First, I would like to introduce to you the paradox known as the ‘Ship of Theseus’.
The ship, wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete, had thirty oars and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place. So much so that this ship became an example among the philosophers for the logical question of things that grow: one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
It basically comes down to this. Is an object that has had every single part of it replaced, still the same object? It’s a classic paradox since ancient Greek times that has been used in various forms in philosophy, politics, literature, religion, and even pop culture. I don’t even recall exactly when or where I first heard of the ‘ship of Theseus’ but of course I was intrigued to see if maybe it could be used in relationships as well. Relationships change and grow, just like, or really even more so than, boats. There are so many moving and changing parts, yet so often we feel like somehow we’re just caught in a loop. We fall for the same people, our relationships encounter the same pitfalls. In the endless infinite number of people there are in the world, we keep repeating. Why is that? What is it about finding something so different that they all end up…the same?
To me, this comes down to really a question of identity. After all, to answer this paradox we have to answer what we think the ‘ship’ actually is. Is a ship’s identity its individual parts, or is it the form of it? So we have two separate entities. The ‘parts’ and the ‘form’. For me, that means I have to separate the ‘person’ and the ‘relationship’. Since the question for me is, does the person make the relationship or does the relationship determine the person?
Let’s take the person first, for example. Often times when we imagine the kind of person we’d like to date, we like to think up a certain persona, our ‘type’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We all have our certain particular attractions, things we look for, our own way of measuring up a romantic interest. It could be anything from physical (we like them tall, short, long hair, short hair, fit, lean, curvy, etc.) to the more personal (tomboys vs super feminine, good guys vs bad boys, partiers, readers, playboys, or poets). I’ll be the first to admit that I have a type as well, but I have noticed that over time my ‘type’ has changed, differed, evolved. Personally, I think I’m on the cusp of another ‘type’ shift as I think about dating again in the future and who I might want to be with. But is there any credence to ‘types’? Can we trust this blanket general assumption? How closely can we correlate the success or failure of a relationship to the type of person in it? I mean, if we think of it this way, up until the very final moment that we actually end up with the person we end up with, up until that ultimate, final, most successful relationship, haven’t most of us always gone after our ‘types’? So, mathematically speaking, what’s the success rate of going after types? I don’t think I’ve ever dated someone I didn’t think was my type so that makes my own personal success rate, oh…0%? Let’s say 0 for 7. Ish. It’s interesting to me to see that often we attribute relationship success to seeking our ‘type’ and yet, despite the fact that we meet failure more often than success, we never think to apply the same logic to saying maybe juuust maybe a certain ‘type’ can lead to a certain outcome, that being of failure and sadness and heartbreak. And yet, the most important statistic, the one that sticks out, isn’t the six times we went after someone we thought we’d like and it didn’t work out. The most important is the one time we did and it was incredible. Life-changing. Lasting. So really, who’s to say in this sense? Can we safely and reliably predict the result of a relationship based on the person, and if that’s the case, for so long as we keep going after the same type of person, do we then also assume it’s going to be the same relationship?
And let’s talk about that relationship for a second. Because some of us don’t have types. But most of us have an idea of the kind of relationship we want. We might not know, or have, the individual ‘parts’ just yet (the person) but we certainly have in mind the ‘form’ (relationship) we want it to take up. So is this more or less important, more or less reliable as an indicator of any sort of success or failure? We want a relationship that is stable, loyal, satisfying, in whatever ways and measures and metrics we’ve decided are important to us. Indeed in conversations with some of my friends, I know that at least some of them have given little thought to the person they might end up with. It’s almost as if ‘who’ the person is, is of little importance compared to ‘how’ they fit into this form. New or old planks, original or renovated, as long as it is the same form, it is the same ideal. The thing of it is, as humans, I think we’re naturally designed to never be quite satisfied enough. It’s that itching, nervous twitch in the back of our mind that constantly asks us ‘is this enough’ that drives us either to great success, or to go mad. Some of us use it to continually grow and develop, to adapt and achieve great results. Others become paranoid, self-destructive, our own saboteurs, uncomfortable with happiness or satisfaction. So what is there to guarantee that once we find the person who fits this ‘form’ that we are going to be happy, with no regard for ‘who’ the person is?
The only truth we can safely arrive at, is that there is no answer to this. That’s why the ‘ship of Theseus’ is a paradox and not just a pub trivia question. To whatever aspect of our life we find the ship to be relevant to, we’re not meant to arrive at a conclusion. We’re meant to reflect and ruminate, to ponder with patience and perseverance. It keeps us aware, mentally and physically, and tethers us to reality. I’m no more ready to completely disregard types as I am to simply walk around with a cookie cutter and see who fits into it. And if I ever get tired of thinking about relationships (perish the thought), the ‘ship of Theseus’ has become such an important philosophical conundrum that I can find examples of it everywhere. In France there is the proverb of ‘Jeannot’s knife’, basically if the handle and the blade of a knife are replaced, is it the same knife? In movies, animation, and comics, the Japanese title Ghost in the Shell often wrestles with matters of humanity and soul when humans, almost completely replaced with cybernetic enhancements and prosthetics, wonder where their humanity actually lies. In Japan, Shinto shrines have a very beautiful and sacred symbolic ritual wherein the entire shrine is dismantled and, on the same foundation, it is rebuilt with entirely new wood. This is meant to symbolize a cycle of renewal and rebirth, yet it remains, in spirit, the same shrine, built with wood from the same sacred woods. In 2013, the Ise Grand Shrine, one of the most famous and notable Shinto shrines, was rebuilt for the 62nd time.
I am anxious to ensure that I don’t just fall back into old habits, or continue to pursue the same relationships with the same results. I will keep these thoughts and lessons in mind, and hopefully if at least the Man is different, the path will be as well.
Man: 329 Loneliness: 33