Odysseys for the Soul

 

The Long Journey Home:
The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging

by John C. Robinson

Come, my friends. ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . .
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

— Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”(1)

Atrial fibrillation — rapid and irregular heart rhythm — brought me into the Emergency Room. The doc said I needed cardioversion — you know, those electric paddles you see on TV dramas. I don’t have time for this. I’m a psychologist, husband, father, and breadwinner. I need to get back to work. After the procedure, I assume all is well and resume my busy life. But something now leaks in this tightly woven fabric, a dark stain spreading from an unknown source. I feel terror, anguish, and foreboding. I feel like I’m being taken down into a dark and horrific underworld. This descent will end my world as I know it.

This issue of Itineraries makes reference to Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, as a metaphor for soulful travels in the outer world. We may also be called to take a soul journey within. “The Long Journey Home” follows Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War as an allegory for my own unexpected retirement and for aging men in general. If you are male, it is an invitation to explore your own interior journey home; if you are female, take a peek at the struggles facing the men in your life. Sometimes the most profound “odysseys for the soul” are the ones we take within.

The Odyssey

As you may recall from high school, The Odyssey is a book-length poem purportedly transcribed by Homer some 2700 years ago. It tells the story of a famous Greek warrior returning home from the Trojan War. The war began when Paris kidnapped the beautiful Helen and brought her back to Troy, inciting her Greek husband and his countrymen to lay siege to the city. After a decade of violent warfare, the Greeks finally win, and Odysseus begins a ten-year voyage home to his long-suffering wife Penelope and their son Telemachus. During his absence, Odysseus’ kingdom has been invaded by hoards of greedy suitors hoping to marry Penelope to acquire his wealth. His son has grown into manhood without a father’s guidance. It is a desperate and deteriorating situation.

Odysseus’ travels take him to many lands and peoples. He battles men and monsters, makes many foolish decisions, finds and surrenders paradise several times, and eventually loses everything — his ships, crew, belongings, clothes, and nearly his life before the gods ordain that he is ready to reach home. All along his harrowing voyage, however, Odysseus is guided by the whispered instructions and shape-shifting intercessions of the goddess Athena.

Whether you read the book, watched the made-for-TV Emmy Award-winning movie, or simply remember hearing the tales of Odysseus’ battle with the giant Cyclops, his confrontation with Circe the witch who turns men into pigs, or his escape from the dangerously alluring Sirens, you may still wonder what this story has to do with our theme “travel and transformation.” We certainly don’t meet such fantastic characters in the outer world! And yet that is the point — they exist inside, in the fertile land of the mythic imagination, there to inspire new voyages of transformation. The Odyssey is not only a wonderfully entertaining story, it is a psychological map for men of the inner journey home from the wars of adult life — to family, love, and a new place in the world as a wise elder.

Men and the War of Life

Men go off to war in every generation. Not necessarily wars with guns, bombs, and armies, but the wars of adult life. At first, using our imagination, we play war as children, but our warfare begins in earnest in school as we navigate the biologically driven “alpha male” pecking order. This competition for power, status, sex, and love cuts as sharply and dangerously as a sword and continues on into the world of work, where we quest for other spoils — sex, relationships, jobs, income, advancement, and power. These battles continue for decades.

Ask almost any man to talk about his experience in the war of adult life, and he will eventually spin out tales of his own warrior years. I remember good friends in elementary school abruptly moving onto new cliques of athletes, high achievers, and popular in-crowds while I coughed in the dust of their abandonment. I remember wondering where I fit in these new hierarchies and resenting the requirement to fit at all. The competitive pressure kept building — looks, clothes, grades, SAT scores, college, more grades, graduate school, and employment applications — all the hurdles I jumped to secure a place in the world. The bugle called me ever onward, ever upward, at times exhilarating and at times bitter. There were also times when its shrill notes echoed with the shame I felt at my pleasure in surpassing others. Without realizing it, I traded innocence for ego. Years passed — marriage, children, college funds, family vacations, increasing income, increasing debt.

By the fifties and sixties, many men weary of this war. They dream vaguely of laying down their swords and shields and retiring to a happily-ever-after vacation of reading, fishing, golf, travel, hobbies, projects, and grandkids. My heart was tired of running a practice, caring for people, dealing with crises, but I saw no way out of my responsibilities. Like Odysseus, I wanted to come home to love, renewal, perhaps even new horizons, but like Odysseus, I had no idea how to get there, and I would never have believed the journey I eventually took.

Coming Home from the War 

Odysseus’ voyage home covers ten long and hard years! Along the way, he encounters numerous dramatic and often bizarre adventures. As I began to examine his struggles from the perspective of depth psychology — the psychology of dream symbols and unconscious archetypes — and my own experience of retirement and aging, I suddenly understood the reason his journey took so long: Each adventure symbolizes a psychological task we men need to work through to drop our warrior armor, awaken our underdeveloped capacity to love, reconcile with long-ignored spouse and family, and find a spiritual path forward. Despite the ubiquitous boomer fantasy of stress-free retirement, it is rarely easy coming home.

By the time I finished rereading The Odyssey,(2) I had identified 18 challenges men face in the journey of aging. Four sequential categories emerged: Early Mistakes, Transformational Experiences, Homecoming, and Final Challenges. As space limitations preclude a full retelling of the story here, I will present very condensed versions of four adventures, one from each category, and I will illustrate this inner journey with examples from my own life.

Early Mistakes

Raid on the Cicones — The Trojan War has ended, and Odysseus and his crew depart for home. The wind takes them first to Thrace, north of present-day Greece, to a land populated by the Cicones. Odysseus raids a seaport, slaying most of the men, taking women as slaves, and acquiring considerable plunder. Rather than leaving quickly as Odysseus advises, his crew elects to hang around drinking and slaughtering animals, thereby giving the Cicones time to send for help. A fierce fighting force soon arrives, greatly outnumbering Odysseus’ men. In the ensuing battle, Odysseus loses six men from each of his 12 ships. The surviving crews set sail frantically, barely escaping alive.

In this beginning adventure, Odysseus resumes the same old pattern of pillage, plunder, and sexual objectification that marked his time at war. A personification of the compulsive warrior, he has not learned anything new and simply continues his warrior ways. Though he seems to know when to leave, his men do not, symbolizing an early conflict within the male psyche between moving on from the warrior life and getting drunk on more conquests and victories. The men who die may symbolize the possibilities lost by foolishly delaying maturity.

Most of us aging men initially behave like Odysseus’ crew. Never questioning our lifelong warrior ways, we continue pushing ahead in our accustomed warrior mode, because it is all we know. Trying to reinvent myself too quickly after retiring from psychology, I resumed all my compulsive habits of achievement and productivity with workshops, writing, and classes. However, changing the content didn’t change the pattern. I was scheduling myself as if I still had a schedule to keep. Worse, I felt moody and restless, my work rarely felt right or satisfying, my head just wasn’t on this path. But most importantly, I was resisting the growing undertow of that darkness within.

Transformational Experiences

Visiting Hades — Directed by Circe the witch, Odysseus travels to Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology populated by the deceased. He pours offerings of milk, wine, honey, and water to the dead and cuts the throats of a ram and a black ewe to pour in a blood offering. Immediately the souls of the dead swarm upward in a frenzy. He meets the blind prophet Teiresias, who gives him a mysterious prophesy of a “second journey” he will undertake after he arrives at home. Odysseus then converses with his deceased mother, asking about his wife, son, and father. Hearing of their dire circumstances and how desperately they miss him, Odysseus’ sorrow intensifies greatly. His mother also confides that she died of a broken heart caused by his long absence. Wounded by this crushing announcement, Odysseus tries to embrace his mother but fails because, as a ghost, she is completely insubstantial.

Odysseus then visits a seemingly endless series of deceased heroes and their wives, including Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army in the Trojan War, who was murdered by his wife’s lover; Achilles, no longer the fearless seeker of glory who now laments his own death; and several other famous heroes and heroines suffering their own unique punishments, like Oedipus’ mother who committed suicide for the monstrous act of mistakenly sleeping with her son, and Sisyphus, punished with the task of forever pushing a boulder up a hill. As hordes of dead spirits clamor desperately around him, Odysseus flees in terror to his ship, commanding his crew to sail quickly away.

My own visit to Hades came as I began a terrifying descent into that inky stain growing across my soul and a memory of my death. At 14, I had undergone open-heart surgery. During that surgery I woke up from the anesthesia to experience hands working inside my heart: Think living autopsy in an utterly unprepared boy. Forty years to the month later, the whole repressed nightmare returned, triggered by that atrial defibrillation in the emergency room. I was descending back to the horror of “anesthesia awareness.”(3) I know the horror Odysseus felt looking down into that terrifying swarm of demons.

Few of us choose to revisit the Hades within, the dark unconscious that holds so many unfinished emotional memories. Sometimes, prompted by a funeral, some vague melancholy, or frank psychological distress, we recall past relationships, wrong turns, losses, and failures. Hades is the painful and sobering process of exploring our own story, its wounds and mistakes, and listening for its deeper meanings, implications, and emotions. Taking stock so profoundly, we grow genuine maturity and wisdom. Hades also represents the reality of personal death. With death approaching, our values and goals change radically. In sum, at one time or another in the aging process, men need to “go deep,” to tell and feel their story, and return transformed — the ultimate meaning of initiation.(4)

Homecoming

Leaving Calypso — After losing his ships, his crew, and nearly his life on this difficult voyage home, Odysseus drifts alone and desperate for days, clinging to a small raft he constructed by twining together the ship’s rudder and mast. He washes ashore on Calypso’s island where he remains for seven years. This beautiful goddess falls in love with him, promising immortality if he will stay and be her husband. Although the relationship works for a while, Odysseus grows increasingly homesick instead. He misses his wife, his son, and his father, desperately wants to come home, but has neither vessel nor crew to resume his journey.

Motivated by concern and compassion, the goddess Athena pleads with her father to intercede for Odysseus. Zeus relents and sends the messenger god Hermes to Calypso’s island to arrange for his release. Hermes finds Odysseus sitting on the beach weeping, his heart breaking in sorrow. Odysseus finally tells Calypso that while Penelope could never equal her beauty nor promise immortality, he wants to go home to his mortal wife. Though bitter at first, Calypso grows sympathetic, releases her hold on Odysseus, and helps him build and provision another sturdier raft to carry him home.

I, too, lost much on this journey — my identity, career, income, colleagues, schedule, even my home. Apart from my family, the journey progressively stole nearly everything that mattered to me. I thought moving to an incredibly beautiful island in Washington would somehow replace the anesthesia awareness nightmare I was living in Sacramento. Instead, I brought the demons with me. In my anguish, I was Odysseus crying on the shores of paradise.

The goddess Calypso rescues, heals, and renews Odysseus. She falls in love with him offering both immortality and paradise. She is the embodiment of the goddess archetype, the feminine face of God, the divine feminine. But Calypso herself cannot replace the human feminine. As long as we are mortal and still working out this life, we must find love with a real person and complete the journey home. Calypso may be “perfect” but she is not Odysseus’ wife; her island may be “paradise” but it is not his paradise nor is it his home. Though my new island home was idyllic and my wife supportive, I was not done with my inner journey. Like Athena, Calypso is the goddess men find within their psyches, offering a new capacity for tenderness, compassion, and love. She is not meant to be real, and so Odysseus moves on.

As we age, we sometimes believe we’ve found paradise in gated villas, expensive cars, second homes, fancy restaurants, ocean cruises, or transient romances. But such “solutions” can only last so long before we pine for real relationships and a real home in the mended heart. There is no short cut to personal growth.

Final Challenges

Visit with Laertes — At this point in the story, Odysseus has defeated the suitors controlling his kingdom on the island of Ithaca, and he has reconciled with Penelope. Then, accompanied by his son, Odysseus seeks out his father, Laertes. Traveling to his father’s home on the periphery of his large estate, Odysseus marvels at the well-maintained and abundant orchards. At first glance, he assumes that his father must be the poor servant of another because he is dressed in rags and works at labor.

Coming upon his father, Odysseus pretends to be an old friend of his long-lost son. Laertes immediately breaks down in grief-filled tears, pouring dirt over his own face and head in a display of terrible sorrow, which provokes Odysseus to reveal his true identity. Laertes asks for proof of his identity, and Odysseus reveals a scar sustained from a childhood wild boar attack. More poignantly, he recalls happy times shared with his father as they worked together in the orchard, even naming the trees they planted together. A weeping reunion takes place, and Telemachus joins them in Laertes’ home to celebrate. They bathe and dress, and Athena renders Laertes handsome again. Another old and devoted servant and his sons are warmly received as well. All share a festive and happy dinner.

With our joints increasingly affected by traditional exercise, my wife and I recently joined a water aerobics class at the “Y” attended by very nice “old” people with sagging bodies. I used to chuckle at these geriatrics doing easy pool therapy — until I became one of them. Hey, those exercises are not so easy! But I also see something else now. I see people like myself coping with health problems, the loss of careers, even the deaths of loved ones but who still thrive in the warm company of others and the goodness of life as it is. This is aging. We laugh with these new friends, update our “organ recitals,” and share pictures of the grandchildren. In this old folks’ class, my wife and I are bouncing around like everyone else; we welcome this time and enjoy making new friends. As he settles into old age, Odysseus needs this lesson, too.

Once he finds his father, Odysseus mistakes the dirty clothes of a devoted gardener for a state of destitution. Though he may look impoverished, and surely misses his son, Laertes is actually doing very well. He cares lovingly for his thriving orchards, supporting life, beauty, and the future. This orchard metaphor refers to the way a man gathers the fruits of his life in its final season. He discovers which seeds have blossomed and which have not — a harvest that no man can really predict. Laertes also cares for the divine Orchard, the holy ground of human existence, which the awakened elder finds in old age as the imminence of death heightens his awareness of the Earth’s beauty and abundant grace. He has returned to the Garden of Eden witnessing divinity everywhere. Implicitly, he shares this new consciousness with his son and grandson in a new and multigenerational friendship. Laertes has made a healthy adjustment to old age, reminding us that aging is not about money or clothes but the connection to life, meaningful work, and love of family — though dared by circumstance, he too can return, in the blink of an eye, to his outgrown but deeply internalized warrior stance. Though rocked by ambivalence in a few instances, this part of the story also finds the male lineage healing — grandfather, son, and grandson — restoring an archetypal order in the psyche previously torn apart by war.

Aging is not what we think it is. What appears on the outside — old bodies, old faces, and old clothes — hides a natural but profoundly meaningful process taking us along a transformational inner path. This inner journey will bring a deep understanding of life, prepare us for death, and awaken intuitions of what comes next — if we pursue this unfolding process with interest, awareness, and compassion. I feel myself changing as I age — slowing down, ripening into love, and grateful for so much.

The Role of Athena

Supported by her father, the great and powerful Zeus, the goddess Athena accompanies Odysseus on every step of his journey. A symbol of Odysseus’ inner feminine, she guides him with whispered intuitions, transformative experiences, and direct instruction. With her tacit approval, Odysseus consorts with various strong and divine women, like Circe and Calypso, learning much from these inner experiences. As his understanding of the feminine grows, so grows his capacity to love, respect, and appreciate Penelope, his real and mortal wife.

I have learned much from my wife, Mallow. Watching the way she remembers birthdays, sends thoughtful gifts, stays in touch with the children and friends, plans family vacations — I see how love works at the practical level. I love just as deeply, but I’m still more of a single-track-one-sided warrior kind of guy. Yet I have found new male-like avenues of love that open my heart spontaneously — like playing “train tracks” for hours with my six-year-old grandson, snooping for bugs in the garden with my two-year-old granddaughter, listening to music with my two-year-old grandson, writing love songs to my wife and family, and attending my eight-year-old granddaughter’s hip-hop dance class. I have learned that I don’t love in the same way as my wife, but I love nonetheless, though perhaps more like a man. I believe Athena has taught me to draw on my own strengths as I tend my garden of age.

With her skillful guidance, Athena also draws Odysseus into the sacred marriage of the mortal masculine and divine feminine, a merging that not only awakens his capacity to love but may, in time, also divinize his perception of the world. The symbols of the divine marriage can be found in all mythologies — the union of spirit and matter, Samsara and Nirvana, Shiva and Shakti, head and heart, sacred and profane, particle and wave, consciousness and contents. Put differently, our spiritual task in aging may be to support this divinization of the world, bringing Heaven down to Earth, and healing the split between humanity and divinity.(5) What better task for an aging population!

Conclusions

While this paper visits only four of Odysseus’ many profound and growth-promoting adventures, I hope it illustrates the way a myth can bring meaning to our personal journeys and, in this particular instance, how it illuminates the path we take as aging men on the voyage home to love. Indeed, I believe that The Odyssey represents the Iron John(6) of male aging, a myth to guide men home from the long war of life.(7)

Likely, few will begin the journey of age with an event as dramatic as a four-decade-delayed surgical PTSD, yet whatever shocks you into realizing that things have changed is your initiation. It could be retirement, joint pain, senior discounts, illness, new prescriptions, or your image in photographs, but suddenly you understand that everything has changed, that you have left the old world of middle-aged goals and values for a completely new and unknown land. You have begun an unexpected adventure in consciousness. While aging may represent the end of our old life, it is also the beginning of a new one

My journey? I eventually healed the pain of my anesthesia awareness trauma and went back to school for a second doctorate in interfaith spirituality, ordination as an interfaith minister, and finally a new life as a writer (and occasional celebrant for family weddings and funerals — a wonderful role for an elder!). The kids have grown up, grandchildren keep arriving, and the body’s still changing. My passage from busy mental health professional to author and minister took ten years, just like Odysseus — I know what he went through! This journey has taken away so much, and yet I feel so full. And, of course, it continues onward. For the island is as much a state of mind as a final destination.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

— C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaka”(8)

 


John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min., is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, and the author of seven books on the interface of psychology and spirituality. His recent works include The Three Secrets of Aging; Bedtime Stories for Elders: What Fairy Tales Can Teach Us About the New Aging; and the forthcoming What Aging Men Want: Homer’s Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging. You can learn more about John at www.johnrobinson.org.


Notes

1 Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Ulysses”. Accessed June 20, 2012, from http://www.portablepoetry.com/poems/alfredlord_tennyson/ulysses.html.

2 The version of The Odyssey I used for this study was the 1999 translation by Richmond Lattimore, The Odyssey of Homer. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

3 “Anesthesia awareness” occurs when anesthesia levels drop too low to prevent awareness, but other neuromuscular blocking agents hold the surgical patient in a chemical paralysis, preventing him from communicating his distress. The effects can range from mild distress to unbearable terror. In the latter instances, the patient either awakens in acute emotional distress resulting in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or blocks the trauma with psychological defenses that may later be triggered as a delayed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. You can learn more about my experience in The Three Secrets of Aging and Bedtime Stories for Elders found at www.johnrobinson.org.

4 Initiation rituals are rites of passage symbolizing and ritualizing the movement from one life stage to another. They always involve the archetype of death and rebirth — death of the old life and rebirth in a new one. While life itself initiates men, it is an incomplete initiation for it lacks ritual, community, and new identity. While men in our culture lack effective elder initiation rituals, aging men’s groups can create them. I provide a template for a male elder ritual in the appendix of The Three Secrets of Aging.

5 Mystics from every religion and era have described the return of the divine creating a new and sacred world. To hear their many voices and consider ways you might begin to awaken this vision, see Finding Heaven Here found at www.johnrobinson.org.

6 The poet Robert Bly based his bestselling book Iron John (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1990) on a story of the same name taken from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He used this simple tale as a parable of midlife men struggling to find the authentic masculine in the depths of their personality. It touched a whole generation of men, including me.

7 My complete psychological interpretation of The Odyssey will be published in 2013 with John Hunt Publishing titled What Aging Men Want.

8 Cavafy, C. P. “Ithaka”. Accessed June 20, 2012, from http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=204&cat=1