‘Grow through what you go through’ could be the mantra of today’s modern pilgrim. Trekking long distances through unknown lands, being separated from loved ones and overcoming harsh conditions are all part of the pilgrim life. While walking Via de la Plata—Spain’s longest pilgrimage route—I thought about how those circumstances of unknowing, loneliness and bleak forecasts parallel our challenging journey through COVID these past two years.
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Grow through what you go through: Don’t be afraid to walk alone
John Muir, known as Father of National Parks, said, “Don’t be scared to walk alone. Don’t be scared to like it.” Having just returned from the 455-mile solo trek across Spain, I can tell you, solitary walkers need to hear these sorts of assurances. Let’s face it, setting out alone can be scary business. And if you stop to think about it, adversity is sure to come in various ways during long-distance trekking. However, just as Muir hints, those who overcome the hardships will enjoy the experience.
Psychologists call the phenomenon ‘growth through adversity.’ Or when walkers struggle with highly challenging life crises like illness, trauma or a global pandemic, it’s called ‘post-traumatic growth.’
Growing through adversity into a ‘new normal’
Op-ed discussions and news articles now ponder how we can now leverage our past COVID experiences to a more positive ‘new normal.’ What have we learned about ourselves during this adversity that we can take with us to make our future lives better? How do you grow through what you go through? The COVID questions are the same that pilgrims ask themselves when they return home.
Positive psychological change experienced as a result of struggle
Adversity can create positive psychological change. As with demanding long-distance walking, social distancing and quarantines gave us opportunity to look within and examine our hearts. Are there places of ourselves that would benefit from change? What are the areas in our lives that we ignore? Places where we could welcome change or conditions where change could be difficult but beneficial? Pondering these questions can help you grow through what you go through.
According to a 2004 study published by Psychological Inquiry, post-traumatic growth “is manifested in a variety of ways, including
- an increased appreciation for life in general,
- more meaningful interpersonal relationships,
- an increased sense of personal strength,
- changed priorities, and
- a richer existential and spiritual life.”
Increased appreciation for life is part of ‘Grow through what you go through’
Overcoming obstacles like finding your way when lost in a hail storm or seeking a place to sleep when there is no room at the inn can give the pilgrim feelings of gratefulness for the most simple things in life. Likewise, those homebound or otherwise isolated by the pandemic have found increased appreciation for life. We might hear ourselves saying, “Well, at least I didn’t have the terrible experiences that others had during COVID.” Or, like I said, after a horrific accident left me with severe brain damage, “I grew so much through the trauma and its aftermath that I wouldn’t change a thing.”
What adversity did you experience during the two-year pandemic? How did you ‘grow through what you go through?’ In what ways has the pandemic increased your appreciation for life? If it has not, consider writing a list of what you’re thankful for and adding to it each day.
More meaningful interpersonal relationships
Although I left for Spain alone, I knew that I would walk with friends. I just hadn’t met them yet. Still, trekking with people from other cultures and of disparate personality types can manifest inner discomfort and difficulty when navigating meals, beds and opportunities for solitude. Those struggles could be similar to being cooped up with your spouse or family members during coronavirus quarantines. Yet, many pilgrims report that overcoming adversity on the trail eventually brings them closer to fellow travelers. Many leave the path with lifelong friendships. Similarly, couples say their relationships are stronger after coming through the hardships of pandemic sequestering.
Can you name people in your life with whom your relationship became more meaningful during COVID?
Grow through what you go through: Increased sense of personal strength
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is emblazoned on hikers’ T-shirts and bathroom walls in Spain. Musicians sang the words in the US during COVID. Surviving the massive change to our daily lives brought on by the pandemic has given many increased confidence. Again, it is all about ‘Grow through what you go through’ and creating healthy habits after adversity.
What about your experiences in the past two years have made you stronger?
The pilgrim carries the bare minimum in their backpacks and gets used to needing fewer material things. So, when returning home, many pilgrims desire to live more simply. Some clean out their homes, donating unnecessary items to charity. Others, like me, decide to quit their corporate jobs to find more meaningful livelihoods.
In adverse situations, you might find yourself reevaluating your life and making changes. How have your priorities changed in the last two years?
Richer existential and spiritual life
Over the past 17 years that I’ve walked Camino de Santiago routes, most people I meet declare that they are not walking for religious or spiritual reasons. Some tell me how they left their parents’ church and now identify as agnostics. Still, at the end of a long walk, some of these same folks report having spiritual experiences at the endpoint, the Santiago Cathedral.
The walkers are filled with feelings, which sometime they can’t explain. I experience a deeper existential and spiritual life during and after times of hardship on the path. When my body breaks down from the hunger and exhaustion produced by weeks of walking, my emotions are apt to boil over. Pushing through and dealing with unleashed emotions helps me connect with God and the spiritual part of my being.
Looking back, can you see where you’ve had a deeper existential and spiritual life since the first COVID outbreak? In what ways will you continue to grow through what you go through when it comes to your existential and spiritual life?
“UNSTOPPABLE Stacey” Wittig is a spiritual adventurer and travel writer based near Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow her journeys by subscribing to her website here: unstoppablestaceytravel.com/subscribe.
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