I’ve always loved Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, in which his Greek hero, Odysseus, tries to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
It’s an archetypal story – Odysseus is a very human character – and we now see his long voyage home as a paradigm for the journey of self-discovery. From a contemporary perspective it can be seen as a metaphor for what happens when we engage with the process of psychotherapy.
In the 20th century, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger explored this paradigm in his own writings. He concluded that all philosophising is about ‘homecoming’ – which he defined as the search for ‘truth and meaning’.
But let’s not forget, the search is just as important as the destination – perhaps even more so. Odysseus’s 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.
When I first read the Odyssey, I questioned whether Odysseus even wanted to return home.
Homer writes, ‘a man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far, enjoys even his sufferings after a time.’
In counselling, a question which may emerge at some point is: ‘What’s in it for you to stay stuck where you are?’ It might sound like a harsh question but when we begin to explore both the question and the intention of the question – within a safe, therapeutic relationship – it can reveal interesting insights. Letting go of being ‘stuck’ may involve being open to new possibilities – and that can be scary.
But for even the most scared person there is often a yearning to live life differently. Odysseus yearns for his home, for a life free of war and suffering – and for love – the love of his wife Penelope. Odysseus doesn’t know when he will get home or what he will find when he gets there and home begins to take on a mythological status.
The great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa captures this in his posthumous masterpiece The Book of Disquiet:
‘The feelings that hurt the most, the emotions that sting the most, are those that are absurd – the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.’ – Beautiful no?
The idea of ‘home’ – a secure base or a safe haven – is a powerful one though I would call it a feeling – as opposed to an idea – and it’s one I’ve been drawn to all my life. It’s also a fundamental ‘need’, which Attachment Theorists proved through endless empirical studies more than 50 years ago. Around the same time, the French philosopher 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.’
The ‘home’ she writes about doesn’t just have to be a physical place – often that’s not available or even possible – it’s more a sense of belonging.
Freud himself understood this concept. Nationalism had become a powerful force at the end of the 19th Century but for Freud, ‘the promised land’ or ‘Utopia’ … exists in the human mind. That message has never been more relevant as we begin to navigate the complexities of the 21st Century.
As for Odysseus, at times he is literally adrift on the seas. Many of us have had a sense of being adrift at some point or another in our lives – the routines of everyday life feel meaningless – the certainties promised by politics, money, globalisation or religion have been found wanting – or perhaps we have been forced adrift though change and uncertainty. Like Odysseus, we have an idea of what we need – of what we think we should do – yet we continue searching, striving, yearning – looking for our own Ithaca.
Here’s a thought, perhaps the answer is to let go of all that and be ‘adrift’? In his book, Care of The Soul, Thomas Moore writes, ‘the soul requires that we sustain the experiences of absence, wandering, longing, melancholy, separation, chaos, and deep adventure. There is no shortcut …’
I leave it to Maya Angelou who reminds us: ‘You are only free when you realise you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’
By engaging with this feeling of being adrift we begin to experience ourselves – the enormity and the infinitesimal. As Homer writes, ‘the journey is the thing’ – as we engage, we begin to understand that it’s not the destination rather it’s the search where we will discover ‘meaning’ and ultimately our own secure base – ‘home’.