Paulo Coelho has an adept understanding of how we cope with the mediocrity of The Template: religion, television, popping pills and pretending that everything is okay.
Linda has a perfect life. Married to a rich banker, mother of two, with help from a maid. She’s also ruined by fear and banality. The meaning of life has escaped her; she followed The Template for happiness and ended up in a life-numbing situation, where all risk has been ameliorated—and therefore the lust for life has also been ameliorated. The lavish life she leads still never scratches her itch for its meaning.
Paulo Coelho has an adept understanding of how we cope with the mediocrity of The Template: religion, television, popping pills and pretending that everything is okay. This leaves us trapped by our jobs, our children, our face-saving, our friends, our identity. Our freedoms are curtailed by the constant mask of identity we’re expected to hold, no matter how tired our arm gets. Constantly pushed to please everyone else, we lose ourselves behind the mask to the extent that we’re driven to crises of identity, of faith, of copping to The Template. But The Template is always incomplete: it is written for the wealthy, for the white, for the male. And even when you fit The Template, it always asks you “What’s wrong with you?” And when you return the question, you’re always met with “Nothing: I’m perfect.” Yeah, just like that pair of jeans that pinches the hip and is too short in the ankle. Perfect…
Coelho never quotes Linda’s words, and this lends itself to an intimacy or a recognition of the subjective experience of a first-person narrative. It is also rarely, if ever, confusing. The book’s short paragraphs and chapters make its 300 pages go by in a matter of a few hours.
Nimbly walking the line of nihilism and Zen Buddhism, Coelho pits these philosophies against one another: neither says that life and happiness necessarily intersect. So what’s the point? We grapple with desire, safety, passion, risk. We grapple with our motivations, our monogamy, our LTRs, our lack of sex or food or happiness or whatever-the-television-tells-us-we’re-lacking. Our lack creates our numbness; our numbness creates our Fear; our Fear paralyzes us into a life without risk. But without risk—what do we have?
That’s the question Linda constantly asks us. Why are we doing this? What is this life? Who am I? Why am I here? We grapple to find meaning, with yoga, meditation, religion and family. But there is a gaping hole, which is adventure, risk, curiosity.
The practice of adultery speaks to the thrill of the taboo. Whose taboos are these? Why do we submit to cultural norms? Adultery explains the unexplainable: why people destroy things they’ve worked so hard to attain and build for moments of carnal pleasure. Because it’s a risk. A thrill. We wrestle with the tenets of getting Along that are foisted upon us by our society without ever evaluating if they work for us. We teach our children what is right before we know what is right for us.
Are we hard-wired to seek this thrill? Like with most of us, Linda confuses love with cathexis or passion or desire. Love isn’t easy; it requires work, honesty and effort. But our society never tells us that, really; our institutions of faith also fail us in this way, never telling us to investigate the hard work. We are expected to just derive our sanity from The Template, which is invariably as incomplete as just about every phone-tree-push-number-four-for-something-you-didn’t-call-about menu you’ve ever encountered.
Coelho pinpoints these scripts running us throughout society: the scripts of honor, sanctity, deceit, depression. He explains every midlife crisis in Linda’s illicit activities, which then confusingly lead to more fulfilling nights with her husband. He explores jealousy, unwarranted hatred—everything we’re supposed to sweep under the rug or hide behind the mask.
But adultery as the escape is a monster firmly rooted in the exact problems of the bonds we seek to escape. That’s always the problem with the cycle of desire. While honesty may not bring you pleasure, it never caves in to suffering. Deceit and betrayal lead to an existential crisis, unlike the one Linda already had in her recognition of how incredibly boring her existence was. Heaven is boring and full of the faithful; Hell is hot, sleazy, sickening and a different kind of torture (you know, Las Vegas!).
The seeking of something else, something outside is the ultimate sickness to be avoided. That thrill-seeking and investigation into “what is wrong with me” ultimately leads us spiraling into abysmal despair.
Ultimately, it’s always your choice, Pandora. Do you open the box out of curiosity or boredom, or do you leave it alone? Do you die of cancer from that desire in you you’ve choked down, or from the bullet of a scorned lover? It’s your life; your choice. Live it how you see fit.