Odysseus in America – J. Shay

“Apparently the human heart works this way: shut down the pain of grief and you lose the capacity for joy as well.”

Folks, I’m back at it. This week’s book has been sitting on my to-read pile for a while now, and I finally got to it. It is the sequel to Achilles in Vietnam, and you might want to read my post on that book first before catching up with us now. It’s fine, we’ll wait.

All caught up? Good. Basically, the recipe for this book is the same as it was with Achilles in Vietnam: The author (a staff psychiatrist in a Veterans Patient Clinic in Boston) compares the ancient saga to what his patients went through.

Again, it strikes me as odd that nobody would have done this before. It seems like an obvious choice, but then, elegance is always about making the difficult look easy, and this book (and its author!) definitively manage to pull it off.

It is a book that, albeit written for a very specific niche (the intersection of classic literature and war trauma can’t be too big, I’d reckon) has a message for everybody who reads it.

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One message might be that Odysseus was an ass. Seriously. I read  the Odyssey years ago, and ironically, I didn’t pay much attention to the main character. I wanted to read the stories I have been told so many times. The sirens. The cyclops.

But one thing I never realized was that Odysseus brought this upon himself. In true Greek fashion, everyone of his trials was due to him not following the God’s wishes, or clear instructions. In a way, he brought his downfall upon himself.

We today (and the Veterans) don’t have this luxury to blame the Gods. We have to find another reason for our suffering, and oftentimes, we turn against ourselves. This is such a fascinating shift in narrative that happened since Homer wrote his epos – we somehow got rid of the Gods as the reason behind our suffering and happiness. We are now the masters of our fate.

This seems like such an obvious remark that pointing it out feels patronizing. But that just shows how far we have become. It never ceases to amaze me how much humans change over centuries – and how much things stay the same.

And that, perhaps, is the main message of this book – that coming home after a traumatic experience is never easy, and it takes a long time, and even if you do manage to find your peace, you will never be the same again.

(Just a note – Shay works with Veterans, and thus limits his book to their experience. However, I would argue that all of his book applies to victim of other traumatic experiences as well.)

And the other part of this message is that healing can only take place in a community. Humans are social animals, and they need other humans to heal after a traumatic experience. It seems obvious, but then, most true things are.

It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes one to bring people home from war.

And as Shay shows, in the past, the US (and I would wager a guess that this applies to most other Western countries, too) have been really bad at this.

One example is that troops in Vietnam weren’t trained together – the replacements happened on an individual basis, and you were rotated out not with the people you lived next to for the past year, but simply when your tour was up.

That means that soldiers were alone going into this nightmare, and they were alone coming out of it, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this might be a recipe for disaster.

Statistics show that Vietnam Vets are more likely to be homeless, less likely to hold a job, and have an increased risk of committing domestic abuse. They simply never came home, never had a chance to heal.

And that’s the other thing that gets me about this book – it shows how much suffering this war still causes. And, on a more philosophical level, how much it cost those Vets. It wasn’t just that their lives changed completely when they were drafted. Even after they came home, they weren’t able to live a good live. They missed out on getting married, having kids, having a good home life – all due to trauma inflicted upon them by a war.

Even if they survived the war, they missed out on the life they could have had. If that is not a thought worthy of a Greek tragedy, I don’t know what is.

If you are interested at all in the healing of trauma, or classic literature, or even understanding today’s United States, please give this book a try. You will not regret it.

And also, if, for whatever reason, you find yourself in a situation where you have to defend classic literature – quote this book. It shows how we are still dealing with the same question that Homer discussed – a question that shows up time and time again:

How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, that there is no going back?

There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep… that have taken hold.”

(That’s a quote from Lord of the Rings, but it could have just as easily been taken from the Odyssey. Or any book on Vietnam.)

Next week – We’re doing a bit of local history, and find out why it’s important to wash your hands after you went to the toilet.

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