A great many things can happen while walking 150 miles. Clearing rocks from my shoes more times than I could count, getting into deep talks with friends and strangers alike, seeing incessant warnings of poop in the road, visits to Dr. Blister (dad), finding Band-Aid splints for my malformed toes, eating Pulpo (octopus) and other vaguely odd looking seafood. However, I did not expect self discovery to be on this list. To be honest, I was not sure that I could even make it to Santiago, the ending point of the Camino, but the person who flew to Portugal was not the same person who came back. She had learned one incredibly valuable lesson that changed her outlook on life and gave her hope where she previously had none.
The greatest lesson that I learned on the Camino was nothing of great intelligence or inspiration. It wasn’t some epiphany, but rather a subtle realization of my own resilience and strength. You know, life can be challenging if not completely intolerable at times. It can feel like trudging up a hill for 5 miles only to realize that there is 9 more uphill miles to go and no toilet in sight. But, when you get to to top of the hill and see the beautiful view below you, overcome with the sense of self accomplishment, your toilet break becomes a distant memory. (Until the 9 mile descent…) On the Camino, there were many challenges, and even some physical mountains that I had to climb, each helped me to realize that I am much stronger than I thought I truly was.
Once being diagnosed with “the big C”, I felt powerless and out of control within my own life and body. I felt useless and unable to rise to any challenge no matter how small it was. If life was a game of poker, I was folding on every round without even looking at my cards because I thought that I could never win in the first place. I often felt like a little child, hiding under the blankets because they were scared of the dark, waiting for their parents to turn on the lights because they were too scared to leave the confines of their blanket sanctuary. Being in the blanket sanctuary is comforting, but you can’t stay under the blankets too long because you run out of air. I started to feel suffocated by my own comfortable bubble, unable to change any of the problems that I had in my life because I was unwilling to face them. The Camino crept up on me and my blanket sanctuary and I needed to make a choice. Do I rise to the challenge, dare to believe in myself, or stay home? Though I was not confident in my ability to walk 150 miles, let alone hold a comfortable conversation with anyone outside of my own family, I knew that this trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I needed to take. So, I got out from under the blankets, tried not to second guess myself, and set off for Portugal to start my journey.
By the end of my first day, I realized just how quiet my mind was. There was no screaming anxiety or existential dread, only the satisfaction that I walked 13 miles and was enjoying a fishbowl sized gin and tonic for 5 euros. There is something about the Camino that strips you down to who you really are. You are going to be physically uncomfortable, sometimes socially vulnerable, and in desperate need of a shower at all times, but happier and more authentic with yourself and others than you would be anywhere else. The deep connections that I formed on the trail with each of my walking partners made me feel like it was okay to be vulnerable and real with others about who I was. I didn’t have to act like the “perfect cancer patient” or the person who has it all together.
Each day gave me the opportunity to accept the challenges of the day and feel proud of each small accomplishment, whether it be walking three 13 mile days back to back or having a heart to heart conversation with someone you have never met before. By the time I got home, my blanket sanctuary was dead. Challenges in my own life didn’t feel insurmountable anymore. It was time to truly play the game and take a risk instead of folding. The Camino gave me the opportunity to take back my sense of agency over my own life and choose to accept challenges rather than waiting for them to be over. This is the fighting spirit that I want to take into both my treatment as well as my journey on finding purpose in life.