What Camino taught me about Friendships

IMG_1116

Before I walked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago route in Spain, I felt a bit stuck when it came to friendships. Stuck and sad.

In the years prior, I’d noticed that certain friendships were dwindling or dying. After university, people had scattered to all corners of the world. They had busy jobs, as did I. They had partnered off, as had I, and maybe had new families of their own. They were trying to squeeze a lot of living into a small amount of time, and keeping in touch fell by the wayside. Logically, I got it, and in many ways I was in the same boat. But on a heart level, I missed my longterm friends badly. I missed the fun of hanging out, the spontaneity, the travel, and the parties. Most of all, I missed the connection.

I asked around and I was told it was all normal. It’s a life phase, apparently. Except, it wasn’t just a life phase. Some of the people in my life loved me for sure but didn’t prioritize friendship. Take for example, my friend Bendy (not their real name!). I’d call Bendy and say:

Hey friend, how you doing?

Bendy and I would have a big old chat for two hours and catch up. We’d laugh. We’d swap war stories and it felt great to connect. But at the end, Bendy would always say:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort.

I was heartened. It seemed Bendy and I both wanted to stay friends and stay in touch. And I agreed: Yes, we must do this more often.

Only, 6 months would go by with no word from Bendy, no reply to emails, no reply to text so I’d call again:

Hey friend, how you doing?

The cycle would begin again. After 2-3 years of this, I noticed an increasing upset within myself. It felt like I was the one initiating all the contact. It felt like I was the one making all the effort. Just like Bendy, I too was busy with a career and a relationship, but I still found time to reach out to my friends and check-in. I felt alone in my efforts, though. I felt Bendy was taking but not giving in return. Was that just a feeling or was there some truth to it? In 2010, Bendy and I were wrapping up a phone call when the usual script came up again:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort!

I was prepared for this and I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see what effort ‘we’ were willing to make to keep the friendship alive. I replied by saying:

Yes, we must! Next time you make the phone call!

Bendy laughed a hearty laugh and said goodbye down the phone line. And I didn’t hear from Bendy again for over two years.

I hadn’t imagined the one-sidedness of our friendship. I hadn’t imagined the imbalance of effort. I was the one initiating the contact and when I stopped doing it, Bendy and I had no contact at all. Turned out, there were lots of Bendy friends in my life. They loved me, for sure, but they weren’t ‘there’ any more. That sadness I felt? It was real.

By the time I walked Camino, my heart was heavy and sore from the loss of friendships in all corners of my life. Sometimes I took it personally, other times I brushed it off as normal but either way, I still felt sad.

Everyone who’d walked camino before me (or who’d known someone to walk it) all swooned in telling me:

You’ll meet so many great people along the way!

They imagined that I was worried about walking alone and this was their way of reassuring me. Only, I wasn’t afraid of walking alone. Honestly, that sounded like total bliss! Being an introvert, I didn’t really want to meet lots and lots of people every day. All that small talk made me sweat just thinking about it. Sure, I could do it but the very idea of it was exhausting. So, their reassurances had the opposite effect. But I did meet lots of great people along the way and over the course of those 500 miles, I learned some deeply-felt lessons for my heart and my life, too.

IMG_0879

For a start, I met far too many people who were self-absorbed and insensitive, and they reminded me of all the people like them in my ‘real life’ back home. They were the kind of people I didn’t want to hang out with in Spain and as it happens, I didn’t want to hang out with them at home either. What a revelation to finally and unapologetically realise that.

Secondly, camino helped me get really clear about the different levels of friendship I had in my real life. Not everyone was a close friend and not everyone should get a prime time slot of my time and energy. I hadn’t told anyone when I would return from Spain so I was ‘off the radar’ for a few weeks after I returned. I did this on purpose. I didn’t want the pressure to meet up with all the acquaintances in my life and tell them stories about the cheap wine and great sunshine in Spain. I was on a retreat even when I returned home. And in that quiet, still time, I sort of ‘graded’ my friendships, and gave my time and energy in accordance with the grading. The people I reached out to and met with first were the ones I really, genuinely, heartily wanted to see. All the rest came after. Again, what a revelation to finally and freely prioritize people in this way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

Camino taught me that people come and people go. And that’s okay.

Every day, I met lots and lots of great people on the trail. People who were open, friendly, generous, and good. People I loved spending time with. It was easy to make friends with these people and I was delighted with the connection. Only, there were some I never saw again.

I met people on my first 1-2 days of walking, had a fabulous connection, assumed I would bump into them further along the way, but never saw them again. Not once! To this day, I have no idea whether they lived, went home early, or ever made it to Santiago. My heart was sorry to have missed out on getting to know them.

And I also met people on my first 1-2 days of walking who appeared on my camino over and over again at the most unexpected and delightful times. We shared dinner and coffee. We connected, we chatted, we swapped stories. Every time we parted, we bade each other a Buen Camino, never quite sure if we would see each other again. But some of these friends met me in Santiago with warm smiles and hugs, and we are in touch ever since.

What was the difference between some friendships ‘sticking’ and others not?

Timing, for sure.

Intent? Yes.

But I’m gonna say that some of them worked because we were in each others’ orbit. Roughly speaking, we were doing the same thing, at the same time, in a roughly similar way, and we had a lot in common. Seeing each other regularly gave us a continuity that made connection easier. And rightly or wrongly, spending time together is important. Without that, some connections just fade away. And that’s what had been happening in my life at home.

On camino, some friends left early. Other friends stayed to the very end.

My heart was soft for them all but slowly, I really came to understand that friends come and friends go. And that’s okay.

So, all that sadness and hurt and anger I had felt over my dwindling friendships at home?

Let it go.

And all that fear I’d felt about not making new connections?

Let that go, too.

The Beatles said it far more poetically and sweetly when they sang, ‘In My Life’ but the sentiment is the same. We are all on a journey. Literally as well as figuratively. We change. We move. We meet people and lose people. Maybe we meet further down the line or maybe we never meet again, but we carry a softness of heart for them as long as we live.

Camino taught me all this. I forget it, sometimes, but I’m remembering again. And remembering the friends and strangers who were so kind to me along the way.

Thank you all.