Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry": The Journey to Find Meaning in a Life of Drudgery

"You'd think walking should be the simplest thing . . . Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other.  But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things are that are supposed to be instinctive really are." 

I once hiked for 6 hours on the Appalachian Trail.  When I returned to my car, I felt relaxed, hungry and mildly exhausted.  During my hiking days, I would run into "through hikers" who intended to hike the 2,200 mile journey that stretches from Georgia to Maine.  They looked feral, and thin but intently focused on their ending point, and that's how Harold Fry, the unlikely hero in Rachel Joyce's book, "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" looks in the middle of his journey when he decides to let go of all material things - even money and tough out his journey by trusting in the universe to provide what he needs. 

Harold Fry, a recently retired man who lives in a small English village with his overly critical and hardened wife, Maureen receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy written in shaky handwriting that says she is in hospice care and wanted to say goodbye.  Harold, unsure of how to respond to his former work mate and friend, writes a quick reply letter.  As he goes to put his letter in the mail, he decides to keep walking.  He makes it to the post office, and decides to keep walking.  Without telling anyone (including his pinched wife, Maureen), he starts walking the over 600 mile journey to hand deliver the letter to Queenie himself.  He alerts the hospice directors that he is walking to say goodbye to Queenie and politely asks her to wait for his arrival.  

Thus begins Harold's journey of self discovery as he spans the English countryside encountering interesting characters who want to help him, talk to him and eventually follow his lead and journey with him. Harold faces numerous challenges on his walk to Queenie.  First, he contends with his health issues.  Walking so much at first causes bruises and aches and pains that Harold is unaccustomed to in his soft life of tea and sitting on a couch.  He struggles against the weather, his physical condition, and hunger, but mostly along his journey he struggles with self-doubt (Is he doing the right thing? Does it even matter? Why is he walking in the first place? Can he really walk over 600 miles?). Even more pervasive by the end of the novel,  Harold struggles with the demons of his past and the realizations about what his life has become.  

In many ways, we are all Harold Fry, struggling against ourselves in our journey through life.  Unlike Harold Fry, many people are too afraid to face our fears and travel through them to annihilate them and live more fully.  Most of us aren't drawn by our instincts or by the internal drive that tells us that we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish regardless of the odds.  Most of us don't put our trust in the universe to provide us with what we need. 

I thought often of the Henry Ford quotation while reading this book, "Whether you think you can or think you can't - you're right." Jodie, from my book club, asked the question, "Could it even be possible for someone like Harold to take this journey?"  My immediate and heart felt response was, "Absolutely!" We can all accomplish so much more than we believe we can.  Just like Harold, it might not always be clear why we need to do the things that are the most unlikely, but if we believe we can, we might just meet with success and overcome whatever plagues us from our past or in our present lives.  

One of the nuns who works in Queenie's hospice center tells Harold that his journey to see Queenie and his respectful request for her to wait for him to arrive to say goodbye is "a rather unusual kind of healing." She goes on to say, " I don't know how you came up with it.  But maybe it's what the world needs.  A little less sense, and a little more faith." 

That sounds like good advice to me.  

If you are looking for an inspiring book about an unlikely hero overcoming impossible odds on a journey of healing and self discovery, Rachel Joyce might just be your new favorite author and "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" might become your new favorite book. 

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