Second Journeys

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world

— D.H. Lawrence, from "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through"

The poet Tennyson imagines Ulysses, the hero of that great poem of homecoming, The Odyssey, chafing in his old age for another great adventure:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life.1
 

 

He will leave the “scepter and the isle” — the task of administrating the kingdom — to his son Telemachus. Though governance has traditionally been the province of old men, Ulysses lacks the disposition for it, the “slow prudence” needed “to make mild / A rugged people, and through soft degrees / Subdue them to the useful and the good.”

The Return of Odysseus, Claude Lorrain, 1644

 

 

The call that Ulysses feels is to the heroic, to an intensity of life that is available only to those warriors who, with comrades, engage in some death-defying struggle of great moment. He is old; he and his fellow mariners “are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven.” And yet…

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
… but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

And so, Tennyson — in this prelude to an unrecounted second journey — imagines Ulysses and his crew setting out, poised “to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars” — firm in conviction that it is “not too late to seek a newer world.”

The poetry is stirring. Never mind that this call to shine in use is made to comrades in arms who have “drunk delight of battle with [their] peers.” Robert Kennedy, who took no delight in war and struggled valiantly to end one, chose the title for his book, To Seek a Newer World, from among Tennyson's lines as he sought to rouse a generation to action. Might not this same generation —now themselves “made weak by time and fate” — find here renewed inspiration and rekindled idealism for their own second journeys? But what kind of second journey?

The suggestion that a further adventure awaits the aging Ulysses occurs midway through The Odyssey, when he encounters the blind seer Tiresias at the border of Hades. After prophesying — accurately — the many trials and years of wandering that will precede Ulysses' reunion with Penelope, Tiresias tells him of this later journey:

…not a sea journey, although he must carry with him a well-cut oar. Turning inland he must travel on until he reaches a country where the people have never seen the sea… [H]e will recognize the right place when he meets a stranger, who, seeing the oar, will ask him about the ‘winnowing fan’ he is carrying on his shoulder.2

The Odyssey comes down to us from Homer, without this promised epilogue. We must wait two millennia for another great poet, Dante, “to imagine in unforgettable lines” the alternate voyage that is the inspiration for Tennyson’s poem: Ulysses’ “final sailing beyond the pillars of the western world… towards the southern pole… until [he sees] on the horizon a great mountain rising out of the seas towards heaven. With cries of eagerness [he urges his] crew towards it, but there comes a huge wave rolling from the mountain, becoming a whirlpool as it sucks [his] ship, [him]self and all [his] companions down into the depths to join the shades below.”3 It seems that for what Dante considered his reckless arrogance, Ulysses is consigned to the eighth circle of hell.


When I founded Second Journey in 1999, it was the second journey in another work of imaginative literature — Narcissus and Goldmund by the twentieth-century German novelist Hermann Hesse — that suggested the name. Near the end of that book, Hesse imagines his aging protagonist, Goldmund — exhausted after the completion of his masterwork — embarking on an adventure meant to reprise his coming-of-age journey. The journey is an unqualified disaster. Goldmund, who is thrown from his horse and injured within a day’s ride of the monastery he has left, is prevented only by pride from dragging himself back.  He soldiers on only to discover the charms of his youth have deserted him, and the young women he would woo find his advances abhorrent. Months later, broken in health, he returns to the monastery — to die.4

The temptation to which Goldmund, like Ulysses, yields is to try to repeat himself: to live the second half of life as he had the first — to rely on that same repertoire of skills that had served him well, not recognizing that some tectonic shift had occurred in his life. We spend the first half of our lives creating an ego that allows us to “succeed” in the world — building on the strengths that allow us to make a life, raise a family, have a career, or, at minimum, just survive for 50 years. Then we cross some sort of boundary and enter an undiscovered country where all the accustomed wiles and ways of our ego seem ineffectual. Girded for another sea adventure, we find ourselves sloughing through a pathless jungle with no view of the night sky and the canopy of stars we used to steer by.

Carl Jung thought in later life we were forced to deal with the world not from our strengths, but from our weaknesses, from out of what he called our shadow. Does the ego, this fine and efficient distillation of our life experience, have to die? And if so, to make way for what?


A dream I had when I turned 50 has helped me think about these matters. In the dream, I was a screenwriter who’d been asked by a producer (in whose debt I was) to try to rescue a project he feared had become hopelessly mired. I knew and admired the director’s earlier work; but he was an old man now, and many years had lapsed since his last film. We spent the day together walking about the set; and I found, as I listened to the director talk about the film, I was listening less to what he said than to who he was.

At the end of the day we somehow arrived at the vestibule of his home. He had been speaking when I interrupted him:

 “I have decided what I will do,” I told him. “I’ll rewrite those scenes where I think there are problems and make my best case for the changes. If — after you’ve looked thoughtfully at my suggestions — you still think things should be handled differently; then I’ll write it however you wish.” Why? I thought, but did not say. Because I trust you. Because I trust that you know where this needs to go.

It is not that the carefully honed skills of a lifetime, our many strengths, are useless; it is rather that they must be put in service to something larger than the ego (which is always the “I” in our dreams). The Tiresias in each of us, that sage to whom we are in journey, knows exactly what it wants.

My words to the director, my decision to help to him, were perhaps triggered by the words of reassurance he’d just spoken. The “vestibule” in which we stood was a constricted courtyard, enclosed by high cement block walls. Against one of its walls, a single rose bush was espaliered. My guide had detected the dread which the austere and sterile courtyard — this threshold between midlife and elderhood — had created in me. He’d sought to allay my fears, inviting me into his lovely home where his beautiful wife waited to welcome me — inviting me into this next stage of life.


In her insightful essay on The Odyssey which I referenced above, Helen Luke weaves the sparse details found in Homer — the journey overland to a remote interior village whose inhabitants “have never seen the sea,” the “well-cut oar” that will be mistaken for a “winnowing fan” — into an illuminating parable that describes the journey into elderhood.

A restless longing for adventure and glory — the desire to discover new lands and sail unknown seas — grows again in the aging Ulysses:

Slowly and unconsciously the arrogance that had caused his long sufferings [during his first journey home from Troy] returned — working, as it always does, through the best of his human qualities — through his longing to know and to see all the wonders of creation and to understand things as yet hidden from most men.5

These burgeoning plans to reprise his earlier journey are, however, suddenly cut short when the seer Tiresias comes to him again in a dream, reminding him of the alternate, inland journey which Ulysses realizes he has somehow “completely blotted out from his conscious mind.”

The dream prompts a kind of life review. He recognizes the “foolish arrogance” that characterized his dealing with the Cyclops. He sees how “puffed up with his own cleverness” he had been and how his crew had paid dearly with their lives for his ego inflation. He feels shame for his actions, and a deep compassion grows in him for those he had wronged so grievously.6

The next day, he sets out alone — a small donkey carrying his provisions and the oar — on a journey that becomes for Luke a beautiful metaphor for the journey into elderhood. Ulysses does not understand — “not yet,” she adds — and yet he obeys. “One thing was clear — this journey would bring no glory.” This was a journey into the interior, which held little interest to sea-faring men of action. This was a journey into the depths, where “there were no maps to follow once he came to the last known village… [and] he must simply walk on into the unknown.”

A winnowing fan is the tool used by farmers to separate the wheat from the chaff:

a process that mirrors in the psychic realm the acquisition of wisdom and mature judgment, the ability to discern between that which really matters and that which doesn’t. According to [Luke’s] interpretation, Odysseus isn’t simply being asked to retire and renounce his power and prowess, he is being asked to exchange it for that which he has learned along the way, the wisdom to weigh alternatives and discard the less desirable ones. In short, this last journey really is an elderquest because its successful completion requires the mastery of a whole new set of skills, those that are necessary to navigate not midlife but old age — trust, wisdom, and the willingness to let go.7


So, extending to you the welcoming gesture the director in my film made, I invite you to embark upon your own second journey, trusting it will culminate in a second homecoming in the house of wisdom "where the people who love you are waiting."8

Notes

1  Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses.” See victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/ulyssestext.html for the text of the poem.

2  Helen M. Luke, “The Odyssey,” in Old Age: Journey into Simplicity (New York: Parabola Books, 1990), p. 12. The encounter with Tiresias occurs in Book XI of The Odyssey.

3  Luke, p. 12. Dante’s encounter with Ulysses occurs in Canto XXVI of The Inferno.

4  Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968), pp. 305-315.

5  The remaining quotations are from Helen Luke’s essay, pp. 10-24.

6  This is the late-life work of personal transformation which Reb Zalman refers to as the “Art of Life Completion: encountering our mortality, coming to terms with our past, turning failure into success, healing our relationships, forgiveness work, and resurrecting unlived life." See From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller (NY: Warner Books, 1997) pp. 81–106

7  “What is an Elderquest and Why is it so Important?” lets.umb.edu/documents/whatisanelderquest.pdf.

8  The phrase is from Mary Chapin Carpenter's song, "Jubilee" (below). The title refers to the Hebrew, and later Christian, concept of a year of rest to be observed every 50th year, during which slaves were to be set free, alienated property restored to the former owners, and the lands left untilled. I find the song wonderfully evocative of the healing of relationships and the forgiveness work — much of that forgiving oneself — that is part of becoming an elder.