Healing and Homecoming: A lesson from Ulysses

John McManamy Health Guide
  • “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.”

    So begins my favorite work of literature, Homer’s Odyssey, the tale of one man’s painful journey home. Why the story resonates with me is a no-brainer: I’ve always felt like an outsider stranded on the wrong planet, set upon by capricious and vindictive gods who seem to have nothing better to do with their immortal lives than toy with my own.

    The wrath of Poseidon, that’s the storm playing out in my brain, one with the power to leave me washed up naked on a strange rocky shore. On more than one occasion, my illness has reduced me to nothing and left me with nothing, far from that place in the heart people call home.
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    Intriguingly, the Odyssey parallels the Books of Moses. God’s children are retuning to their ancestral land. But no sooner have they cleared the Red Sea and set a course for home than they start doing things to make God angry, and if there is one lesson to be learned from the Hebrew Scriptures, you don’t want to make God angry.

    Pity the poor Greeks, who have many more gods to anger, first Athena (Minerva), then Poseidon. This is the very last god you want to be on the wrong side of when trying to negotiate long stretches of open sea in boats smaller then Elton John’s closet. For starters, Poseidon happened to have backed the other team – the Trojans – which does not bode well for a bunch of men who hail from Ithaca. Odysseus (Ulysses) and his men get blown off course only to find themselves enjoying the hospitality of none other than the son of Trident Man, himself, this big guy with one eye. You just know the rest of the journey is not going to be a Princess Cruise.

    Cue up the walk through hell. Feel the resonance.

    Now Helios the sun god and Zeus (Jove) get into the act, and in no time the hapless Ithacans are down to just our hero, who finds himself in exile as the boy toy to the goddess Calypso. My lost years were never this good, but we get the point. Odysseus longs for home. But, alas, he finds himself a stranger in his own house, and he must fight to take back what is his. This development parallels the Hebrew Scriptures, where Joshua – successor to Moses – must lead the twelve tribes in a constant round of battles to reclaim their ancestral home. There is no let-up, no reprieve.

    The struggle is inexorable and exhausting. It’s a journey drenched in tears. You try to do everything right, and something goes wrong. You literally feel success in your grasp, and a mysterious force pries it loose. Everything is smooth sailing, and a whirlpool opens up beneath you. This voyage, you realize, was doomed from the very beginning. The gods are messing with you. They’ve shown you who is boss, leaving you spent and powerless and humiliated, totally alone.

    “Alas,” cries our hero, “what ever will become of me, and how is it all to end?”

    But eventually we find home – a coming home – a sense of healing, an acceptance for the way things are, as well as a sense of renewal. Odysseus is not about to have the last 20 years of his life back, and neither can we. But we can make the most out of what we have left. Maybe yet another whirlpool will open up beneath me. Maybe once again I will find myself washed up naked on a strange shore or find myself walking through hell. Should that happen, hopefully I will persevere, as I have done on numerous occasions before, but now is a time of mending, of peace.

  • “Ulysses gave a great cry, and gathering himself together swooped down like a soaring eagle. Then the son of Saturn sent a thunderbolt of fire that fell just in front of Minerva, so she said to Ulysses, ‘Ulysses, noble son of Laertes, stop this warful strife, or Jove will be angry with you.’
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    “Thus spoke Minerva, and Ulysses obeyed her gladly.”

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Published On: June 09, 2006