Odyssey: what ageing men want

Men go off to war in every generation. Not necessarily wars with guns, bombs, and armies, but the wars of adult life. We play war games as children, but our warfare begins in earnest in school as we navigate the biologically-driven ‘Alpha male’ pecking order. This competition for power, status, sex and love cuts as sharp and dangerously as Odysseus’ sword and continues on into the world of work, where men quest for greater spoils in jobs, income, advancement, and power. These battles continue for decades.

Ask almost any man to talk about his experience in the wars of adolescence and adult life, and he will eventually spin out tales of his own warrior years. I remember good friends in elementary school abruptly moving onto new cliques of athletes, high achievers, and popular in-crowds while I coughed in the dust of their abandonment. I remember wondering where I fit in these new hierarchies and resenting the requirement to fit at all. The competitive pressure continued building - looks, clothes, grades, SAT scores, college, more grades, graduate school, and employment applications - all the hurdles I jumped to secure a place in the world. The bugle called me ever onward, ever upward, at times exhilarating and at times bitter. Without realizing it, I traded innocence for ego. Years passed - marriage, children, college funds, family vacations, increasing income, increasing debt - it never seemed to end.

By their fifties and sixties, many men weary of this war. They dream vaguely of laying down their swords and shields and retiring to a happily-ever-after vacation of hobbies and grandkids. My heart was tired of running a psychotherapy practice, caring for people, dealing with crises. Like Odysseus, I wanted to come home to love, renewal, perhaps even new horizons, but like Odysseus, I had no idea how to get there.

Odysseus’ Travels: Coming Home from the War

Odysseus’ voyage home covers ten long and hard years! Along the way, he encounters numerous dramatic and often bizarre adventures. As I began to examine his struggles from the perspective of depth psychology - the psychology of dream symbols and unconscious archetypes - and my own experience of retirement and ageing, I suddenly understood the reason his journey took so long: each adventure symbolizes a psychological task we men need to work through to drop our warrior armor, awaken our underdeveloped capacity to love, reconcile with long-ignored spouse and family, and find a spiritual path forward. Despite the ubiquitous Boomer fantasy of stress-free retirement, it’s rarely easy coming home.

By the time I finished rereading The Odyssey, I had identified eighteen challenges men face in the journey of ageing comprising four sequential categories: Early Mistakes, Transformational Experiences, Homecoming, and Final Challenges.

Early Mistakes - Raid on the Cicones

The Trojan War has ended and Odysseus and his crew depart for home. The wind takes them first to Thrace, north of present-day Greece, to a land populated by the Cicones. Odysseus raids a seaport, slaying most of the men, taking women as slaves, and acquiring considerable plunder. Rather than leaving quickly as Odysseus advises, his crew elects to hang around drinking and slaughtering animals, thereby giving the Cicones time to send for help. A fierce fighting force soon arrives, greatly out-numbering Odysseus’ men. In the ensuing battle, Odysseus loses six men from each of his twelve ships. The surviving crews frantically set sail, barely escaping alive.

What does this adventure tell us about ageing? Odysseus resumes the same old pattern of pillage, plunder and sexual objectification that marked his time at war. A personification of the compulsive warrior, he has not learned anything new and simply continues his warrior ways. Though he seems to know when to leave, his men do not, symbolizing an early conflict within the male psyche between moving on from the warrior life or getting drunk on more conquests and victories. The men who die may symbolize the possibilities lost by foolishly delaying maturity.

Most of us ageing men initially behave like Odysseus’ crew. Though questioning our lifelong warrior ways, we nonetheless continue pushing ahead in our accustomed warrior mode because it is all we know. We join volunteer organizations, start new businesses, travel around the world, but it’s often still the same heroic quest in new guise. We have not changed at all.

Transformational Experiences - Visiting Hades

Directed by Circe the witch, Odysseus travels to Hades, the underworld of the Greek mythology populated by the deceased. Odysseus converses with his deceased mother, who tells him of the dire circumstances suffered by his wife, son and father, and how desperately they miss him. Odysseus’ sorrow intensifies greatly. He then visits a seemingly endless series of deceased heroes and their wives. As hordes of dead spirits clamour desperately around him, Odysseus flees in terror to his ship, commanding his crew to sail quickly away.

In this adventure, Odysseus visits his own past. Few of us choose to revisit the Hades within, the dark realm that holds so many unfinished emotional memories. Sometimes, prompted by a funeral, some vague melancholy, or frank psychological distress, we recall past relationships, wrong turns, losses and failures. Hades represents the painful and sobering process of intentionally exploring our own story, its wounds and mistakes, and listening for its deeper meanings, implications and emotions. Taking stock so profoundly, we grow genuine maturity and wisdom. Hades also symbolizes the approach of our personal death, which can radically transform our values and goals. In sum, at one time or another in the ageing process, men need to “go deep” to tell and feel their story, and then continue the journey transformed.  

Homecoming - Leaving Calypso

After losing his ships, his crew, and nearly his life on this difficult voyage home, Odysseus drifts alone and desperate for days, clinging to a small raft he constructed by twining together the ship’s rudder and mast. He washes ashore on Calypso’s island where he remains for seven years. This beautiful goddess falls in love with him, promising immortality if he will stay and be her husband. Although the relationship works for a while, Odysseus grows increasingly homesick instead. He misses his wife, his son, and his father, desperately wants to come home, but has neither vessel nor crew to resume his journey.  

The goddess Calypso rescues, heals and renews Odysseus. She falls in love with him offering both immortality and paradise. She is the embodiment of the goddess archetype, the feminine face of God, the inner divine feminine who can heal a man’s deep grief. But Calypso herself cannot replace the human feminine. As long as we are mortal and still working out this life, we must find love with a real person and complete the journey home. Calypso may be “perfect” but she is not Odysseus’ wife; her island may be “paradise” but it is not his paradise nor is it his home. Calypso is the goddess a man finds within his psyche, offering a new capacity for tenderness, compassion and love for himself and others. She is not meant to be real, and so Odysseus moves on. As we age, we sometimes also believe that we’ve found paradise in gated villas, expensive cars, second homes, fancy restaurants, ocean cruises, or transient romances. But such ‘solutions’ can only last so long before we pine for real relationships and a real home in the mended heart. There is no short cut to personal growth.

Final Challenges - Visit with Laertes

At this point in the story, Odysseus has defeated the suitors occupying his kingdom and has reconciled with his wife. Then, accompanied by his son, Odysseus seeks out his father, Laertes. Traveling to his father’s home on the periphery of his large estate, Odysseus marvels at the well-maintained and abundant orchards. At first glance, he assumes his father must be the poor servant of another because he is dressed in rags and works at labour. Odysseus pretends to be an old friend of his long-lost son. Laertes immediately breaks down in grief-filled tears, pouring dirt over his own face and head in a display of terrible sorrow, which provokes Odysseus to reveal his true identity. A weeping reunion takes place.

Once he finds his father, Odysseus mistakes the dirty clothes of a devoted gardener for a state of destitution. Though he may look impoverished, and surely misses his son, Laertes is actually doing very well. He cares lovingly for his thriving orchards, supporting life, beauty and the future. The orchard metaphor refers to the way a man gathers the fruits of his life in its final season. He discovers which seeds have blossomed and which have not – a harvest that no man can really predict. Laertes also cares for the divine Orchard, the holy ground of human existence, which the awakened elder finds in old age as the imminence of death heightens his awareness of the Earth’s beauty, abundance and grace. He cares for the world in a new way now. He has returned to the Garden of Eden witnessing divinity everywhere. Laertes shares this new consciousness with his son and grandson in a new and multigenerational friendship. He has made a healthy adjustment to old age, reminding us that ageing is not about money or clothes but the connection to life, meaningful work, and love of family and community. This part of the story also finds the male lineage healing – grandfather, son, and grandson – restoring an archetypal order in the psyche previously torn apart by war.

I hope these four vignettes have communicated the rich and amazing ageing symbolism found in The Odyssey. What are the final lessons from Odysseus’ journey home? From Odysseus, and from the many men who shared their lives with me, I believe that these are the fervent desires of ageing men:

We want to leave the war. We want to come home to love. We want to help. We want to share our lives with others. We want forgiveness. We want to matter. We want to stay involved. We want passion-filled and meaningful work.  We want to have fun. We want to be seen as unique individuals.  We want to keep learning.  We want to find meaning. We want physical connection and experiences.  We want to stay as independent as is reasonable.  We want to prepare for death. We want to awaken a spiritual comprehension of life. We want the culture to wake up from the incessant drumbeat of fear, competition, and war.

While this article visits only four of Odysseus’ many profound and growth-promoting adventures, I hope it illustrates the way a myth can bring meaning to our personal journeys and, in this particular instance, how it illuminates the path we take as ageing men on the voyage home to love. I believe that The Odyssey represents the Iron John of male ageing, a myth to guide men home from the long war of life.

About the author: 

John Robinson holds doctorates in clinical psychology and ministry and is an ordained interfaith minister. John is the author of seven books on the interface of psychology and spirituality, including ‘What Aging Men Want’ which is published by John Hunt books and available from all good bookshops.

Learn more about John at his website www.johnrobinson.org