I recently learned of the concept of katabasis; stemming from Ancient Greek, kata meaning “down” and basis meaning “go”, it is sometimes used to mean a trip to the underworld. It is a common theme in the Greek mythos. Orpheus entered the underworld to rescue Eurydice, Odysseus travelled through Hades so that he may continue to live on the other side. It can also be used in the less specific sense. The Labours of Hercules are an example of katabasis, a trial that one must undertake in pursuit of herodom. The concept of having to endure awfulness to become a man is deeply entrenched in human history.
This symbolism remains within our society even today. To become a knight, a squire would have to prove that they were capable of withstanding many hardships. Extreme cold, tiredness, hunger, to name but a few. When they were ready to be knighted, they would be slapped across the face: the last hit they should suffer without being able to retaliate. Over time this has morphed in to a tap of a sword, seen during the awarding of knighthoods in England.
Society places a lot of emphasis on going through some hardships in life’s journey. In films, the protagonist must defeat some great enemy, often becoming wiser in the process. In work, people may be distrusting of a boss that does not have much industry experience. Some authors have suggested that the rise in depression rates experienced by young men may be in part due to the lack of a katabasis through which to “earn” manhood (note: this is not an argument I agree with).
Through my observations, a trauma changes a person. I suppose it puts things in perspective. When you’ve dealt with the loss of a parent, having a bad day at work doesn’t seem so bad after all. That is not to say that it makes people emotionally lessened. I would argue that it brings a new level of rationality to people. The people I know that have been through some trauma become more considered in their choices, more reserved in their actions. Perhaps trauma helps to foster wisdom in some way. When breaking up with a spouse is legitimately the worst thing to ever happen to you, it does not make for a proportionate response.
Time is not on our side, each day brings us closer to a potential trauma. The loss of a loved one, an accident, some major life altering event. Based on this, and the philosophical connotations of the word, does everyone have a katabasis? Multiple bad things will most likely happen in a single life, but should one stick out as a descent in to your own personal hell, the commencement of your ascent to maturity?
The question for me on this day is: What is my katabasis? The past couple of years have not been easy for me. I have been to numerous funerals of family members, including both maternal grandparents (with whom I was close). I have dealt with a cohabiting spouse going off the deep end a little, making my existence hell if I dared to speak to any male friend. I have worked 2 jobs simultaneously, having to adopt biphasic sleep to make the hours work. I shattered my ankle, forcing me to give up a dream job in Italy whilst reconciling the possibility of losing a foot to infection and/or never being able to walk again. This past weekend, my father was diagnosed with heart failure. These are just the key moments; many smaller miseries have also plagued my existence.
Which of the aforementioned traumas would be my katabasis? I would select the ankle saga, as my katabasis, as it has perhaps been the most traumatic for me. It has made me a different person. I dealt with large amounts of pain and fear. I experienced true loneliness. I was physically and mentally exhausted, unable to sleep for the cries of a neighbouring ward patient. By the judgement of myself and my friends, this has had a marked impact on me as a person.
When I was in high amounts of pain, I would seek to transition to experiencing high amounts of morphine. In the morphine haze I could not read, I could not concentrate on TV. I could stare at the ceiling in a daze, and dream. In this time my memories were my main comfort. I have always found myself becoming bored with my surroundings, aspiring to see and experience all that the world has to offer. As I lay in bed (much as my grandparents did in their final times), all I had to do was reminisce. In this time, I found that I had a lot to reminisce on. I have been to so many places, done so many things, met so many people. I have stories to tell, even if only to myself. For this, in my morphine haze I was eternally grateful.
I assumed previously that this constant search for the next interesting thing stemmed from dissatisfaction with my life. “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure”. Perhaps I revel in chaos, and so seek subconsciously to destabilise my life. Now, I do not believe that this is the case. I think that I simply like collecting stories. I know that one day I will end up trapped again in a hospital bed, unable to be brought joy by any external forces. All I will have are my memories. I would like to not be bored during this time. The experience of breaking my ankle acted as a litmus test for this eventuality, and I found my current tract to be satisfactory for the time. With this in mind I would like to collect more experiences, so that once again I may reminisce on them (eventually, one final time).
Perhaps this experience has not been the biggest trauma that I am to face, and I have yet more sadness to come in my life. I cannot hope for a sadness free life, that would be implausible. All I can hope for is an interesting life. To feel sad is at least to feel something. I feel that even if I do suffer more greatly in the future, this will not usurp the ankle breakage as my katabasis. The introspection forced upon me, the wisdom gained by the experience cannot be replaced. Dear reader, I hope that you can find some good in your katabasis too.