Chapter 16: Becoming Tim (excerpt)

“My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” ~ Sheila Walsh

 

Seventeen years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote and conveyed one of the most significant social phenomena of our time. His book, Bowling Alone, demonstrated statistically how over just a few years American society has moved increasingly further away from so many of the social constructs on which it was founded.

A simple research illustration in Putnam’s work shows that, while the number of people who bowled during the last twenty years has increased, the number who actually bowled in leagues has decreased. They were bowling alone.

Carried further, his data show dramatic decreases in group social affiliations that were once important to us—Parent-Teacher Associations, church, political parties, evening dinner parties. Neighborhoods where children once roamed freely and without care have evolved to fenced-in burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with panicked anxiety when the doorbell rings. We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnoses, where we are less healthy, less happy.

Simply stated, Putnam’s book addresses the truth that no one really talks to anyone anymore. We self-seclude. I understand this in an acute way.

***

It’s exhaustingly painful to hide behind a mask every day. Thank God I’m becoming more like Tim.

***

Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among the family herds. I’d heard Tim’s story weeks before I met him and he was gracious enough to share it with me in detail only a few moments after we met in Leon’s iconic Parador Plaza. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, the antithesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other setting. That’s the very lesson Heinrich shared with me three weeks back in Pamplona.

Visiting with Tim in the Parador Plaza in Leon.

I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim had come to Spain to heal from the unexpected loss of his wife, but I wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so soon about the loss.

A self-described Alaska couch potato who’s always enjoyed watching football, Tim was in good spirits from a 40-kilometer walk the day before—the equivalent of a full marathon—when he stepped on a scale to realize he’d lost 20 pounds. I asked him why he’d come so far.

Right away, Tim said he’d come as a tribute to his wife, who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground, and drowned in a six-inch puddle. Instantly, Tim and his family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was his best friend. It didn’t bother Tim one bit to let me, a complete stranger, know how much it hurt.

“She loved long walks. This is for her. She would have enjoyed every step,” he said.

The following day Tim placed a few of his wife’s ashes at Cruz de Ferro, the place where, for a millennium, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind.

I understand better as time goes on: Pain doesn’t have to be private. We don’t have to pretend. No matter how much things hurt, it’s okay to be you. And by being the real you, you might help someone else. One of my goals is that, each day, I become a little more like Tim.

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Chapter 25: Proving Ground – I Could Have Just Walked to Pensacola

It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

“At every stage of life, it’s important to be a rookie at something.” ~ Unknown

 

My youngest daughter, Sophie, (right) with two of her friends on a recent Spring Break trip to near Pensacola.

With only days remaining to the end, it occurred to me I’d jumped through a lot of logistical hoops and come an awfully long way just for a long walk.

For more than twenty years, a favorite annual vacation spot has been the sugar-white sandy beaches near Pensacola, Florida. It’s 501 miles from my front door in Jonesboro, Arkansas to the condo where we always stay. I wondered whether walking those miles would have created the same experience as those produced on the Camino. It would have been an experience, indeed. But not the same.

Just as the fixed nature of the North Star has guided voyagers for years, we all need static points of reference to recall who we are, and find where we’re going. It seems those reference points come most clearly to those go away for a time and think purposely about them. This purpose lies at the heart of pilgrimage. It’s what Eugene Peterson referred to in his classic work A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. History is filled with examples of people who used an intentional escape to find their deepest identities.

John Muir went away for months before finding his calling to advocacy for a national park system. Henry David Thoreau secluded himself in a remote cabin in the woods for more than two years to write and “live deliberately.” Jesus spent forty days in the desert in preparation for a ministry that took the gospel message to the ends of the earth. In fact, so much of the gospel’s foundational message can be reduced to two words.

Come and go.

When you’re away and alone, it paves the way for so many things that normally elude us. My senses, both physical and spiritual, come to life when I go out and far away.

A favorite sunset photo from Puerto Cayo.

The modest home we maintain in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador is as much a missional outpost for my wife and me as anything. It’s there where we have an especially unique opportunity to give and share. But just as important are the uncommon learning experiences we enjoy in a far-away place. Everything’s different—language, the weather, customs, transportation, even a lack of certain things we believe, back home, are necessities. It’s also a place where we’ve felt alone at times. As a result, many of our experiences there serve as reference points for a broader, deeper, more far-reaching life.

When I experience certain difficulties, I think back to moments in Latin America—those when we’ve been completely lost, without access to what we think of as the basics, and become dependent on God and one another to make it to the next day. And when I think back to those moments, I remember what sustains us.

In the height of my depression, I’d call my mom at random times through the day. I’m not sure why, but I suppose she was the most familiar thing I had—the one person who’d always had my back. When I’d lament hopelessly about circumstances and the inability to see ahead, she’d often say something I hated acutely every single time she said it. “Son, you’ve forgotten who you are.”

It’s not broken toilets, flat tires, the impending cost of a new roof, or even some ominous medical diagnosis that’s our biggest battle. The most challenging conflict we face every single day is the one we have with self. Some days it’s packed with guilt, regret, shame, and feelings of unworthiness. Other days are more about pride or arrogance. The most difficult days I have, by far, are those when I lose my sense of worth in the fog of depression.

Everything I knew about the Camino told me it was the right place at the right time to take stock of my own integrity. And how, as well, to think through going about what was now most important to me, summed up succinctly in the Gospel of John: He must increase, but I must decrease.

For me, the Camino de Santiago was a Proving Ground, where I rediscovered and reclaimed God’s calling on my life as a storyteller.

SIDETRAIL
Go Away

As he entered the early days of literary success in 2000, novelist John Grisham served as the spring commencement speaker at Arkansas State University, where I worked for six years. I was assigned as Grisham’s “body man,” mostly responsible for getting him safely into and out of town.

Grisham, who grew up just twenty miles from the ASU campus, offered graduates a message that raised eyebrows, and still holds the record as the shortest commencement address (seven minutes) in university history. In a loose paraphrase, he said this:

“Get out of here. Go away. Plant yourself somewhere else for a while. This is home, and it’s always been home, and it’s a good place, but it’s a place to which you can always return. You need to go out, and you need to experience the world. Leave.”

It was bold, and the last thing everyone in the room expected to hear. When it was over I remember looking at parents’ dumbfounded faces across the building. They didn’t know whether to applaud or throw things.

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The WHY Behind the WHAT

A couple of things happened over the weekend reinforcing my belief that Pilgrim Strong has a relevant message for the times.
Chasing the Great American Eclipse, Dana and I enjoyed some quality time with fellow pilgrims, in, and around, Kansas City, MO. During this time a few people asked about my book’s message.
Explaining it’s not the typical “camino” book, I shared with them my personal desire to understand not only WHAT I believed as core truth, but WHY I believed it.
Some people asked immediately, “Why is the WHAT not enough? Why can’t we just know WHAT we believe?”
After an exhausting trip home through horrendous traffic and two days of flooding storms, Dana and I just wanted to relax Tuesday night, and we turned to a Netflix documentary I’d saved several weeks ago about self-help guru Tony Robbins. Interestingly, the documentary is titled, “I’m Not Your Guru.”
It’s a fascinating film featuring a behind-the-scenes look at Robbins’ week-long annual event called Date With Destiny.  In it, Robbins gets up close and very personal with participants who pay $5,000 a head in hope of life-changing revelation.
Watching, I was reminded of these lines in the Pilgrim Strong afterword:
“It’s in the best interest of some of the world’s most prominent public figures that you buy into their truth.
What in the world are we to do? As the apostle Peter begged … Lord, to whom shall we go?
Without anchor points and a truth that has a fixed North Star quality, we’ll be as subject to alter our idea of the truth as often as the next convincing guru comes along. This much is true: whether you’re running for public office, or selling books, or preaching a sermon, or organizing and leading groups you may do it either of two ways—appeal to the worst in people, or speak to the best in them. Both methods work, but count the cost.
For all the years leading up to my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, I knew what I believed. But the what was no longer enough. I needed the why in the equation.”
Let me just reinforce a quick line from that text: “Without anchor points and a truth that has a fixed North Star quality, we’ll be a subject to alter our idea of the truth as often as the next convincing guru comes along.”
Never has it been more important to understand deep, down inside ourselves WHY we believe WHAT we believe.

The Letter Every Man Should Get

The writing is done, the editing complete, just wrapping up a few details now, then it’s off to production on Tuesday.  We move from writing a book to creating one. Things are well on track for a week-of-Thanksgiving Pilgrim Strong release.

(This is purely by accident, but I just this moment realized how appropriate it is to release a book called Pilgrim Strong a few days before Thanksgiving. No one will ever believe it, but I swear, the idea never entered into the marketing plan. I’ll take the lucky break and run with it anyway.)

I wept many times yesterday applying some of the final finishing touches. So many memories, so many things learned. This has been a long walk, indeed, and in many ways everything about my life is somehow now relative to the experience of walking and telling the story.

Last week I made acquaintance with an author/speaker/entrepreneur who I’ll work with in securing book reviews later this year. I asked her to read the manuscript and offer a blurb if the story so compelled her.

One of the many comments she offered was regarding a short color sidebar story about a letter Dana wrote the night before my departure. She commented about the beautiful language Dana used and the depth of thought in her last sentence.

She’s so right. Not only was it an encouraging letter. It was magnified by her self sacrifice.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as a woman. But I have 51 years experience now at being a man, and am pretty good at it. Every man should know the peace and comfort that comes from a letter like this when it’s penned from the person he loves most in the world. I’m a lucky man.

Dear Steve,

There is a flood of emotions right now. I am so proud of you. Anxious. Excited. Curious. Every feeling you can imagine. You are sleeping now as you prepare to go.

Thank you for scheduling your trip around our anniversary. It was all so special.

I know you can hardly contain your excitement. Do me a favor as you walk. Enjoy. Smile. Laugh. Be amazed. You deserve this, darling. God is excited, too. He will enjoy this time with you.

Love,
Your basherte for eternity.
Dana

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We Were Genuinely Crying Out to God

 

Josh White has faced difficulties that few will ever know. He served a tough tour of military service in Iraq where his Humvee took a direct hit, fought the night terrors of PTSD, and battled depression and addictions through the years readjusting to life in a civilian world that he says has no rules or structure for war veterans.

But none of it compares to the moment three weeks ago when he stared helplessly at the last $2 in his hand and feeling a complete failure.

He remembers looking at his wife in bed that night and apologizing.

“The last thing I remember feeling that night was complete emptiness and embarrassment. There was nothing else.”

Just two hours before, Josh did something extraordinary. He’d given their last $2 away.

***

Josh and Brandi White

Things had never been easy during Josh’s return to civilian life. But he’d persisted enough to get his life headed back on track. He’d been drug-free more than a year, re-established a relationship with his ex-wife, gone from homeless to having a nice three-bedroom home, landed a job with the city maintenance department, and the family now had two new working vehicles.

“I felt like we’d really turned the corner in so many ways,” he said.

When an injury prevented Josh from working  earlier this year, the family’s financial situation was tight again, but nothing ever challenged Josh like the Veteran’s Administration letter he received on May 18.

The VA claimed he’d violated the conditions of a felony release from years ago and ruled to terminate his benefits immediately. The ruling caught him completely off guard, especially because of his involvement with a local program that helps keeps veterans on the right side of the law, and he’d been faithful to the program.

“There was no way it could be right, but it was a government agency’s word against mine, so what are you going to do?” he said. “It was devastating.”

As the bills quickly grew, Josh’s biggest burden became not knowing how to provide his family with the basic necessities. “I remember looking up one day and just saying, ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.'”

Through his most difficult times with PTSD, Josh said he never questioned his faith in God, but would sometimes wonder what he’d done to deserve so many tough breaks. “I knew I wasn’t doing all the things I needed to do, and going to church and being active in church was one of them,” he said.

“I just remember looking up one day and saying, ” ‘Lord, I have nowhere to go.’ “

As they realized the desperate nature of their situation, Josh’s wife looked at him one Wednesday afternoon and said, “Looks to me like we ought to be back in church.” He agreed.

“When we pulled into the parking lot that night, I reached into my pocket and found the $2, looked at Brandi, and said, ‘This is it. That’s all there is.’ And we made the decision right there to give it to the church. I just said a quick prayer and said, ‘Lord, bless this and bless it abundantly.’ And we gave it away and that was that. We were broke.”

The next four days were some of the most difficult the young family had faced.

“My only thought was I’m not going to be able to take care of my family, where is my next dollar going to come from, where is my family’s next meal going to come from? I was injured, depressed, mentally exhausted and couldn’t stop wondering what I’d done to deserve all this. But I can honestly say the night we gave the money away I gave that situation to God and completely turned it over to Him. There was nothing else I could do. I was empty, and genuinely crying out to God.”

Five days later Josh received another letter from the VA and a local senator that read just as shockingly as the first.

The agency made a mistake in its ruling against Josh, the letter said, and found cause to award him $43,000 in cash benefits. When Josh checked his online bank account the records showed a direct deposit made less than six hours after he’d given the $2 to his church.

His first thought (and fear) was there had been some terrible mistake, so he immediately fought through the maze of bureaucracy and automated telephone voice prompts to clear the confusion. When someone finally came on the line, Josh told them the money wasn’t his.

“The lady on the other end of the line said she couldn’t explain the money, and saw no real reason for it, but also could find no reason the agency should reclaim it. She even went and got her supervisor and the only advice they could offer after a long time was that we should use the money to pay our outstanding debts.

“You can imagine all the things running through my mind at that moment,” he said.

The family has since paid $18,000 in debt and eliminated a $2,000 loan taken to pay monthly bills last May, and they’re using the unforeseen circumstances to start a new life.

“We never lost faith during the whole time. It wasn’t easy and I’ve had my share of shortcomings, but we never lost our faith. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to explain the money.”

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Photos from the Book Trailer Shoot – Indefinably Changed

The first Pilgrim Strong book trailer titled, Indefinably Changed is almost complete. We’ll distribute via social media on July 4. These are a few photos from last week’s shoot.

 

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Recording voiceover.

 

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My journal and setting the light.

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Master producer Raney Rogers. Pharmacist by day, cinematic guru the rest of the time.

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A collection of books that guided and inspired the pilgrimage.