3 Words That Can Change Your Life: Ship of Theseus

No, this is not about that movie. It’s about a philosophy that should be taught in schools to teenagers. Because it can make all the difference in the world when adulthood comes around and we inevitably stumble.

So here’s the thought experiment that can change your life.

Imagine that a famous ship sailed by Theseus of ancient Greece was kept in a harbor as a museum piece. As the years passed by, some of the wooden parts of the ship began to rot and so were replaced by new ones. After a hundred years, all of the parts have been replaced.

So the question is…is the “restored” ship still the same object as the original?

“Ah…I don’t know,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “What’s the answer?”

My friend Ahmed laughed. “There is no right ‘answer’ as such. Philosophers have been debating about a satisfactory resolution for over a thousand years. If you get the time, search for the article on Wikipedia. There are like, 7 proposed resolutions, I think.”

“Oh nice, I’ll check it out,” I said, absolutely sure that I wouldn’t. But there was a more pressing question in my mind. “So how does this apply to what we are talking about?”

We were at a cafe in Bangalore, and presently fell silent as a waitress laid down our orders in front of us.

“Tell me this,” Ahmed said, picking up a salt shaker once we were alone again. “Why were you so surprised to see that Instagram post of mine?”

It was a ridiculous question. Anyone would have been surprised to see…

“Remember what everyone teased me about in college?”

Six years ago, Ahmed was rather severely horizontally challenged. Like many other people I knew back then, he ate heartily and wore his disdain for exercise as a badge of honor. Yet, at least twice he’d announced he was going on a diet. It was the source of laughter for all four years of college.

“Why do you think I couldn’t lose weight?” He asked suddenly, his omelet laden fork hovering in the air.

I wasn’t sure what he meant. “You – you didn’t have a proper gym plan?” I offered weakly.

“No,” he chuckled. “It’s because I believed in the wrong resolution of the Ship of Theseus problem!”

I ended up having to read the Wikipedia article after all…

So what’s your answer for the problem? Is the restored ship still the original ship? Or is it a completely different one?

Either answer is fine. Now let’s change the example a little.

Imagine the ship in question was structurally faulty. The construction, materials used and general wear and tear all conspired to make it a ship that most sailors are afraid to step on. What happens if, over the course of several years, the ship’s parts are replaced carefully? The weak timber is swapped out for a sturdier kind. Rusted nails are removed and stronger ones put in place correctly. Larger sails ultimately flutter in the air.

Now, is the ship still the same? Of course not, right? It’s been upgraded?

“And that’s when I began losing weight,” Ahmed said, flashing a smile that accentuated his sharp jaw line. “I realized, when it comes to an imaginary ship, we’ll all say it’s been upgraded. But instead of a ship, use our own body and mind as the example, and suddenly very few people will say the same. I realized…when it comes to our own matters, we simply don’t believe we can upgrade.”

*

From the time we begin forming memories, we also begin shaping our identities. Ask yourself what kind of a person you are. Chances are, a lot of the adjectives you use will be the ones you’ve heard repeatedly over the years, either from others or your own mouth. You’ll believe you are funny because several people have said so. That’s a simple, harmless example.

But things get a little more uncomfortable the deeper you dig. What’s a negative behavior you believe you have? For Ahmed, it was the fact that he was, simply put, a glutton. Or as his friends joyfully, sometimes even lovingly declared, Theethapandaram (a colorful word that essentially means ‘Someone who eats a lot’).

It wasn’t a lie, mind you. Ahmed wasn’t being fooled into believing he was eating a lot. Instead, it was a more complex feedback loop. He ate a lot, people said he ate a lot, he consciously or subconsciously began believing he always would eat a lot.

Our beliefs solidify in our minds. And we celebrate them all the time. Ever heard a person exclaim at a party, “Oh, I love to sleep, man! I always sleep a lot!”

Are they referring to a genetic disposition? A strand in their DNA that propels them to seek out 11 hours of sleep a day? No, it’s simply a habit that’s been developed and cemented.  The problem starts when that person begins to believe that habit isn’t changeable.

“It might sound silly, trust me, I’ve tried explaining this to others and not everyone gets it,” Ahmed said, taking my silence for skepticism. “But picturing myself as a ship made up of replaceable parts. That’s – that’s liberating! It….it was a game changer, man, seriously!”

I later understood what he was trying to convey. There are a lot of facts we’ve all gathered over the years, that have somehow coalesced into a notion. We are molded by our past. Take a simple, solid scientific fact, to begin with. Most of us have heard about how children pick up languages easily until they reach the age of 6, right?

And in movies and books we always come across situations where a person has been scarred by a traumatic incident that happened in their childhood. Let’s respectfully leave aside genuine abuse for a moment; even something as mild as a neighbor’s angry dog can affect us for life.

And that’s why Ahmed identified with the analogy of a ship. Because over the years, through school, college and the transition into adulthood, he, like most of us, began to mix all these genuine facts into a disingenuous belief.

This is how I am.

It’s an extremely dangerous form of self deception, because it can easily camouflage itself with the truth.

Some incidents in the past will shape you for life. If you were malnourished or inflicted with a debilitating disease as a child, you’ll probably face difficulties even as an adult.

But the majority of thoughts, actions and behavior you exhibited in the past….are replaceable! It’s easy to read this right now and say, “Well, that’s obvious!” But you’d be surprised by just how entrenched your beliefs could be. Over the years, we’ve subconsciously come to believe certain things can never change. We misunderstood psychology and promptly diagnosed ourselves has having particular fixed personalities. And then when we sincerely start trying to change our lives in some shape or form, we fail.

“Do you know why?” Ahmed asked, pushing away his plate. “Why did I, for example, pay for a gym membership five times, and join two Zumba or Rhumba or one of those classes, and never lose weight?”

Because deep in our minds, we’re terrified and sometimes resigned to the fact that it’ll all be for nothing. We are like children scribbling the words “I will get better” on the shore, frantic in our efforts but ultimately aware of the fact that sooner or later the waves will wash it all away.

But when Ahmed started imagining his entire life as a ship that could be changed, it gave him hope. He couldn’t change the whole ship, but at least the tiny part that he replaced would be there the next day.

“Now, don’t laugh, okay?” He said, almost about to laugh himself. “But like, I would go for these 30 minute walks, yeah? Cuz, you know, I was too fat to go to the gym. So when I was walking, I’d picture myself just prying out this wooden panel on the, like, floor of the ship? The first week I just spent prying it out, since you know, my legs and whole body were like paining. Then I pictured putting in another panel. And I swear, by the end of one month, it was like, I looked up from the new panel in the floor of the ship, and in real life I’m thinking, okay, now let’s go to the gym. Let’s fix that much bigger panel.”

It still works for him. “Even now?” I ask, surprised that the athletic, cheerful former college mate sitting in front of me would need such a…imaginary motivation?

“Maybe not as much. I mean, now I genuinely enjoy hitting the gym and stuff like that. But even then, every once in a month or two, when I’m feeling a little lazy, I picture that ship. I think, you know what, time to sweep the floors and check for termites. I gotta keep my ship in proper condition!”

“And, do you think this will work for others?” I asked as we waited for the check.

Ahmed shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Look, for me it was about weight loss. But, I mean the same concept applies to anything in life, right? If you are a hot tempered person, or not hardworking enough, it’s all about changing a little at a time, and believing that change will stick. It’s about believing that you are not a squishy rubber ball that will eventually return to its normal shape. Instead, you are the captain of your own ship, man. And knowing that….I think that can make all the difference.”

This article is based on a true story. Ahmed really exists, even though his real name isn’t Ahmed. He agreed to be a part of this story, I think, because he felt he had to pass it along. “There were those who told me I could change, so I’m just telling you the same thing, bro!”

Ahmed lost a little more than 45 kilograms over two years, and plans to never gain them back. He’s enjoying being the captain of his own ship.

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