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The Ship of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that asks how long an object remains if pieces of it are replaced. That is, if a ship memorialized as an artifact in a museum undergoes refurbishment each year, and the rotting pieces of wood are replaced with new wood, at what point—the first piece of new wood; the seventh; the last?—is the object so fundamentally changed that it’s no longer what it was?

A couple of years ago I completed a certification through Columbia University, and therefore spent time in New York with my cohort. In my class were twenty people from all over the world. Our first night together, during an introductory mixer at a bar, everyone worked their way around the room asking each other—among many other questions—“Where are you from?”

When I met Deviani, I asked where she was from. “I’m from Singapore,” she said. And as we shook hands she could see the slight confusion in my eyes.

“When you asked me where I was from, were you really wanting to know where I was born?” she asked with a knowing smile. I blushed with embarrassment. She laughed.

“I was born in Surat, Gujarat,” she said, swatting a hand to dismiss my faux pas. “But at a certain point, I realized where I’m from is not where I was born. It was a rude awakening.” She took a sip of her wine before continuing. “My Surat background was changed out bit by bit—first school, then husband, then kids, then a house. And now, I wouldn’t dream of saying I’m from there. I’m from Singapore!”

Next week marks an entire year since the pandemic really took hold and the world shut down. I remember this time last year, sitting in a colleague’s office on campus with three other faculty members discussing the university’s announcement that it would not be coming back in person after Spring Break. We were all laughing (and in such close proximity!) at the idea of changing our syllabus to accommodate the two week hiccup we were bracing for.

Now here we are, an entire year gone by, and I can’t help but think that every piece of aging wood has been replaced with a new one. And it makes me wonder: at what point in the pandemic did my family, my work, my life change to a point where it was no longer the same? When did the artifact of my old life become changed so much it no longer resembles what it once was?

It started with my marriage. Suddenly, Jim and I were home together all the time. Never in our old marriage did we see each other this much. The time apart society promises us—from eight to five, Monday through Friday—was replaced with around the clock closeness. In our old marriage, our respective offices, which are on opposite sides of the city, were replaced with a shared space a few feet from our shared bedroom. Date nights were taken out and immediately replaced with masked walks in the neighborhood alongside two chatty children. Even the topics of our conversations were changed out and replaced with talk of the virus, masks, and politics. So much of our marriage changed that it’s almost unrecognizable when compared to our old one. But did it fundamentally change if we still feel the same?

My children’s lives changed dramatically. School in a building was replaced with school in my lap. Routines involving early morning brushing and rushing were replaced with a slower easing into the day. Time apart was replaced with time together. And some of the members of this family have replaced wearing pants with, well, just not wearing pants. Ever. My children’s image of me and Jim as their parents was replaced with an image of us as elementary teachers, school counselors, principals, and gym coaches. We became everything to them in a way we hadn’t truly signed up for when we became parents. If every aspect of how we parented our children before was replaced, bit by bit, with new responsibilities and purpose, are we fundamentally the same parents? Are our kids the same children?

And when I look at myself in the past year, I don’t feel different and yet everything has changed for me. On a basic level, my career is entirely different. My students from the past decade would roll their eyes at how much I restricted technology in the classroom (give me a candle and a blackboard and we can make magic). They vividly remember how I refused to teach any online courses and even openly disparaged them. But the pandemic changed my profession. I had no choice but to embrace technology and teach online. With that, I’ve become enthralled by the possibilities—and enamored of the endless benefits—of virtual instruction, and now I can’t imagine teaching any other way. Which has me wondering: If, on a very basic level, the pandemic changed a long-held fundamental belief of mine—that I would never embrace teaching online—am I the same person? Or does a belief, like a single plank of wood from a ship, not really count toward the whole?

When did Deviani stop saying she was from Surat? Was it when she first moved to Singapore? Was it when she met her husband? Was it after they bought their first house? Or did it catch her by surprise one day when she instinctively responded, “Singapore,” when a taxi driver asked where she was from? I wonder if she felt the exact moment her old self changed and a new one took its place. Or maybe it just happened so gradually over time that she didn’t even realize her old self—the one from Surat—was gone.

When does the ship in the museum undergoing refurbishments stop being an artifact? Maybe it isn’t the first piece of new wood. And I certainly think it’s before the last piece of wood is replaced. Having endured this past year, I’d say the change happens somewhere in the middle of the refurbishment, when half the pieces are new and half are old. Because once the ship is halfway restored, there’s a choice to make. We can either continue on with the change, embracing what’s to come and letting go of what was lost; or we can stop and let the rot take over.

When it comes to my life during the past year—my marriage, my children, my job, myself—I wondered something new about Theseus’s ship: Is every piece of wood weighted the same? Does the bulkhead contribute as much as the rudder? Does the hull matter more than the mast? Because while not all parts of our lives may be equally significant, all of them work in harmony, just like every plank on a ship.

Or maybe the ship never mattered as much as the metaphysical thought experiment would have you believe. Maybe the parts of the ship are interchangeable and what really matters is where the ship is sailing. Which means, it’s not the refurbishing that alters and changes the ship; the ship was changed the moment it was permanently docked.

So no matter how much my life has changed this past year with the daily refurbishment to adapt and adjust to the changing world around us, what matters more is the excitement I feel for where the winds of change might take me. Might take us.

And to that I say: all aboard.


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