Robert Duvall won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best actor in a sweet, oft-overlooked 1983 film called Tender Mercies. It’s the transformation of an end-of-the-line alcoholic country singer into a decent man, not by some instant Hollywood epiphany but through a series of small kindnesses given to him by people who truly care for him – tender mercies.
I thought about it a lot while on my latest walkabout.
When I go off on adventures, I feel exposed. I am, like everyone else, a creature of habit. I find comfort in habits; habits bathe us in predictability and the perception of safety. There is no need to take risks, evaluate possibilities and make choices. I feel safe and secure in my habits.
My brain is lazy, although I prefer to call it efficient. It doesn’t like to work overtime evaluating risks, weighing possibilities, making choices, planning for eventualities and acting at a higher level of awareness required by new places, new people, new languages, new dangers. These force my brain to work harder than it wants to, over longer periods of time. My flight or fight mechanisms are on high alert.
On a person-to-person level, I have to figure out new languages, new cultural triggers and social cues. We’re human beings and, humans being what we are, we prefer predictability and safety.
Traveling alone exacerbates the challenge; I am on my own, forced to make all the choices. My sense of vulnerability is heightened; I am my only backup plan.
Sometimes there are just too many choices so I make life easy by turning some into habits. I find a cafe and, without looking for a daily menu, I order, in my mixture of English/Portuguese, a ham and cheese sandwich. Why? Because my brain doesn’t have the energy to go through the process of sorting out what to eat, I default to what works – a ham and cheese sandwich. Anyone who has traveled knows this. That’s why the Burger King in Paris can be so appealing after a long day at the Louvre (it’s okay; we’ve all been there!).
Yet, I choose to put myself into strange situations. They force me to stretch my tolerance for change and ambiguity, to test the limits of that tolerance, to push it a bit and see if I can raise my tolerance level. A tour guide once said that it is impossible to go from Disney World to the streets of Delhi. He was right; it is too big a leap, the body and the brain resist such a tectonic shift to the exotic. Sensory overload kicks in and we retreat, huddling in our hotel room watching CNN or gathering like sheep around the local McDonalds. At the end of a long strange day, a Big Mac offers comfort, curried lentils do not.
We assume, rightly so, that different is dangerous and habit offers safety.
At one of the Albergues this trip, I arrived early. It was a good one; clean, modern, good facilities. As I was unpacking in the room I would share with a dozen others, another guy arrived. He was young, mid thirties, a cyclist; he had wild unkempt Rastafarian hair and looked a bit ragged around the edges; his vast array of tattoos added to the wild man persona. He was English and sounded much like a Football hooligan – I secretly named him Hooligan Harry. “Oh great,” I thought, “another night at the Bates Hotel, hugging my little bag of everything I own close to me so it won’t be pilfered by the crazy guy in the bunk two rows over”.
More people arrived, we all went about our tasks of cleaning off today’s grime and getting ready for tomorrow’s climb. Later, we all went across the way for dinner. Over dinner with Harry, an American and three Germans, we had a wonderful discussion. Other travels, recent adventures, the philosophy of life, religion, football, it was a free range discourse at its best. Harry participated and as I listened to him, my fear of him fell away like ice off a tree branch when the rising sun hits it. He was a fascinating man, a carpenter who sold all his stuff to go on a two year bike trek; he quoted Eckhart Tolle, chatted amiably and radiated gentleness. In just a few hours he went from Hooligan Harry to Renaissance Harold.
He didn’t change that quickly; I did. I had rushed to judgement. Another example of F.E.A.R – False Evidence Appearing Real.
In my travels, I find my most valuable insights in these events where my instincts, and my judgement, are proven wrong – vividly, incontrovertibly wrong.
In strange circumstance, where everything is a potential threat, people pose the most interesting challenge. My hardening of the attitudes, reinforced by CNN and thousands of other sources of pessimism, fear and negativity encourages me to believe that the outside world is dangerous, that my comfortable habits protect me from danger and that strange people with strange habits are threatening. It just isn’t so.
I had no ah-ha moments on my journey across Portugal. I did receive surprise after surprise at the abundance of small human kindnesses offered to me. People were generous; their kindnesses more valuable because they were freely given, and they were given freely to such an obvious stranger – I called them tender mercies.
I came away, as I always do with a more positive and optimistic view of the human condition. I shed much of my accumulated fear and suspicion, I slow down my rush to negative judgments, I am more hopeful about my day.
I was about 65 kilometers out of Santiago, this, my second last day was a long one, more than 35 kilometres, to make my last day, my walk into Santiago, manageable.
I started early, a quick coffee at dawn. By about 9:30, I had covered a fair bit of ground but still had a full day ahead of me. Near a small village, San Amaro, a young woman was standing on the trail, waiting. I stopped, we chatted and she urged me to visit her cafe – Meson Pulpo – a few meters down the way. I was in a hurry and I could have interpreted her mission, cynically, as a hustle to drive what little business there was to her cafe.
For some reason, impulsively, I stopped.
Her sister welcomed me. I ordered a coffee. The cafe had a little corner devoted to the Camino. I browsed and decided to order a bacon bocadillo (aren’t those nice words? say them slowly – bacon bocadillo). I ate my bacon bocadillo (see how nice they sound?), drank my coffee and dawdled for a long time.
She visited with me, her husband joined in, she wrote a long note telling me where I might stop ahead for meals or lodging. I finished my coffee, stored the rest of my bocadillo in a baggy, took her picture and headed out. They stood out front and waved me goodbye.
That brief event in their, and my, life sustained me through a very long day and into the last day of my Camino Portuguese. It is with me still.
Thanks very much for this piece — it reflects a whole lot of what I think and what I believe about life. I’m sending copies out to our family because I think it’s good for all of us.
Look forward to seeing you on the 15th.
Sent from my iPad
Great post Bob. Travelling (or life for that matter) does not get any better that that. Thanks for sharing. – matt
Thanks Bob. A really enjoyable and thoughtful piece of what we are as humans. You voiced what we all do. I admit to a retreat into McDonalds on my first day in Hong Kong. From there it was transition to the wonderful, enterprising, food markets.
“False Evidence Appearing Real”.. #whoosh.
Lovely. Julia xx
This is beautiful and inspiring, Bob. Thank you for sharing. It’s a true blessing to come away with a more positive and optimistic view of the human condition. A blessing that you set up for yourself and were open to. receiving. You are awesome! xo