Reflections on the Camino: Letting Go of Expectations

The mountain village of O Cebreiro full of pilgrims

As sociologist Tim Clydesdale’s research has shown, one of the most promising and important outcomes of students’ engagement with the concept of vocation is the grounding of idealism through the preparation to face setbacks and reality checks. In other words, students develop what Clydesdale calls “holy grit.” Perhaps it doesn’t hurt, then, for those of us working in the field to encounter some of those setbacks and reality checks ourselves.

Going into the Camino, I had my own idealistic vision of what the trip would be. I had trained as much as one can during a wet, cold Wisconsin spring, so I saw myself hiking swiftly and happily throughout the countryside. I imagined walking alongside students, literally, as they pondered life and unpacked their journey across northern Spain. I would also take time, of course, for my own spiritual reflections on life’s big questions.

I should have known that all would not go as planned.

For one thing, I was slower than I thought I would be. The first two days of hiking revealed that I simply could not keep up with the students while carrying my full backpack. Shorter and older, I needed to take more breaks and walk at a slightly slower pace. I felt like I was walking a solo Camino. And that was not why I was here.

My plans were further blown apart on the third day when after a few miles my walk came to a jarring halt. A throbbing pain near my hip, likely incurred on the previous day’s steep and lengthy descent, was causing me to limp and ultimately kept me from going on that day. I completed the rest of the day’s route in a taxi cab. I was frustrated and upset, unsure of what my purpose on this trip would be if I could not continue. This was not what I had imagined.

The next day I sent my pack ahead of me in the hope that less weight would be the fix that I needed. However, a few miles in, I was forced to admit that I was not in fact fixed. Back in a cab, I found myself at a turning point; I could either hold on to what I thought this experience was supposed to be or I could recalibrate how I understood my calling in this moment.

Saved by the shuttle service

Once I stopped wrestling with my vision of what I wanted and accepted the reality of what was in front of me, I admitted that I needed a full day off. The next day’s hike was a short but very steep climb up to the mountain village of O Cebreiro. As much as I wanted to make that climb, I knew that I could do some real damage if I did. I took a new look at my purpose and decided that if I couldn’t be a fellow pilgrim, I’d be a cheerleader.

Maybe it was the new perspective and attitude or maybe it was the ibuprofen and muscle cream, but I awoke with new energy. I gave high fives in the morning, took in a breathtakingly gorgeous ride up the mountain in a cab, and was there to welcome the students as they made it to the top. I listened to my body instead of my disappointed heart and apparently gave my injured muscles just what they needed. After that day, I completed every last mile on foot. Sticking with the lighter pack, I even kept pace (mostly) with the group and enjoyed plenty of great conversations and shared experiences.

Back home and fully healed, I am reminded of our vocations’ fluidity and evolution. Even if the heart of a calling may stay consistent, we will live it in ways we simply cannot imagine or plan for. And sometimes the calling that we thought was ours, simply is not.

In my experience, students deeply appreciate the opportunity to grapple with this reality.   

Hearing the “winding path” stories of faculty and staff as well as engaging in their own vocational reflection can help students become more comfortable with change and with the fact that life will not go exactly as they expect—two things that can nurture the grit and grounded idealism that Clydesdale observed in his research.

The view from O Cebreiro

As the Camino reminded me, these are lifelong learnings. The journey did not go as I had hoped or planned.  I’d like to think, though, that it made me a little grittier and a little more open to life’s curveballs. Perhaps then I can be a bit more authentic as I continue to walk with students, more figuratively now, as they navigate their own setbacks and write their own vocational stories.

For Part III of this series, see “Reflections on the Camino: The Gift of Space.”

{For the first installment of Rebecca Lahti’s reflections on walking the Camino, see “Preparation and Decision-Making: Reflections on the Camino.” As in that piece, the images here are pictures taken by the author}.

Rebecca Lahti is the Assistant Director of the Emmaus Center for Spiritual Life & Vocation at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI. She works primarily with student programming around vocation exploration. She is especially energized by her work coordinating Navigate, a yearlong small group reading and discussion program for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Rebecca also enjoys working with faculty and staff through retreats and study groups.

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