Courageous Company of Strangers

What is the definition of courage? Is it leading troops, against all odds, into battle? Or charging into a burning building to save something small – a kitten? Or even running with the bulls in Pamplona? To me, courage is something much quieter. Something most people never get to see in their fellow human beings. And, today I was honored and lucky to spend time with it.

My day was bookended by two extraordinary people. One who arrived late last night after the sun went down. We don’t usually get pilgrims that late – after the gate has been closed. Jeff didn’t lock it and we heard a knock at the door after dark. The man on the other side was a late walker looking to refill his water bottle. After Jeff offered up a tent, he decided to stay. And we were very glad he did.

We spent this morning talking with him over coffee and an omelette. I am always in awe when people openly share their story. And when I’m privileged enough to get to hear it. I won’t get into details because it’s not my story to tell, but it’s a saga of tremendous courage. Of deep lows and sorrow. But also, self reflection and rebirth. Of looking in the mirror and facing things head on. And the joy that comes from doing just that.

I guess you could argue this is somehow common. It’s what so many people are doing out here on the Camino. Looking for something – either within or from a source greater than themselves. But that doesn’t make it easy. It’s hard, grueling, difficult work. And it requires the heart of a warrior.

Then later, as the rain threatened, we had another Pilgrim come this afternoon. He had walked all the way from Portomarin today. That’s a very long way uphill. There were no beds between here and there, and there were many peregrinos who were walking into this evening. I feel sure they were all in the same predicament. But this person was bone tired. He couldn’t walk another step.

He got cleaned up and settled in. I gave him a blanket because it will be a cold outside tonight. And then we sat down over olives, wine and some charcuterie. After a full belly of pasta with mushroom sauce, finally warm, he wove a tale that was deeply personal, and so moved me- it made me cry. We see ourselves in other people and this man had experienced lows that would take down the strongest of us. And yet, here he is. Still putting one foot in front of the other after 1,700 kms.

Men, in almost any culture, are not encouraged to fall apart. And if they do, they are not encouraged to show it. Keep it together! We value strength in our menfolk and we measure that by stoicism. Our action-hero movies and tv shows celebrate it, too. But showing vulnerability takes tremendous courage. And showing that to a complete stranger? Well, that takes even more.

Both of these gentlemen I would characterize as extraordinary. It’s true, most men will never go on a two or three month through hike. Or check out of their ‘real lives’ to embark on a singular journey of self discovery. That, in and of itself, would be remarkable. But what struck me most about each of them was their courage to show themselves – their real selves – to me.

There is so much happening in the world. It comes at us at speeds that overwhelm even the heartiest of us. But spending the morning, and then the evening, with each of these two 30-something people gives me hope for the future. If this is the generation of men on the heels of my own generation, the world will be just fine. Because introspection and empathy is alive and well.

We will likely not see these gentlemen again, that’s just how the Camino goes. Although, I know the universe works in mysterious ways. So never say never. But what an amazing gift this day has been. In the courageous company of strangers.

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