Friday, November 11, 2011

Suffering is Optional

Toenails courtesy of the Parador (not Camino standard)
Looking back at Robin's bout of tendinitis (ankle), which halted our Camino in Leon for a few days, I continue to be amazed at her approach to dealing with it. Prior to walking the Camino, in various conversations, Robin would say that pain might be there, but suffering is optional. I listened, but did not truly understand what she was telling me. How can one not "suffer" under the burden of pain? I just couldn't work that out. People who deal with chronic pain must live in a world defaulted to suffering (just my assumption). So, how does one counter that assumption if suffering is not acceptable? How does the physicality of pain coexist within a mind/body that has other plans? This is where Robin enters. She had all the physical symptoms of classic tendinitis (confirmed by an ER doctor in Leon). She was told to rest and not to walk for 5-7 days. She had her ankle taped up and we slogged and hobbled, through a downpour, back to the Parador (our albergue in Leon). We settled in with a bottle of wine, lost in our own thoughts, our moods as somber as the blanket of nimbus hanging low over Leon. As we gazed unfocused on the rain slanting across the garden below, we basically wondered if our Camino had just come to a screeching halt (at least that is what was going through my mind). Robin's mind was working differently (no surprise if you know her). While I was conjuring up schemes involving taxis, and buses to somehow get us to Santiago, Robin was girding herself with a quiet determination to carry on. We spent three nights in Leon. As our stay drew to its end Robin announced she would continue walking. I offered her all the assurances I could that we could break the journey, and come back again, but no, we were bound for Santiago, and would leave the following morning.

Daylight came, we shouldered our packs and walked out onto a Camino freshly scrubbed, glistening with sunlight, and brimming with promise. Robin had removed the tape from her ankle before we left, and walked without any visible limp. In two days time we walked, seemingly without incident, into Astorga. I was simply in awe of how Robin did not seem to be affected by her tendinitis. We walked at our normal pace, and she made no mention of the pain she surely must have been feeling. The next day, as we walked out of Astorga, I could see she was struggling a bit. We paused for her to take some Ibuprofen. After that she closed her eyes and just rolled her bad ankle around a bit as if trying to realign something. In a few brief moments she said she was ready to go on, and so we did eventually arriving in Foncebadon late that afternoon. That evening she shared with me that she had posed a question to herself, "What would happen if I just melted into the pain?" I wasn't quite sure what that meant, but it became evident that Robin had decided that although she was experiencing pain, she was not going to allow that pain to become suffering. Without the limitations of a mindset geared to suffering she was free to reach an accommodation with her pain (Ibuprofen helped), and continue her Camino. The astonishing part is that she never mentioned it again. She walked with me stride for stride, not limping, not stopping early, not asking for any help at all. Of course I was asking her all the time if she wanted me to help, but no she was fine. This, it is important to note, was not her playing the martyr so I could continue my Camino. She honestly was fine, not pain free by any means, but fine. I still don't understand it, but that is what it was. We continued walking to Santiago without any problems and then, still feeling fine, continued further on to Finisterre and Muxia. Many weeks later, sharing a glass of wine at home, she confided to me that her bout with tendinitis had been a great learning experience for her, a much cherished Camino moment. She discovered (these are my words) some elemental connection between mind and body, a pathway mostly left obscured, had revealed itself to her, for whatever reason, just when she needed it most. I called it a Camino miracle (thank you Holy Spirit), but Robin just smiled.

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