The Cat (Day 1: Saint Jean to Valcarlos)

A word of caution to the reader: While the following post contains a powerful spiritual insight that I received on the Camino, the circumstances involved a suffering animal.

You may want to pass on this one if you have a soft spot for critters. I just wanted to give you advance notice. This was the most upsetting — and revelatory — event of my Camino.

If there’s an Entity that decides when and how lessons are meted out, I give credit for the timing of what happened on my very first day.

Yes, there was laughter and camaraderie and wildflowers. Yes, there was rain and bright slivers of tepid sunshine. Yes, there was hospitality upon our departure and arrival.

But right in the middle of it was a cat.

I was walking with a group at this point, just after lunch, on a sloppy wet dirt track.

When I saw the orange cat, I had two immediate reactions:

Ignore it. Just keep walking. Pretend it’s not there. (I tried this.)

The second reaction was to move closer to look. I just couldn’t help myself.

I wanted to confirm that he was dead, but instead I discovered him lying immobile on his side, wet, shivering, and in the process of dying. Someone had hit him with a vehicle. He meowed and attempted to groom his fur. God bless a cat with his dignity.

Although I can hardly believe this now as I sit in my comfortable home, my first instinct out there on the road was to find a rock to knock him unconscious or throw him into the river to drown. “We need a rock,” I said to my companions. Anything to spare him this suffering, but I couldn’t find the resolve in me to actually kill.

He meowed again and my heart broke open with pity. I tried to touch his face to console him, but he recoiled. Someone behind me yelped. No amount of sympathy could heal him. What could I do?

A man behind me said kindly, “He’s near death. Leave him be. He’ll be dead in an hour or two.”

I sent up a prayer that this was true. We all began to walk again, but I separated myself from the group, trying to hide my sobs.

I was stricken and and furious. I shot out angry, incredulous questions at the Universe.

Why can’t he die now? What good does two hours of suffering do?

Why does he have to suffer at all in the first place?

Where is the justice in this? A poor helpless animal in pain? It’s cruel!

How is this fair?!

Why?! Why is this necessary?

I wasn’t seeking insight as much as railing against Whoever controls it all. That cat needed someone to stick up for him and I ranted about the wrongness of his suffering and any creature, human and otherwise, who struggles in pain.

“Suffering is wrong,” I tearfully informed the Entity in Charge.

The walking must have had a meditative effect because I had a thought, and then something clicked inside me.

The Wise part of my Self spoke up. The voice was loving and simply responded,

Suffering… is wrong?

“Yes!” Tears sprang again from my eyes. “Yes! What’s the point?!”

The point…

My wise, knowing Self was speaking gently in response to my angry, passionate outbursts.

The point is purification, it told me. We only suffer when we fight with what is.

The walking was evaporating my anger. I let this new information bubble around inside me for a few moments.

Then Viktor Frankl came to mind. Then Ghandi. And Byron Katie. Their struggles burnished them and turned them into an inspiration for humanity. I thought about my aunt, Mary Ellen, who suffered from post-polio syndrome her whole life, yet was the kindest, most generous and loving person I ever knew.

“So…” I hesitated.

Something about it was starting to make sense. “So… if we let it, suffering can be healing? It can be good?”

In a way, yes. It only hurts you when you fight it.

“So the point is to learn to sit with suffering. To be present with it.” The way the people who inspire me did.

I could feel my breathing calm and my tears began to slow. I blew my nose on my handkerchief.

Pain is a part of living. In some situations, you can choose to prevent it or correct it. But some kinds of pain are inevitable. When this kind of pain arises, you have the option of fighting it, which causes suffering, or you can develop acceptance of its presence. From a place of acceptance, healing and peace are possible, even if the pain itself doesn’t end.

“So pain isn’t a punishment for bad deeds. It just happens. And for humans, it’s an opportunity to grow. To be cleansed. We can prevent our own suffering by making peace with pain.”

Yes.

And somehow everything clicked into place. I could see now that pain itself may not be within my control. Suffering, however, is something I can create — or banish by simply accepting that pain exists.

At this, all the fight in my body left. I knew I had encountered a truth. I felt peace settle deep within me, softening my heart and strengthening my spine.

Coming to peace with suffering so early in my journey, as I mentioned, turned out to have been a blessing. All kinds of unexpected pain appeared on my Camino: homesickness, stabbing pains in my arches, fear of being alone, an ear infection, a cough that turned out to be bronchitis.

As each of these new pains showed up, suffering was an option. I can’t say I was glad for all of them, but I didn’t fight them the way I might normally.

Especially the foot pain. At first I despaired at this surprising condition that I never experienced at home. I could hardly walk and considered giving up. But, like fear, pain doesn’t always mean stop. Sometimes it means, be open.

I was able to befriend the pain, and listen to it, and I eventually found a solution that relieved the pain. And in the process, I prevented most of my suffering.

So I’m grateful to that beautiful, brave cat for his presence on my Camino. I’m grateful for the lesson he gave me. I no longer have to argue with pain, but lean in and decide to be open to what it has to teach me.

I know I will forget this lesson and come back to it again and again, but it has completely changed how I see life. I hope it helps you too, dear reader.

(If this piece touches you, I invite your comments. It was hard and scary to write, but I really wanted to share the whole picture of my Camino, not just the sunny parts.)

6 thoughts on “The Cat (Day 1: Saint Jean to Valcarlos)

  1. There’s a cat out there with my name on it, a person out there who’s pain will infect me. I know of the wisdom you speak, to lean into the pain instead of denying it, cursing it. I intellectually accept this wisdom, and in due course, have felt its cold embrace. Few invite these transformative events. Your experience, beautifully crafted, resonates with why we say “yes” to it the next time…because of a need to grow and, perhaps even more so, the need to connect and employ compassion.

  2. This was beautifully written, Jen. I’m glad you shared it. It seems to have been a strong, essential learning for you. And to happen on your first day of walking? How marvelous. A Blessing.
    I’m glad to know I share a name with your generous, kind and loving Aunt. ❤

  3. Thank you for this. Beautiful writing. Pain and suffering are hard things to contend with. And our culture really turns away from them…we try to fix it instead of listening deeply. In my work, I have also felt as though we leave the one in pain and suffering alone when really we aren’t alone. We belong to each other. We are called to sit with the other in it…not fix it…not rationalize it…but allow it all to open us up. We do a disservice to the other and to ourselves when we keep walking. Over and over again, stories tell us to sit with the other and open ourselves up to that kind of suffering too….just some initial thoughts. Thank you soo much for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Courtney. It makes me think of that poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without turning to hide it, or fix it, or fade it.” Your point is a good one that it takes strength to be with our own pain, and others in pain.

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