Worldy wisdom in Eleven Minutes

Like seemingly half the worlds population, I read Paul Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ many years ago and whilst I appreciated its wisdom, I hadn’t put it on the pedestal that other people had granted it. However, I liked the tale for its simplicity and the fact it talks directly about topics that are normally skirted around in a honest and sincere way.

Since reading the Alchemist, I hadn’t sought out any more of Paul Coelho’s books, however I was rootling through a charity bookcase at work and 'Eleven minutes’ caught my eye.

I didn’t set out reading the book with any expectations (which usually is probably for the best), but from the first page I was hooked. Eleven Minutes is a book about a prostitute called Maria who sells her body for $350/a time every night. However, the book is about so much more than that- primarily about the question of what is the ‘correct’ way to live life and how life’s moral decisions can lead you away from your soul if you don’t pay attention to your gut feelings.

“Everything tells me that I am about to make a wrong decision, but making mistakes is just part of life. What does the world want of me? Does it want me to take no risks, to go back to where I came from because I didn't have the courage to say "yes" to life?”

The book is a mixture of extracts from Maria’s diary as well as narrative of the events. Through meeting different men and engaging in different types of sex, Maria learns the line between pleasure and pain, the difference between being a victim in life and actively choosing your fate as well as, eventually, what true love feels like. Maria vows not to fall in love with any of the men she sleeps with, however because of lack of true connection she feels lonely: “Human beings can withstand a week without water, two weeks without food, many years of homelessness, but not loneliness. It is the worst of all tortures, the worst of all sufferings.”

The book is quite romantic (and some would say, naive) in that when Maria meets the love of her life, he asks to paints her and sees, unlike anyone has done before, her ‘inner light’. I think this is the absolute crux of the book, in that as humans, all we actually want is for someone to see us, as we truly are, not for our size, height, sex, eye colour, hair colour, job title nor for the roles we play, but as our true selves. It is only when Maria sees her painter and the painter sees Maria for who each other truly are that any depth of connection and deep love can actually occur.

Like many other of Coelho’s books, there are some glimmers of true wisdom in the book such as:

“When we meet someone and fall in love, we have a sense that the whole universe is on our side. And yet if something goes wrong, there is nothing left!”

“we are human beings, we are born full of guilt; we feel terrified when happiness becomes a real possibility.”

“But if we are talking in terms of making progress in life, we must understand that "good enough" is very different from "best.”

“She asks him to touch her, to feel her with his hands, because bodies always understand each other, even when souls do not.”

“When desire is still in this pure state, the man and the woman fall in love with life, they live each moment reverently, consciously, always ready to celebrate the next blessing. When people feel like this, they are not in a hurry, they do not precipitate events with unthinking actions. They know that the inevitable will happen, that what is real always finds a way of revealing itself. When the moment comes, they do not hesitate, they do not miss an opportunity, they do not let slip a single magic moment, because they respect the importance of each second.”

“Passion makes a person stop eating, sleeping, working, feeling at peace. A lot of people are frightened because, when it appears, it demolishes all the old things it finds in its path. No one wants their life thrown into chaos. That is why a lot of people keep that threat under control, and are somehow capable of sustaining a house or a structure that is already rotten. They are the engineers of the superseded.

Other people think exactly the opposite: they surrender themselves without a second thought, hoping to find in passion the solutions to all their problems. They make the other person responsible for their happiness and blame them for their possible unhappiness. They are either euphoric because something marvellous has happened or depressed because something unexpected has just ruined everything. Keeping passion at bay or surrendering blindly to it - which of these two attitudes is the least destructive? "

The story made me cry at some points with true empathy with Maria as well as feel a resounding ‘aha’ moment when a quote particularly resonated with me. Eleven Minutes talked about magic, fate and forces we don’t understand, yet still affect our lives and I fell in love with the unknowingness of everything again. Since reading I straight away ordered another one of Coelho’s books, as well as watched a video of him on SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey … whether it will be as good as 'Eleven Minutes’ (as re-living things a second time rarely is) or whether Eleven Minutes just came into my life exactly when I needed to hear that story, time will tell.

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