Justice in the Wilderness

Today I want to get to my favorite—and the most provocative—phrase in that passage from the Odyssey that we’ve been examining for the past two weeks.

To refresh our memory, here’s the full text:

… the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stray grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home.

What part hooks me the most?

… was made to stray …

Specifically, “was made to.” 

The Three Fates by Alexander Rothaug

Who “made” Odysseus undergo his ten years in the wilderness? The translation I’m quoting from is by T.E. Lawrence, i.e. Lawrence of Arabia, who was an Oxford-educated Classical scholar and, for sure, no one to be imprecise. So …

If Odysseus, after he had committed a crime against heaven—plundering the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy—“was made to stray grievously etc.,” doesn’t that imply some cosmic engine of justice? The Fates? The Furies? Almighty Zeus himself?

Which brings up a Big Question. Is there in the fabric of the universe some scale-balancing force of Justice or karma or whatever we might choose to call it? Could this possibly be true? And if it is, did this entity somehow enforce punishment upon Odysseus?

We could say that something in the hero’s psyche—a sense of guilt or remorse perhaps—drove him himself to create his own ordeal. But that seems, to me at least, like an overly modern interpretation of this mysterious mechanism.

I believe there IS some force of Justice in the Cosmos. I believe Homer chose exactly the phrase and the sequence of crime and punishment he intended. 

Our hero commits a crime against heaven.

No earthly tribunal judges him. Seemingly Odysseus gets away with it.

But some unseen force of payback or retribution intervenes. This force. by some mysterious means, sends storms to blow our hero’s ship off-course; it maroons him and his crew on god-forsaken isles. The force is always one step ahead of Odysseus. It buffets him from catastrophe to ordeal to disaster, foils his enterprises and stratagems, brings his most cunning designs to nothing.

Is any of this sounding familiar? In our own passages through the wilderness, yours and mine, isn’t there a feeling of some Cosmic Hand pushing us this way and that, tugging us back just when we seem to be making progress, shoving us over a cliff when we lapse even a little?

The good news—if this scenario contains any element of truth—is that our odyssey through exile POSSESSES MEANING. It is not random. It is not without significance.

If you and I have been “made to” suffer an ordeal of exile and banishment from ourselves, there must be meaning to it. Otherwise, why is some unseen force making us to stray grievously?

In other words, the mystery of our ordeal is not without a solution. The passage is not devoid of a culmination.

If you and I were made to stray, then there was a cause. Something we had done or failed to do. And hidden within that action or inaction was a violation of some law or precept. Not a human law perhaps, but a law that the gods know. And our way out, if this is true, can only be found in identifying this felony and coming clean about it, if only to ourselves—and then serving our sentence, doing our time.

Oh, by the way. If you and I are writing a story—any story, fiction or nonfiction—the scenario above is our spine.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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29 Comments

  1. Jackie on November 9, 2022 at 3:54 am

    As always, Steve, thanks for the guidance. That is what we are searching for, that transgression to make right that keeps us from our true self. I’ve always thought that the easiest person to lie to is yourself. We must come clean to experience the Self. The wilderness has her way of making us come clean if only to ourselves.
    Where better to be tossed in a tempest of fates than the actual wilderness? Though one can’t always dedicate a few weeks on the John Muir Trail or follow in Cheryl Strayed’s footsteps as in Wild, any time in nature has an effect. Nature doesn’t do lies.
    If we never confront or own up to the ugly within, can we truly see the beautiful?
    My favorite sentence: And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.-John Muir
    Wishing all a good week.

  2. Mia Sherwood Landau on November 9, 2022 at 3:59 am

    Oh, yes, my most cunning designs have been brought to nothing many times. It’s the spine of my story as well. The person we become in life, and the people our characters become in our fiction is the flesh on our spines, isn’t it? What a useful picture you painted in this post! Thank you! Love you!

  3. Claire T on November 9, 2022 at 4:01 am

    Reassuring that my journey isn’t random and has meaning. I’m excited to know what the ‘culmination” is. Thank you as always Steve for the inspiration!

  4. Bing on November 9, 2022 at 4:41 am

    After 40 yrs I am rereading a book called “A Course In Miracles”. I KNOW this book could explain every drop of this story in precise detail. The course basically says there are only two things happening in the world which are the Ego and Love. Ego is all lies, hatred and deception, which Steve talks a lot about in his books. I am discovering that I am attacking myself and others 24/7, it is like ‘background music’, I am not even aware that my ego is doing all this. The Course says the real truth is we are al whole and perfect, that the universe is Love and forgiveness.
    I want to apologize for how little I can express about this book except I am very excited rediscovering its message.
    Love and Forgiveness to you all, we are all doing it. Amen

    • Steven Pressfield on November 9, 2022 at 11:42 am

      Bing, I definitely had a period when I was a devotee of A Course in Miracles. Fascinating stuff. I never got past Day 22.

    • Cliff Yates on November 11, 2022 at 10:56 am

      I read this book a couple years ago. You ave inspired me to do back and reread it. Never underestimate the power of your influence.

  5. K Magnusen on November 9, 2022 at 4:59 am

    Thank you for helping me to think. My husband and lover recently passed. I’ve been searching for meaning because everything feels meaningless and nothing makes sense.. I’m agnostic, so anything is up for grabs. Anything doesn’t always have to make sense. Not everything needs to line up, but it has to feel hopeful in some way. Right now, nothing feels fair but maybe there is no fairness? When I look at flowers or feel trade winds on my skin, I think, surely there must be some kind of cooperation. I don’t know, and perhaps I’m rambling.

    • Maureen Anderson on November 9, 2022 at 9:00 am

      I’m sorry for your loss, K. And while it’s impossible to know how you feel, this gave me so much comfort at a low point in my own life and I offer it up in case it does the same for you: “We are unaware of what sweet miracles may come.”

    • Jackie on November 9, 2022 at 9:06 am

      Best to you Kathy on your journey. BTW, beautiful work.

  6. Terryl Chapman on November 9, 2022 at 5:54 am

    The Prologue to John offers a mysterious but potentially comforting clue about the intelligent force that leads us “astray” and then, jiggedy-jig, back home again. Wasnt it Heraclitus who called it Logos? It’s a meditation for any faith, The Word as a steady light shining alone infinitely in a nearly infinite darkness. Language scholars have suggested that the first ten or so verses of John are separate and older, more universal than the rest of the Gospel, predating Christianity. As Carl Jung writes in his I Ching translation of the hexagram called Inner Truth, “far-reaching speculations can be linked with these ideas”

  7. skip on November 9, 2022 at 5:58 am

    Brilliant.

    ty

  8. Donna Sedevie on November 9, 2022 at 6:05 am

    This post strikes home with me right now. I find myself drawn to the end where you discuss the “cause. Something we had done or failed to do.” Now that I’ve decided to leave my job, one that has never exactly brought me joy, I find myself back at the beginning. I am once again at the place of “where am I going?” because I never really answered that question all those years ago. I violated the law of being true to my essential self. So, I have identified the felony and I want to come clean. My sentence is committing to following my essential self and joy while avoiding socially acceptable mundane paths. My challenge is to find ways of supporting myself financially while maintaining this kind of truth and not being distracted by the easy solutions. thank you for helping me to put this realization into words.

  9. Nick Nichols on November 9, 2022 at 7:28 am

    Amen, brother. I am reading this after finishing the fifth draft of the finale for my current work-in-progress. A legal thriller that I have worked on for eight months. Eight long months of daily wandering in the wilderness. Imagine my joy in reading your post this morning of all mornings. Many thanks.

  10. Will on November 9, 2022 at 7:39 am

    This is really great.

    A story without these deep archetypal truths is not worth reading.

  11. Brian Nelson on November 9, 2022 at 7:41 am

    This might be one of the hardest things to accept. I’m not a victim, instead responsible and accountable for my own actions that led me to the Wilderness.

    To state that suffering has a purpose, that meaning can be found within the droplets of pain and blood is a dangerous assertion in today’s narrative of victimhood. Sins of the father passed on for generations.

    Seeking one’s one felony is the only way through. Action, responsibility, consequence. Maybe this felony is a sin of the father or grandfather that has created an environment in which the betrayal of self is ubiquitous and appears, by all cultural touchpoints, not a betrayal.

    How can I be responsible for growing up as a “direct object victim here”?

    Because deep, deep down–we always knew better.

    Each of us is sovereign which is both liberating and terrifying.
    bsn

  12. Kim Roberts on November 9, 2022 at 8:01 am

    This one really spoke to me today. Finding meaning and depth in the midst of all the noise is what keeps me grounded and sane. Thanks for continuing to offer this Steven. I appreciate you.

  13. Frank Gugino on November 9, 2022 at 8:33 am

    Who “made” Odysseus undergo his ten years in the wilderness? The answer is in the text itself, “… Jove said, ‘ Neptune is still furious with Ulysses for having blinded an eye of Polyphemus, king of the Cyclopes.’ …though he will not kill Ulysses outright, he torments him by preventing him from getting home.’ ” Yet earlier in the text Neptune disavows responsibility. “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all their own folly.” (Britannica 32) Whatever the source, the metaphor of the journey into the wilderness retains plenty of material for us to ponder about its meaning in our own lives. We are the heroes: we struggle, we offend, we suffer, we reconcile. Otherwise, we perish.

  14. Jesse Passmore on November 9, 2022 at 8:37 am

    Phenomenal ideas, thank you Steven.

  15. Cheryl McDonald on November 9, 2022 at 10:54 am

    This series has come at a time when I am in the process of coming out of my sojourn in the wilderness. I am an artist and poet and for years I have been making “safe” instead of the art I am meant to make. I have hidden away all of the important stuff, which had the effect of sending away my muse and leaving me in the dark. Your blogs on Odysseus in the wilderness has helped me make sense of where I have been and where I am now going. I have been writing a blog for over a year and these last few months it has become a means of sharing the art I have hidden and being a platform for my poetry as well. In today’s blog, I mentioned you and put links to your blog and website to share the great work you are doing. Here is a link just in case you would like to see what I have written.
    http://bit.ly/3tlCGRe
    I appreciate your blog, your books, and you attitude which is about getting the work done. Thank you!

  16. Steven Pressfield on November 9, 2022 at 11:45 am

    P.S. You guys, I’m also doing an “In the Wilderness” video series on Instagram to accompany this. It’s at Steven_pressfield. I know a lot of people don’t like Instagram but I’ve found it’s a pretty clean and simple platform with hardly any snarky stuff being thrown at you.

  17. Tolis Alexopoulos on November 9, 2022 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you so much dear Steve!

    This time I have the honor to write you from inside that multitude of winds, exactly those that sent Odysseus far, far away from home.

    I was called on Tuesday 2nd of November by a simple sms, to present myself to the other side of Greece, that is Crete, to work as a teacher of physical education.

    And there I am now, in Crete instead of Macedonia, trying to find a house to live in for the next months. What a blow of the wind! And there I am above the sea, right besides Odysseus’ route while he was reaching (and being exiled from) Ithaca.

    Suddenly and hopelessly, I now have to work as a school teacher, a student of master degree, on the book that I’m writing, and keep a whole family at balance. I tried to fool the winds by taking on that master, which would give me time off work, but the winds weren’t fooled and they gave me another job And the master.

    THIS is what you call Resistance’s greatest hit. It is the most powerful. Having to end your book in the middle of all that.

    I feared it as a future thought but now fear is just another waste of time.

    I wonder no more, if I will achieve ending the book which is really what i dream.

    And when Odysseus was thrown off a strange and inhospitable coast, it was his character that would determine his glory or death. A character that would be perfected/revealed from his obstacles. A character that was already sculpted.

  18. Carl Francis Penders on November 9, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    Steve, excellent piece. I can definitely relate to the point you’re making. Man’s Search for Meaning by Frankyl, which I’m sure you’ve read and are well familiar with. Thanks …

  19. Nom de Plume on November 9, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    Tolis, I won’t even pretend not to be jealous.

    In the post, Sensei quotes the Odyssey:
    But some unseen force of payback or retribution intervenes. This force. by some mysterious means, sends storms to blow our hero’s ship off-course; it maroons him and his crew on god-forsaken isles. The force is always one step ahead of Odysseus. It buffets him from catastrophe to ordeal to disaster, foils his enterprises and stratagems, brings his most cunning designs to nothing.

    Then asks: Is any of this sounding familiar?

    I immediately thought of Resistance. (Although if it is one step ahead, it would be Presistance…) Sensei called it the Cosmic Hand, going in a direction I wasn’t expecting… but could it not also be Resistance? That immediately raises the philosophical/theological question of what Resistance is.

    Does anyone wonder what will happen to mankind when there is no more literal wilderness? I can’t imagine anything good, even if the Wilderness we are talking about here can happen in a city of millions. “America was shaped by the frontier” and all that — what happens when everything is paved suburbs?

    As always, I am enjoying the discussion. Jackie, that John Muir quote is golden. Best to you all (and especially, peace to K).

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on November 11, 2022 at 12:19 pm

      Thank you so much Nom de Plume, the Muse is on your side. Open all paths in the world for her to conquer!

  20. Julie on November 10, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    I love it!

  21. Mike D Stokes on November 10, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    Thank you. I am dredging the courage to write at this depth. And the resistance is monumental at times. Exactly what I needed. Again!

  22. Emma Harriet on November 11, 2022 at 4:52 am

    Este realmente se dirigió a mí hoy. Ver como importancia y profundidad en medio de toda la conmoción me mantiene conectado a tierra y racional. Gratitud por escorts maduras Moron proceder a ofrecer este Steven. Te valoro.

  23. Mitch Bossart on November 13, 2022 at 5:05 pm

    Your post makes me think of the Old Testament verse that goes something like: “Justice is mine,” says the Lord. “I will repay.” Perhaps, like the laws of physics or microbiology, it is a spiritual law. Breaking spiritual rules or laws puts into action an inevitable payback of sorts originating from the spiritual realm into the physical.

  24. WELLE METAL on November 28, 2022 at 4:32 am

    Your article was very impressive to me. It was unexpected information,but after reading it like this, I found it very interesting.

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