After ten years of waging war against the Trojans, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, set out on the wine-dark sea to begin his journey home. Storms thwarted an easy return voyage, and Odysseus found himself facing many additional years of tragedy and adventure, reaching a mythical nadir when he’s forced to descend into the underworld itself.
Broken down and exposed, Odysseus resists collapse. He instead pulls himself out of Hades, and persevering through additional trials, finally makes it home to his island kingdom, only to find both his family and throne threatened by a conniving horde of suiters. He fights them off.
But he’s not done. Following a prophecy delivered to him by the ghost of Theban Teiresias in the underworld (depicted above), Odysseus makes a humbling journey inland. He carries an oar — a symbol of the maritime world where he reined — farther and farther from the sea, until he arrives at a place where it’s mistaken for a farming implement by locals who have “never heard of crimson-painted ships, or the well-shaped oars that serve as wings.”
It is here, stripped of any of the recognitions on which he’d built his previous life, that he plants the oar in the ground and performs sacrifices to Poseidon, before returning home to live out his life in peace.
“The story of Odysseus is a classic transrational myth,” writes Richard Rohr in his underground classic, Falling Upward, “one that many would say sets the bar and direction for all later Western storytelling.” And for good reason. It’s one of the earliest extant works to describe a pattern absolutely fundamental to the human condition: hardship unlocking a deeper, more authentic, more satisfying life.
As Roher elaborates, Odysseus’s journey is a metaphor for the proper human response to unexpected difficulty. His first response, after arriving broken in the underworld, is survival and progress. He makes his way out of Hades, perseveres through the trials that follow, and then once home, performs the work needed to get his life back in order.
But then — and this is the key to the entire myth — he humbles himself on an inland journey, where he ritually moves beyond the easy comforts of his old life, laying the foundation on which to build something more meaningful.
Once it’s brought to our attention, this pattern becomes visible everywhere. We see it in the travails of Dante, and Augustine, and even Luke Skywalker. Carl Jung argued that this storyline is an archetype, engraved in the collective human unconscious, as unavoidably fundamental as our intuitive repulsion to snakes or attraction to courage. Whether its origin is divine or evolutionary, it represents revelation all the same.
Which brings us to our current moment.
To varying degrees of severity, we’re all suffering through some version of Odysseus’s tragic journey. Many — too many — are struggling with devastating consequences to their health or livelihoods. Like Odysseus surviving the storm that destroyed his fleet, for them, all energy is dedicated to perseverance in the moment.
But for many others, including a large part of my audience here, the moment has brought severe dislocation to much of what we’ve come to trust and expect, but falls short of immediate peril. The question then is what those who find themselves in this situation — marooned on a Netflix-themed island of the lotus eaters — should do about it.
We can shake our fists at the Gods, as some are now acting out through increasingly furious and tragically futile battles fought on social media.
We can cower, marinating in dread, as some are now doing as they glue themselves to catastrophic news coverage, giving in to genuflections of despair.
Or, like Odysseus, we can allow the disruption — painful as it is — spark the resolve needed to find our way out of the underworld, fight to get our affairs back in order, and then, when the time comes, with a mix of humility and purpose: transform our lives into something deeper.
Essentially all of philosophy, theology, literature and history implies that the Odysseus approach is the one for which we as humans are wired. The best response to deep disruption, in other words, is often a deep reset.
This idea, that we should allow our current dislocation to instigate a move toward the deep life, is one that I’ve been implicitly exploring in recent posts (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). I thought it was useful, however, to give this impulse a name and some historical context because I intend to keep returning to it — among other topics — in the weeks ahead. I want to better understand how one acts on the impulse for the deep reset, while also acknowledging, with an eye toward Homer, that I’m hardly the first to ponder this ancient instinct.