Achilles Heels (Shin Splints and Tears)

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young. In order to prevent his death, his mother took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water; however, as she held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Although Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles, one day a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly afterwards; hence the term Achilles heel now being used to describe various types of vulnerabilities.

It has been my experience that the Camino can at times feel like a new pair of walking shoes rubbing and irritating your ankles. You can be stoical and graceful and pretend they’re not pushing your buttons but eventually there will be a pain or irritation you’ll need to address. My first figurative Achilles heel, a ghost of an irritant I thought had long passed, was disproportionate disappointment in myself when my body experienced an injury (a ‘failure’ as perceived by my self-critical inner dialogue). I knew deep down after a couple of days strapping a painful shin splint and walking on without treatment that I risked ending my Camino altogether. After a painful evening following a very hot 19 mile day the frustration and tears came, representing an illogical disappointment in myself as well as a fear of not being able to complete my long anticipated journey. Making time to consult a pharmacist, resting more than I’d have liked and spending parts of subsequent evenings pressing a food bag full of ice to my lower leg will, I trust, get me to Santiago healthy and with no long term issues. Ironically, the first day I felt strong enough to walk without a support bandage I was so elated that I doubt I’ve walked any other Camino day at a faster speed or with a greater spring in my step! Maybe this little issue is less of an Achilles heel for me now; time will tell.

This experience spurred me to thinking about the non-physical Achilles heels that can also be triggered by the Camino. I’ve personally felt and also witnessed in other pilgrims plently of emotional and spiritual vulnerable spots so far. One manifestation of this common to many is tears, and lots of them! I’ve had a few myself and have also witnessed several pilgrims crying quietly in village churches, by the side of tough, rocky mountain paths and during one to one conversations with virtual strangers. Some shed tears for lost or missed loved ones, for personal regrets or fears, for happy or spiritual reasons or simply because a particular day is physically demanding due to incline, terrain, heat or storms. There seems to be little concern about masking tears on the Camino which, for me, was a little unusual at first but ultimately quite liberating and natural.

My main observation about the unashamed demonstration of vulnerabilities or Achilles heels on the Camino is that I find it an attractive and very human quality. In some cases they’re the key to a really interesting connection and conversation with a fellow pilgrim and in most they also challenge the initial subconscious assumption that many of us make about people after conversing with them for a very short period of time. Another sentiment that I hope I’ll be able to integrate into my post-Camino life.

The third Achilles heel that comes to mind which has affected many of us is gastroenteritis, but for obvious reasons I’ll spare you any further analysis!

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