Odysseus and the Art of Perseverance

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.

I was in the eighth grade when my English teacher ushered each of us into our seats on a bland Monday morning. He took out a large book, which set off a collective groan among the class, and read the first sentence. With this sentence I was forever changed. Odysseus, from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” became someone I looked up to, though now that I am older the choice is somewhat questionable. No matter how ambiguous his morals were, I will forever be grateful to him for the lesson he taught me and that I carry with me to this day—perseverance.

Throughout all my life, I have heard a phrase repeated like a broken record—there is always hope. Yet even in the early years of my life, I recognized this as an impossibility. The world was simply too cruel for it to be true. As a child I had no real method to face my problems. Though I hate to admit it, I gave up easily on things I had just begun and already saw the world as a very dark place. Once I heard this story, I realized there did not need to be hope or a light at the end of the tunnel because life is not a tunnel. It is not a race. Perseverance does not require hope. It does not need useless anecdotes. True perseverance is working hard even if you know there’s a chance there will be no fruit of your labor. If in the end all we have is the chance to say, I tried, I fought my hardest, then at least we have that for comfort.

The story takes place after the great battle of Troy, which is the battle that Odysseus famously helped end with his wits. Odysseus and his men were very eager to get home. They set sail for their homeland Ithaca, a small island off the coast of Greece. They hoped to arrive home within a few short weeks, but did not realize at the time that their journey home would last as long as the war they had just spent fighting—10 years. They set their sails for Ithaca, but they were quickly set off course by strong winds and rough waters. They were lost at sea for nine days. This was only the beginning to the many trials they would face. The first island they came to belonged to the cyclops, children of Poseidon.

They have no meeting place for council, no laws either, no, up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns—each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any neighbor.

They land on the island though they know the risk of the cyclops’ lawless ways. Odysseus only takes one ship with him, warning the others to stay back. Off that ship he only took 12 of his best fighters onto the island itself. They went into a cave that was clearly inhabited, ate the cheese, drank the wine, and waited for their host to return. Instead of being met with hospitality, the cyclops was more brutal than they could have imagined.

Lurching up, he lunged out with his hands toward my men snatching up two at once, rapping them on the ground he knocked them dead like pups.

The cyclops ate the meat of Odysseus’ men he had just killed and, with a full belly, went back to sleep. Odysseus’ remaining men wanted to kill him in his sleep, but Odysseus knew better and waited. He knew if they made a rash decision, they would be trapped in the cave to starve as they would be unable to move the boulder that blocked the entrance. The next day when the cyclops left the cave to herd his sheep, Odysseus gathered his men and came up with a plan. Despite their fear, they  listened to Odysseus. When the cyclops came back, they watched as he ate two more of their friends and then they offered him wine. Once he was drunk and asleep, they took the weapon they had made together, put it in the fire and, once it was red hot, shoved it through his eye. He woke up and roared and even though he was a terrifying sight they waited until he moved the boulder out of the entrance of the cave. Each of them clung to the underbelly of his sheep as they fled from his cave.

Despite every chance Odysseus had to give into fear or anger, he remained steadfast and encouraged his men to do the same, which ultimately led to their freedom. Though they had lost four men inside, they rushed to the ship and set sail, though they could not get away before Odysseus’ pride brought them more hardship. He revealed to the cyclops his name, and now knowing it the cyclops called on his father Poseidon for revenge. Now they had a God standing between them and Ithaca.

But at that he bellowed out to the lord Poseidon, thrusting his arms to the starry skies, and prayed ‘Hear me—Poseidon, God of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth! If I really am your son and you claim to be my—father—come, grant that Odysseus, raider of cities, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca, never reaches home.’

They face many more challenges, and Odysseus remains the voice of reason through each of them. Slowly his ranks grow slimmer and slimmer until finally he stands alone. Even at this point he still refuses to give into despair and continues to fight. On Calypso’s island, he spends seven years on her land and in her bed. All his men are dead and his homeland might as well have been as far as it was when he began his journey. He was at the mercy of Calypso; he was her prisoner. Even knowing he wanted to go home to his own wife, Calypso kept him as a husband by justifying it with her own love. Though he spent every night with her, in the day he would go to the beach and weep for his home and his family. Everyday Calypso gave him clothing, food, and drink to spare. Despite this he remained persistent that he wanted to go home to his family. Finally the gods had mercy on him and sent Hermes to give Calypso a message. It was time for Odysseus to go home. She tried to persuade him one last time.

‘But if you only knew, down deep, what pains are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore, you’d stay right here, preside in our house and be immortal.’

Even with the knowledge of what he had endured and fear of what was to come, he did not take her up on her offer of immortality. Instead, he built a simple raft that was comical compared to the memory of the fleet of ships he had led when he first set off on his journey home. He took the raft out into the sea despite knowing Poseidon, God of the Sea himself, was still enraged with him. Even with every challenge he faced, each harder than the last, he continued to do everything in his power to get home. Despite all his challenges and every chance he was given for an easier way out, Odysseus finally made it home and, though he faced troubles there as well, he never gave up.

While Odysseus is known for his wits and many believe that to be the main aid to his success, I do not. I believe his perseverance through all situations is what in the end got him home. When his men were too tired, weak, and scared to go on, it was his perseverance that motivated them to continue up until the moments of their death. Even without them, he stood alone against unimaginable foes and continued without hope or any foreseeable relief to try to find a way back home. Like Odysseus, who after each trial faced another and another, life will not stop to let us catch our breath. We must persevere; we must work our hardest throughout life and face each challenge with vigor. In this life, we must be our own light and our own motivation. While I hope I will not live my life the way Odysseus did, he did inspire me to be better than what I ever imagined I could. I hope I can live up to the expectations that eighth grade me set that day.