This story is the first of a continuing series about my adventures on the Camino de Santiago. You can read an overview of my time on the Camino here.
There is plenty to look at as one walks the Camino de Santiago. A large part of the beauty of the Camino is its diversity. Forests. Plains. Cities. Mountains. Tiny villages. Vineyards. Sunflower fields.
Although I found them pleasant to look at, I had never thought much about sunflowers. Much less had I considered their significance. That is, I had never considered their significance until the life cycle of a sunflower was explained to me by a German opera singer named Anja. As she explained it, just before sunflowers die, they give up their seeds from the brown part of the flower (the seed head). Their last act, if you will, is to give of themselves to ensure that future sunflowers will grow in that area next season.
A modern peregrino meets people who are on the Camino for various reasons. Many treat the Camino as a pilgrimage, a journey with very spiritual and personal motivations. This was the case for me. However, there are other reasons why individuals choose to walk the Camino. Regardless of one’s starting point, there is no obligation to travel all the way to Santiago. As such, some join the Camino as an inexpensive way to spend a few days or weeks. For those whose drive is fitness, the physical demands of walking around 25 km (15 miles) each day with a backpack that can easily exceed 5 kg (11 lbs.) is an incentive. There are others who make the journey by bike, thus traveling an even greater distance each day.
Due to the variety of motivations, one comes across all kinds of different people on the Camino. You can never really know for sure who you’re going to meet. This brings me to the story of my interactions with a man I’ll refer to here as Ted. Ted was a very interesting and well-traveled man from an English-speaking country. There was nothing nefarious about his reasons for walking the Camino. However, the issue was not with his motive for being there. The problem was that, unfortunately, he tended to drink too much. When this happened, his demeanor changed from light-hearted and jovial to unpleasant, sometimes rather quickly.
I had numerous encounters with Ted during my first three weeks or so on the Camino. These interactions ranged from positive and pleasant to, well, the opposite. The last encounter I had with him falls into the latter category.
A few days prior, I had met a group of other Americans by the names of Amanda, Patrick, and Wil. They had been together each day since starting the Camino. My intentions weren’t to walk continually with the same group of people, but it happened that we employed a similar pace. What’s more, I genuinely enjoyed their company, so I began walking with them as well.
The same day that Anja explained the sunflower’s act of giving up its seeds, a group of us were sitting around an albergue after a long day in the hot Spanish sun. This group included my three American friends, Anja, other individuals from various countries, and Ted. As had been the case before, Ted had too much to drink.
We were all laughing and generally enjoying the moment when, quite unexpectedly, Ted said something lewd and very inappropriate about women. It offended everyone who heard him say it.
“Wow, Ted. You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of women,” Amanda said.
Ted made another crude remark, which obviously did nothing to diffuse the situation. (I corresponded with Amanda prior to writing this account because I wanted to get the details as accurate as possible. She sent me her personal reflection on this incident: “He is also, when fueled by alcohol, an extreme chauvinist. He has harassed every woman at the albergue, myself included. It’s been extremely unpleasant…”). Simply put, it was obviously not a good situation.
Given that I had known him at this point for about three weeks and had had several good conversations with him, I felt like I needed to say something. This presented its own difficulties. I didn’t want to alienate my new friends by acting as if Ted’s behavior was acceptable. However, I had someone whose company I had enjoyed prior to this moment. I liked Ted. Moreover, given his inebriated state, I knew I needed to be careful not to say anything overtly inflammatory that would further escalate the situation.
I made my best attempt to keep the peace while still making sure that Ted knew his comments were not okay. It was a fine line, but I walked it to the best of my ability. (I looked back on my own recollection of this day in my journal from the Camino; I wrote then that I felt like I was walking through a minefield).
Thankfully, things didn’t get any worse. About 30 minutes later, it was time for dinner. We walked into the dining room of the albergue, and I sat down at a table with Amanda and Anja. I was relieved for the change of venue. I was also exhausted. Not only had I spent 8 hours or so walking in the sun, but I had just expended any mental energy I had trying to keep things calm. My exhaustion did not go unnoticed by Amanda.
“You look tired,” she said. I smiled and said that I was.
Without missing a beat, Anja said, “He’s ready to give up his seeds.”
I saw Ted just one more time after this, but I didn’t get the chance to talk to him. Ted, if ever you see this, please know that I enjoyed the time we spent before this event. Hopefully you can see from my account that I wanted to stay on good terms with you and that I’m sorry things had to end the way they did. I wish you well in your journey, wherever you may be.
I don’t recall this anecdote to make myself sound good. Rather, I do so because I want to share the lessons I learned from it.
Even if you are one who sidesteps conflict at all costs, sometimes sitting on the fence is not an option. Confrontation has never really been easy for me, but I knew I had to intervene. I would have much preferred to walk away and avoid this awkward and uncomfortable interaction, especially given its potential volatility. However, that wasn’t possible. I wanted to keep the peace, and, at times, keeping the peace means getting involved in conflict.
Whether she realized it or not, in that moment Anja made the perfect remark. She put the entire interaction into its appropriate context with one simple but profound sentence. What’s more, she burned that concept into my mind. Giving up our seeds. Giving of ourselves that others may grow. Making sacrifices, big or small, that help those around us.
I pray that, one day, I can look back on my life, knowing that I did everything I could to give up my seeds.
A pilgrimage is an intensely personal journey, but it is not one that a pilgrim undertakes alone. I don’t want to ‘talk’ into a vacuum. I want to hear other voices, too. What I’m trying to say is, I want feedback! Have I spoken something to you? Is there something you think I should know? Do you have a question about something I said? Please leave a comment or contact me at Pilgrim.Brett@gmail.com
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