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Day 15: the White Elephant and the Relativity Approach

(Originally posted on 6 September 2016)

Villadangos del Páramo/El Ganso

After the 500 kilometres mark, most pilgrims are afraid:

Will my body collapse? Will my muscles hold the line? Will I be strong enough to endure 300 kilometres more?

These doubts are understandable. After all, the French Way ain’t the same without reaching Santiago de Compostela. Yes, you can still talk about the personal reflections, the beautiful landscape, the people you have met, but without the arrival in front of the cathedral and the hug from the statue of St. James, a good part of the value would be diminished.

Pilgrims have tricks to deal with physical pains. After a couple of days on the road, everybody becomes an expert of painkillers, ibuprofen, antibiotics and analgesics. Not to mention sticks, sunscreens and every kind of support possible. Many hostels provide in-house massages, osteopaths and acupuncture experts. Along the path, pharmacies and pseudo-pharmacies monetize daily on the anxieties of the pilgrims.

The pain is so common for pilgrims that it is the fourth most asked subject in hostels, just after “What’s your name?” “Which country are you coming from?” “Are you going to Santiago?” - there goes: “How’s your body?”

To deal with psychological fear arising out of the physical issues, the pilgrims generally have three approaches:

a) The denial. This kind of pilgrims fake an unusual strength and deny the existence of any possible pain;

b) The monologue. This kind of pilgrims speak with every possible mate about their issue hoping to reduce their pain, or at least to find someone in worse situation than them;

c) The Rocky scream. This kind of pilgrims love to yell the sentence “No pain! No pain!” in every possible language, quoting the famous line from Rocky Balboa during the match with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

To be truly honest, I don’t agree with any one of these approaches, because all of them will lead to what I call the White Elephant.

The White Elephant is the kind of argument that only bothers you because you have given it relevance, whether through denying it, speaking about it, or kill it. If I say you several times: “Don’t think about the white elephant”, “Don’t think about the white elephant”, “Don’t think about the white elephant”, what will you think about?

The White Elephant.

The approach I prefer (and the one that I use and recommend) is what I’d like to call the relativity approach. I saw a study several years ago that found the intensity of pain decreases for patients who have to give public speeches. The scientists explained that it is because they consider what they were saying more important than the pain they were experiencing.

Applying this approach to the Camino, this means thinking that everything else - from the sounds of your steps to the conversation you enjoy, from the flora and the fauna to the tortillas you taste - matters more than the pain you are feeling. This does not mean denying its existence – the pain is real and a core part of the Camino, and probably without it, the whole path would not be so fascinating. It means casting pain in a relative perspective, and focusing on other stuff that might be more worthwhile than the pain.

Till this day, I still haven’t found a single injury to be worthier of my attention than the feeling of fresh breeze combing through my hair…

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