Have you ever been listening to someone and you hear something that strikes you with a jolt of energy and you’re not sure why? The story goes on but you’re not paying attention. A word, a phrase or an idea has nested in your awareness and settles there. Your attention moves on to other things. Time passes and you almost forget about it, but every so often, you notice it is there reminding you: “When you’re ready, I’ve got a message for you.”
I had an experience like this five years ago. We were on a road trip listening to a book by Mark Nepo. I don’t remember the name of the book or the topic. But at some point, he referred to an incident in Homer’s Odyssey, the great epic about Odysseus’ ten-year journey at sea returning from victory in the Trojan War. A prophet tells Odysseus that there is a task he must do as he reaches the end of his life – a journey he must make with his oar. I had no idea why that fragment of a story attracted my attention. But it did.
Recently I decided to discover why that story had caught my attention. I pulled out my copy of the Odyssey and did a little research. It soon became clear to me why this ancient tale of a heroic wanderer is an important one for me to hear. It’s given me a fruitful way to think about the stage of life I am in now as someone recently retired.
I hope it becomes useful for others who are at a similar point in their journey.
Here’s the story.
After twenty years at war and at sea, Odysseus is home. He reunites with his beloved wife Penelope and restores his authority over his household. As Odysseus and Penelope prepare to turn in for their first night together in a long time, they exchange stories of all that has happened. Towards the end, he tells her about the prophet he had visited in the land of the dead midway through his journey. The prophet gave him a task he needs to complete:
Then you must go off again, carrying a broad-bladed oar,
Until you come to men who know nothing of the sea,
Who eat their food unsalted, and have never seen
Red-prowed ships or oars that wing them along.
And I will tell you a sure sign that you have found them,
One you cannot miss. When you meet another traveler
Who thinks you are carrying a winnowing fan,
Then you must fix your oar in the earth
And offer sacrifice to Lord Poseidon,
A ram, a bull, and a boar in its prime. (Bk. 11, 119-128, Lombardo)
After he recounts the story, his long-suffering and ever-supportive wife says hopes she this will be the last trial they have to face.
It didn’t take long for me to see the significance the story has for me, 2700 years after it was told.
Odysseus is a sailor. The oar represents his identity. His life as a warrior at Troy and as a seafarer have earned him respect and honor. But the prophet is telling him that after he returns home, the heroic stage of his life will be over, and he needs to let it go. If he wants to find peace, he must take his oar and go to a distant place where his reputation is not known. The residents of that land live far from the sea and won’t even know it’s an oar he is carrying – they will mistake it for a winnowing fan used harvesting grain. There – where he no longer has his reputation to define him — he must make an offering to the god Poseidon whom he had unintentionally offended in his journey. Only then can he find peace.
For me this challenge is about identity in retirement.
I’d been planning to retire in 2018 when I would turn 66. I had attended seminars to prepare myself for the transition. I was looking forward to having fewer responsibilities and more time to explore my interests. I’d accomplished two heroic feats – working long enough to qualify for social security and a pension and figuring out how Medicare supplemental insurance works. I had grandchildren to spend time with, trips I’d dreamed of making, and skills I wanted to develop but had never had the time to pursue.
I did retire in 2018. But at times, I have found it hard to let go of my “oar.” I empathize with the athletes and performers who knew it was time to retire but miss the excitement of being in the game or on stage.
I volunteered to raise money for our local clinic and accepted an interim pastoral job, which were opportunities to perform tasks I’ve always enjoyed. I was grateful to not to go to too many meetings. But I also realized I was becoming less important.
At one point, we considered moving to a new place in Northern California. At first, I thought, “But I will lose all the relationships in town that I’ve enjoyed for 30 years. That’s what’s given me meaning.” Going to a place where I had no identity – a place where my oar would not be recognized – would be hard. But at a later point, the story of the oar came to mind, and I was ready to move and see who I would become. (Ironically, the COVID real estate boom nixed our plans.)
How hard it can be for some of us – especially for guys, perhaps? – to go to that “far-off land,” leaving the work and environment that’s defined us for years.
I know some will never give up the oar, and proudly say they want to die at their desk. My father kept his business license long after the phone had stopped ringing.
A recently retired college professor was coming to terms with what he had lost, commenting that he used to have roomfuls of students listening to him. “Now I’m just another guy with opinions.” Many of my friends have had to find new ways to contribute, not wanting to disappear gently into that good night.
Of course, there’s always golf! Out on that deep-green grassy sea I find companionship with other retired adventurers who now boldly face the perils of sand traps and misplayed shots. My oar has become a 7-iron, and I’m grateful for the chance to play. Still, it’s hard to imagine Odysseus playing golf.
As they turn in that night, Odysseus tells his wife he intends to go and plant that oar. But we’re not told if he ever does. As one writer notes, it’s easy to imagine Odysseus lying in bed at night hearing the sea, longing for the life he knew so well.
I’m not turning back. I truly enjoy the freedom I have and my new pursuits. But I appreciate Odysseus’ dilemma – and the fact that this ancient story can still open me up to the mystery of what remains.
Another great thought-proving post, Steve. Thank you. Had Odysseus decided to trek inland with his oar, I would counsel him to get beyond his longing for his life at sea by recalling the terrible storms and leaky boat (or debris flows or HR problems) to bring more comfort to the next chapter in his life.
Thank you, John. Thinking of HR issues makes me want to never go out to sea again!
And so adjusting to the end of our life can mean coming to terms with the sacrifice of a ram, a bull, and a boar in its prime. Probably a harder adjustment for men than women. But never-the-less, hard for us all. The last psychological stage before we are planted in the ground.
Very true, Elsa. Even having a task to do can let us avoid thinking about mortality.
Thank you Steve. You’ve inspired me to go back to the Odyssey! This was another superb post.
Thank you, my esteemed friend. Maybe we should read it together.
For the most part, I successfully left my oar in northern California. From time to time, here in Sant Barbara, I might try to describe my oar, but I am met with looks as though I am speaking in some extinct language. I have decided that it takes an extinct language to describe my oar, and that most have no interest. So, I keep the memories of my oar to myself, and share them with others from my past that have a like oar. Unfortunately, time is eroding the memories, and friends pass on. In the meantime, ride bike and play bluegrass mandolin. The oar does not matter.
Bill: I think you’ve very successfully replanted your oar is Santa Barbara. You’re an inspiration about knowing when it’s time to move on and replanting, while still honoring your prior life.