October 20, 2019

The Alchemist

Courtesy of pxhere.com

Every Rosh Hashanah, I entreat God for a happy year. Like most people, I just want to be happy.

This Rosh Hashanah, something strange happened: I begged God to make me an alchemist.

Not happy. Not a source of pride for my family. But an alchemist.

Alchemists have one goal: to transform the inferior into the superior, the lowest into the highest.

Whether pseudoscience or historical lore, alchemists were said to turn lead into gold. But I would surmise that even the ones who dropped out of alchemy junior high school could turn lemons into lemonade, and that’s good enough for me.

In terms of mental lemons — or negative thoughts — no one cultivates more bitter trees than I do.

“Make me an alchemist,” I begged God, “because I won’t pray that negative thoughts not enter my mind; they do, and very frequently. All I ask is that after those thoughts arrive, that my mind can turn them into positive, productive thoughts, especially about other people.”

We all know that one person who, even on their best day, is an annoying lump of lead. How much richer we could be if only our minds could see that person as a nugget of gold. 

That friend who calls only when she needs something but doesn’t ask how you’re doing? Maybe she’s a new mother who’s exhausted and overwhelmed. That self-righteous friend-of-a-Facebook-friend who just called you a racist?  Maybe he grew up feeling helpless over a racist parent. The ayatollah who wants to annihilate Israel? Hey, I have my limits.

We all know that one person who, even on their best day, is an annoying lump of lead.

I didn’t ask God to eradicate bad thoughts from my mind. No alchemist ever sat in a deep, dark valley and asked that the inferior stones disappear altogether. Without all that lead, there would be nothing to turn into gold.

I used to contemplate undergoing hypnotherapy, which has helped people shed unwanted habits ranging from too many negative thoughts to smoking.

After decades of struggle, imagine having my dark thoughts eradicated in a few sessions of hypnotherapy?

So why haven’t I seen a hypnotherapist? Amazingly, I don’t want to stop negative thoughts from entering my mind.

Without these dark thoughts, I wouldn’t be me; I’d be like couscous without harissa; coffee without caffeine, and yes, Chinese food without MSG. As with everything, moderation is key.

There’s also something else: The sheer effort I use to transform negative thoughts into positive ones is a crucial source of pride; in fact, the effort, however unending, is its own reward.

I can’t imagine waking up tomorrow with nary a negative thought. What would I do? What hardships and basic human inclinations, however destructive, did I have to overcome to wake up as chipper as a bird in a Disney movie? None.

What are we in life without our tests?

I’m starting to see why the witches and sorcerers in fairy tales always appealed more to me than the happy princesses: They had depth, struggles and above all, there was a story behind all that darkness. If only we didn’t kill off fairy tale villains before giving them a chance at hard-earned clarity and renewal, however slow-paced. That sounds more Jewish to me.

If we navigate them well, our bad thoughts don’t have to be our enemies. “Come in,” we can offer sincerely. “Have some jasmine tea and watch me transform you.”

Author Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote an informal “Letter to Fear,” in which she concluded, “Your fear should always be allowed to have a voice, and a seat in the vehicle of your life. But whatever you do — don’t let your fear DRIVE.”

I’m working to get my bad thoughts buckled up. It’s the season for “Zman Simchateinu,” or “the time of our rejoicing,” and I’ve got some sukkahs to visit and lemonade to prepare.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.