Note: I was not sure if I really wanted to post this assessment of Odysseus from Existential Perspective, because to tell the truth, it is just a part of my research paper (for my master’s) which I am simplifying here for the public. However, as I am now teaching my psychology class and we are discussing concepts related to goals, motivations and the purpose of our existence, I feel that this piece will be helpful to my students too.
It is interesting that depending on therapist’s point of view, a client can be diagnosed or assessed quite differently. This calls for careful and lengthy assessment but also expertise on therapist side.
So let’s see how we can assess and help Odysseus to solve his problem from the Existentialist approach.
Part II: Assessment and Treatment from Existential Perspective
Odysseus’s problem: Extended journey back home. His journey doesn’t seem to be coming to an end soon, and we wonder at this point whether Odysseus is extending this trip in purpose and if so why, or if there are outside obstacles that prevent Odysseus to find his way back home.
Even though in part one we assessed Odysseus as a case of striving for significance and superiority, based on classical Adlerian perspective, now if we ought to look at his case from a different perspective, from an Existential therapist’s perspective, we will define a different assessment for this delay. From an Existentialist’s perspective we may start noticing that Odysseus is struggling, not so much with finding his identity as it seems to me he is quite sure of his values and skills, but with finding a meaning to his return home. In this situation, Odysseus represents a typical, classical case of Existential therapy where the client needs help with getting out of a meaningless stage in life and creating new meanings. We can go even deeper into this case, and by utilizing Nietzsche’s definition of human consciousness and guilt we can say that Odysseus is not suffering from grandiosity feelings of a great warrior in search of recognition; instead, we may be dealing with a classic case of guilt and possibly depression because of it. Nietzsche’s famous definition of bad consciousness is that bad consciousness is “the greatest and most sinister sickness.”
So, from the first assessment, in Odysseus’ case we could be dealing with two completely different diagnoses, both based on Existential therapy. One assessment is that Odysseus is stuck at this point in his life and needs to find new meaning, and the other side of the coin is that Odysseus may be suffering from depression due to feelings of guilt. Therefore his prolonged journey is not due to his adventures for glory-seeking but quite the opposite due to guilt feeling. As a result, we have to be prepared for two different courses of therapies.
Let’s start with the first assessment that Odysseus could be struggling with finding new meanings in life. This sounds quite plausible, but now we are open to two other different possibilities: Odysseus could represent the case of a mid-life crisis, or he could represent the case of a workaholic.
I suspect that Odysseus represents the case of mid-life crisis when I hear him talking about the time he spent in Calypsos’ company and justifying himself for this prolonged stay using phrases like “Even though his wife Penelope is known for her beauty, no one can match that of Calypsos.” Starting from this point in his journey back home and assessing that the reason for his delayed return is the mid-life crisis−the search for a new meaning−we can come to the conclusion that everything else that happened later in his journey is connected to the struggle for new meaning. Every new adventure represents a good opportunity for Odysseus to find a new purpose for his life. In this case, then, the therapy will proceed by asking questions like: What could make Odysseus happy at this point in life? What are some of the latest experiences from which Odysseus found satisfaction, that he may therefore want to explore the possibilities further, or that made Odysseus feel unsatisfied, so he may want to avoid them in the future? From a different therapy perspective, for example from the Person-Centered therapy, these questions may generate different solutions, but from the Existentialist approach I will be waiting for clues which will help me build a new course of actions for Odysseus to discard the old values and embrace a new meaning in life. From an existentialist perspective, Being is never static but an experience of ever becoming. As Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher, has indicated, change is part of the life-cycle. Having said that I must help Odysseus to accept the change. In this particular case I have to start from what Odysseus tells me about his latest satisfying experiences in order to move him forward to accepting the change as either not return home or return home, based on what he finds more satisfying for his existence and more meaningful.
The questions that I would develop, from this point on in our therapy, will be directing him to re-evaluate what is a meaningful life and what actions have some values, according to his essence at this point and time. Obviously, I would not be asking him to search for new meanings in his life without directing him where to look for them. Using a directed form of interrogation of self, known as Socratic approach, I am expecting that by the end of this therapy, Odysseus would have chosen his new path in life and feel comfortable with his new values and his choice.
The other scenario where Odysseus may represent the case of a workaholic, we can again argue that he is searching for a new meaning in life−being valued for his work. In this case, Calypso is not really another woman whose beauty cannot compare to anyone else (not even his wife), but Calypso may in fact be representing the beauty of the satisfaction he feels when he is at work where his presence is needed and appreciated. If that’s the case (I have to decide what the case really is by assessing him deeper in further sessions) then my goal as an Existential therapist would be to direct his awareness on searching for and finding new ways on how his presence could be appreciated at home too. In this case my help would be quite minimal. I learned from Odysseus’ story that his son Telemachus has reached the age of adolescence. At this point I know that Telemachus will serve as a way to bring Odysseus to the awareness that his son needs him. His son has reached the age where lots of confusion and searching for meaning will start developing. Odysseus must be there to serve as a role model for his son. When I will succeed in bringing Odysseus to this awareness that his presence at home is not only needed but also appreciated, then the problem that Odysseus was facing at the beginning of therapy with the less meaningful life at home, will cease to exist.
The above scenarios and therapies were derived by assessing Odysseus situation as a need for a new meaning in life, usually forced by inevitable changes in the life-cycle, and therefore, they both represented a classical existential case of therapy. However, another assessment that I mentioned earlier could be based on one of the pioneers of Existential therapy, Nietzsche’s point of view regarding consciousness and guilt. In this case, we need to approach with caution and use a totally different strategy than the one suggested above, which may exhibit some hints on guilt-tripping like “his son needs him too.” So, in the case where Odysseus is in fact feeling guilty of the massacre that innocent people in Troy endured in the Trojan War, then we need to snap him out of the guilt feeling and instead direct him toward remorse feeling.
I am more prone to accepting guilt and also depression as the true reasons for Odysseus’ delayed return home rather than any of the other assessments discussed above. Using Nietzsche’s perspective on human consciousness, guilt makes more sense in this case. Nietzsche’s view on human consciousness and its role in human existence is that of a compressor that forces human instincts inwards. Therefore, the inner world, consciousness, becomes a battle field, the result of which is guilt and bad consciousness. Could Calypso and “her need” for Odysseus’ love be one of the means for coping with his guilty consciousness? The fact that Odysseus accepts and even longs to be reassured that his presence (existence) is needed by Calypso, yet he doesn’t seem to have doubts about his worth, is contradicting. This is the first clue that we are in fact dealing more with feelings of guilt, and not so much with searching for a new meaning in life. Odysseus doesn’t doubt his values but he doubts his significance due to guilt, hence Calypso seems like the best solution for this conflict. Could it be that deep down Odysseus feels that he does not deserve to return to his own family after ruining the lives of so many innocent Trojans and their families?
Another clue that makes you think that there must be guilt involved in Odysseus’ case is the fact that when people deal with a guilty consciousness they tend to justifying their behavior as a defense to the accusations. People feel the need to find fault in circumstances beyond their control, and they tend to introduce themselves as victims of these circumstances. The guiltier one feels, the more violent one’s behavior grows as a response to that bad consciousness that is attacking oneself. This violence is a way to prove and convince oneself that this individual had no other choice. We see this typical behavior in the next episode when Odysseus blinds the Cyclops to save his men, and just before living the island Odysseus feels the need to brag about it and tell Cyclops his real name. At this point in the story, you start wondering is it Poseidon, the God of the Seas and the father of Cyclops, that prevents Odysseus from returning home, or is it his bad consciousness and some paranoia that is haunting him for what he did to Cyclops, the son of Poseidon?
Knowing how the story ends we can see that Odysseus’ character developed from the one who seeks recognition and validation, therefore proudly revealing his identity to Cyclops as a way to cope with his guilt by justifying wrong doings with even more wrong doings, to the one of being patient and with a tempered pride. We can see how his confidence in his leadership skills is softened at the end of his journey, by making Odysseus more rational than impulsive, which came as the result of a persistent and brutal realism of unfortunate events during which he lost all his men. One can also argue that Odysseus probably lost all his men during the war and all the events that happened on his journey home were result of his imagination and the resistance to accept the loss of his friends and dealing with grief. Either way our strategy in helping Odysseus to get out of the state of guilt that he is stuck in, is to help him get in touch with his feelings, and allow the guilt to surface as a feeling of remorse rather than guilt, which is one of the strategies that Nietzsche, our very first Existentialist, suggested. It is probably the best time to talk with Odysseus about death, loss and nonbeing from an Existentialist’s point of view. The moment I would convince Odysseus to accept reality, no matter how painful that may be, and when Odysseus will decide to finally return home and make things right, then my therapy will be considered over and successful. As we know, Odysseus returned home to his wife and son to only be surprised that his presence was mostly needed at home where the lives and well-being of his loved ones were in danger if he were to prolong his journey any further. I would conclude by saying: Thank you Freud and Nietzsche for understanding human’s instincts and consciousness. Without your work there would not be successful psychoanalytic therapy, and humans would still be lost.