When I taught freshmen English, one of my final units of the year was always Homer’s The Odyssey. This epic poem tells of Odysseus’ journey back home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War for ten years. He is determined to get to his beloved Penelope and son Telemachus, but a hungry cyclops, seductive goddesses, dangerous sirens, and vengeful gods create havoc along the way. Ten years later, he arrives on the shores of Ithaca only to find a group of unruly suitors standing between him and his beautiful wife. After a violent showdown, Odysseus finally gathers Penelope in his arms and thanks Athena for safely returning him to his homeland.
I love this story for many reasons. The storytelling is compelling, the character of Odysseus is wonderfully flawed, and his adventures are dramatic and exhilarating. Another reason I am drawn to this tale is Odysseus’ determination. He keeps encountering impediments, but his undying love for Ithaca, Penelope, and Telemachus strengthens his conviction to return home, even when confronted with the treacherous Scylla and Charybdis.
Odysseus knew when to change directions, to listen to the wind and adjust his sails. We can all learn from Odysseus. He’s a stubborn, vain, and overconfident man who makes rash decisions and is quick to anger. Yet he has a passionate side. He longs to return to Penelope and his son, so he risks everything to see Ithaca again.
Many of us face monsters in our lives. These creatures come in different forms, from disease to job loss to grief. They smother us with dark smoke that makes us feel as though we are traveling in a state of perpetual slow motion. Our hearts ache to see the peaceful shoreline in the distance, but like Odysseus, we won’t give up the dream. We know our journeys aren’t simple. They are fraught with ogres and murky waters, yet we channel our inner Odysseus. Ithaca is always there, patiently waiting. We just may have to take a different route which may be even more exquisite and amazing than what we left behind.
“Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.” - The Odyssey