In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, his Greek hero Odysseus is trying to return home after the Trojan War.
For Odysseus that place is Ithaca.
I believe that Homer was not only writing about a physical place but also a state of being. Ithaca can be seen as a metaphor for what we – and Odysseus – want and need from life. On one level, Odysseus wants to be reunited with his wife Penelope – but it could also be interpreted as a primordial longing, a nostalgia to return home.
By the 20th century, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger concluded that all philosophising is about homecoming – which he defined as a search for truth and meaning.
But as we find out in Homer’s tale, the journey is just as important as the destination – perhaps even more so – the story is certainly more thrilling on the journey with its encounters with lotus-eaters, the six-headed monster Scylla and the captivating witch-goddess Circe.
The journey is the in the moment experience. This idea of what’s right there – in the moment, became a big theme of the existential phenomenological philosophers of the mid-20th Century.
In the 1940s, the likes of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir were obsessed with being ‘phenomenological’. It’s a tongue twister, so for a tongue-in-cheek explanation of ‘phenomenology’ have a look at ‘The Muppets explain phenomenology’ on Youtube!
So essentially, it’s a simple concept. Rather than trying to theorise and be all intellectual, a lot of time was spent hanging out in Parisian cafes focusing on the ‘phenomena’ – the thing that appears – right there in the moment. The emotional response to a glass of apricot brandy in Cafe de Flore became just as important as any philosophising done in the hallowed halls of academia. This was pretty revolutionary at the time, especially after a 100 years of scientific dominance, where the search for answers defined the modern age.
Whilst Odysseus is experiencing life in the moment, there is a yearning within him. He is literally adrift at some points on his journey. Many of us have had that sense of being ‘adrift’ at some point or another – of being isolated, of not being heard. By the 1950s, the psychologist John Bowlby and his colleagues in London began develop empirical studies which showed how humans need connection – without it, we fail to survive. This led to the development of attachment theory and the idea of a ‘secure base’. A ‘secure base’ – it’s what Odysseus was looking for too! Today attachment theory is pretty much the basis of all talking therapies / relationship counselling.
We all crave the security of being ‘rooted’ – to a place, a person or a concept that offers comfort and security.
Another French philosopher – this time Simone Weil – who was forced to leave France during the Second World War wrote:
‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.’
So what is home? Of course it can be a place or a feeling we associate with family – but not necessarily so – after all, that place doesn’t exist for everyone and it may be problematic too.
Rather home is a sense of belonging or connection.
Again, as Odysseus discovered, that can be difficult to find. So how do we find it?
First, listen to yourself.
Ask yourself: When have you felt secure, happy, grounded? Or alternatively, what would the opposite of the pain and the sadness you’ve experienced in life look like? What do you need? What do you want? Perhaps it’s something that has always been there – during good and bad times – that perhaps you’ve tried to ignore or dismiss at certain points in your life, but which never totally goes away? Is it a place? A culture? A history or an environment? Is it co-created or is it your own place? Your own ‘safe place’ which you invite other people into when you are ready? Or is it a place you already share? It may be right in front of you. Just by acknowledging it, you begin to find home – though remember, the search may take you on a path you never imagined – as Odysseus found out.