Equivalent Exchange

You never really know when or where you’ll hear some inspirational sentence or statement in a creative work that will resonate with you for your entire life. Often times, and I wonder if this is true with other people, you find lessons on living in the oddest places possible. It could be advice from a distant relative who typically utters nonsense, but somehow generates some random ray of wisdom in some muddled storm. It could be a line from a movie, play, or television show. It could be a stanza from a poem. It could be a lyric in a song.

It seems like the stranger the origin, the more effective the lesson.

One piece of advice, knowledge, metaphor, or law that I heard from an unlikely source was a piece of dialogue from an anime called Fullmetal Alchemist. You can watch the show on Netflix. There are two versions of it. The central plot device are two little boys who have lost their mother, and they try to resurrect her using alchemy. They anger the natural laws of life and death, and end up being mangled and disfigured from it. One brother loses an arm and a leg to it. The other, gets his soul attached to a nearby suit of armor. The story follows them trying to regain their bodies via the Philosopher’s Stone. It is a great show. Easily one of my favorite anime series to watch.

There is a great line that easily pertains to the world we live in today. It relates to the Alchemist’s law of equivalent exchange. The character who says the line is named Alphonso, and he is one of the brothers in this predicament.

“Humankind can not gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain something of equal value something must be lost. That is Alchemy’s first law of equivalent exchange.”

I do not think as whole, in our spinning fabric of cosmic-laced reality that this statement is true. However, right now in our current hyper-capitalistic environment, it is most certainly accurate.

You cannot gain something, until something of equal value has been sacrificed. For someone like me, who is struggling to embrace his role as a writer in a society so bent on monetary success, I’m constantly pulled between what I have to do, and what I want to do. This conundrum, this personal paradox of conflicting social norms and identity, well, I think it explains the vast majority of strife in our modern society. We are no longer determined by our personal worth, but our worth in terms of how much monetary gain our personalities can achieve.

To pursue writing, I’ve sacrificed a bunch of things to just be able to express myself this way. Money, friends, family, and relationships all fell under the scythe like a blooming flower from a Robert Frost poem. I wasn’t actively ignoring these people because I was off writing in some sweet cottage on the edge of an idyllic countryside hill. No, I fed these people to the beast because I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t being myself. I acted out because of this repression, and I hurt and ignored more people than I can count. You don’t realize it at the time, but not being yourself turns you into this corrosive acid that typically powers Xenomorphs, and eats away at everything around you, especially humans.

It wasn’t until I embraced myself, and how important writing is to me that I could finally be myself and treat the people around me with respect, and not like they were some hindrances to a grand Ocean’s 11 type scheme. Once I included them into my plot, everything got better.

These offerings to the great writer gods dictating our pixel and ink infused craft were not on purpose, and if you were going to inject a metaphor from my little essay thus far into the alchemy equation, it wouldn’t be the people from my past. No, instead the sacrifice to gain something of equal value would be societies own interpretation of the type of man I should be right now.

There is no secret that I too crave acceptance from people, and one way to gain this fellowship is to be like everyone else. When I look at all my friends who have pursued the standard and sterile business roles in the professional world, who look so symmetrical and sharp in their Facebook profile pictures, I think to myself that I want to be like them. They look successful. They look like they are in the midst of their chosen reality.

I want to be like them to fit in.

I’m not like them, though. I’ve tried to be. I’ve tried to work 9 – 5. I’ve tried to climb the corporate ladder. I’ve tried to love customer service, and wait out its natural abuses for a position in management. I can’t do it. I want the nice house, car, and white picket fence, but the world does not reward me monetarily for my writing like it does for selling electronics or counting money as a bank teller. So now, to gain something of equal value I must sacrifice the quality of my life and my families for something bigger. I must gamble on who I am, and not what I’m unhappy doing.

This is terrifying, even for someone who has had meager success writing like me.

Our entire world is determined by monetary value. My writing is too. This is the way of our current reality. However, I’m sacrificing my economic position, to do what I love and hope the world rewards for it. Is this not the law of alchemy. Am I not taking steel and trying to turn it to gold? I’m just like some sweaty alchemist under a king’s eye from 500 years ago.

It all so simple looks from distance. Graduate from college. Get a job. Get married. Have a family. Those sentences barely have any words to them they are so simple. These benchmarks of modern society are not the only path to success. There is also the triumph of being yourself, even when the world constantly tells you’re not good enough.