I’m thinking about my friend, she’s walking the Camino over the next few weeks. She’s approaching 60 and has a lifetime of adventure, risk-taking and getting-out-there that makes this opportunity to hike daily through Lent alluring and exciting. All that living out of back-packs, sleeping in strange beds, and meeting new people should be like falling off a log for her.
Then she finally paid attention to some pain she’d been having in her knee, and the scan showed a tear in the meniscus. Ah, sweet reality; this could scupper expectations. Her initial reaction was unsurprising, after these years of activity and soldiering on. This news would not be permitted to impact on the plans she’d laid: she’d said she’d walk the Camino, a certain number of kilometres each day, and walk it she would!
It’s not often that we are like swiftly turning kayaks when it comes to our expectations and plans. More like great ships of the ocean that take time to shift orientation, inch by grudgingly given inch.
Anyway, all this got me thinking about ageing - the way we frame it and the way we engage it. Had my friend been on this hiking adventure decades ago, in her twenties say, she may have suffered a few blisters, the odd aching muscle from hours of shouldering a back-pack, but youthful strength and capacity could be depended on. In this sense, ageing can feel like a diminishment, a reduction of what was previously possible. Physical limitations might mean that she walks fewer kilometres each day than she planned, or even that she is unable to complete the entire route.
The Camino is about more than checking off the kays, though. It is world famous as being a pilgrimage, an opportunity to traverse challenge and setback, to reorientate one’s inner being in some way, and to journey to sacred places within oneself.
In this sense, I wonder if the hiker in her twenties is at a bit of a disadvantage. Physical strength causes us to be self-reliant. Yes, the trail is long and yet it feels well within our capacities. Yes, we might bemoan the odd blister and rejoice in the experience of camaraderie and endurance, and yet our learning can only go as deep as the depths we are ready for in this stage of our lives. While all experiences teach us, and all reflection is good, our stage of development limits our ability to engage this inner growth. Quite simply, as in any good game, we have to pass through all the stages; we don’t get to skip them.
When we embark on these journeys at a more mature age, then, are we not in fact enlarged by the experience of years and therefore able to go deeper into this invitation to reflection? Learning to reflect on our limitations, and our reactions to them, can become a treasure trove of gifts. Limitations - and our struggles to acknowledge and embrace them - invite us to accept the reality that we are not the masters of our own fate. We have dreams that are larger than our capacity to fulfil them. We have ego that resists unwanted identities that we are forced into at moments of limitation. To become ‘the slow one’ when we have always been fast, or ‘the one who gave up’ when we have always pushed through, or ‘the one who cried’ when we have prided ourselves on being upbeat or stoic.
These moments, unsought-for as they are, can become the very things that crack us open to new ways of being. To become new in some area of my life, I have to first recognise that the old way is not serving me so well anymore. And so often, it is only when I face my own limitations - physical, emotional spiritual, relational - that I am willing to admit to this truth.
There is such grace in having navigated several stages of life’s journey, and learned a few things along the way. As we find ourselves approaching some new difficulty, we might say “Ah, I think I’ve been somewhere like this before.” We know that we will come through whatever it is, and that we will be enlarged in some way.
May you have grace to face your limitations with a reflective heart. May your years be honoured for the ways they have enlarged your soul. May you offer the world around you something deeper and sweeter as you continue to hike along life’s trails.