This is a long post written by @purky on the forum. I have gotten his permission to post it here. His post and the following responses can be found here.
I don’t know about you, but I’m (intermittently) still trying to figure out what exactly got me hooked on walking caminos, being an atheïst and all. Especially shortly after walking part of the St. Olavsleden with my wife, where it became clear that she didn’t share my enthusiasm for walking a pilgrim path. While reading a recent thread where someone admitted ‘not getting it’, I asked myself yet again what ‘it’ is that makes me a camino addict but doesn’t hold the same attraction for my beloved. Still not an easy question. And I’m not looking for anecdotal evidence: I get the appeal of freedom, new vistas or meeting wonderful people. I am looking for a closing argument, and maybe even for a secular Grand Camino Theory of Everything.
Until I get there, I’m not too proud to borrow, steal or copy things that might help me on my way. For instance: I read an online article on tourism (that I unfortunately can’t find anymore) where an expert from the field stated that the motivation behind travel these days seems to shift from simply sightseeing or chilling out on a beach, to chasing a transformative experience. You have to come back a little different after a holiday, was the gist of his observation. This would be one explanation for the rising popularity of pilgrimages, I thought immediately.
But still the question remains: why is the camino so attractive for some of us? How come that we find walking through a country so much fun? While getting blisters or other injuries, suffering sleepless nights because of snorers and bag-rustlers, getting lost and forced to walk extra miles, slogging along boring stretches of industrial areas, wearing a (often too heavy) pack and having to wash out our undies by hand on a daily basis? Isn’t that just some kind of masochism, that highlights the good things that also happen, or perhaps makes us appreciate our ‘normal’ life more?
Then I looked at it from another angle. What if the camino is so attractive because of these hardships and challenges, instead of despite of? And that it isn’t about a desire to suffer, but a desire to rise above the pain and suffering and to use it as a tool for personal growth? It is after all an amazingly powerful (and empowering) feeling to find out that you can push through the hurt and come out on top. An initiation process or rite of passage usually involves pain of some sort: growth or rebirth hurts, but the rewards are more than worth it.
Secondly, the pain and suffering during a camino are on the whole quite manageable. A sleepless night is not the end of the world, blisters can be treated everywhere and you can get used to a heavy pack, or you can learn to leave unnecessary stuff behind. As pain and suffering go, and with some serious exceptions, most of it can be dealt with by gritting your teeth and getting on with it. A modest investment for a fresh outlook on life or yourself.
And thirdly, elaborating on the above, the camino is a safe environment where you always have an out. You know where the start and endpoint is and everything in between is waymarked. Medical help is a phone call away and almost all pilgrims look out for each other. There is plenty of choice when it comes to accommodation and food. You have access to apps, guides, GPX and KLM files, and the knowledge of fellow pilgrims. And when you don’t like it after all, you can hop on a bus or a train and go to the beach or the nearest big city within a day. Until that moment you can stretch yourself to your personal limits, knowing that there is a strong and stable safety net underneath you.
So masochism as a tool, a way to rise above yourself. It makes a certain amount of sense, because I found that the little pains, aches and discomforts on the way got me out of my head and back into my body. I could stop thinking and fretting and worrying because the pain forced me to pay attention to my body. I reconnected with my physique because of soreness. Sometimes you need a shock to the system to recalibrate. But since that adds up to a bit more than (non-sexual) masochism, I needed to add some depth to that. The popular quote “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” was a little too easy for my liking. But it opened the door to the Existentialists, because it raises the issues of choice and responsibility.
In a nutshell, and please correct me if I’m wrong, the starting point of the Existentialists goes something like this: each individual is personally responsible for giving meaning to their own existence and living it ‘authentically’. Which means that you’ll have to be conscious of the choices you make and take full responsibility for them. The catch is that you also have to understand that nothing in your life (apart from death and taxes) is fixed or certain. You, and you alone, are at the helm of your life.
When you look at pain or suffering from an existential viewpoint, and why not call it existential masochism, it can provide clues on which to base a choice. It might be smart to avoid pain, but it might be wiser to look beyond it and find out if (temporary) pain or discomfort is worth suffering when it might make you a better person or puts you in a better place in the long(er) run. Walking with blisters hurts, but it will get you to that albergue where you can rest up and heal. Bringing a rice cooker in your pack might make it a bit too heavy, but if that means your wife will come along, it could be worth it. Pushing your friend in a wheelchair across Spain (or letting yourself be pushed!) will take all your strength and resolve, but it could be the best thing you ever did. You will however only find that out after you’ve done it. After you’ve pushed through.
And that is also the existential disclaimer. With some luck and perseverance you will end up happier if you choose to live ‘authentic’ and learn to suck it up every now and then. But happiness isn’t a guarantee. Nothing is fixed or certain, especially in the short run. So we’re stuck in the here and now, and have to figure out how to navigate towards the end of our existence every day. Our obstacles and courses may vary, as will our mileage, and the outcome is uncertain. But the greatest lesson I learned on the way to Santiago: if I keep moving along I can learn to stop worrying and love the journey. Even if, or especially when, it is painful sometimes. And nowhere else than on the camino have I felt this so clear and unmistakable. I seem to need the simplicity of the camino to really tune into that frame of mind and that’s why I’m hooked.
As for my wife, and I imagine a lot of others: I suspect she learned this lesson long before I did and doesn’t need or even want a camino to help remind her every now and then. I can recognise she applies this knowledge every day, whereas I can get easily sidetracked and distracted. She chooses to take advantage of a holiday to take a breather, relax and quietly potter along, where I like a refresher course on life occasionally. At first I was sad I couldn’t share my passion for walking a camino with her. Now I find joy in the realization that although we’re not walking the same path, our tracks do run parallel most of the time.