A few weeks ago my mother invited me to a talk by one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. I’d never heard of him before but was immediately interested in checking it out. The talk went for an hour and I was engaged the whole time. Obviously he’s much more successful than me, but all the same he was a man after my own heart. Clearly an unsettled sort of fellow that had found a temporary measure of public peace through intense inner work. Knowledge, wisdom, travel. These appeared to be his values. I can’t help but think he became a humanitarian not out of compassion, but out of the philosophy that it was the best thing one could do with their life.
He spoke briefly about his humanitarian work, being the French ambassador to Senegal and the immigration situation in Europe. He advocated less immigrants which I was surprised about but also agreed with. Mostly though he spoke about a pilgrimage that he made through Spain. From somewhere I don’t know to Santiago de Compostela. He took “the Northern Route” through the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. It was an ancient pilgrimage first made by King Alfonso to visit the remains of St James the apostle. No one knows how those remains got from the holy lands to Spain.
I instantly swooped in at the idea of purchasing a copy of his book and getting it signed. We waited in line for a few minutes as he sat at the table signing books. It would be the first time I’d ever spoken to a “famous person” before. He’s the sort of famous person I admire because in my opinion he has done everything in his life that I would like to do. Become a doctor, travel, lead an organisation, write a book, make a positive impact. There aren’t many people to my knowledge who have “done it all” like that. I was actually quite star struck even though I’d never heard of him before and impressed with his energy. There was nothing too special about the moment we spoke, if anything a bit disillusioning because he was just another person – I’ve seen many of them already. He seemed to simultaneously abhor the encumbrances of social status yet had just made a talk to many people about his accomplishments. Contradictions can exist in nature; and especially in complicated personalities. He signed the book although I can’t read what it says (I think that’s the fashion). It’s now become very valuable to me.
The book is a lovely hardback with quite thick, luxuriously spaced pages. It’s gorgeous to look at because of the distinctly Spanish cover art, richly contrasting colours, the obvious subject matter of a pilgrimage and the prestige of the name on the front. It’s about 230 pages. I’d say it was written in the tradition of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It seems to have that enlightened quality to it. And of course it’s a book of the travel genre too. There were some laugh out loud moments and it painted a picture of the various places along the way pretty well without overdoing it. It wasn’t too challenging or rigorous – it had the tone of someone who had transcended beyond valuing intellect. And of course, it was originally written in French. It seemed to maintain its French aspect. English always seems quite utilitarian by comparison.
There was nothing too surprising about it. No big twists or anything. It was merely an anecdote of the 800km pilgrimage he took by foot. Being a travel book it was quite sensuous: a sore foot, the sound of snoring, visual features along the path. It was spiritual in intent. He was alone much of the time but also with people at various times too: so there was a balance of inner thoughts and interactions. He walked for several weeks, it was hard, there were places along the way, he went through different stages.
This wasn’t an idle story meant for entertainment I don’t think. This book is meant to teach something. It was rather unique and authentic in the sense that it doesn’t presume to uncover any huge secret or anything. The lesson is in the story itself. Lessons of learning to let go of what’s unnecessary. To live in the present. Peel away layers until you get to deeper truths. Then when he finished the journey it was a little bit disappointing – he hadn’t gotten some big change which would be his salvation. Having been on a few journeys myself this matches my experience – it was good that he risked telling it exactly how it is despite it being disenchanting. Soon enough things went back to normal with the addition of some golden memories. Yet, and I can attest to this, one is subtly changed by these sorts of journeys in ways that emerge over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps even, it was a spiritual journey taken as a young man which seeded the wisdom to found Doctors Without Borders or write books.
“His anecdote helped me reconcile two contrasting realities hitherto incompatible: the splendour of the Christian liturgy and the primitive simplicity of the Way.”
“For several months after my return, I tried to apply my reflections on my fears to the whole of my life. I calmly examine what I carried on my back. I cast off many things, many projects, many constraints. I tried to lighten my load to make it easier to bear the mochila (backpack) of existence.”