Captaining Your Ship of Theseus

A cold fog sets upon the horizon. Winds are strong and waves are crashing. It isn’t ideal weather, yet the ship must set sail. The voyage across the ocean of life must go on and risks must be taken. Wait too long to set sail, and you get nowhere – so whether it’s rain or shine, go forth today. 

You’ve heard the adage that a calm sea has never made a calm sailor. If you’re the sailor then the ship is your body, your vehicle of movement through the ocean of life. There’s an old philosophical thought experiment related to this called the ship of Theseus. The experiment states that if overtime a ship had to have all its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? 

The ship of Theseus presents us with a way of explaining human identity and transformation. It sheds light on this natural progression (or deterioration) of human life. From the moment were born we start off as new ships about to set sail. As we progress through our voyage, physical, mental, and spiritual parts of us change, and are continually replaced. Most of the time the new version performs better while the old fades away, gone but never forgotten. 

Sometimes after the ship gets repaired, the sailor (you) is hesitant to go out again. Like a beached whale, your ship doesn’t leave the harbour. You and your identity are fixed in place. Even if you do decide to set sail, it’s only towards the nearest island a couple kilometers away. They have your favourite coconuts – life might be getting too comfortable. This comfort also causes wear and tear to the ship. Built at first to withstand long distances, the ship is now replaced to suit the voyage to the nearby island. 

Is it still the same ship? No way, this thing will not last the voyage across the ocean of life. However, you feel the monotony of everyday life and want to traverse the ocean – so you start small. A little more outside your comfort zone you go, and day-by-day your ship is getting replaced. It expands and so does your environment. Your thoughts, and outlook are transformed and the temptation of indulging in some coconut water doesn’t have the same charge as it used to. There are bigger and better fish to fry and quite literally because oceans really do have some big fish. 

The Physical Ship

By now you must realize that the ship of Theseus is a great metaphor for the natural progression of human life and identity. There is no life without the body, the physical aspect of your identity. You eat and drink every day to sustain it. The basic building blocks of it are cells and science shows that all of them are replaced every 7 to 10 years. This is the length of time it takes for your physical ship to get an entire overhaul. Biochemically speaking, you are not the same ship. 

The Mental Ship
mental ship

The mental and physical are always intertwined. It is known that changes in the neural pathways of the brain foster changes in one’s mental state. This is called neuroplasticity, a phenomenon that the brain is flexible and adaptable to a changing environment. Repairing and replacing parts of your mental ship of Theseus is the process of neuroplasticity. Our brains are most plastic during our formative years but throughout life they are most definitely not static. Identity isn’t fixed and when you think or feel like it is, there are ways to widen perspectives, change actions, and push the envelope of what your ship is capable of. And when you return the mental ship of Theseus will be upgraded and unrecognizable.

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