Since returning from my 775 kilometre trek across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, I’ve been asked several times, ‘Did you experience any spiritual enlightenment? Discover the meaning of life?’
There seems to be a general assumption that even if I didn’t make the journey for spiritual reasons, I would have discovered some deep and meaningful truths along the way as a by-product. At the risk of seeming shallow, I didn’t.
What made me do it?
The idea of doing the Camino first occurred to me about 3 years ago, though how or why I can’t remember. I think I just thought it would be an interesting thing to do. Writing novels is a sedentary and mentally challenging pursuit and the idea of balancing it by doing something physically demanding and testing my endurance appealed to me. (Although I was later to find out that the Camino is about as much about mental as physical endurance).
And my options were limited. I hate running so marathons were out and I’m not confident on a pushbike so that was out as well. (I blame the magpie that chased me all the way home from school on my bike when I was ten years old for that). Heights give me vertigo so Everest was out, and I only like swimming in the sea if there are no big waves, jellyfish, sharks or seaweed, so swimming the English Channel was crossed off the list.
What was left? Apart from extreme sports such as bungee jumping, aerial skiing or train surfing, the only thing left was walking. (Although I did jump out of a plane earlier this year but that’s the extent of my recklessness). I’m a natural at walking – been doing it for most of my life.
The hardest bit…
Once I’d settled on that, now came the hard part – persuading my LSP (my long-suffering partner) to come with me. Like the incessant drip of water eroding a rock, I managed to wear down his resistance and change his response from ‘Are you mad? They have roads and cars in Spain, you don’t have to walk!’ to an enthusiastic ‘Okay, let’s do it! Book the airfares now before I change my mind!’
So although I had no major epiphanies as we trudged past cornfields and vineyards, up never-ending hills and down steep tracks of rocks and shale, the occasional deep thought did occur to me, apart from ‘When can we stop and eat some chocolate?’
But the truths I pondered on were not new ones to me – they were truths I already knew, just brought to mind again and given a fresh perspective by my new surroundings and experiences.
So here they are:
1. Every step forward is progress.
Sometimes you’re not in the mood, or you’re tired and grumpy, and taking those first few steps is a gigantic effort. But once you do, the momentum keeps you going and sometimes the days when you feel most unmotivated can end up being the most enjoyable and productive. I have found this often applies to my writing.
2. When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.
This saying was attributed to Creighton Adams, a US army general in the Vietnam War. Why he chose an elephant for his metaphor I have no idea. It’s too big to fit on a dinner plate, it would make very tough and unpalatable eating and as an endangered species, shouldn’t be eaten at all.
But it illustrates the point. When you think of walking 775 kilometres, it seems like a Herculean task. But by focusing on the present and not the final destination it’s a lot easier, certainly from a psychological point of view.
However, I’m the first to admit it’s easier said than done. Along the way there are signposts telling you how many kilometres you have still to go, and on more than one occasion, I turned to LSP and wailed,’ We’re not even half way there!’
‘I’m not taking any notice of those signs,’ he said, in his sensible and rational wisdom. I could have clobbered him.
3. Stop periodically and look back at how far you’ve come.
You’re often so engrossed in the journey, plodding away day after day, that you don’t realise how much progress you’re making until you stop and look back – particularly when you reach the top of a hill, and you can marvel at the tiny speck of village in the distance that you left from that morning. Giving yourself a pat on the back for how far you’ve come gives you a tremendous boost and the energy and motivation to keep going.
And if you don’t stop you’ll miss some spectacular views.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others.
This is my nemesis. I was slow going up the hills and many others, including LSP, strode ahead of me, reaching the top as fresh as a field of daisies, whereas I was wilting and drooping like a vase of dead flowers.
‘Why is everyone so much faster and fitter than me?’ I wondered, feeling as if somehow I wasn’t up to standard. But the truth was that not everyone beat me up the hills. There were many behind me, and in the larger scheme of things, why did it matter? I got there in the end.
Comparisonitis is a deadly trap to fall into and we indie authors are particularly vulnerable. We often think other authors are more successful, selling more books, making more money. As Mark Twain said, ‘Comparison is the death of joy.’ And by making you miserable it also affects your productivity and creativity. Lose-lose situation.
5. Perseverance outshines ability
Before I started the Camino, I was under the impression you had to be reasonably fit and strong to undertake such a long trek. But I was wrong. We met people of all shapes, sizes and physical condition – obese people, people in their seventies and eighties who swallowed handfuls of medication every morning at breakfast, people with a limp or gammy knees and hips, people with all sorts of injuries.
A friend broke a bone in her foot when she was less than half way along the journey – she just strapped it up and kept on walking. One elderly gentleman shuffled along looking as if he were about to keel over any moment. But he didn’t. None of these people allowed their afflictions to stop them doing what they wanted to do. Quitting was not an option, they just kept going till they got there.
And it’s the same for all other aspects of life – it’s not necessarily the brilliant ones who are successful, it’s those who never give up.
BONUS: lesson number 6.
There's always another hill. Nelson Mandela understood perfectly, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t walk the Camino – his journey was a lot tougher.
‘After climbing a great hill,’ he said, ‘one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.’
That pretty much sums it up. For the Camino. And life.
What are your thoughts on my life lessons? Do you have any insights you’d like to share? I'd love you to leave your comments in the box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.