How the Greeks Can Help You Survive Thanksgiving

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This week many celebrate Thanksgiving, a day when Americans gather with friends and family to celebrate the good things in their lives. Even if the reality of the holiday is more political squabbles, barely concealed daddy issues, partially buried family skeletons, and abdominal discomfort from overeating it holds a special place in our hearts and culture as a celebration of home, togetherness, and family.

For the last two years, however, like so much during the pandemic, Thanksgiving has been on hold. As families prepare to gather after a couple years of separation there is joy but also, for many, loss, and sadness. The pandemic has not just forced us apart it has impacted relationships, behavior, mental health, and financial security. Things are different now and we are different too. Empty seats at Thanksgiving tables serve as a reminder of what we have lost. A trip home to sleep in our childhood bedrooms feels reassuring nostalgic, but we can’t just “go back to normal.” Navigating the emotions is difficult but we aren’t the first to find ourselves in this situation, and we have some assistance in the form of a new book about homecomings and the Odyssey.

At the conclusion of the Trojan War, Odysseus, the architect of Greek victory and smartest of the Greek military leaders, attempts to return home to his homeland, the rocky island of Ithaca. The actual distance from Troy, in Turkey, to Ithaca, on the western coast of Greece, was only 565 nautical miles. But the intervention of an angry aquatic deity, an extended stay with a seductive nymph, a shipwreck, a quick trip to the underworld, and some mind-altering substances meant that the journey took him 10 years. When he finally arrives home in disguise, he finds his wife on the cusp of remarriage and his grief-struck father despondently living out his days on the farm. Odysseus slaughters a mass of would-be suitors and reconciles with his family.

The Odyssey is one of history’s most studied texts and is regularly understood as a story about home, homecomings and, given the ending, revenge. In his recently published book The Many-Minded Man: The “Odyssey,” Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic, Joel Christensen, a professor of classical studies at Brandeis University, explores what he calls the “complexity” of returning home. “The Odyssey,” he told me “Is an epic of survival: it asks us to contemplate the costs of returning home for ourselves and others and walks us through the very difficult challenges of reconciling who we are with who we were and who we think we are with who other people see.”

In this context then homecoming (or nostos in Greek) is a return to both our home and the type of life to which we want to return. Often this home life is a suite of memories idealized from our childhood, spiced with nostalgia, and baked in a cultural crust of misty-hued advertising. In truth, though, homecomings involve confronting the painful realities of one’s life—from the homophobic uncle at the dinner table, to the parents to whom one is always a disappointment, or the siblings who will never let you forget your adolescent self. Some of us, despite our accomplishments and personal growth, will always be the black sheep and bad daughter—and it hurts.

This is in fact one of the most painful aspects of homecomings, said Christensen. “When people don’t see you the way that you see yourself and when your concept of identity is at odds with the way people see and receive you” it can be harmful. When Odysseus finally makes it home, he doesn’t even recognize the place. The coastline has changed, the trees have grown taller, and things are different. No one and nothing stands still.

Many of those returning home for the first time after two years of profoundly difficult isolation, separation, and loss will experience the same disquieting sense of unfamiliarity. In our absence things and people have changed. The psychic journeys of other people might have drawn us farther apart.

People returning home after traumatic experiences are especially prone to the sense of disillusionment. In the aftermath of World War II 30 percent of U.S. veterans reported feeling “completely hostile” towards civilians and felt that their homecoming was a “letdown.” War is an appropriate analogy for frontline workers who witnessed the pandemic up close and those who lost loved ones, but even for those who were “merely” isolated from other people things have been difficult. This places additional emotional freight on top of already complicated holiday reunions.

For those who find themselves in this situation then storytelling can help. Christensen said that “If there is a positive version of returning home, it requires reconciling who you are and were with who you want to be. Narrative therapy, the practice of retelling your own story to recenter agency and causality and repair harmful notions of selfhood, is useful for recentering and reconciling past and present. But part of the pain of returning home resides in the way that everyone changes.” Our identity, psychologists argue, is made up of the stories that we tell and believe about ourselves and that condition our behavior.

This kind of storytelling is something that Odysseus himself engages in when, upon reuniting with his father as a traumatized veteran, he catalogues the trees that they nurtured together. The rootedness of the image is not accidental; our bodies and ourselves are interwoven with the landscape. The telling of this story is a reminder of shared experiences, places, periods of life and relationships allows Odysseus to reunite with his father and truly achieve his sense of homecoming. It’s what UCLA classicist Alex Purves has called the self-conscious practice of the mnemonics; a kind of skill that we can develop and use to ground our identities.

What this shows us, Christensen says, is that home isn’t just a physical place filled with a forgotten comic book collection, obsolete CD player, and other physical accoutrements of our childhood; home is produced by our memories. This is a useful insight for those experiencing a disconnect from family members in the aftermath of the pandemic or even, somewhat less dramatically, personal growth and change. We can use storytelling to “remind each other of who we were (when we rehearse stories of the past we used to share) and [to] tell each other who we are now.” Purves, too, writes about the transformative potential of this kind of mnemonic practice.

We should think of this as an opportunity not just to tell stories about who we were, but to expand homecoming to incorporate the life we want together. “Nostos,” said Christensen “is a rapprochement with the past to allow us to negotiate who we are in the present and imagine a future together.” Many of us spent much of the past two years fighting with loved ones about quarantining, vaccines, politics, and safety precautions. This kind of storytelling is a way to move forward and past the hurt and pain of reuniting people whom we love but who no longer see us the ways we see ourselves. “It’s a process not a moment” said Christensen and one that “needs honesty and charity.” This, he added, is where we part ways with Odysseus: we need to listen, to allow others to change and grow, and allow for stories to reunite us. Just reading the Odyssey itself, he added, can be part of that process: it can be a touchstone that prompts us to think of people as partners rather than calcified impressions of the past.

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Odysseus is that physical homecoming may not be enough. In Book 11 of the Odyssey we learn that our hero will wander again in the future. To those who habitually leave family gatherings experiencing familial disenchantment the problem might not just be with one’s difficult relatives, but with our own expectations, “if you go looking for home for what you’re missing inside you won’t find it,” said Christensen. It’s not just, as Bon Jovi might say, that “you can’t go home” but that the process of homecoming is more about the questions that we ask of ourselves than the expectations that we place on others. In the meantime perhaps instead of or in addition to telling our families what we are thankful for, perhaps we should also tell them the stories about who we are.

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