The Psychology of Failure…

Or ‘A Lack of Pilgrims Progress’

Experience is merely the name men give to their mistakes

– Oscar Wilde

I didn’t make it. Not really close even. My long walk to Rome ended up as a short(ish) walk to Champagne. There, close to tears – of pain to an extent, but mainly disappointment, it all ended in a pharmacy in Châlons-en-Champagne.

Can you help?‘ said I, as I limped through its doors. ‘I’ll get the patron‘, the young apprentice behind the counter replied, sensing I might be more than a couple-of-paracetamol-tablets sort of a client.


Stuff for two months…

‘Rest!’, ordered the summoned expertise, taking one look at the swelling. ‘Hmm… let’s just imagine‘, said I, ‘that is the one thing I cannot do. Let’s just for the sake of argument say I need to walk a further 1500 kilometres over the next eight weeks’.

I applied the cream and swallowed my prescribed tablets later that evening in my all too expensive hotel. I curled up under the blankets just wanting to sleep; to wake up to a ‘new’ right foot. Can cream and tablets do that? I was not hopeful. I knew it was over.

In the morning, on crutches (the foresighted pharmacist said I was ‘quite likely‘ to need these) I hobbled to the train station, bought a magazine on the philosophy of long walks, boarded a train to Paris, then The Chunnel, another train, and that very same day; home.


Receiving my blessing in Canterbury

Racing through the French countryside I did reflect upon the absurdity of my two weeks worth of walking; the miles, the sweat, the aches being ‘undone’ in less than one full day at close to 200 miles an hour. A sobering thought of how little ground I had covered.

My pilgrims passport, hitherto carried in a waterproof pocket for easy access; now somewhere in my backpack carried all too few stamps in it. This was real failure. Had it been a mistake even? My mind kept pace with the train.


Just before the first step…

These ‘credentials’ from the Latin – ‘credere‘ – a folded flimsy, paper ‘passport’ the pride of every pilgrim, weighed heavier on the last days than any luggage. Their incomplete state, empty space where inked badges of honour should be, an unpleasant reminder.

In my mind I had already bought the frame and defined a space on my wall in my house where I would hang this upon my return. As I write this, weeks later, I am not even entirely sure where I have (mis)placed it. It doesn’t matter.


Discovering I enjoy not just writing in my journal…

There were many reasons I failed. Obviously the main one, the medical cause, was the inability of my right foot to carry me 1900 kms and the stress fracture it occurred as a result. However, today, I think the true undoing came before even one step was taken.

My walk turned out far from the title of my previous post ‘As I walk out one morning…’ In his, Laurie Lee implies a carefree, spontaneous walk, one above all founded in freedom and a sense of fun. In my maths of a required 32.5 kms per day, the fun was lost.


Approach to Amettes

Since returning home, I have met a few people who have enquired as to how it went. They are always sympathetic and ask the same two questions; how far did you get and will you return and do it again? The short answers are 352km and I don’t know.

When pushed I’ll tell people that my greatest regret in terms of not making it, is not having the experiences I did have, multiplied by five. I walked for two weeks and should have had another eight. Contemplating the un-lived adventures in those, is difficult.


I slept that night amongst the dead of WW1

In my 14 days or so, I slept in a Great War Cemetery when my foot could carry me no more, I spent a day in a gypsy camp, including eating with them, dancing with them and when walking out of their camp, being blessed by their priest.

I spent one night sleeping rough in a concrete container, afraid of spiders and snakes, (which I am not normally) yet so tired I forgot both can climb, hence rendering my avoiding the ground, rather futile.


View at lunch

I was invited to sleep in the garden of a lock keeper in France, then later to dinner with the same family, I was chased by dogs, given warm apple pie by the wife of a campsite owner when I’d run out of food. My journal was filling itself daily. It was wonderful.

I made wrong turnings, I walked the countryside. I remember reaching a wheat field, just as the wonderful soundtrack to Gladiator came on my iPod (my only modern device) and leaving the road to re-enact. I’ll never be able to fully describe this moment.


I had no idea this would be my last sketch, but the pain was there

I had so many experiences and special times, and despite the constant pressure of the miles building up as my foot slowed down, also hours where I felt truly truly free. In the middle of a field in France, totally alone, no one sure where you are, that is magic.

But after all this what was revealed? What was resolved? What did I find? Anyone who walks, or learns of someone walking asks themselves this. The spiritual side of the walk. As if some great truth lies out there, only to be revealed after many miles underfoot.


On the physio bench

And I pondered it too. What will I understand? How different will I be? How far do I have to walk to be initiated? But, it is the case with a walk, as it is with a mountain, that the only zen you find out there in those fields, is the zen you bring with you.

The difference perhaps is that out there in the silence, in all that quiet, the more one has a chance to finally listen. The problems are there when one returns. I had somehow hoped to hear news of forgiveness, but just because I walk, the world doesn’t change.


6 weeks without walking and then back to gentle running

Today, it is September. I have just returned from a run along the beach in Sete, Southern France. My foot is healed. All is well. I still have a head full of memories from my 352 kms which I hope to retain for a long time. If I set out again, they will line my backpack.

Returning to that most asked of questions; will I do it again? I still don’t know, but it doesn’t much matter right now. That’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter. Perhaps if I did indeed find anything out there in the French countryside, it was that…

Screen Shot 2017-07-30 at 10.57.37

A route to failure, my distance covered vs that yet untravelled

… I am where I need to be, and all I have to really remember is to breathe. Don’t plan too much. Don’t even think too much. I think I’ve learned that there truly is only the present and this is exactly where I need to learn to live. I may walk again, I may not. And…

…that’s absolutely fine.

A great source of calamity lies in regret and anticipation; therefore a person is wise who thinks of the present alone, regardless of the past or future.

– Oliver Goldsmith

~ by Support on September 29, 2017.

17 Responses to “The Psychology of Failure…”

  1. Sorry you didn’t make it all the way. But sounds like you had some amazing experiences. See you soon I hope x

  2. Congratulations Tommy boy…..on firstly attempting this little stroll. While I see you as perfectly capable of this undertaking and bearing in mind that I am in no way designed for anything athletic, it was a great effort to get so far. In my opinion though walking to Rome to get a decent pizza is a bloody daft idea when Dominos (or other) deliver something more than acceptable!

    And secondly, the fact that you recognize your limitations and had the sense to stop before some serious damage was done. Rest, recuperate and plan.

    Plan MORE rest days when distance walking is my advice. Do NOT think of this as failure, think of this as Stage 1 is complete. Stage 2 (and subsequent if necessary) is next spring, start planning!

    Good luck


  3. Fascinating read, even if you didn’t achieve your goal. On a side note, your sketchings are incredible!

    Hope all is well.


  4. I can’t see the failure in your experience, only living and growing. Failure would suggest you gained nothing but you learned that “the plans of mice and men often go astray.” You should read Cheryl Strayed’s novel,Wild, about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Kind regards…

  5. You did not fail. You went exactly as far as you needed to complete that part of your life’s journey. Whether you attempt it again or not is a different journey. Hope you’re feeling better, physically and emotionally! Still waiting for your trip to the US 🙂

  6. I join the chorus of “You did not fail,” Thomas. You set a very difficult goal, and, while you didn’t reach the end, you moved towards it with every step, every sketch, and every revelation. In the end, it was your body that gave out and not your spirit, so you need to forgive the physical shortcomings and give yourself some well-deserved praise for what you did accomplish. It was a lot more than most people do in a lifetime! I’ll be in London next weekend, if there is any chance we can meet up. Let me know; maybe we can work our way through some good wine again.

  7. Thomas,

    You seemed to have gained insights and clarity in this 2-week pilgrimage. Love your sketches. Hope you filled your journal with lots of them! Glad you have recovered from your foot injury.

    Do you have tours scheduled for 2018? Tom and I would love to tour with you again if timing works out.

    Remember nothing ventured nothing gained. Take care.


  8. Ah Thomas, I am so sorry your foot gave out and you couldn’t continue. But it sounds like you tasted some of the peace you were seeking and now have a better idea of how to find it wherever you are.

    Please do keep sharing your drawings with us. They are lovely.


  9. Nothing from which one learns ,is ever a failure.

  10. Dear Thomas, I’m sure lots of pilgrims never reach the destination they set out for but that doesn’t mean they’re not changed by their experiences. You seem to have met some amazing people and found a little peace on your journey. Glad your foot’s better – sounded painful – ouch! BW, JanetT

  11. Dear Thomas, I’m sorry you didn’t complete your journey since it was so important to you. But I think your post is wonderful! The writing hits just the right balance of humor and pathos, and your sketches make me feel as if I’m there myself. You’ve provided your readers’ imaginations with another intriguing travel experience. Hugs,Karleen Erhardt

  12. “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
    You found your end. Or the real end hasn’t ended yet;)
    Je vois que tu n’a pas du talent que pour le dessin:)
    Ça fut un plaisir de lire ton blog et ce sera encore plus grand plaisir de continuer. J’espère que les forces de l’univers vont croiser nos routes une fois de plus un jour!
    Greetings from France.

  13. Thomas: Carol and I were fascinated by your journal and of your account of your shortened walk. We, in no way view this as failure. Sure, you might not have finished this amazingly tough and demanding goal, you did learn much, had some amazing experiences, and will view this as another amazing chapter in your special life. Carol and I would love to tour with you when you are ready to schedule something. We would love to visit you at your home in Spain as well, and can easily use our travel passes to get to Madrid, Barcelona or London.Let us know when our paths can possibly interact again. Hugs from Don and Carol Nelson

  14. Thomas, sounds like you fit a whole trip’s worth of experience in your two weeks. I know it is disappointing for you not to finish, but most of us would not even try. Well done my friend.

  15. So sorry your plans didn’t work out. I’m sure there is a silver lining in there somewhere. Will be traveling back to Europe in March 2018 with my mother and daughter. Would love to ask you some questions, but I couldn’t find a place on your page to contact you other than through a comment post. Feel free to email me directly, if you wouldn’t mind. Thank you!

  16. Oh no! I’m so sorry you were injured and could not complete your journey. However, it sounds like you had quite the experience. As one who guides others around the world, you are well aware that the world awaits if you ever choose to continue the pilgrimage. Thank you for including the beautiful drawings. I really love the WWI cemetery drawing. I look forward to future stories. Be well, my dear! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Dallas, Texas, USA. Best, Erikka

  17. I was wondering if you are still working as a tour leader for Road Scholar. I’d love to know more what you’re doing now.

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