Emotional Alchemy

Emotional Alchemy: Turning Life’s Lead into Gold

by Dr. Habib Sadeghi

I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Not only is it one of his best comedies, it also contains a valuable message about life, perceptions, choices, and consequences. You might not expect such depth from a romantic comedy, regardless of whether it appeared in the 16th-century, or the 21st-century. Actually, romantic comedies get a bad rap. They’re far more than just empty entertainment calories on a date night. The great ones use unforgettable characters, universal themes, and clever humor to help us reflect on our own idiosyncrasies, both inside and outside of relationships. As the credits start to roll across the screen, we’ve been more than just entertained; we understand ourselves in a slightly different way. With that self-awareness comes the ability to make choices more consciously and create better lives for ourselves and our partners.

All That Glitters

The Merchant of Venice explores the sin of greed through several plotlines and takes place in Venice, Italy which was the center of world commerce in the 16th-century. Bassanio is the hero who seeks to marry Portia. Although she is an heiress, her deceased father has specifically stated in his will that she may only marry the man who can pass the test that proves he loves Portia for who she is and not what she has. Each man will get just one chance to choose between three caskets, one of gold, silver, and lead, which contain an inscription on the outside and a message with a “gift” inside.

The ornate gold casket is stunning and contains the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” This sounds great, but it’s a trap. On the inside is a skull with a note that chastises the potential suitor, “All that glisters [glitters] is not gold…” Naturally, the person that chooses the gold casket is superficial, and values appearances over substance, seeking immediate gratification and gain before first thinking of what he can give. Of course, the classic message inside tells him that appearances are often deceiving.

“By choosing the lead casket, Bassanio displayed himself as willing to take big risks and “hazard all he hath” by giving fully of himself in marriage.”

The silver casket is certainly beautiful, but not as flashy as the gold one. It bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” That sounds fair, but it’s also a trick. Inside, the casket contains the picture of an idiot with a nasty note saying, “So be gone: you are sped. / Still more fool I shall appear. / By the time I linger here / With one fool’s head I came to woo, / But I go away with two.” Choosing this casket exposes the man as only pretending to not put money first. He possesses a false humility that secretly worships money above all and is willing to compromise his principles to get what he feels he deserves. The inside message dismisses him and tells him that everyone can see through his act, making him twice the fool he already is.

The lead casket is a simple box with no adornments. The outer inscription reads, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” That sounds a bit scary, but it’s the right choice because it’s the same sacrifice we all must make when entering into intimate relationships. Inside is a picture of Portia. Much to Portia’s relief, Bassanio chooses the lead casket, illustrating that he is willing to take big risks and “hazard all he hath” by giving fully of himself in marriage. Clearly, he wasn’t wooed by appearances or materialistic gain. He could see that when it came to practical value, the things that really matter in day-to-day life, lead far outweighed gold in preciousness because of its hidden gifts. Likewise, he could recognize the inner gifts Portia had to offer.

Hidden Gifts

In Shakespeare’s time and the following two centuries, lead would be much more valuable, from a practical standpoint, than gold. Yes, gold was beautiful but lead would go on to be used in countless tasks that improved life such as constructing baths, repairing roof conduits, manufacturing stained glass, constructing drainpipes, and many more. In fact, lead would play a significant role in bringing piped water to public sewers and individual homes in early 19th-century Britain, resulting in a massive reduction of deaths from infectious diseases. This was long before the dawn of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, or even vaccines.

Back in those days, anyone who was skilled in working with lead, whether it was making a stained glass window for a cathedral or repairing a drainpipe, was called a plumbarius. Today, we’ve shortened that term to plumber.

“Life sets before us the task of becoming the plumbers of our personal problems. Growth often comes from choosing to work with situations that seem heavy, dull, and even painful.”

Bassanio doesn’t know it, but he will be called upon to choose between lead and gold many times in his life and marriage. So are we. Life sets before us the task of becoming the plumbers of our personal problems. Growth often comes from choosing to work with situations that seem heavy, dull, and even painful. This is the lead of our lives, the relationship problems, job upsets, health challenges, and more. They’re unattractive and seem to hold no value for us, but in reality, they are true gold because it is through our challenges, not our successes, that we learn the most about ourselves. If that knowledge is discovered and applied, then we can become emotional alchemists and transmute the lead of life into gold by seeing that every problem contains within it an equal or greater reward—if we are willing to do the work. First, however, it requires us to hazard all we hath and take an honest, deep look inside the situation that’s heavy on our hearts, instead of choosing the temporary satisfaction of the instant gratification that we get through blaming, denial, escapism through addictions, and so on.

Unexpected Help

Even though we can’t see the massive plumbing infrastructure inside a modern city, that’s where the health of its people exists as it constantly whisks away waste and brings clear, fresh water back into the system. In the same way, humans have their own physical and energetic plumbing systems keeping them healthy in the form of arteries, veins, nerve networks, and energy meridians. Because the mind/body is one organism, having a proper plumbing system to process emotions is essential to maintaining the health of all the others. If we can’t process and remove our emotional waste, such as anger, resentment, guilt, and fear, it builds up and we become ill, first emotionally, then physically.

“If we can’t process and remove our emotional waste, such as anger, resentment, guilt, and fear, it builds up and we become ill, first emotionally, then physically.”

Choosing to look deeper into a problem is a difficult choice to make, especially when all you want to do is run away from it or point the finger at someone else. The good news is that you don’t have to have all the answers up front or even know what to do. If you’re simply willing to take on the work that seems so heavy with pain, it’s amazing how the universe will respond to your energy, step in, and provide some unexpected help to start the process.

Driving & Darma

A terrific example of this is a modern romantic comedy called Learning to Drive. The film stars Patricia Clarkson as Wendy Shields, a 50-something, Manhattan-based book critic whose world is turned upside down when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Thrust into self-sufficiency, Wendy must learn how to drive. Ben Kingsley is Darwan Singh Tur, the Sikh driving instructor who is the unsuspecting recipient of much of Wendy’s misguided meltdown. Eventually, Darwan reveals he has relationship troubles of his own and together, they help each other transmute their pain into gold.

Wendy’s husband obviously chose the gold casket when he opted to put appearance above all else and chose the younger woman. Like the gold casket, her benefit is purely superficial and temporary, as her looks will surely fade, leading him to eventually seek out yet another source of instant gratification. Wendy, however, chooses to look inward and deal with the heavier issues of what the situation has to say about her. As she fumbles her way through a self-reflection that’s both heart-felt and hilarious, she develops an emotional infrastructure or plumbing system that allows her to process her pain and traumas in a manner that improves her life in ways she never expected. One of those happens to be attracting a handsome new man who also has the same emotional/spiritual infrastructure and is capable of a long-term, healthy relationship. Talk about getting the gold.

“It’s most often the harder choice that provides the greater reward.”

So let it be known that Shakespeare and life call us all to be psycho-spiritual plumbers when we’re challenged by the leaded situations of our lives. Sometimes we’ll do the work alone; other times, we’ll have help. Either way, it’s most often the harder choice that provides the greater reward. That’s why every romantic hero must be painted into an impossible corner. Even though we already know he’s going to get the girl and end up happy, it’s the choices he makes, the journey he takes and how he grows through the process that thrills us in the end. By investing emotionally in him, it gives us hope that we can overcome our challenges in the same way. We can, if we have the courage to name ourselves the hero—not the victim—of our own story, then examine the options before us—and then choose.

For more inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit Behive of Healing to sign up for his monthly newsletter, The L.I.G.H.T, as well as an opportunity to purchase his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Twitter.