The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner and it kicks off a period of introspection and teshuva – a word that describes repentance but is literally translated as “return.” We are supposed to look back at the choices and mistakes we have made over the past year and apologize, express contrition, and ask for the slate to be wiped clean. In essence, returning us to what we were before the sins or mistakes.
It reminds me of a theme in classical Greek literature: nostos, or “the return.” The hero needs to return, to come back to his home, to be celebrated for the trials and tribulations he experienced since he left the familiar places of his youth and upbringing.
In many ways, I think everyone has a hero’s journey that takes them through the same stages as the Greek heroes of the past. But sometimes the journey home is fraught with obstacles and not everyone survives the trip. Sometimes we die on the mountain, or we get stuck on Circe’s island. Maybe we forget all callings of home, happy to drift in dreams on the shores of the lotus eaters.
I’ve been thinking about this nostos recently, and not because I just finished reading Circe by Madeline Miller. For the past two years, the overwhelming cry in the streets has been about getting back to normal. A return to the way things were. It is a wish met by different types of people: the ones who swear we will never return, the ones who ran away to find a new life, and the ones who are holding out for a tomorrow that looks like yesterday.
I’m familiar with all those types. The return is something we hope for but is ultimately a denial of the reality of life. I remember when my oldest child left for college. I remarked to my husband that the dynamic in the home permanently changed the day we dropped her off at the airport. As each child left to follow suit, the change became more pronounced. And though I relished the moments when they all returned home for a weekend or during a break, it was never the same as having everyone growing slowly, or quickly, under the same roof. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. It’s just new. It’s different.
The place we return to is never the same as the place we initially exit from. So much happens in between. Odysseus, after fighting in the Trojan War, struggles to return to Ithaca but he can’t return unchanged to his wife Penelope after so many years of trying to get back to what he left. The scars of battle and the trauma of his travels have forever changed him. The return to Ithaca at the end of the story is just another step in his journey, not the end of it.
I have been on many journeys.
While these journeys create strength and are catalysts for growth and change, anyone who has ventured forth still wants the return despite knowing the difficulty of trying to get home again. And that return is often a lonely experience. Just ask Odysseus.
Perhaps it isn’t about a return to normal, then. It seems the nastos is more geographic than emotional. As part of a hero’s journey, it is about returning different, with something to share. Triumphant, maybe. Or damaged. Jacob can battle with an angel and be victorious, but he will still forever limp. We return with scars and defenses, with eyes that have seen the cyclops, and lips that have tasted the lotus. The message of real teshuva, of real return, is understanding that change. You can’t just apologize and make it all good with your friends. You must be different. That is how you grow. Not a hero’s return in the classic sense, but a return nonetheless.
Wishing for a return to the past may be futile, but it isn’t necessarily depressing. Change, even through fire, makes us walk differently. Changes what we love. Sometimes even changes who we love. Contentment comes, I guess, in the knowledge that we may not be able to go back, but, like the heroes of old, we can return. We can do teshuva.
And that is where we begin again.