by Mick Krasner, MD
(please play the video before reading my blog)
For 30 days In April and May of 2023, I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela for over 800 kilometers in Northern Spain. There are several pilgrim paths on the Camino. I walked the Camino del Norte which hugs the northern coastline of the Iberian peninsula before turning inland for the final few days before arriving in Santiago. This pilgrimage dates to the 9th century, and today’s pilgrims walk, cycle, or travel on horseback for a variety of reasons, some religious and spiritual, and many out of curiosity and a sense of adventure. For me, I found the experience to be physically challenging, at times emotionally difficult, and overall, spiritually uplifting.
As I walked for many hours each day, I found myself contemplating a variety of ideas, concepts, and dilemmas. With my recent retirement from clinical medical practice, and my transition to focusing on health professional flourishing through teaching and yet-to-be-developed new directions, my contemplations reflected this interim period as I considered many themes relevant to both my personal and professional life.
Among the many ideas I contemplated, identity and how one’s identity lives or becomes history found its way into almost all other ideas I considered. This included – home, resilience, difficulties, curiosity, the winding road, connection, full stops, bridges, boredom, community, silence, friendship, and change. One’s ability to change identities, remove some layers that no longer, strengthen those identities that are core to one’s being, and grow into novel identities, seem to be, in my thinking, a strong feature of resilience and robustness, especially in the face of adversity. This became quite concrete to me as I dealt with a physical ailment on the Camino that nearly ended my journey.
I developed severe anterior tibial tendonitis about 3 weeks into my walk that presented me with a hard stop. I literally could not walk anymore, and I was not sure that I could continue, as simple rest was not a guarantee of a resolution. Also, I had two dear friends about to join me for the last 10 days of the Camino, traveling from far places, with the full expectation that we would continue to walk and complete the Camino together. I found myself with thoughts such as “I am not that person who simply gives up!” And “I am not that person who gets tendonitis. And “I am not that person whose body fails them!” Or “I am not that person who lets others down.”
These “labels,” I discovered, were quite limited to whom I felt myself to be. Like a straight jacket, these labels restricted my identity, allowing me very little freedom of movement, little room for growth, and no way to consider a larger perspective on my predicament. As I sat in a hotel room, in pain and unable to walk, I began to realize that if I simply focused on this moment, I could see who I was and where I was right then and there. I was then able to say to myself “Now I am unable to walk, I am limited in mobility, I am now in pain.” That was the truth at that moment. The additional, or what the Buddhists call “adventitial” layers (recall histology?) were not necessarily core or true, only propositional for the future that had not yet unfolded. I could say then at that moment “I am that person who listens and attends to their body’s needs.” And “I am that person who cares about my friends and also knows they care for me.”
In a holographic sense, as I reflect in the video blog attached, there was an ending to those identities that had constrained me, and a beginning to new identities that were more expansive, more allowing, and more aligned with my core values and beliefs. Since this experience, as I continue to contemplate developing and making manifest my post-clinical life, I find myself examining which identities continue to serve me, which I can shed, and which are part of my core, motivating me to pour more of my effort into nurturing them. Perhaps each of us can engage in that kind of interrogation as part of our contemplative practice, moving closer to what is true and central to our collective beings.