On the road: Spiritual dope for the overachieving, ultra ambitious and neurotic

This is the story of a struggling college grad who goes on the road in search of meaning. It first appeared in the award-winning book Not Knowing: The art of turning uncertainty into opportunity— a guide for thriving in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world by authors Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner.

One of the most important medieval pilgrimage routes, El Camino de Santiago still draws thousands of people from all over the world to walk the famous 800 kilometres stretching from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Unlike their ragged, world-weary, indulgence-seeking counterparts, the modern pilgrims decked out in high-tech gear come over for a slew of reasons — from adventure to weight loss to spiritual awakening.

As for me, what brought me to the path that day in early June of 2012 was a sin I needed to atone for.

My sin was the sin of knowledge — and it was personal rather than biblical. As a mathematician and economist by training, I readily subscribed to the notion of a universe that could be measured, predicated and controlled. Not only was it so neatly elegant, that notion, but it also perpetuated a false sense of security that by applying the right theory one could aspire to possess the Truth.

Trouble was, I took the scientific credo so much to heart that I tried to replicate its promise in my personal life eagerly substituting cost-benefit analysis for intuition, and crushing pleasure and spontaneity with utility theory. My life turned into a sterile, mechanistic, perfectly planned routine, the naiveté of which didn’t quite register until after my college graduation.

My scientific façade stripped away, I was forced to realize this: there existed no Truth to be possessed; there was only my truth to be lived.

Embarking on the Camino allowed me to begin at square one, on a clean slate, and earn my way out of knowing, out of predicting and controlling. I had been clinging to the illusion of stability for so long that I wondered who I would be if I let it go and instead…just be. To make the experience as authentic as possible, I embraced a minimalist travelling style: no guidebook, no fancy GPS mobile apps, no emergency equipment of any sort. Morning frost or blistering sun, in the frequent drizzle and the occasional storm, I’d be plodding along clad in shorts and a T-shirt. Some days I’d trudge on for 50 kilometres of barren land, my feet sweaty and cramped and blister-infested inside my wool socks.

Granted, I could have spared myself so much hassle and pain with a little planning and a little knowing of what’s ahead. And yet I’d have surely lost a much more valuable knowledge — knowing how to lean into discomfort, to trust my intuition, to feel deeply, to open up to serendipity, to connect with joy and, perhaps most important, how to dig deep inside and find the strength to respond to anything that comes along.

Besides the very literal uncertainty of walking the camino, there was another, more personal level to it. People talked of visions and divine revelations, of finding themselves — all claims that would have me wincing before. I still had trouble imagining the skies opening up to speak to me, but the power of intense silence and walking to focus the mind’s eye and to heighten one’s self-awareness hadn’t eluded me.

I found myself both curious and scared of what would transpire, and my fear was that deep down I was, in fact, a bad person.

Something happened halfway on the camino that fleshes out the uncertainty I’m talking about and how trusting it paradoxically brings about more clarity.

I arrived in a nondescript village called Molinaseca one sweltering hot day in July. At its far end two small tourist inns stood close by and as I approached with the dozen or so other pilgrims, it was clear where everybody would set up camp for the night. New and shiny, made from smooth polished wood, the first inn was a far cry from the other — a dingy building whose owner might as well have come out of a horror movie set.

Dishevelled hair, wild eyes, one missing leg, the unmistakable smell of spirits about him, the ominous screeching noises his cast made — those could only portend trouble. And yet I was drawn to that second inn on a gut level even though I knew — with all the common sense imparted to me by doting parents — that it was a bad, bad decision.

My feeling overriding my reason, I stayed — the only guest and scared beyond description but not wavering for a second. The inn’s keeper, perhaps out of gratefulness, went into his room and fished out a bottle of olive oil, which he handed out to me with the words “only for special guests”. Then we sat outside at the flimsy table and he told me his life story — a story of love and a happy marriage, a crippling accident in his mid twenties, the ensuing treachery of the wife, the heartbreak, the denial, the anger at God and finally, the pilgrimage and the finding of God again. The man’s name was Elisande — which, he reckoned, made us namesakes (people call me Ellie) and kindred spirits of sorts. I had barely uttered a word the whole time, but when he finished his story, he told me, “You are a good person Ellie”.

When people ask me what I found on the camino, I always feel tempted to say, “That I’m a good person”. I never say it, though, for fear of a raised eyebrow, an eye-rolling duh, an incredulous that’s all?And perhaps this episode in Molinaseca holds too much of a (unjustified) symbolic significance for me. But I went out searching for my truth and our truths have a way of jumping out at us in the unlikeliest of places. This scary man brought me closer to mine. By suspending my judgement, by letting go of stereotypes, by choosing potentially sorry over certainly safe, I was able to connect to anther on a viscerally human level and learn this:

I am in you. I am because of you. No man is an island.