Agne-Henrik’s story: The camino [The Way] changed my life by giving me what I needed

“It was April 1, 2008. I was in Roncesvalles, a small village at the French-Spanish border, staring at the road sign that said: Santiago de Compostela 790 [km]. My eight-hundred-kilometer camino on foot throughout northern Spain was about to start. I had only one straightforward question that I wanted to answer: where lies my professional future? When I arrived at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela a month later, I was very disappointed. I didn’t receive an answer to my question (In reality, I did get an answer, but I didn’t see it until much later). What I did get while walking were even more seemingly unclear questions. But it was precisely these questions (and the answers to them) that have transformed my life. I was about to discover that the camino gives you precisely what you need, not necessarily what you think you need.

Painful memories were haunting me during the camino. Later I found out why.”

What preceded: It was the end of 2007, and my personal and professional life was a mess. At the time, I was working for the United Nations on a humanitarian mission in war-torn Colombia. On the face of it, wonderful and meaningful work. But because of the suffocating bureaucracy and toxic work environment, I had lost all my faith in the humanitarian aid system. At work, I had become so cynical that I had to drag myself to work every day. My personal life, especially in the relationship arena, was also a disaster. It was an emotional roller coaster. I spent my days complaining and walked around in self-pity. Of course, at the time, I was convinced that it was not my fault. It was the other person’s fault, and I was the victim; my boss was an aggressive narcissist, my then-girlfriend was unstable. I wanted to escape from this. But how?

Then I remembered that three years earlier, during a semester at a university in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao, I had walked a stage of the camino. At the time, I resolved to walk the camino all the way someday. This personal crisis seemed a perfect moment to make that wish come true. At the beginning of April 2008, I started the camino Frances [the French Way] on the border between France and Spain. I had only one straightforward question I wanted to answer; where lies my professional future? I had parked my relationship issues for a while by literally distancing myself from my then lover. At least, that’s what I thought. Precisely those painful issues kept haunting me during the camino. Later I found out why. 

On the camino, I met terrific people and exchanged many stories. The journey was challenging but beautiful. I started at the beginning of April and walked into spring. It was lovely. It was also very symbolic, from the bleak winter to a fresh start. But no matter how far I walked, the answer to my seemingly simple question didn’t come. What did come were memories of my recent relationships—the drama, attraction and rejection, passion, and jealousy. I wanted nothing more than to step out of that dynamic because it made me feel miserable. But I failed. I was addicted to the intense emotions but also afraid of being alone. I felt powerless.

“I didn’t know then that the camino truly begins when you go home.”

A month later, I arrived at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela with no answer. Where my fellow pilgrims, four Portuguese ladies with whom I had walked the last days of the journey, were ecstatic, I was mostly disappointed. Here the story could have ended. But I didn’t know then that the camino truly begins when you go home. When I wrote down my experiences two years later, the answers to my questions unfolded before my eyes. Only then did I see why the memories of my love affairs haunted me. It was because I had gotten stuck in a victim role. That I felt so miserable was because of the other person. At least, that was my conviction. I had given control away. I waited passively, hoping the situation would improve. But of course, I had a role in that dynamic myself. Once I saw that, I realized I was caught in the same dynamic at work. This simple insight changed my life. More and more, I took responsibility in all aspects of life. I now have a wonderful partner and two lovely children and successfully pursued a new career that gives me satisfaction.”

Ps. By the way, it’s funny that you are often the last one to realize that you are in a self-made prison of limiting beliefs. I told a good friend about my breakthrough insight that I constantly lose control over my own happiness. He replied dryly, “Did you really need to walk 800 kilometers for that? I told you that years ago.”

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