I don’t know if people say this very often but here, let me say it:
Walking the Camino de Santiago wasn’t always a barrel of laughs.
A lot of the time, it felt like a tough grind from one dusty day to the next. Am I a bad sport for saying that? I don’t know. I walked and walked and walked, and I wasn’t always sure that there was a point to my efforts. My body hurt in a gazillion different places and I was upset by the competitive race for everything….beds, wi-fi, even a free spot on a clothesline. Maybe I was ‘doing it‘ wrong but I found it immensely physical to walk 500 miles in less than six weeks. I found it emotionally taxing, too. I met pilgrims who swooned about feeling immense joy. Often, I felt I couldn’t relate to their fervent excitement.
But the day I walked from San Bol to Boadilla del Camino (I know, I know, quit talking about this one day already!) I had real, emotional breakthroughs. Yes, I learned to follow my own impulse instead of following anyone else’s pace. And yes, I learned that my social circle needed some heavy pruning. But I also learned something I had forgotten: I learned the secret to happiness.
At this stage in the journey, I’d already been walking for about three weeks. That was long enough to have experienced some rain, some frustration, and lots of tears. It was also long enough to have experienced some solid connection and tender kindness. Walking through the Meseta gave me a chance to put these things in some sort of order. I think the flat, open landscape was so under-stimulating that my mind had a chance to do some internal processing. As I walked, I found myself giving thanks for…well, everything.
I gave thanks for the new, lightweight shoes that were just *so* comfortable compared to my hiking sandals.
And I gave thanks for the fact that I didn’t have any blisters.
I gave thanks for the Factor 50 sunscreen that was protecting my skin from going lobster red.
And I gave thanks for my healthy body that somehow carried me from place to place.
Hour after hour, I ran through lists of things for which I was thankful. I gave thanks for everything I could think of, from my sunglasses to my healthy knees. I gave thanks for every hot shower along the way. I gave thanks for all the coffee, all the clean bedding, all the yellow arrows that pointed me in the right direction. I gave thanks for having the health and finances and impulse to go walk camino. Millions of people would never know that triage of good luck in their life: I was very blessed to have it in mine.
By now you’re thinking: What, that’s it? That’s your big, ‘A-Ha’ lesson? And I bet you’re thinking you’ve heard this kind of thing before. You’ve read this kind of thing before. Blah blah blah.
If you’re like me, you breeze through your day with a certain confidence about things going a certain way. There’s food in the cupboard. There’s hot water in the shower. There are clean clothes in the closet. Me? I don’t think to give thanks for these things every day, I just assume (and expect) them to be there. They are the baseline, the starting point to my day. I take them for granted.
But on camino, I didn’t have my own cupboards so I didn’t know when, or what I would eat. Similarly, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a hot shower. After all, when sharing a hostel with dozens of other people, there was always the possibility that the hot water would run out just before my turn. On camino, I couldn’t assume anything. I didn’t book my accommodation in advance so from one day to the next, I never knew where I would sleep. Other people were stressed by my lack of planning but I did it by choice: it kept me from getting complacent. And I was grateful for every single bed, regardless of its state.
I had six weeks in my own company so I noticed certain trends. There were days when I gave thanks throughout the day, dozens, if not hundreds of times. Those days were light and full of serendipity. Other days, I felt burdened by all the aches and pains. I felt burdened by disappointments. I didn’t give thanks for much and consequently, felt beaten down by both the camino and by life.
There’s a connection there. It sounds trite but really, giving thanks and literally counting my blessings made me a happier person. I felt light. I felt capable. I felt confident and playful and free.
It really was that simple. The secret to happiness? Give thanks for what you’ve got.
I say all of this because it’s relevant on two fronts:
- Giving thanks was a potent experience for me on camino and in my everyday life since then. Quite literally, it transforms the seemingly banal hum drum into something exquisite and profound. I can always use more of that 🙂
- When I left the albergue in Boadilla del Camino, I sought out the owner to say thanks to him in person. You’ll remember that he took me in even though he had no room and later, found a bed for me. He cooked a superb meal the evening before for everyone in the village…not just the pilgrims in his own hostel but the other ones too. He was the personification of a generous host. I was full of sincere and heartfelt thanks, and I wanted to say it to him before I walked off into the 6am light. The hostel was full of people putting on their boots and zipping up their packs for the day ahead. I found him in kitchen, already preparing for the day ahead. In my rudimentary Spanish I thanked him for being *such* a nice guy and for being so kind to me. And you know what he said? Of the 70 people who’d eaten his meal the previous evening, none of them had said thanks. And of all the pilgrims who’d slept on beds, sofas, and the floor, none of them had said thanks either. That morning, I was the only one who sought him out. We stood there, thanking each other.
I was glad I’d made the effort to reach out and say a nice word. But I was disappointed and saddened too. So many of my fellow pilgrims barreled through camino with a sense of entitlement. They assumed that the dinner would appear just because they were paying for it. They didn’t think of the people who spent the day planning and cooking it for them. They didn’t think to say thanks. Worryingly, they didn’t think they had to.
Walking to Santiago isn’t just about the cheap wine or the interesting people from all over the world. It isn’t life-changing if you spend your days racing for beds and being a dick to the hostel owners along the way. Everyone wants the adventure and the glory. Everyone wants the ‘A-Ha’ experience but to get it, we have to exercise a bit of kindness. Humility. Gratitude. Decency. They’re simple concepts but not always easy to put in practice. But when we do? Wow, what happiness awaits. So today, give thanks. Count your blessings. And tell someone just how much you appreciate something they’ve said/done that made your life easier. *This* is what camino is all about.