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23 September 2013

Elaine and Joe Foster: In Movement there is Peace

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A tough way to face your fears
I get lots of requests for book reviews and only accept a few that pique my interest.  I am pleased that I agreed to read this book which is not my normal genre of escapist mystery/thrillers. My reactions may differ from others because I have looked at it from a slightly different perspective.

The book is a personal account by Elaine and Joe, an experienced ex-military psychologist and an engineer from the US, about of their experiences when they walk the Camino de Santiago, an 800 kilometer pilgrimage across Spain. The going is tough and way outside their comfort zone. Their reactions to meeting people they would never normally encounter, frequently in stressful but supportive circumstances, were fascinating and enlightening.

I saw this pilgrimage basically as Elaine's reaction to a mid-life crisis, and resulting anxiety. After many years as a psychologist in the US military, Elaine resigned when she succumbed to the stress of counselling soldiers with PTSD. She had to face her anxieties as she looked at a new life after so many years with the military. Her solution was to do something radical that she would have never normally contemplated doing to overcome her fears. I can personally identify with the pain, and uncertainty of  a mid-life crisis, and the need for spiritual comfort to find a way forward.

As an agnostic with a Protestant background I can't comment on the religious background and their spiritual reactions to the pilgrimage. I know that many people who have made the pilgrimage over the years have suffered problems in their lives and taken comfort from the emotional and religious connections they have made during this pilgrimage.

Elaine and Joe were surprised how easily they related to other English speaking pilgrims especially to Aussies (my fellow countrymen). They were also surprised how they found out about the personal problems faced by their companions and were able to help them along. This was not a one-way thing.

Although the physical pain along the way was palpable, this is not a true hardship tale. Spain is not a third world country and the local population provided mostly comfortable accommodations (no squatty toilets but some bed bugs) and they were rarely out of contact with family and friends. A cell phone and iPad (with Skype) and  ATM cards were part of their basic backpacks. At any time Elaine and Joe could have taken a taxi to the next stop or holed up in a modern hotel until their physical pains had healed - but they didn't, they kept on to the end. Well done.

To me the unsung hero of the trip was Joe who supported and cared for Elaine during many testing times along the way. He may not have had the same commitment at the start but he seems to have gained a lot from the experience. Elaine is now moving onto another stage in her career (I did the same with some help from her profession) and I am sure that her experiences will make her a better therapist. I wish her and Joe well for the future.

Would I do the same thing in Elaine's situation? I think not, but during my mid-life crisis I did move from dead-end career to spend 2 years in Tokyo lecturing students from throughout Asia and the Pacific as a transition to better things. This was an experience we remember vividly which I am sure has helped to keep our family closer over the years.

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