Lessons from the Camino de Santiago: The Fiscal Cliff, Safeguards, and the American Mindset

No fiscal cliff
No fiscal cliff, but a long way down at Cebreiro Pass on the Camino

Five minutes after turning on the TV, I’d heard fear-mongering, so-called journalists screaming “fiscal cliff” at least 20 times. Ack! Not that I’m not concerned about our economy, but sometimes it seems it’s more fun for my fellow Americans, politicians in particular, to go into high-drama panic or either high-decible blame rather than roll up their sleeves and figure things out. And not that I’m being unpatriotic and picking on my fellow citizens.

When I made my spiritual pilgrimage on Spain’s El Camino de Santiago in May 2012, I had a startling cultural insight. There were a number of times that my 22-year-old daughter and I stood at the edge of a cliff or drop-off and gazed down at the distant valley below. It was easy to understand how Emilio Estevez’ character in “The Way” walked off the mountain in a freak storm. As Americans, we are so used to having guard rails or big signs protecting us from walking off cliffs or tumbling over walls a lot more secure than a high Roman wall around an ancient city.

Think about it. We have signs that warn us to be careful of spilling hot coffee in our laps. Our neighbors have high fences to keep our kids from sneaking into their yards and drowning in their swimming pools while we’re not watching. And what happens if we DO spill our coffee? Or our kids nearly drown while trespassing? Or we fall off a cliff because the safeguards weren’t there to keep us out? We sue. We blame someone else.

That was the startling cultural insight we had while backpacking on our pilgrimage. Most of the time, there was no safeguard from danger. Sometimes, a guard rail was 10 inches off the ground or maybe a strand of wire to let you know where the boundary was (click on the photo above for an example), but I was surprised by the attitude of having to take responsibility for my own safety…or lack thereof. Not that I’m irresponsible and daring gravity not to apply to me if I want to walk on the edge of a physical cliff. I’m a responsible citizen and I’m a responsible pilgrim on the Camino. I was simply unaccustomed to the expectation that I would be responsible for myself and not expect someone else to pull me back from a fall or pay me damages if I fell.

We live in a sue-happy society, as I learned during jury duty last spring. One where many people (corporations, too) do not take responsibility for their actions and expect others to bail them out. Safeguards are expected and at the same time seen as taking away our freedom. If we want to dance on the edge, who dares to stop us? If we get ourselves in trouble, who’s at fault for letting it happen?

I’ve seen this attitude develop over the last 30 years and hadn’t realized it until walking the Camino and stepping outside my usual comfort zone of safeguards and guard rails. When I was a child, I used to visit a particular mound of earth–the same one my dad had spent his childhood riding up and down on the back of a donkey and the same one my own peers rode up and down on motorcycles. In the 60’s and 70’s, I could walk to the very edge and look down, and my parents were expected to be there to ensure I did not fall over and I was expected to have enough sense not to get that close to the edge. Last time I went, there were boundaries set up to keep people from purposely stepping too close to the edge.

So here we are, facing a fiscal cliff, with more safeguarding and blaming going on in our culture than I can remember. Spain, of course, isn’t any better and my travel there gave me terrific insights into why they are struggling financially. Meanwhile, I really hope the politicians we’ve elected can stop the blame game and focus on a solution…preferably one that won’t have all the markings of last-minute-before-the-deadline, high-drama reality TV–another mindset we’ve let ourselves sink into.

For more insights from my Camino, vista the Camino Pilgrimage Page.


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