What It Means to Walk Alone

IMG_6819Religious or not, most of us have heard or seen the poem about the footprints in the sand. An allegorical text, written in prose, this text describes an experience where someone is walking on the beach with God, each of them leave a set of footprints in the sand until the part of the journey where there is only one set of footprints. The individual automatically turns to question God’s love and support, only to receive the response, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

It was then I carried you. Such a powerful statement to unpack. When faced with the dissolution of a safe and self-containing situation, the oft-repeated automatic response is one of bereaved wonderment and loneliness. These times are rejected, out of hand, as the worst possible options and experiences. The distancing of oneself from social support, however small, is not met without great deliberation. One of the greatest contradictions in nature is that of an individual in the midst of a collective; the individual cog taking part in an enormous wheel. It is often the case that it is the entire wheel that gets most of the attention while the cogs continue their work, unnoticed and unappreciated. This might be fine when applied to actual machinery; but what of humans? We define our lives, our livelihoods on who WE are, what WE alone have done or contributed to society. We persist in this collective endeavor, yet persist in overcoming and separating ourselves from the very fabric we fought to preserve.

My questions here are: can you truly even know who you are until you have walked alone?

There are few experiences in life that lead to true aloneness. You might find yourself in the woods, by a stream or up on a mountaintop, staring out into the endless sky. But how long until another hiker happens along? How long until you remember that fight you had with your sister yesterday or the dishes you left soaking in the sink? The answer is: not long. Humans fear aloneness, yet simultaneously crave it. There was one morning on the Camino that I remember distinctly. It was not one of those ‘alone moments’ that you savor and draw strength from. It was one of those terrifying moments where you do not know if you will come out of it alive. I remember we had woken up around 5am like we usually did and left the albergue early that morning, we had started walking earlier and earlier in the day to beat the heat and reduce our sun exposure. It was all well and good until we spaced out on the road and I realized that it was 6am, on a small country road, in Spain, with no street lights, no people and no houses for as far as I could see. I rounded the corner of a dilapidated farm wall, the outer barrack of a mill no longer in use. The mist lay heavy on the ground and at this point, instead of yearning for companionship, I found myself hoping against hope that there wouldn’t be any other living creature within sight. That I really would be the only one around for miles because if I was truly by myself, I might actually be safe. My only companions were the farm equipment left for a better day in the fields and my own shoes crunching on the gravel. I learned in that moment what it truly felt like to walk alone, but I do not believe that it was ever my feet crunching in the gravel, I believe that the one set of footprints I left across Spain were not my own, but something greater.

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