A few months ago, I shared a list of the top five things that walking 500 miles helped me understand in a deeper or different way. Here is a bit more context around the fifth lesson: Grow In Peace – Transformation, it turns out, is astonishingly banal.
If you ever decide to walk the Camino, you will soon discover that everyone you tell knows someone else who did it. Apparently, all these friends of friends found it a fantastically transformative experience. They all felt something grand, spiritual, almost supernatural upon reaching Santiago. When I arrived, it was raining and I was battling a mighty cold. To reach Santiago, you have to bypass the airport and then walk for a few hours through the sprawling suburbs that have grown around the historical center. The predominant feelings I remember were disappointment and annoyance having to tread through a torrential downpour through this urban wasteland. A feeling akin to trying to get on the NYC 1 train during rush hour. Nothing grand about it.
When I returned everyone’s first question was, “So, are you transformed? Did you feel it?” I’m still not sure what that ‘it’ was supposed to be. I felt lots of things. I felt cold and sweaty, tired and elated, grumpy and excited, awed and overheated, achy, curious, lost, optimistic, jealous and delighted–the whole gamut of human emotions from the petty to the exalting. As for noticeable transformations, other than my feet which became freakishly swollen halfway through the walk and went up (permanently, I have now found out) one full shoe size, there were none to speak of. But now, over six months since I have returned, I am beginning to discern the transformative effects of this experience. I have changed in subtle but important ways–I feel more urgently the need to align my beliefs with my behaviors and I feel more confident and optimistic about my capacity to do that. This is not a new observation, I didn’t get to Santiago and just realize that I am feeling off center because I’m not committing hard enough to the things that break and delight my heart; what changed is my determination to do something about it.
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When I arrived in Santiago, I went to the cathedral and decided to light a candle to Saint Anthony of Padua, my mother’s favorite saint. I walked around the cathedral a few times unable to find him and finally asked a security guard.
“Excuse me, do you know where I can find Saint Anthony?”
“I don’t know, did someone tell you he was here?”
“No, but I was hoping you might help me find him.”
“Let me check. No, sorry, he’s not here.”
I didn’t find Saint Anthony, but when I stopped looking for him, I walked around the cathedral again and took in all its treasures, finally seeing the other saints sitting impassively in their richly carved nooks and corners. I think that’s a good metaphor for transformational moments. We sometimes invest these moments with so much expectation that we ignore the smaller changes we undergo. Static is an illusion, it is in our nature and our biology to be constantly changing, if only just through the unavoidable pull of entropy. My father’s family motto is ‘Change or Decay’. Whether on pilgrimage or on the 1 train, we are constantly in motion. Change is inevitable, we can choose to be intentional about the direction of this change or we can just let our experiences change us mindlessly. I think that’s the power of transformational moments, they rarely transform us into a brand new person (subjectivity doesn’t work that way, we need some sort of continuity in our sense of self), but they give us the perspective and hopefully the courage to be intentional about our growth and evolution.
On one of the last pages of the journal that I brought with me on the walk, I recently rediscovered this note I had scribbled to myself:
“No groundbreaking epiphanies, no blazing revelations–mainly just an increased awareness of what’s already known and the mental space to see how much this awareness/knowledge needs to be transformed into action.”
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