Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma

“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Aristotle, Rhetoric

Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.

The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):

Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.

τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ’ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ’ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠϊόνεσσι καθίζων
[δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων]
πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.

When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing  is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.

What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.


Helplessness and Complex Loss

“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Menander (fr. 591 K.)

One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:

“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν…

In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.

Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little).  And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.

And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately 

In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).

A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.

The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.

The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.

The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).

So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost.  Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.

File:Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca by Giuseppe Bottani.jpg
Athena and Odysseus by Giuseppe Bottani

Collective Trauma and Social Memory

Euripides, fr. 1079

“Mortals have no other medicine for pain
Like the advice of a good man, a friend
Who has experience with this sickness.
A man who troubles then calms his thoughts with drinking,
Finds immediate pleasure, but laments twice as much later on.”

Οὐκ ἔστι λύπης ἄλλο φάρμακον βροτοῖς
ὡς ἀνδρὸς ἐσθλοῦ καὶ φίλου παραίνεσις.
ὅστις δὲ ταύτῃ τῇ νόσῳ ξυνὼν ἀνὴρ
μέθῃ ταράσσει καὶ γαληνίζει φρένα,

What’s trauma? Rachel Yehuda, Morian Joels and Richard Morris characterize PTSD as what Cherles Fernyhough calls “at root a disorder of memory” when “uncontrollable memories of a traumatic event are so frequent, persistent and debilitating that they disrupt behavior…” (from Fernyhough 2012, 181). Again, as Jonathan Shay writes, trauma deprives people of authority over memory and story (2002, 38); when memory and story are key components of identity, it means that you cannot be who you were before.

Our word trauma is from a Greek word for “wound”. It is a metaphor for the change we bear from conflict or suffering which cannot be seen and which is often deeper than a scar. I think it is no accident that a narrative like the Odyssey that hinges so much on the idea of a physical scar—the wound that marks Odysseus as “himself” in some way—is deeply interested in the suffering that shapes who we are and what we say about ourselves. The epic communicates that our suffering—our physical wounds and our emotional ones too—helps define who we are.

The problem is that not all scars are mere surface identification; some are parafunctional. This is equally true when it comes to the trauma of the spirit: certain experiences can change the way the brain works and this is especially true when there is no acceptable or available healing or therapeutic process. Trauma also comes from losing those things that are most essential to  identity: our sense of belonging and our sense of agency in the world. This is why Odysseus’ reintegration into the world of Ithaca must proceed by stages and hinges upon his engagement with specific members of his family who confirm his identity for him.

The problem with helplessness and a loss of agency is that it deprives us of our sense of place and being able to act in the world. As a result, sometimes our response to trauma is denial, an attempt to impose agency where its sense has been loss. See, for example, recent “gridlock” and “open America” protests, which fly in the face of all logic and may actually expose many of the participants to infection. Even though it is clear that these are non-organic protests, stage-managed by right-wing social media wizards, many of the individuals are still choosing to embrace this worldview because it appeals to them in some important way. It restores a sense of order and belonging; it empowers them with a sense of agency they may never have merited at all.

Trauma emerges during its development in paralysis and loss of a sense of self and then recurs later on in anxiety attacks, flashbacks, distortions of memory and distortions of our interpretations of the present. If our ability to function in the world is based on our ability to make an accurate mental map of the places we enter and the people who surround us, trauma deprives us of that. Penelope paces from her room to the hall of her husband’s home; Odysseus moves from the edge of the shore back to Penelope’s cave. But this paralysis can also short-circuit: people flee and hide those who would embrace them and then lash out with far more violence than their situations merit. Again, I don’t think it is accidental that Odysseus’ violence at the end of his epic is both calculated and overwhelming or that the people of Ithaca seek to murder him and his family in turn. The hero and the community are traumatized in different ways.

What the modern world can teach us about the Odyssey, in turn, is that people do not always suffer in isolation: larger groups can undergo shared experiences. Communities can suffer trauma. And the way communities processes trauma contributes to their social memory, to their cultural notion of who they are as a people.

The suitors on Ithaka, I believe, and their families, represent traumatized communities who have (1) lost a generation of their kin to a war with no end and (2) have had no political agency at all for 20 years—they have been sitting, waiting, begging for something else to happen. Is it any wonder, then, that when 108 more of them are murdered, they consider destroying their state altogether by murdering Odysseus? Is it too anachronistic to see in the suitors’ refusal to let Penelope alone a type of protest, however poorly considered it may be?

Odysseus Escapes from Polyphemos

Therapy for Collective Minds

“Only words [reason] is medicine for grief”

Λόγος μέν ἐστι φάρμακον λύπης μόνος.

“Conversation [ or ‘reason’] is the doctor for suffering in the soul”

Λόγος ἰατρὸς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν πάθους.


Near the beginning of the Odyssey, as Zeus looks down on the fate of Aigisthos who has, despite divine warnings, shacked up with Klytemnestra and killed Agamemnon, the king of gods and men laments, ““Mortals! They are always blaming the gods and saying that evil comes from us when they themselves suffer pain beyond their lot because of their own recklessness!” (“ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται. / ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ’ ἔμμεναι· οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ / σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε’ ἔχουσιν, 1.32‑34).

This opening complaint frames the way the audience should interpret the events of the Odyssey. It delivers a powerful message about the balancing that occurs between human choice and “fate”, or whatever category we think has deterministic power over our lives (genetics, demographics, divinity). Ancient Greek thought, contrary to some modern misimpressions, doesn’t attribute everything to fate: it acknowledges the limits that give every life its form while insisting that we still have the power to shape our lives within these boundaries.

Such a complex view on life and agency is part of what makes me convinced that Greek epic had a “therapeutic” function for ancient audiences, that is it assisted them and ministered to them as they tried to make sense of their world and their place in it (in keeping with the ancient Greek verb therepeuein, “to assist, to minister to”). At the level of individuals, therapy for trauma is to recreate memory, to tell stories about the past that address distortions in memory and create a coherent whole. It can also mean engaging in activities that restore a sense of agency and control. (This is what I think is going on when Odysseus must build his own raft or when Telemachus has to go on a journey and assert himself). Direction and mission are critical. The traumatized mind has been compared to that of a child who is not capable yet of navigating a devastated landscape (Fernyhough 201). We need new maps to help us find our way.

Our shared stories can do the same things for us. Or they can cause more problems if they provide the wrong kinds of messages. What do we do once we acknowledge that our sense of lethargy or helplessness may be traumatic and that the violent denial of others may draw on the same source?

Trauma in the aggregate over large populations is more than merely a collection of suffering and marginalized individuals—neurosis can function as a social contagion, it can expand, mutate and change the nature of a society (as Susan Faludi 2007 argues the US was changed by the traumatic stress of 9/11 and subsequent years). While many of us experience trauma alone, recovery requires a community AS both Jonathan Shay and David Morris emphasize in their books.

Whether we approach this from the perspective of Michael White’s Narrative Therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (see especially David Morris’ emphasis on retelling experiences, to re-control the “text” of our life), the most crucial factor in a return to the self—or at least the reduction of the impact of trauma—is when we can re-establish authority over our memories, when we can assert agency in the stories we tell about our places in the world. And when we share and confirm these stories with others.

Collective trauma is not written about widely in Europe and North America, in part, I think, because we are so conditioned toward thinking about ourselves as individuals and not parts of larger trends and identitites. But studies do show that experiences which create “cultural crises” create a sense of threat to who people believe they are are (see Alexander et. al 2004). When groups of people lose their sense of belonging and mission within a larger narrative, they experience it as a rupture, a trauma which rewrites their understanding of the world.

The Odyssey ends with Zeus proposing an eklesis, an erasure of the memory of the murders. The sudden deus ex machina, though, is not a realistic solution. What it does, I think, is point to the recklessness of proceeding in the same fashion, of expecting everything to keep going on as usual. The only way for Odysseus and his people to continue as a community is to forget the experiences that have shaped them. We do not have this magic spell. But we can talk about the stories we tell.

Myth and myth-making are collective endeavors—stories respond to our experiences and can function to provide audiences with avenues to process experiences and create social memory and shared identity. (I talk about this a lot in the introduction to the book). I think modern models of group minds and intermental thought strengthen any model of storytelling that emphasizes its cultural function as a type of discourse, overlapping patterns which shape who we think we can be (see e.g. Clark and Chalmers 1998; Zlatlev et al. 2008; Palmer 2010; also going back to Durkheim’s notion of the collective consciousness).

The importance of the collective is also central to Aristotle’s notion of the cathartic impact of tragedy in performance. As Martha Nussbaum argues, the experience of identifying with a narrative forces audiences into a “clarification concerning who we are” (1986, 391). And, just as aggregation of group experiences can increase anxiety and neurosis, I suspect that the therapeutic potential of experiencing narrative resolutions in groups cannot be overstated. If individual trauma requires communalization, what else would have efficacy for a traumatized community?

What does this mean for us right now? For one, I think we need to tell our stories to each other as they are ongoing to start the process of shaping our own narratives and also to acknowledge to ourselves and others that we are being negatively impacted by the experience of the paralysis of our agency, our sidelining from action. We need to remember that our sense of belonging and agency in the world are two of the most important forces against helplessness, loneliness, and despair. But we can also take cues from approaches that understand that collectivization can be a type of ritual moment. We need to find ways of structuring our new world and creating opportunities with each other to talk about what we are experiencing.

And we can also understand that we can do this in part through stories. Part of the reason the Odyssey worked therapeutically for ancient audiences is that it allowed them to look away from their lives and into a new space, which was familiar enough to function as a vehicle for their anxieties but distant enough to allow them to explore different perspectives. Epic, tragedy, movies, novels, these can all function as mere distraction, but when we discuss them and experience them together, we create a new sense of identity and belonging that takes us once step towards returning home.

Our necessary response to Coronavirus, social isolation, is wearing away at that essential part of being human that we all take for granted—our connection to others through the conversation, physical presence, and the common stories of shared lives. We also need to center the humanities and humanistic disciplines as those that allow us to think about our place in the world and history and facilitate our participation in that shared fellowship of being alive. Now is not the time to ignore literature, music, and the arts; now is the time to realize that when we lose them, we lose ourselves completely.

We need to create new spaces and practices—things like zoom social hours or experimenting with reading tragedy online—but we also need to be ready to return to our communities when we can with patience, kindness, and respect for the journeys we have each been on alone.

Homer, Odyssey 15.398–401

“Let us take pleasure in calling to mind each other’s terrible pains
while we drink and dine in my home.
For a man may even find pleasure among pains
when he has suffered many and gone through much.”

νῶϊ δ’ ἐνὶ κλισίῃ πίνοντέ τε δαινυμένω τε
κήδεσιν ἀλλήλων τερπώμεθα λευγαλέοισι
μνωομένω· μετὰ γάρ τε καὶ ἄλγεσι τέρπεται ἀνήρ,
ὅς τις δὴ μάλα πολλὰ πάθῃ καὶ πόλλ’ ἐπαληθῇ

Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio

Many of the ideas in this post come from the forthcoming Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic (out December 15th 2020 from Cornell University Press). But some of the ideas also appear in collections edited by Peter Meineck, an article in Arethusa, and a collection on Psychology and the Classics edited by Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall.

Other citations above include:

Boss, Pauline. 1999. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. Cambridge.

Alexander, J., Eyerman, R. Giesen B., Smelser, N. and Sztompka, 2004. “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma,” in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, et al. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1–30.

Clark, Andy and Chalmers, David J. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58: 7–19.

Fernyhough, Charles. 2012. Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory. New York.

Hall, Charles A. et al. 2014. “Cognitive Functioning in Complicated Grief.” Journal of Psychiatric Research 58: 20–25.

Kozlowska, Kasia, Walker, Peter, McLean, Loyola, and Pascal, Carrive. 2015. “Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management.” Harvard Review of Psychology 23: 263–287.

Mikulincer, Mario. 1994. Human Learned Helplessness: A Coping Perspective. New York.

Morris, David J. 2015. The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Boston.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1986. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge.

Palmer, Alan. 2010. Social Minds in the Novel. Columbus.

Shay, Jonathan. 1995. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York.

Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.

Steimer, Thierry. 2002. “The Biology of Fear and Anxiety Related Behaviors.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 4: 231–249.

Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books.

White, Michael. 2007. Maps of Narrative Practice. New York.

White, Michael. 2011. Narrative Practice: Continuing the Conversations. New York.

Rachel Yehuda, Marian Joels and Richard G. M. Morris, “The Memory Paradox,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11 (2010)  837-839.

Zlatev, Jordan et. al. 2008. The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity. New York.

4 thoughts on “Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma

Leave a Reply