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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: March 4, 2023
By Katie Karp
Ozark Catholic Academy
When I was a sophomore in college, I read “The Odyssey” for the first time. My professor taught the epic focusing on one of the most important virtues for the ancient Greeks, interdependence.
What may have been lost on me at 19 has since come to greatly influence my spiritual life as well as my day-to-day life. Many fail to have the difficult but freeing realization that we are not independent, and that is a good thing.
In “The Odyssey,” Odysseus acts independently as he refuses to listen to those offering him advice and fails to take his men into account when he is making important decisions.
Our lives are drastically disordered ones if we think that for one moment that we can survive without heavenly aid.
His urgency to return home is mitigated by his desire to prove himself the best athlete in a competition or get the personal credit he craves for slaying the cyclops. He makes decisions that frequently lead to his own glory and the consequent deaths of his crew members.
He makes decisions by himself, for himself, and he does not need anyone — yet Odysseus cries more than any other epic hero I’ve read. The times that he fails are all a result of a pride that refuses to let him acknowledge the fact that he might need other people.
Odysseus is independent, but he is not happy. The American notion of independence is ingrained in us, but like Odysseus, it may prevent us from being truly happy. The pride of not needing any assistance and failing to acknowledge his own limitations consistently leads to trouble for Odysseus.
Meanwhile, we are told by employers and media and advertisements that we will be fulfilled if we only take the time to invest in ourselves by ourselves. Having people who depend on you makes you less independent, and therefore must be bad.
If we cannot manage on our own, that must be a sign of weakness which, by this logic, also must be bad. When faced with these false premises of sufficiency, I remember the words of St. Paul.
When he likens the Church to a body, he goes so far as to say, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended” (1 Corinthians 16-18).
The whole design of human flourishing depends on a network of dependence. By the very fact that we are human beings, we cannot be perfect or sufficient on our own. The ear needs the rest of the body. Men and women need each other to perpetuate the human race.
Children need parents to survive. People need community to flourish. The fact that we are created with limitations means that other people get to be needed, and this is one of the primary ways that we can share in Christ’s experience of loving service.
When we find ourselves in a state of need, it is an opportunity for those around us to act as the hands and feet of Christ. Similarly, when we embrace the ethos of Odysseus, we have no need for God. For Odysseus, many of the victories he celebrates are only due to the interference of Athena, but his pride won’t let him admit that.
Our lives are drastically disordered ones if we think that for one moment that we can survive without heavenly aid. I fear many people, myself included, have learned to require as little as possible from others, including God, for fear of being “needy” or being seen as incapable and insufficient.
Embracing our dependence requires a humility that makes us better at giving and receiving love, therefore leading to an authentic happiness. This authentic form of happiness is something very foreign to Odysseus, but is in fact the happiness we were made for that can only be found in accepting and loving our dependence.