expect a chance to speak.

A certain degree of expectation is reasonable, necessary, even healthy. But it becomes twisted when that expectation becomes demand, becomes greed.

The alchemists of ancient times are often depicted in such sinister light: their pursuit of the unnatural, the quick and easy way to achieve desire, the lusting after power, wealth, and knowledge…their sense of multiplying the ordinary to become the majestic.

Such behaviors sing of discontent and avarice, of ends justifying the means. Selfishness, rather than service, becomes the primary motivator.

How easy it is for us to point out such lusts in our ancient ancestors, and yet somehow disregard the modern manifestations of this generational sin.

I don’t want to be a modern alchemist. I don’t want to look around my home, or my life, wondering which items I can claim as ingredients or inputs or investments in order to obtain something even better.

I would much rather look around, seeing my resources–material and immaterial–as the raw materials to use in serving others.

But I’m not there.

We all come from a long line of mystics…who are ironically uncomfortable with mystery, and instead want machinery. We want predictable outcomes and many happy returns on our investments. We don’t tend to want the ambiguity of relationship, or the possible disappointment of unrequited altruism and service.

Alchemy, sadly, hasn’t passed away. We simply read our incantations from a different book…but expect oh so similar results.


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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Life


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