Have you gone on a pilgrimage?

Everyone should set personal goals and try to reach them

Photographs from Jarrett Barrios’s Facebook page.

HE’S IN A SELF-IMPOSED NEWS BLACKOUT so he won’t be reading this. At least not for a while. My friend Jarrett Barrios — a former Massachusetts state representative and senator, now CEO of the Los Angeles Region Red Cross — is walking the famous Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.

Jarrett is blogging about his experience, keeping his friends and family informed of his travels and experiences, the churches he visits, the food he eats, the people he meets, the moments alone on the trail when the light unexpectedly filters in through the oak and alder trees and you think (as the lyrics written by Sting say) that you’ve walked into a glade of heaven.

He’s on a pilgrimage.

It may be fitting that this particular pilgrimage is beginning this month, famously described by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprill with his showers soote /The drought of March hath piercèd to the roote . . .” then people “long to go on pilgrimages . . . to distant shrines.”  Chaucer’s cast of characters were heading to the shrine of Thomas Becket, a practice that lasted through the centuries between his murder by Henry II’s rogue knights and Henry VIII’s decision to detach England from Roman Catholicism.

Jarrett Barrios selfie

At the start of the Camino de Santiago.

The notion of a pilgrimage has near ancient roots, and the pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral may be the oldest, with reports of the faithful making the trip as early as the 9th Century.  The cathedral is said to house the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great (apparently no one seeks out the remains of his fellow apostle St. James the Lesser). The great cathedral in Galicia, Spain, is part of a World Heritage site, and it attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims each year.  Many are among the true believers; some follow the route as a less religious, more spiritual exercise; and still others seek to explore local customs while experiencing one of the world’s most famous hiking and walking trails. I cannot speak for Jarrett, but from his blog reports I gather that, for him, the pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the kind of solitude and purpose that informs introspection, insight, and understanding.

This has got me thinking about the notion of pilgrimage as a life experience, the importance of introspection and the critical task of identifying and living according to your values. The use of pilgrimage to express one’s faith, or privately seek atonement for some real or imagined misstep, or seek out an elusive unknown, is perhaps fundamental to its essential nature, which by definition is steeped in spirituality. That spirituality may or may not have religious beliefs at its core, but it requires the practitioner to have something larger than him or herself in mind (or at stake) in the process of reaching the final stop along the way. Pilgrimages are hard. No true pilgrimage comes without pain, whether the pain of tired and aching bones or the pain of relentless solitude and loneliness.

I have written previously about a recent book by the columnist David Brooks, The Road to Character, which is a meditation on values. Brooks writes about what he calls our resume virtues and our eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are those we adopt as we move up the career ladder; the eulogy virtues relate to what we’d like people to say about us when we die. Too often we think that the resume virtues define our lives, and it is true that the resume virtues can often determine whether you will achieve the short and long-term professional goals you set for yourself. But it’s the eulogy virtues that give purpose to our lives because they help us identify and follow our values. Going on a pilgrimage might be a powerful way to begin the process of not merely identifying those eulogy virtues, but developing a plan and a commitment to make them actionable.

Jarrett has a leg up on this essential purpose of a pilgrimage. He’s lived his life following clear public service values. His work in the state Legislature, his advocacy as leader of GLAAD, and his role as leader of the Boston and now Los Angeles region Red Cross collectively amount to a career in service of others. These choices say something about his values, and while I’m sure he would agree with me that not every choice he’s made professionally has been selfless (who can say that honestly?), it seems to me that he’s been living his eulogy virtues for a long time.

Not everyone needs to set off on a pilgrimage in order to find fulfillment in life, or fill that emptiness they know exists inside them. Most lives are lived by coping with daily necessities; most people do not have the luxury of time to spend weeks on a journey of reflection and introspection. But I don’t think a person needs to embark upon a long journey to experience a personal pilgrimage.

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What is a pilgrimage, after all, but another way to follow your values – to set a goal and strive to meet it, agreeably putting up with the inconvenience and the pain, or overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of achieving your personal goal. If you devote portions of your time to fulfilling your values, and if those values touch the lives of others, then you are on a pilgrimage as important and meaningful as any other.

Jarrett continues on his pilgrimage, his solitary journey. As he navigates the well-trod Camino toward his ultimate goal, he reports sore and blistered feet, parched lips, achy knees, and (no surprise) a strong appetite. His pilgrimage may be more expansive in its reach than he realizes, or even intended, as it prompts many (myself included) to consider whether (and how well) we are following our values.  I keep in my own mind the questions asked by the poet Adrienne Rich: “Where are we moored?  What behooves us?” 

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group.