Sometimes one question can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
Such was the case for Tony Albrecht. He had been a corporate defense attorney in St. Louis for two years. Many times throughout the day, he would gaze above his computer at the wall. Sometimes thinking. Sometimes zoning out. One day when telling his friend about this habit, the friend asked, “What color is the wall?”
Tony didn’t know.
This realization sparked a controlled demolition of his life. His life had become a collection of forgettable moments. The majority of his decisions where non-decisions. They were based on the paint-by-numbers handbook society prescribes at birth. Be a good kid, get good grades, if you can, go to a decent college, get a respectable job, make something of yourself. But no one, including himself, ever asked, “What brings you alive?”
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, Tony’s sister Christie sat in a cubicle at an international nonprofit staring at a round white clock the moment she came to the same conclusion as her brother that she was no longer willing to wait for the rest of her life to begin.
It was decided, they would both torch their careers, step off the conveyor belt of societal shoulds and rewrite their own life narrative. The duo has since termed this action, “Offscripting.”
This phenomenon of “torching your career” is growing increasingly common as a 2013 Gallup study illustrated that Tony and Christie weren’t alone. In fact 87% of employees are not happy at work, while 2 million employees are quitting their jobs every month. People, more and more, are refusing to define a steady paycheck as being successful and are doing something about it.
However, just quitting and following your passion is not as simple and as romantic as it looks on paper. First off, many who consider this option have inherited privilege that enables this to even be a possibility. And even for those who do torch their careers, not everything falls smoothly into place. Tony recounts, “I walked out of that law firm intending to spend the next year opening myself up to possibilities to see what might develop, and what I often ran into was this feeling that I was on the verge of disaster.”
While the process of moving from that “epiphany moment” when one knows the path must change to actually living a life on purpose varies for everyone, one time-tested tradition to manage the transition is the month long pilgrimage from the foothills of the French Pyrenees to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela. Otherwise known as: The Camino.
One year after Tony and Christie jumped from the ladder they’d spent their lives climbing, they stood side by side at the foothills of the French Pyrenees ready to make sense of the past and begin stepping into the future.
The Camino is 530 miles. 860 kilometers. 2,640,000 feet. But everyone walks the Camino one step at a time.
For many, the journey is secular, but spiritual. Perhaps it has come to serve as the rite of passage often missing from much of the global west. Much of the power of the Camino can be attributed to the culture of the experience. It is said that everyone walks his own Camino. It is not about completion, but contemplation. Not about perfection, but presence.
Some pilgrims on the Camino are walking toward something, some are walking away from something and many are just walking. The journey, Christie explains, for her, was about, “Taking a physical journey to drive an inward journey by creating space to be filled.”
It is said there are three parts to the Camino.
The first is about the body.
The first leg of the journey is filled with romance. Months, sometimes years of planning, culminate. The walk unfolds across the storied cities of Logroño, Puente La Reina, and Pamplona, the host city of the running of the bulls and the landscape for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It is across this first leg where the proverbial rubber meets the road and the romantic notions of the pilgrimage evaporate like the morning dew from the sun’s heavy fist.
On the first day, Tony and Christie ascended the 10-mile stretch over the French Pyrenees and crossed the border into Spain. The days that followed began at 5 a.m. walking in silence under a blanket of stars. The rising sun cast long morning shadows behind them, and by high noon, the heat weighed like a lead boa across their shoulders. They walked 16 to 18 miles into the early afternoon. From there, some food, some writing, some reflecting. The first part of the Camino can be the most difficult as muscles are sore, feet are blistered, and the face and arms are sunburned. The mind’s focus is relegated to the body’s discomfort.
On day 10, Christie walked with a retired Norwegian named Johan. He told her how he grew up in rural Norway and worked on ships and in lighthouses for most of his life, including a stint on a boat on the Mississippi River in the ‘60s. They talked about faith and religion, his divorce, his daughter’s divorce, and the death of his son and his other daughter. All this before the sun peaked over the mountain’s edge.
For Christie, Johan was the oracle that marked the passing into the second part of the journey.
The second part of the Camino is about the mind.
The second phase of the Camino stretches across the mesa of Leon through the city of Burgos. It’s like walking across the flatlands of Iowa, if Iowa were dotted with ancient castles and architecture from the 12th century. As the mind’s attention no longer focuses on the body, the expansiveness of it all can be overwhelming. Through this stretch, the mind is known to take a turn inward. The chatter in the brain spins like flakes in a snowglobe, only now there’s space and silence to examine each mental flake individually. Christie recounts, “You don’t have much left to do but run around in circles in your brain. It’s a mindfuck.”
In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, this second third signifies the abyss. The place where death and rebirth take place. Here, the demons and the shadows run marathons ringing bells. It’s a raw time of the journey and presents in peculiar ways as shadows often do. As Christie walked across the endless farmlands, she remembers the negative thought patterns and bad habits she thought she’d overcome return with vigor.
“I got angry to the point of tears that my friends hadn’t waited for me when I stopped to pee on the side of the road. I could tell myself I was being unreasonable and crazy, but still couldn’t shake that anger.”
Kurt Vonnegut said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Across this seemingly endless mesa is where those wings must grow to carry the journeyer forward.
This period of angst is an essential part of the pilgrimage. As the old stories unpack themselves, they offgas fear and anger and grief. With every step the thoughts in the mind sink down into the heart and are transmuted. The once unhealthy patterns become nutrients. As the old stories are dismantled and processed, they become compost for the new stories to emerge.
The last part of the Camino is about the soul.
For the last third, the earth is green again as the pilgrims walk the countryside through the hamlet towns of Triacastela, Sarria Paradela, and ultimately to the 1600-year-old city of Santiago de Compostela.
As Tony and Christie traversed through these cities and country roads, the body was tired, but accustomed. The mind was alive, but silent. The steps of the pilgrimage became a walking meditation.
And these steps were coming to an end.
When they walked into Santiago de Campostal, the end of the road for many walkers, they were reunited with dozens of other pilgrims they’d met along the way. Through the reunion with each person encountered along the way, a portal opened to re-live the pilgrimage again. Bonds that felt stronger than those of childhood friendships were celebrated. 15 bottles of cheap wine greased the wheels for stories that flowed in Spanish, German, Hungarian, English and Italian into the early hours of the morning.
This was the end of the road for Tony, but Christie continued on the remaining 50 miles to the coast of Finistere, what was once believed to be the end of the world. The same coast that legendary explorers — de Soto, Cortes, Vespucci and Ponce de Leon – would set sail from to discover “the west” 500 years earlier.
Standing on the edge of the ocean, Christie took in the millions of white shards of light that led the way westward across the Atlantic. The life she had once known was no more, yet, what was next, felt expansive and potent.
She ran to the coast, tearing clothes off and jumped in the ocean. It was a baptism. A purification and celebration of the newness of whom she’d become.
That was two years ago.
Tony and Christie are now 3 years into this Offscripting experiment and have been called to serve as a guide to support this life clarifying experience for others.
They believe that by supporting people in taking the leap away from what they are expected to do, to what they are called to do, the world will grow into a better place. The two are clear that this work is not about “saving the world” but rather supporting people to live lives of purpose and conviction. Later this summer, the brother and sister duo will lead their first group of pilgrims on a short (10 day) and full (33 day) Camino.
To learn about joining the Offscripting team to walk the Camino or to find out more about the program, click here.