The columnist David Broder gobsmacked me this week with these words:
There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.
Odyssey! There’s a new stage of life called odyssey?
You may have heard others call this stage “emerging adulthood.”
According to Broder, the “odyssey” label refers to a decade of time and to ceaseless searching without settling down. He points out that a huge shift has taken place around the old markers of adulthood — marriage, children, and independent living.
In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.
But, hmm, “odyssey.” That word could be used for almost any life stage.
Having taught Homer’s classic text for many years, I’ve always carried a little of Ulysses, Penelope, Telemachus, and Mentor (Athena) in my heart.
Like Tennyson, I have thought back to Ulysses after passing from one stage in life to another. These words, especially, have flooded my mind often:
How much do names matter?
For example, “odyssey” fits the other new stage, the one Broder calls “active retirement” very well also.
What is exciting, however, is that so many people are feeling the possibilities in this new stage of life. Spiritual directors, life coaches, and life planning gurus are urging us to become intentional about making the best of the 30+ years many will get to experience.
One of the best books ever written on the subject of aging, Helen Luke’s Old Age: Journey into Simplicity, offers a brilliant insight into how The Odyssey instructs us through the character of the blind prophet Teiresias. In the middle of the book,Teiresias gives Ulysses instructions about what to do when he returns home: plant an oar, symbol of his wanderings, in a place where people have never seen the sea.
In contrast, Tennyson’s old Ulysses sets off on a new adventure:
When Ulysses plants an oar in an unknown place, a tree of hope springs up. The young will look upon the tree and begin to ask questions about the journeys they themselves have yet to undertake. Ulysses will tell his story, one of the greatest stories of all time.
What do you think might arise out of a tree of hope as described above? Do you know of any odyssey stories of youth connected to old age that stir your spirit?