Ulysses’ Syndrome

The pain of missing home.

Posted Jul 24, 2018

A Life in a Day

One day, Olga, a musician from Ecuador, wins a scholarship to go play violin for a few days with an orchestra in New York. She’s just a teenager, but there she meets a musician whom she profoundly admires. She promises herself that when she is older, she’ll take lessons from him. That day arrives. She’s 26 when she packs her clothes and decides to go live in Austria.

Dasha is in her late 30s when, with a child from another marriage, she decides to give up her low-paying job in Russia to follow her second husband who is leaving for the United States. Her husband would break up with her two years later and her daughter, now older, would refuse to see her mom anymore because she is ashamed of her.

Rudy is a beautiful child from Sudan. He’s 11 and lives in Italy now. He was adopted by a very caring family three years ago. Rudy and his family still do not understand why he cannot get over his nightmares at night.

In Greece, Christos had a good life, friends, a caring family, good food. But there was no job, only small gigs that were badly paid or not paid at all. Christos feels that he cannot grow up like this, that there’s nothing for him to learn anymore. He wants to discover himself and the range of his talents. He leaves Athens without a precise plan and goes looking for a job in another country.

Ulysses

In his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, Dante imagines walking with his guide, Virgilio, through a forest of damnation that he calls "The Inferno." There he meets all kinds of souls that atone for the sins they committed during their lives.

These two, Virgilio and Dante, are now in the eighth circle of the forest where the souls of the dishonest advisors are condemned to burn constantly with the same fire with which they were giving passionate counsels to themselves and others.

Dante is visibly concerned (as usual) and asks his guide if he can talk to any of them to learn about their stories. When Virgilio consents, he moves toward one soul, Ulysses, to ask him about his death. So Ulysses begins (if you don’t like reading verses just skip to the next section):

"When I

From Circe had departed, who concealed me

More than a year there near unto Gaeta,

Or ever yet Aeneas named it so,

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence

For my old father, nor the due affection

Which joyous should have made Penelope,

Could overcome within me the desire

I had to be experienced of the world,

And of the vice and virtue of mankind;

But I put forth on the high open sea

With one sole ship, and that small company

By which I never had deserted been.

Both of the shores I saw as far as Spain,

Far as Morocco, and the isle of Sardes,

And the others which that sea bathes round about.

I and my company were old and slow

When at that narrow passage we arrived

Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,

That man no farther onward should adventure.

On the right hand behind me left I Seville,

And on the other already had left Ceuta.

'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand

Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,

To this so inconsiderable vigil

Which is remaining of your senses still

Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge,

Following the sun, of the unpeopled world.

Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;

Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,

But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'

So eager did I render my companions,

With this brief exhortation, for the voyage,

That then I hardly could have held them back.

And having turned our stern unto the morning,

We of the oars made wings for our mad flight,

Evermore gaining on the larboard side.

Already all the stars of the other pole

The night beheld, and ours so very low

It did not rise above the ocean floor.

Five times rekindled and as many quenched

Had been the splendour underneath the moon,

Since we had entered into the deep pass,

When there appeared to us a mountain, dim

From distance, and it seemed to me so high

As I had never any one beheld.

Joyful were we, and soon it turned to weeping;

For out of the new land a whirlwind rose,

And smote upon the fore part of the ship.

Three times it made her whirl with all the waters,

At the fourth time it made the stern uplift,

And the prow downward go, as pleased Another,

Until the sea above us closed again."

Until the Sea Above Us Closed Again: Ulysses’s and Many Other Stories

In Dante’s version, Ulysses never came back home. Penelope, his wife, waited forever for his return. Ulysses left her and his son to serve in the Trojan war, but it took him years to find his way home (according to Homer’s version of the story). His thirst for exploration was too strong. According to Dante’s imagination, Ulysses talked his companions into joining him for dangerous adventures “until the sea above [them] closed again”.

His thirst to overcome the limits of human nature cost him his life, his home, and his chance to come back to the people he once loved so dearly.

What does this story have to do with the others I briefly mentioned at the beginning?

Similarly to Ulysses, one day these four people decided to leave their respective homes without knowing that they would have lost them forever.

I asked them all the same questions: “Do you feel home where you are now? Or, do you want to come back?” The answer was always the same: “I don’t feel at home now and I don’t think of my original country as a home either. I can’t feel at home anywhere.”

Hence the despair.

Ulysses’ Syndrome

Ulysses’ story gives its name to a psychosomatic syndrome that impacts immigrants and refugees of different ages and nationalities. Rather than being only a psychological disorder, the people suffering from this syndrome can incur a range of chronic problems such as intense migraines, insomnia, fatigue, and gastric pain.

Similar to Ulysses in his journey, immigrants and refugees are often exposed to such an intense level of stress and fatigues, forced loneliness, failure of migratory goals, dangers of journey, and struggle to survive that they develop chronic somatic disorders that are often difficult to diagnose.

In my experience, the best way to help people like Olga, Rudy, and Christos is to leverage a meaning-making process that fills the word "home" with a renewed sense. For those who left a home that could not offer them the fulfillment of their vocations or life-goals, the word "home" usually refers to an actual place that is completely out of reach; it lives only in their memory. For them, home disappeared the moment they left. Home became a utopia that digs an empty space in their chest. I believe that that space needs to be filled with a new meaning before the flames, as in Dante’s imagination, of their passion for self-improvement and exploration would burn them from within. A new fulfilling home can be created from that awareness.