the journal

Reflection 8: Walking Back to Happiness


Today’s reading is an essay by Keith Egan, called “Walking Back to Happiness? Modern pilgrimage and the expression of suffering on Spain’s Camino de Santiago“, which focuses on the meaning behind the modern resurgence in walking the famous Way of St. James, an ancient walking path leadings to Santiago de Compostela, a cathedral said to house St. James’ remains. In order to get a true sense of this revival, Egan took to the path himself, following along with other pilgrims as he conducted his research. Egan sorta sub-divides his essay, so I will take advantage of the “subheadings” for organization purposes.


Egan begins with sharing a quote by Rebecca Solnit, the author of Wanderlust, who characterized walking as a way to create “productive wastefulness”, that this creation could be used to facilitate self-becoming. Egan then explains that the modern pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago echo that statement, that for them, walking is empowerment. The pilgrims are no small group, with hundreds of thousands taking the month-long trek each year, escaping modern life to immerse themselves in nature and history. The journey is a sort of “spiritual tourism” the pilgrims leaving their secular life to travel to a religious destination. Egan speaks of symbols as empty, and that humanity’s creativity and ability to form social bonds is what brings the symbols to life. For him to truly understand the symbol of the Camino, Egan decided to follow the pilgrims and take the walk himself. He found existential pilgrims, lacking spiritual motivation, trying to rediscover their sense of purpose by separating themselves from their home, identity, and obligations. Free of these ties, the pilgrims were able to meet strangers, forming the “communitas”, the unstructured community, sharing life experiences and troubles with a companion without needing to know their last name. Free of the surface problems from home, they can delve into the deep and existential, coming together with fellow pilgrims to celebrate and find hope, then taking to the open road for hours of the simple act of walking (page 1).

It’s interesting how such a famous path, with such deep roots in Catholicism, has been reborn as a way to find one’s own self rather than a god. I understand the feeling of stagnation, of feeling trapped in the rhythms of daily life. Humans need enrichment, need something to give them fresh perspective and pique their curiosity. The internet sometimes provides that, with people hidden behind anonymous screen names able to divulge their troubles to fellow travelers of the web, knowing the other person has no stake in the outcome and can simply give their honest opinion. That’s why reddit advice forums are so popular, people being able to ask “Am I The Asshole?” without making the other person feel they must choose a side in a personal relationship. But that isn’t for everyone, and some people feel the wrong sort of disconnect when it’s a screen separating them, so getting out onto a trail rich in history, making honest encounters with fellow pilgrims, has a certain sort of appeal.

Egan lays out the common themes for the modern pilgrim’s personal journey as follows: a break from an unsatisfying job or from family duty, searching for adventure, and for therapeutic reasons. He describes the idea of walking as a reaction to public space becoming privatized, the way that wanderers become labeled as loitering. Modern civilization produces an “existential inertia”, and being an authentic pedestrian allows you to counteract this feeling. Egan reiterates the ability of sharing personal stories with fellow travelers without ties to home, how the walk can help you respond to the crisis and the journey itself can birth thoughts as your body helps you to “walk” your thoughts through the mental landscape. Walking the Camino is a cultural activity, a historical relationship between each pilgrim’s physical body, the world they walk on, and the things they imagine. The path is a “social body”, using the pilgrim to revitalize their sense of being and stand fast against the forces trying to wear them down. The body makes tragedy accessible through the act of suffering (presumably the pain of this month of walking), turning it into “political performance and moral commentary”. To gain a feeling of control over this tragedy, sharing the story of it with other people while on this quest to this “other place” allows the pilgrim to follow and map the tragedy. The story breeds empathy in the listener, linking them to the teller into a social bond, and the bond strengthens when the listener shares a story of their own. The story may not be perfectly accurate, as the pilgrim alters it with each telling to emphasize the parts that matter to them, the real reason for telling it in this emphasis. The company shared between the pilgrims as they walk, relax, dine, and comfort each other, allows them to share this experience, pain and healing and the accommodation of suffering all at once. The camino has many functions in this way, and the pilgrim may not understand why they chose to walk it until it is over, when their wandering spirit is awake, the reason for home discontentment discovered, or the bond between those who planned to walk together tested (page 2). Egan realized that as he walked the camino with these pilgrims, each with their own assumed reason and goal to discover, that he could not stay objective, and he became an “observiant participant”, unable to simply ask questions without engaging in the expected exchange (page 3).

I think it’s sort of fitting that Egan was forced to become part of the camino in a real way, that his interactions with the pilgrims made him into one himself. There is a sort of implication that people with “shallow” reasons for the camino, walking it as a tourist, will find themselves discovering a secret torment and achieving a new understanding by the time they finish it, becoming a pilgrim anyway. It sounds a bit like Egan found that to be true. Many anthropologists, which I think Egan seems to be in this context, try to simply observe the rituals or events of a culture, but cannot engage with it in a meaningful way because of this distance. Egan could have simply interviewed pilgrims by hanging out at the popular starting point for the camino, then using transportation to get to the end point and re-interview them. But by walking the camino WITH these pilgrims, but participating in the social exchange that was happening organically around them anyway, he was able to share company with the pilgrims, to gain a deeper understanding of the special community, the comininstas.


Egan thinks of the camino as a vague borderland between what is real and what is religious, and pilgrimage upon it both induces crisis via the long physical challenge and represents the crisis so the pilgrim can modify the experience of crisis. By entering this borderland, the pilgrim is able to inhabit their struggles and acknowledge them as real. Egan now introduces us to Thomas and Helene, an elderly Norwegian couple that he walked with for a few days. This was their third and final camino, and they treated it as a “gradual drunken revelry”, ambling towards old age and their eventual deaths. They were able to compare the phases of their lives, view the changes through the lense of the camino. They were rebellious too, breaking the “normative pilgrimage” rules with their indulgence and habit of ignoring curfew. They simultaneously acknowledged that they were not in control of their lives, and also asserted that they were not entirely at the will of the fates. The couple’s journey reflects the pilgrimage between our immediate lives, where we try to be “actors in our lives”, and the non-immediate, distant world where we can sense that the world is happening to us (page 3).

I think this final camino of Thomas and Helene a bit awe-inspiring. They have lived a long life, have been on this road before, and it is amazing to me that they felt enough connection to this path that it was the way they decided to celebrate the beginning of the end. It almost seems like, while some people travel the camino to cope with the loss of someone else, that they used this final camino to come to terms with the loss of their own self. They can’t escape their eventual deaths, but by walking the camino, retracing the steps of their younger selves, they are able to focus on the celebration of life, on how far they’ve come since they last walked this path.

Egan goes on to say that the pilgrimage is an in between feeling, that we reshape our sense of self while on it. For the pilgrim to get to the root of the loss that is interfering with their life, the healing has to first engage with the immediate experience. The experiences of “natural acts”- walking, breathing, sleeping- are taken for granted, and to rethink them the pilgrim must get away from their everyday life. Healing, Egan claims, is the intensified encounter between suffering and hope. The camino’s simple rules of following the yellow arrows makes it an alluring place for this pilgrimage. Walking it is better when shared with fellow pilgrims, traveling together and moving into a “contemplative social space”, guided by the rhythm of footsteps, walking stick, and breathing. In the quiet moments, this rhythm draws the pilgrim out, allowing the self to expand into the environment. When they do speak, the existential, fleeting nature of these friendships compresses meaning and worth into a both intense and relaxed contact (page 4).

This philosophy of removing yourself from your life, the idea that walking will let you rebuild your view of the simplest human actions, and only then can you fix your deeper issues, isn’t unheard of. Part of the methodology of an in-patient care facility for mental health involves establishing a regulated routine before trying to work on the “real” problem. Egan has emphasized repeatedly that a large part of the camino’s importance lies in the community formed between the pilgrims. It is a unique experience, bringing together individuals that have no reason to even know each other. This is a reminder that humans need social interaction, need to bond with others and share their experiences. Sometimes the people closest to home are just too close to confide in. The people you care about will carry that knowledge, will let it color their perception, even if they don’t mean to. That’s why the observant stranger- pilgrim, therapist, bartender- is so appealing.

THE LIMIts of words: michael

The next section opens with Egan’s explanation of suffering as being both exposure and confinement at once. Egan then reveals his next subject, the 40-ish American man Michael, who felt stagnant and believed that the camino would shake him free by giving him distance from his obligations and providing an extended trip of the “authentic” Spain. Though he started the pilgrimage with friends, he ended up walking alone when he ran into Egan (page 4). Egan ended up using his previous counseling experience to help Michael acknowledge the anonymous nature of the man’s depression by objectifying them into a imaginary black stone. Michael was then able to “throw away” the stone, a symbolic liberation. To Michael, Spain was a non-place, free of all the things he was getting away from, without any connection to him. This allowed Michael to experiment with his being, to become a new person as he met new people. Spain was a place for Michael to experience newness and creativity, to feel control. Michael’s experience of his life became fundamentally altered by this (page 5).

At this point, Egan is far from simply observing- he is actively using his knowledge to help guide his fellow pilgrim through  his personal journey. The visualization of Michael’s feelings as a stone to throw away is a bit whimsical, but in the setting of Spain the non-place, guided by a friendly stranger, in an environment where Michael was free to present a whole new version of himself? The atmosphere becomes magical, freeing, allowing Michael to achieve something in a day that he had struggled with for his whole life. It’s no wonder the camino is described so spiritually, with stories like this showing an almost miracle-like turn in the pilgrim’s life.

In the days after this experience, Michael cognitively addressed how his life had been shaped by this sense of dread, how it guided his moods and decisions. This was not the goal of his walk, but experiencing life in a different way triggered this result. After facing this, the reality of his life became obtainable again. Egen explains that the anonymous and ephemeral context of pilgrimage is what led Michael to confide in him. The imagined culture of the camino eclipsed the relationship with Michael’s friends, and it wasn’t until he worked through his burden in the unstructured communitas, that Michael was able to depart from the author and rejoin those friends (page 5).

Once again we see this recurring emphasis on the way the camino changes people, that simply experiencing the camino lifestyle and engaging with fellow pilgrims in a safe anonymity can change a person’s life. The reality of Michael’s life became obtainable again, revealing that the secret trick to regaining the will to strive was as simple as leaving life behind for a bit. The need for someone who does not know you is clear, Michael only hanging around with Egan until he feels he has accomplished his goal, finding his friends again afterwards. It seems that the fear of judgement runs deep, the worry of being perceived while vulnerable making itself known when Michael stopped walking with his friends in the first place. There’s a hint of sadness to that, this idea that our friends cannot be trusted with our woes.

coping with wounds: john

The third “case study” is an Irish man from England named John. Exactly a year before Egan met John, the man’s sister Myra was traveling the Camino as a cheap vacation. She had just arrived to Santiago de Compostela when she died in her bed of an undiagnosed tumor, so John was following her footsteps to mourn her, staying in the same refuges that she did and spreading her story to his fellow pilgrims. Myra’s motivation had been to escape from work, and it is emblematic of the modern pilgrim’s rejection of modernity. John’s use of the camino to engage in a deep sense of loss is the other main motivation for the modern pilgrim. Traveling the camino has the prospect of pain and uncertainty, but pilgrims accept that in exchange for the chance to reconnect to simple pleasures. Pilgrims search for wild places filled with raw meaning just waiting to be discovered, where words fail- but aren’t needed (page 5). The camino is, it seems, a frontier experience filled with moral significance. It calls to pilgrims who seek new understandings of failing lives, livelyhoods, and lifeworlds caused by recent or fast-approaching loss (page 6).

conclusions: walking as healing

Walking the camino is a social act that traces the lines of many stories in an attempt to uncover the truth and the right response. In the past, pain was a moral failing rooted in our sense of place in a cosmic order, urging pilgrims to seek god on the route. Now, pain is medical, and the pilgrimage is a way to find nature or ourself. Pilgrims yearn for “a world less plastic”, and walking helped them to think in the rhythms of the day.  John found evidence of his sister in messages of hostel registers, and he was able to share these with other pilgrims, walking into his helplessness at her loss, creating a story of her life and spreading it down the camino. Egan asserts that the physical pain of wounds allows pilgrims to experience magical thinking and recover “the possibility of possibility itself”. Pain opens a space between worlds, as life outstrips our ability to describe and categorize it, requiring us to use magical thinking to make meaning from our lives and compensate for lack of control. Getting too caught up in our everyday lives removes us from ourselves, and pilgrimage allows us to embrace alienation and reinvigorate the everyday, leaving behind the person we are so we may modify ourselves. This modification’s permanence doesn’t matter, but the memory and possibility of our ability to change does. Serendipity is key, and it appears between the pilgrims as they interact. Egan found that when following the pilgrims he had no choice but to become one and explore his own deeper reason for being on the camino. The act of pilgrimage embodies life, showing us a positive freedom and presenting the very human image of the walker (page 6). Pilgrims create a loose network formed from chance, their trajectories merging to inscribe their combined will to complete the camino and feel better when they finish together. Egan references the wounds of the road as similar to psychogenic pain- pain created by the brain to assign our suffering a physical location- and says the wounds stand in for “unspeakable” wounds. Each step through the pain, reaching into the numb, signifies triumph, and the pilgrims share smiles and glances to acknowledge this triumph as they reach the end of the day’s walk (page 7).

Our society is influenced by christian values and misconceptions, and our view of suffering is certainly evidence of that. People, even those who claim atheism or have converted away from christianity later in life, have this unshakable view of suffering as being some sort of necessity, of being deserved by the sufferer or a tool to build character and make you stronger. It’s the reason the camino was a path of penance, and it influences the way our youth feels about misfortune, placing the blame on themselves or assuming there is some hidden meaning in tragedy. I think that is sort of dangerous, that it contributes to our growing culture of depression and anxiety. But the camino is so much more than that now. Egan’s account of three different pilgrimages, entertwined with his firsthand observations of the camino culture, helps illuminate the nature of the camino as a personal becoming, as pilgrims achieving new understanding of their lives by sharing their story with someone whose only conception of them is from their time together on the open road. The journey is twofold, the physical exertion over distance and time emphasizing the internal effort as the pilgrim works to achieve a greater sense of self and cope with the darkness maring their minds.