The Baggage We Carry

My excitement about being on El Camino De Santiago—the Way of St. James—walking in the footsteps of the millions of pilgrims who came before me, carried me for the first portion of my journey. My feet were still in good shape—no soreness or blisters, not even any calluses yet—and I was sticking to the schedule I’d designed to keep myself from overdoing it. I stopped every hour to stretch and to drink water, and I took a break every two hours for a snack.

The scenery was beautiful and green, and the landscape was mostly flat. Before long, though, the flatness gave way. Because I started my pilgrimage on the other side of the Pyrenees, I came upon my first mountain outside of Pamplona, Spain. Here at Alto de Perdón—or, in English, Peak of Forgiveness—I learned that while at times the Camino de Santiago could go around mountains, it usually prefers to go right over them.

On fresh legs and in good spirits, I was undaunted. Besides, without an exhaustive guide, I didn’t know I was about to hike up and over a real mountain.

The legend of this steep mountain is that by the time a pilgrim climbed all the way to the top, he would have atoned for all of his sins—thus its name, “Peak of Forgiveness.” The legend didn’t align well with my theology, but that didn’t matter. I was relatively sure that any forgiveness I could have possibly hiked off on my way up the mountain was overshadowed by all the cursing I murmured under my breath. Specifically, I cursed the weight on my shoulders. How did my backpack get so heavy? As I hiked up and up, I mentally combed through every item in the backpack and cursed the weight of each one.

I thought I had mailed all nonessentials to Santiago before leaving Pamplona. When I started out, my backpack felt relatively empty. I thought I was packing light. But I soon realized on that steep climb that every ounce of weight matters when climbing mountains and hiking dozens of miles a day.

I eventually made it to the top of Alto de Perdón. On the way up, I stopped often to take pictures, and I hoped no one would notice that I was deeply out of breath and trying to mask that I needed a break. At the top of the mountain, a monument with bronze cutouts of pilgrims across the ages (depicted with their walking sticks and wind-blown cloaks) greets travelers. I could see for miles and miles, back to the east from which I had come and forward into the west where I was headed.

Before taking it all in, though, I slipped off my backpack and let it hit the ground. I collapsed next to it and took out my water bottle. Rehydrated, I caught my breath and ate some cookies offered by the German pilgrim sitting next to me. As I munched, I tried to decide what to ditch from my pack that evening. I thought I had done a good job paring down my pilgrimage gear. I knew beforehand that the weight of my backpack would matter, but I didn’t understand how much even an extra bottle of water would weigh down each of my steps. Walking that long journey meant I had to be conscious of every ounce I carried in order to minimize fatigue and stress on my body. That night in the hostel, I sifted through my belongings even further.

I carried one set of clothes to sleep in while my hiking gear dried on the line outside. I brought no makeup, and I trimmed my toiletry supplies to sunscreen, lip balm, toothpaste, and shampoo (that doubled as soap and laundry detergent). I even traveled all the way to León without so much as a comb or hairbrush. In León, a big city about two-thirds of the way to Santiago, I broke down and bought myself the lightest brush in the shop as a present so that I could brush my hair, which had started to turn into dreadlocks. I stopped carrying extra water and more snacks than I needed for the day. Instead, I filled my water bottle at fountains along the way or in the bathrooms of cafés. I bought enough food for each day and no more. If I had leftovers, I shared them rather than carrying them with me.

I’ve realized that sorting through the baggage we carry around in life, and especially as we journey into our callings, is just as important as carefully combing through the weight on my back on the Camino. We all have baggage—events from our past that taunt us, insecurities, fears, expectations, perceived limitations, and so on. Sometimes we don’t realize the weight we carry. Other times carrying the extra weight with us seems warranted or inevitable.

Often we don’t realize the implications of the weight we carry. Just like on my Camino, my baggage does not seem problematic until I am under stress. When we are at our most vulnerable, our most challenged, or our most desperate, the issues hiding in our baggage seem to get unexpectedly heavy. Our personal issues make their way out of us and spill onto others, even those we are trying to help. Unless we commit to sorting through our baggage, these past difficulties will get in the way of our finding and continuing to follow our callings.

If we want to be able to live into our callings and help instead of hurt people along the way, we have to sort through the baggage we are carrying around with us. The things weighing us down may be different for each one of us. Our baggage might be the way we define success. Can we feel successful without a big, or even just decent, paycheck? Can we feel like we are successful without a title, a spouse, or an audience?

Our baggage might have more to do with feeling inadequate or insecure (or both). It might be anxiety or worry. Maybe it’s a crippling fear of failure. Pockets of unforgiveness might weigh us down. The heavy thing in our backpack might be our inability to say no or our feelings of obligation. Maybe we can’t get past the notion that we have to live up to the fabled ideals we learned as children. Maybe the pressure is to be an all-knowing academic or a parent who works full-time, fulfills all their parenting duties with flair, and stays fit while doing it.

Moving forward means we have to think hard about what we need and what we can live without. Letting go means we won’t have everything we want and think we need at all times. Letting go means we will have to admit to God, our community, and ourselves that we don’t have our lives put together. But when we are freed of the weight, we can breathe easier, carry ourselves with grace, and even climb mountains.

This post originally appeared in Five Hundred Miles: Reflections on Calling and Pilgrimage by Lauren Brewer Bass.

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