Some time ago, a reader of my blog named Rafael recommended me the poem “Ithaca” by Constantine P. Cavafy. I’d never come across it before, but I’m so glad that I read it.
“Ithaca” is based on Homer’s account of Odysseus’s journey home. With this influence, the poem has so much to say about life in all its complexity, with both its hardest challenges and richest joys. Like so many self-help books advise, the poem urges you to live for the journey rather than the expected end-point to live a flourishing and fulfilling life.
As “Ithaca” suggests, we should not wish away our time, but “ask that [our] way be long”. Although we’ll hopefully experience joy and beauty during our lives, not all of it will be as easy. We may have problems at home or work, financial worries, or lose a loved one. Some of us will face challenges and unimaginable hardships that may never be fully overcome.
But for some of our troubles, as we eventually work through them (or when we reach our own metaphorical Ithaca), we may find ourselves stronger. And if the same challenges reoccur, we might be able to face them differently.
Be mindful of how life is for you now. After reading “Ithaca”, you might take a moment to appreciate the beauty, art, and culture that you could quite easily have never seen. I sometimes remind myself of this when I’m having a bad day, and it really helps lift my mood. It’s so easy just to spend time looking at a beautiful painting, listening to a timeless piece of music, or reading a classic. And the experience gives me so much in return – a moment of peace, reflection, and a reminder of life’s beauty.
In difficult situations, try to dwell on what you’re learning. After a bad relationship and breakup some years back, I learned not to depend so much on others for my own happiness and wellbeing. Similarly, spending time away from home has helped me be grateful for my family and home when they are nearby.
Reading “Ithaca” is a welcome reminder of so many truths that never fade – not in the last century since it was written in 1911, and likely not for the next hundred years either.
When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.
Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.
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