I wrote this article a few years ago and I reproduce it for my 50th Birthday.
Ithaca is the island in Greece that Odysseus had so much trouble returning to in Homer’s Odyssey. On his way he survives run ins with the Cicones, Polyphemus (Cyclops to you), Circe, the Sirens, Scylla, the winds of Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, Zeus, Poseidon and Calypso.
A rough trot, and when he finally gets there no-one recognizes him, everyone’s cracking onto his wife, she won’t have him back and he has to kill everyone. Hardly a great homecoming. In fact you wonder why he bothered coming back at all.
Thankfully a Greek called Constantine Kavafis wrote a poem in 1911 explaining it. It was called “Ithaca”. You may know it. Here it is.
“When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean”.
Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)
Turns out that life’s destination isn’t much. That Ithaca is no great reward, but it matters not. It is what you do along the way. That old chestnut. It’s better to travel than arrive. It is the journey not the destination and you should pray that the road is long, welcoming the hurdles along the way.
And so it is. We all sit on the road to Ithaca. I sit on the road to Ithaca.
My road consists of an office, full of people I have not chosen, in an industry that chose me, doing little more heroic than pushing electrons around on two computer screens that really can’t be healthy. In fact I’m doing it now. If Odysseus came into the office I, and all my colleagues, would rightly be shamed in his presence for all that we have not done. I’m sure Odysseus could have chosen the path of a stockbroker, but he didn’t. Our journey is not heroic.
Then there is my father. He is getting on. He is 78. He was a Wing Commander in the RAF, a fighter pilot no less who, as part of his journey spent a 3 year posting on an RAAF base in Sale in Victoria flashing around in de Havilland Vampire jets, spotting bush fires, teaching people to fly and generally ripping it up like Tom Cruise on valium.
He has his stories, his Cylcops, his Poseidon (the Suez Crisis) and a few Sirens I’m sure. He is closer to Odysseus than I and for that I am proud. Just to have had Dad as my example. He has journeyed well and hopefully that has made him “so full of experience” that as he comes closer to Ithaca he now knows to continue the ride, rather than dwell on where it all got him, when the destination will arrive and how scared that might make him. I can but hope.
Meanwhile, I have just hit my 50th Birthday and I am in an office. An environment that doesn’t naturally offer me “rare excitement” and doesn’t generate a fear that “stirs my spirit and body” or lend itself to “a danger that will keep my thoughts raised high”. And it isn’t exactly a place “full of adventure” and “full of discovery”.
But here I am. And there you are.
But whilst there is breath in our bodies we are still travelling and this is not the end. No one, even my heroic Dad at the age of 78, has the time to accept the destination. Even he and we still have to focus on the horizon and a miraculous journey, to a destination, that I hope he knows will not be measured by where he got to, but by what he has left behind. My kids. Thanks for that Dad!