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Get into the right gear!

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: I remember tough days on the Camino De Santiago when, through injury or fatigue, I would just about make it to the next hostel. The key thing was adjusting my walking rhythm to the reality of the landscape and my physical condition. Steep hills meant that you had to shorten your stride, which allowed you to make the ascent while breathing normally, effectively changing down a gear. Slowing down and finding a more comfortable and durable pace was the invitation. Adjust, adapt and arrive eventually was the slogan.

This wisdom that I learned from the Camino is that when the going gets tough you make the internal adjustment to ‘change down a gear’. Just like on a bike or a car, when you come to a hill you change down a gear in order to make it more manageable. Your work rate stays the same, you don’t go as fast, but you can keep going. It’s a way of making things more manageable and reducing stress, while keeping moving on the road.

The problem often is expectations or fixed goals. These can make you a slave to an ideal or a perception about what you should be achieving, often unhelpfully comparing oneself with others. The irony is that humans are built for flexibility and adjustment to situations. In a real sense we have an inner ‘gearbox’ that is designed to adjust to varied conditions and particularly to tough times.

The job of the gearbox is to make progress manageable and achievable; making use of our innate ability to adjust and make energy count and last. It’s all about making the journey possible and sometimes we have to shift down into gears that we never even realised were there. There is much more power in lower gears although speed is sacrificed. The lower gears are the ones that purify our souls though, testing our ability to let go control and trust that God is the driver- in the lower gears God does the work though we have to ply our part. Our fixations to speed, distraction and security can be obstacles that we have to get free of, however. This is the inner process that St Ignatius calls ‘inner freedom’, the ability to let go and let God. This adjustment to reality is where the God of life resides.

It’s the same idea these fraught Covid days with anxiety running high, the threat of further lockdowns and the virus making its presence felt. It helps to reduce our expectations, change down a gear in compassion for selves and others, and keep going at a gentler pace. It’s not all about efficiency and speed, rather it’s about reading the environment and making good decisions, and keeping going.

Spirituality is about awareness of reality and adjustment to it, acceptance of limitations and exploring of potential. As Pope Francis says, ‘God is in the real, not the ideal’. This means finding God in the messiness and challenge of situations, finding a way through. We are limited and vulnerable but also have tremendous potential and hidden depths.

About Dermot Roantree

Dermot Roantree is content editor with Irish Jesuit Communications. He has a doctorate in Modern History and many years of teaching and of e-learning projects behind him. He is married with two children.