In our hall at home is a framed print with the Shaker words “A Gift to Be Simple.” “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free, tis the gift to come down to where we ought to be.” Like many others, I am struck by the ideal set forth in this dance song contrasting with the consumerist and materialist reality of my life. The Camino certainly inspires the desire to be simple.
Somewhat like a snail carrying its house, many of us carried or had help carrying all that had. I knew before I walked the Camino that I would carry my belongings. My clothes, sleeping gear, rain gear, medical bag for blisters and pain, toiletries, my notebook, and my electronic gear for charging my camera filled my backpack. I anticipated my needs for the next 43 days. Thankfully I had already decided not to carry the 2+ pound MacBook!
As I walked, I realized that I still had extra weight. Even though they were lightweight, I didn’t need five shirts. Even though they were among my important clothing items, I didn’t need five pairs of socks. Even though I would have had to buy some sandals, I could have pitched my Rockport shoes that I used once I reached an albergue or pension (the generic names for places to stay). Even though I thought I had simplified, I could have simplified even more.
Others simplified as they walked the Camino. Andy had brought camping gear and cooking gear. Since he quickly realized that he could not carry that extra weight, he mailed those items home. Sue and Leoni thought that they had too much weight in their packs. While I initially thought their simplifying was premature when they mailed home coats and even sleeping bags, I realized that they were probably surviving fine when the temperatures consistently reached the mid-90’s.
Simplifying life materially is easier than simplifying life regarding technology. A smartphone remained attached to most peoples’ hands. At breaks, at lunches, certainly upon arriving at the albergue for the night, many people were using their phones. Several of us even talked about a young woman who was chatting with a friend while she was walking. To us, she was not allowing the Camino to help her break away from the smartphone. One donativo albergue intentionally did not have Wi-Fi. The albergue wanted people spending the night to talk with each other rather than using their smartphones. Whether I accepted it or not, the gift of the Camino was to allow alterations in my usual dependence upon technology.
Simplifying my life emotionally is probably the most difficult. Walking the Camino can create its own set of anxieties. Can I physically walk this many miles? Can I find a place to spend the night? What will tomorrow’s weather be? Can I find on the Camino that for which I’m searching? In addition, the Camino became the occasion where I felt the same emotions and I listened to the same soundtrack in my mind which I experienced prior to the Camino. Can I afford the cost? Can I find an interesting person with whom to talk over dinner? Can I avoid resenting the person who interferes with my goals and hopes? There is no trick to simplifying life emotionally. I, at times, had to simply acknowledge the feelings rolling around within me. I, at times, had to pay attention to what was happening around me, and let something outside of me bring about changes.
One example was my growing dislike of the French. While there were other people who could shout, and be obnoxiously loud, I began to overgeneralize and accuse all French of being oblivious to others. This feeling reached a climax one night when at 11:45 in a small hotel, three Frenchmen above me kept speaking very loudly to each other. I took my walking stick and pounded on the ceiling 12 times. There was silence. I had that victorious righteousness combined with a disdain for the three Frenchmen. The next day while walking I met a young woman from Chicago. During our conversation, she mentioned that she had been stung two days previously. Although she never had allergic reactions in Chicago, she quickly reacted to the sting on the Camino. Not only did her foot swell, but she began to have trouble breathing. She began to panic when she realized that there was nobody within sight! She sat down, drank water, and waited. Briefly, two middle-aged couples approached her on the Camino. Between listening to her explain her problem and observing her swelling, they knew how to help. Not only did one of them have some useful medication, but one also held her arm as they gently walked to the next town. Upon arriving in town, she could find the necessary doctor’s care. Who were the two couples? They were two French couples! As much as my prejudice against all French people had grown and grown and occupied more of the emotional territory within me, I found that that same prejudice disappeared instantly when she recounted her experience! In this case, simplifying my emotions, removing an unhelpful resentment, required only listening to a young woman tell her experience. It was not by being told “I must not be prejudiced” nor “I must overcome such harmful stereotypes.” Instead, I changed simply by listening and hearing an alternative, life-saving experience.
I’m glad that we have “A Gift to be Simple” hanging in our hallway. Facing the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a street performer as Gandhi. As usual, Gandhi himself said it best: “Live simply so that others might simply live.” Even more than before, I hope to live more simply both materially, technologically, and emotionally.