Having the freedom of six weeks to walk 500 miles the Camino de Santiago was a gift and a privilege, an opportunity to re-set the habits and priorities in my life. One of those priorities was to slow down, to not be in such a hurry.

I had been aware for more than a decade that I suffered from something called “hurry sickness” which I had read defined as, “… a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time, frequently in the face of opposition, real or imagined, from other persons.”[1] I spent a lot of time rushing: chafing at long lines at checkout counters, finishing my wife’s sentences for her, impatiently checking my watch in meetings. The list could go on.

Walking on the Camino was going to be different—I had no schedule other than to get up in the morning and walk. I was going to unwind my life, but not without effort. The first few mornings of my pilgrimage the quiet rustling of my neighbors around 6:00 was my signal to wake up and get going. I felt a strange internal pressure to hurry, as if we were all in a competition or a race. I don’t know where it came from, or why I thought it, but there it was; it was not rational.

That’s when I said to myself, “I’m not in a hurry,” and began to relax. That statement became my mantra: I said it not only first thing in the morning, I said it to myself as I sat in cafés mid-morning, savoring a café con leche; I said it to myself as I paused to take a photo, sometimes from several angles, wondering if I was taking too long. I said it to myself as I walked long stretches of the road and younger, faster groups of pilgrims bore down on me from behind. I had to say it to myself if I sat on the side of the trail for 15 minutes, just to rest my feet. Don’t be silly—this is not a race, I said to myself, again and again. Yet the urge to hurry, the belief that time is a scarce commodity, was very deeply rooted. 

It came to me eventually that a better way to think of it was “cultivating slowness,” taking a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to each moment of life. But learning a new habit was not going to be easy; it had taken me a lifetime to develop the old one. To change was going to require a conspicuous effort. One way was to see each pilgrim as a brother or sister when I came alongside them on the path, greeting them with “Buen camino, hermano,” and striking up conversations, even if it meant slowing my pace.

On my 15th day of walking, one of those opportunities presented itself. Around mid-morning I was trekking across a particularly featureless part of the Camino: a flat, straight gravel path that ran alongside the highway for at least five kilometers. The day had started out with light rain and the sky was gray. It was April 13th, the anniversary of my mother’s death in 2007. She had died rather unpredictably from colon cancer—just six months from diagnosis to death. I was reflecting on her life and her sudden passing as I overtook another pilgrim, Frank.

I’d seen Frank quite a few times ever since I’d left Pamplona, on my fourth day of walking. He was around 50 years old, and had a large pack with a distinctive orange cover. We’d stayed in the same albergues various times over the previous two weeks—we both liked the donativos. I discovered that he was from Germany and he enjoyed the fact that I knew a bit of German, smiling when I greeted him in the morning with “Hast du gut geschlafen?” I knew that he had walked a long way already: he was from Frankfurt and had set out on foot from there. By the time he had reached St.-Jean at the base of the Pyrenees, the starting place for most of us, he had already covered 1,000 kilometers.

We were both on our way to Carrion de los Condes and were about a kilometer from the tiny village of Población de Campos. I was walking faster than he was. Typically, I would walk alongside and say, “Buen camino, hermano,” and continue on my way.

But that day I felt an urge to linger with him—one of those inner “signs” I was trying to pay attention to—and after my greeting, struck up a conversation. He told me had left his home about three months earlier to walk all the way to Santiago. His pack was so large because he was carrying a tent and winter clothing. This is a genuine pilgrim, I thought to myself. I asked him why he was walking the Camino. What he said next surprised me. 

Three years earlier he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and had gone through chemo. “It was awful, but I went into remission.” He had tried to walk part of the Camino right after it but felt sick and after a week he’d quit. Then just the previous December the cancer came back and the doctor told him he had maybe only a year to live. “He said I should try chemo again, to prolong my life,” but he remembered how much he hated it and refused. Instead, he decided to try to walk to Santiago de Compostela again, and ask God what he should do.

Just then he pulled out his driver’s license and showed me his photo, pointing out how much rounder his face had been a few years earlier, when it was taken. “I’ve lost 40 kilos.”

I was silent for a moment, taking in what he had just said to me. After a few moments, I told him about my mother and how she had died eleven years ago that very day. I told him about how I’d been with her when she’d been undergoing chemo and that because of her I knew how awful both the cancer and the treatment were. We talked more and he told me about his hopes and fears for the future; he told me about his daughter, a nurse, back in Germany. He missed her.

I thought to myself, this encounter is not a coincidence.

We walked together in silence for a bit longer and then he asked me if he could borrow a euro for a cup of coffee. This was not a difficult request, but I replied, “How about if I buy you a cup in the next village?” Within minutes, we came into Población and stopped in a café, where I bought him a café con Leche. As we drank it, he explained that he was on a monthly disability allowance and that his money would not come through for two more days; could I lend him a few euros more? He hadn’t eaten yet that day and I realized then that he must be penniless. I also understood why he tried to stay at the donativos. “No problem,” I said as I handed him €20. I paused before I put away my wallet, then handed him €20 more, saying, “I decided a week ago that I would always accept whatever I was given on the Camino, and I’ve been given to generously. I also wish to give likewise. I don’t need to have this back.” He thanked me, insisting he would repay.  After a while the conversation slowed down. I knew he felt a bit self-conscious—maybe even embarrassed—so I got up, grabbed my pack and poles, saying, “Buen camino, hermano.”

I saw him repeatedly over the next days, until we reached Leon, where I finally lost track of him. He continued to thank me for the cash, and though he said he would repay me, I was secretly glad he didn’t. Having been able to share freely with him felt like a privilege—worth far more than the cost.

This experience was one of the most important I had on my pilgrimage. I heard the inner-prompting to stop and talk with Frank only because I had deliberately slowed down enough to hear the “inner signs” that are as important on the Camino as the physical signs.

As a daily reminder of this I now have a note stuck to the door of my refrigerator that I see first thing every morning. It says, I’m not in a hurry.

This is adapted from the chapter, “I’m Not in a Hurry” from my book about the Camino de Santiago, The Walk of a Lifetime.

[1] John Ortberg