The hero of the Greek myth Odysseus is a model for all of us to make our own personal odysseys.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 11, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
How to Be Your Own Ulysses
Ulysses was the Roman version of Odysseus - the Greek king at the center of Homer's the Odyssey. The Odyssey details his return from the ten-year war to retrieve Helen at Troy that Homer described in the Iliad. The trip back was a tough, long one, and set the stage for all of Western literature, adventure stories, and male heroes. It is also highly illuminating psychologically - a template for mental health through the trials of life. James Joyce created the greatest modern English-language novel, Ulysses, by transforming Odysseus into an Irish Jew - Leopold Bloom.
Here are the traits that allowed Odysseus to succeed in his ten-year effort to return to his faithful wife, Penelope:
Commitment. Right off the bat, I know critical PT Blog readers are going to point out those seven years Odysseus spent marooned with Calypso. But, really, he couldn't escape until Hermes, messenger of the gods, told Calypso to release him. Okay, so there was that passionate kiss goodbye. And then there was that year he lingered with the sexy Circe after he got her to reverse that trick where she turned his men into swine. It's true, his men had to hustle him off Circe's island. Who wouldn't dally with a beautiful, magical sorceress who loved you - and, provided great wine and food to boot - rather than row around the Aegean Sea with a bunch of semi-savage men? But Odysseus nonetheless committed his life and soul to his ultimate goal of returning to his kingdom and his waiting wife.
Confidence. All right, Odysseus was conceited - but he HAD to be. He had to fight the Cyclops, resist the Sirens, avoid the many-headed Scylla, survive sea wrecks, seduce not only princesses but goddesses - if Zeus' virginal daughter Athena weren't sweet on him, he would NEVER have survived. Perhaps he was a touch cocky when he asked his disloyal lieutenant, "Tell me - are you Odysseus?", laughing at the very notion. You NEED this kind of belief in yourself to endure the travails of existence. It did piss off Poseidon - with terrible consequences - when he shouted that "no one can defeat the great Odysseus" as he sailed from the Island where he fought the Cyclops. But you have to take chances on odysseys.
Know your place. Despite Odysseus' taunt that got him into trouble with Poseidon, he generally gave the gods their propers. When confronted with Hermes or his benefactress, Athena, Odysseus displayed a strong ability to grovel. And he could tell when the gods were deadly serious - as when the spirit Tiresias warned him to steer clear of the sacred cattle on the Island of Thrinacia. Of course, his men disregarded him and did eat this off-limit meat - and they drowned as a result. Indeed, when you consider that Odysseus was the only one who survived from the twelve ships he commanded when leaving Troy, you see just how special he was at navigating the shoals of life.
Empathy. Given what might be called Odysseus' arrogance, he was a model of patience when the doubting Penelope questioned his identity after he killed the suitors swirling around his palace when he returned home. Why, he was even prepared to sleep outside her chambers when she aked - after a twenty-year absence! But he was also a model of forgiveness when Penelope recognized her error and apologized. Odysseus admired strong women and took his cues from them. It saved his life many times.
Destiny. Odysseus fought when he had to fight, endured when confronted with ordeals, made nice when he needed favors, took charge when he had to be in command, dissembled when it suited him - like with that monster Cyclops and those pesky suitors. Women and monsters, Odysseus believed, often required sweet-talking and deception. And who would question him, after what he went through? But he also just held on and rode the waves when there was nothing more to be done. Of course, Odysseus knew he was a man of destiny, being practically the sole male survivor in his kingdom after losing one generation of men at sea, and killing the next for dilly-dallying with his wife.
If I haven't made it clear until now, it takes grit, luck, and faith - in oneself and in the gods - to make it through life, be you Odysseus or the average Joe or Jane. Even at the end of the Odyssey, the head god, Zeus, tells his daughter Athena that untold travails await Odysseus - he is, after all, still a human.
We all face our own life odysseys. And - like Homer's and Joyce's heroes - we can likely all make it through them if we see ourselves as the heroes of our own sagas.
Picture: Ulysses had his men lash him to the mast (they stuffed their ears with beeswax) to resist the call of the sirens. Psheeew - that was a close one!
P.S.: Avoid sweat lodges on your personal quest.