Pain, Suffering, Friends, and the Staircase of Truth

The Staircase of Truth

If suffering makes us more likely to be truthful, this street has seen lots of honesty.

Descending toward The Arch of Truth

The old city is built on a steep hill. Tourists pause to look up, holding onto the the railing, wondering if this steep set of stairs will ever end, hoping there is a bar with a view at the top of this staircase (there isn’t, only a small chapel). There is a wine bar at the Arch of Truth down somewhat, but it has an expansive (and expensive) view. Stick with me, there is some science here.

Walking your way to the truth?

Many hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela each year. Most will experience some kind of change; I believe the amount of that change is directly proportional to the amount of suffering.

Our new friend in Santiago

If you’ve walked into the square in front of the Cathedral in Santiago (Spain), you may have bought a CD from this guy. Witty and a bit quirky, with fork and knife on his hat, and if I lived in Santiago we would be friends. This is one of the quickest changes one makes on the Camino — we make friends out of nowhere.

Liz and Alex

Some friendships are very short term, but other friendships are destined to last. The trail took us apart after a few days, but this couple are people we will stay in touch with. Just before she left to walk the Camino Francais, another of my friends told me she was concerned that she wouldn’t make friends on her Camino: “You make friends so easily, but I don’t.” I laughed every day when her photos showed her with new friends. Why is it we can make friends so easily on the Camino?

Not the talkative type of pirate

Walking a Camino puts you around people with a common purpose, but that could also be said of a weekend seminar on buying rental real estate. Why is it that on a Camino you can find yourself sharing deep secrets very soon after meeting? I walked with a nurse from New Zealand, Kathryn, for a few hours, and within an hour we were both crying after sharing stories of close friends with cancer. Walking and crying with someone I’d just met wouldn’t happen back home.

Sand walking in Portugal

I believe the bond we make so quickly and deeply is because of our shared experience of pain. Walking day after day brings on blisters, sore or pulled muscles, back or foot problems, and each day brings some level of suffering. I think this is the strongest bond of all: suffering. And there is science on this! An article in the Association for Psychological Science presents a study which found that shared pain brings people together.

“The research suggests that, despite its unpleasantness, pain may actually have positive social consequences, acting as a sort of “social glue” that fosters cohesion and solidarity within groups: “Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia.”

Now you know that the profound experience you had walking the Camino with all your new friends was in part due to that painful series of blisters you suffered. And if you visit Porto and climb the Staircase of Truth, by the time you reach the top you may have a new best friend.