Thursday, August 11, 2011

Peace Pilgrim

A decade ago, I was walking on the Appalachian Trail, and I came across a little book about a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim. As I learned more about her, she has become one of my heroes. Each of my heroes exemplifies a different quality that I respect, and for me, Peace Pilgrim exemplifies faith.

I know the word "faith" has some religious implications that turn some people off. Let me explain. I don't necessarily mean faith in God, though Peace Pilgrim did believe in God. I mean faith in life, faith in other people, and perhaps most importantly, faith in oneself. 

I could use the words "trust" or "confidence" instead of faith, but I like faith because it packs more punch. To make bold changes to your life requires stepping out into the unknown, and this requires faith.

Peace Pilgrim, born Mildred Norman Ryder made a bolder change than most. At the age of 44, with only the clothes on her body and the possessions in her pocket, she left home on a pilgrimage, vowing to wander until mankind had learned the way of peace. She walked for peace for the next 28 years until her death. 

She walked until she was given shelter and fasted until she was given food. Most of the time, she was given both by people she met. She wore a sign on her shirt that said "Peace Pilgrim" and on the back read "Walking Coast to Coast for Peace". 

She walked 25,000 miles before she stopped counting. All told, she likely walked over 44,000 miles. She crisscrossed the US, east to west, seven times. She was the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail in one season.

She did not approach people, but waited to be approached. She would then talk to people about peace - inner peace, peace between people, and peace between nations. Her message was simple and clear. Its central tenet was to "overcome evil with good, hatred with love and falsehood with truth." 

She was not affiliated with any religious or political organization. She laid out her ideas in a pamphlet she wrote called Steps to Inner Peace. You can read the pamphlet and more about her life here.

I have learned a lot from her ideas about peace, but what inspires me most about Peace Pilgrim is the example she set. You might think that renouncing all your possessions and setting out on a lifetime pilgrimage for peace is crazy or perhaps fruitless. But you cannot argue with the fact that this woman had balls. This woman had conviction. This woman was living her life one hundred percent according to her values.

It is one thing to say, "the universe will provide". It is quite another to put this belief to the test and set out penniless with only your clothes and a "Peace Pilgrim" sign and just start walking. She braved weather, thirst and hunger, loneliness, dangerous people, and the possibility that maybe it wouldn't work out. This was a woman who had tremendous faith in God, in the goodness of others, and in her own abilities.

I can safely say that I will never undertake something so outlandish as Peace Pilgrim's pilgrimage. But in my own life, I have walked into the unknown in smaller ways. Sometimes at my own choosing - quitting my job and going into private practice. Sometimes not at my own choosing - the end of a relationship

Either way, I look to Peace Pilgrim to remind me to have faith. Faith that things will be ok, faith that my friends and family will be there to support me, faith in my own resilience, energy, strength, and abilities. 

Who are your heroes, and why are they your heroes? How do you keep the faith, especially when you are starting something new or life throws you a curveball?


  1. What an interesting topic. I can't say I have ever had a hero. It could have been my dad, but he pretty much blew it when I was a little girl. This probably sounds depressing, so I'm kind of uncertain why I'm writing it. I do have faith in God, and despite the fact that I do, I still have a hard time trusting him and having faith in him, myself, and others. I have been through a whole lot of shit, and I am still uncertain how I got through it without accessing faith or keeping the faith or whatever you do when life throws you a curveball or a change occurs. This must sound crazy, or maybe I do have faith, and I'm not giving myself credit for it.

  2. Thanks for the comment anonymous. Sounds like you have some faith - you say you have faith in God - but sometimes it wavers. That is human. And that is why I like Peace Pilgrim. Thinking about her helps me to have faith when mine is shaky.

  3. Thank you for the reply Noah. I really like the way you're so open and honest about your feelings, and it takes alot of courage to do that. That's just one of the things that makes you such a great therapist and person. There are actually several people who do inspire me to have faith when mine is shaky,especially those who have gone through hell and survived, like me. Life is not easy, and there had to have been somthing that kept me going all those years. Perhaps it was having faith in myself when no one else did, and I definately knew that God played a significant role in my survival. He had a plan for my life, and it's still in the proccess of being completed.

  4. Thank you for your kinds words. Yes, there must have been something keeping you going! It might be good to identify it, so it is more easily accessible in the future.

  5. I started writing a comment but erased it because writing about faith or the lack thereof can be a touchy, very personal subject for some. I'll just say that I'm able make better sense of, and find more comfort in, this world without faith in a god.
    I don't necessarily have heroes in terms of getting through life during challenging times. What gives me strength are simple tenets: Do unto others as you would have done to you (or put good out into the world, and good will come back to you). Also, a big comfort to me is 'This too shall pass'.

  6. Hey Annie,

    First off, I am curious what you didn't write. As for what you did say, it seems you have faith in some sense of order to this life ("this too shall pass," "good will come back to you") and perhaps in yourself and your own ability to withstand hardship. Does that sound right?

    Regarding this word, "faith," it does seem to connote something religious, hence your statement that you don't have faith in a god. As I said in the post, maybe the word I am looking for is "trust" or "confidence" but to me, faith seems to speak of a trust in something bigger, not necessarily a god, but some sense that things will work out, that there is some order to the universe, that if you put energy out there (or do good in the world) the world will send energy or good back in your direction.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Annie.

  7. my heroes are those who have stayed optimistic, worked hard & achieved goals even when the odds were stacked against them. I feel like these are people who kept faith in themselves. I notice when I harbor that faith within me, anything seems possible.

    thanks for this post, Noah. it's a thinker & the story of the peace pilgrim is inspiring :-)

  8. Thanks Anon,

    I know that feeling, when you feel faith inside yourself and no matter the circumstances, you feel like you can do it.

    So who are these guys/gals who have "stayed optimistic, worked hard, and achieved goals?" I could use some more heroes myself.

  9. Nelson Mandela? For example.

    and the more 'ordinary people' I encounter in life: the alcoholic raised by a family of alcoholics who chooses to break the cycle of dysfunction and substance abuse; the single mother abandoned my her husband who still believes in love; the victim of abuse who still chooses to trust and see good in people.

    Those are some of my heroes...

  10. Oh yes! Nelson Mandela is quite the hero. To me he exemplifies conviction in that he was willing to spend over 25 years in prison for his ideals. I also like your examples of common, everyday heroes. Sometimes, while doing therapy, I find that these everyday heroes don't realize how heroic they actually are.

    Thanks anonymous.

  11. For me I have a hard time imagining myself being able to forgive someone after they have done something terrible to me or a loved one. So, I think people who have been able to do so are heroes.

    I heard one story of a man who was wrongly convicted for rape and robbery after the victim picked him out of a line-up. He was sentenced to life plus 54 years. He served 11 years before he was released after DNA testing. When he got out, the victim was full of guilt and shame, and feared he would seek revenge. But, it turned out quite the opposite. They met two years later and he told her he had forgiven her long ago, that he understood she had made a mistake. I am sure his forgiveness helped her to forgive herself. Now, they are good friends and travel together speaking about their story.

    I think that ability to forgive, move on, and heal is amazing, inspiring and heroic!

  12. Thank you anonymous for the amazing story. Do you have the name of the person who was wrongly convicted? I would like to read more about it. I wonder what allows some people to forgive this kind of thing. Do they just will it to be so? I agree that this ability is heroic.

  13. I am not sure how they do it. People often say that if you do not forgive, it only serves to hurt you and weigh you down. Still, I find it would be so hard to do in extreme circumstances. So, yes I think it must take a lot of will power on their part!

    The man's name is Ronald Cotton. You can google him, there are lots of articles. He and the victim (Jennifer Thompson-Cannino) also wrote a book called "Picking Cotton." It's a very interesting story (although I have not read the book) because part of the problem was how the police conducted the photo line-up, which seems to have tricked the victim's memory (CBS News did an interesting article on this). Also, another twist comes in while Cotton is in prison, involving the real rapist, but I'll let you read the story. It is fascinating!

    Here's the URL to an interview Cotton and Thompson-Cannino did on NPR about forgiveness:

  14. I checked out Cotton's and Canino's story on the site for their book. Really inspiring. Thank you.

    If you are interested in reading more about forgiveness, check out Janis Abram Spring's How Can I Forgive You. In it, she talks about the distinction between letting go of a past hurt and actually forgiving and she says you can do the first without the second.