Rebuilding your ship at sea: a practical guide

First, a paradox:

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 Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing 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.

Plutarch, Theseus

The thought experiment commonly referred to as The Ship of Theseus, is one of my favorites to revisit because it has practical applications for being a human and a self. I am, after all a thing that grows. Maybe you have heard about how all the cells of your body are completely refreshed within a seven year period? I do not know if the actual timeframe is accurate, and I am not entirely sure if it is exactly true because of neurons, but for our purposes [and the purposes of pre-adolescent me imagining my dead cells slowly being recycled by helpful lysosomes and phagocytes and replaced by mitosis] it gets the job done.

Being a human is like being the Ship of Theseus.

The main difference between being a ship and a human however, is in the difference between being conscious of your being a human as opposed to your being unconscious of being a ship. For most things that grow they are not conscious of their ability to grow; they are not considering if they are the same ship that first left port all those many years ago and they are not deciding to replace their timbers. Not so with humans.

Yes, some of our growth is unconscious [the mitosis] but some of our growth is conscious [the books we read, our spiritual practices, the hobbies and interests we cultivate, the calisthenics]. Over time we do come to be made of those things inasmuch as we are made of cells [if you are strictly materialist in your view of life and the self then this type of growth has to exist somewhere on the cellular, genetic or epigenetic level. If you are not then there is no issue because you probably believe in something that is like a soul where you do your metaphysical growing].

The paradox part is fun. Is it the same ship? Am I the same person? A great topic for dinner parties. But the applications part is what keeps me coming back. The ship persists because the Athenians remove the old rotted boards and replace them with new strong timbers. Its structural integrity is maintained. It continues to satisfy the requirements of “ship.” This is my interest.

For a human, our bodies mostly take care of replacing our cells for us [until the programmed obsolescence kicks in], but the maintenance of the consciousness has a certain required agency that is creative and rewarding. Sure, you can allow yourself to go on autopilot and only replace the rotting timbers of your consciousness with identical timbers, but also you can selectively examine a timber and replace it for a better one before it rots.

All extended metaphors break down if you stretch them far enough [what, exactly, constitutes a rotted timber of consciousness? I would argue any position that rests on the phrase “because we have always done it this way,” but I’m getting ahead].

The point, and I think it is visible in here, is that as humans we have the apparatus to intend to keep our Ships of Theseus seaworthy, and to me this potential suggests an obligation to not only maintain but to constantly keep abreast of the context that defines “seaworthiness.”

The practical guide for preserving seaworthiness of your Ship of Theseus.

Despite the musings of the above [which are sort of always in the background], I am nothing if not practical. Concepts like “obligation,” “maintain,” “intend,” and “seaworthiness” are not helpful when you’re not sure what to do, what your goal is You may get a ship to maintain, but how do you know the proper way to do it, or what your goal is, or if this is even the sort of ship that you ought to be?

As a person who has been puzzling out how to live my life morally and optimally while always being mindful of new information coming in from everywhere, it is easy to get paralyzed by the enormity of the task. For so much of my life I have not had enough context to even understand what I was dealing with in trying to be a good person [a good version of myself as a person] because so much of what one is bombarded with are other people’s ideas of goodness [or other people’s ideas of what is wrong with you and how you can buy their thing to make yourself better].

We like quick fixes and what I am talking about here is a practice of continual improvement where there is almost no one to turn to [even always yourself] to understand what your criteria are for improving or what is even not optimal to start with. What I like about the orientation of the Ship of Theseus is that it is clear how to preserve the seaworthiness of a ship. What is a ship? It is a vessel that floats on a body of water and serves as a means of conveyance for non-swimming occupants and cargo.

I spend a lot of time considering the form of a human and what it says about the uses and purposes of humans. And then I think some more about the type of human I am and my unique[ish] characteristics that position me to have specific uses, functions, purposes. Don’t mistake this for an essentialist argument about me or anyone else as a person, despite how it looks. Because ships and humans are not really the same [ships don’t have intent]. Sure I can’t be taller than I am, but I can be stronger than I am if I work at it. And sure there is an upper limit on how much I can know and how smart and I can be, but that limit isn’t something that I can exactly measure or necessarily reach.

In the design world, a problem like this calls for iterative solutions, where iterative is trying again and again with a sense of outcomes that can be adjusted as new information is presented [this is my definition, I can’t find a great definition from someone else, but this is what they mean].

In the process of trying to rebuild my ship at sea I have learned a lot of things through “trial and error,” which is what my dad would have called “iterative” design [and he is a very good designer].

The first rule of rebuilding your ship at sea is to never remove more planks at once than you can replace before your ship takes on more water than you can bale. Do not sink your own ship in an effort to rebuild it.

My brain is a logical inconsistency machine. When I see things that are wrong in the world I want to fix them immediately, so too for myself. The problem is that if you try to change too many things at once your ship doesn’t hold water and it sinks [and you feel like a failure and you give up]. You know how you make New Years resolutions to do yoga and bullet journal and make bento lunches and stop complaining about baby boomers and write letters to your congresspeople and make a monthly donation to the charity of your choice, but then February comes around and you realize that you’re still just watching Netflix in your PJs while eating pie and your neck hurts because you have stretched never and your kids have eaten only PB&Js? The internet has led me to believe that this is a thing, but maybe I have been reading it wrong…

This happens because you resolved to remove too many planks at once, you took on water and you’re sinking [watching Netflix as above might not look like baling water, but it so is an act of desperation to preserve the integrity of your ship, I promise]. One plank at time. When you get really good at replacing planks, maybe two [but never expect two]. Also sometimes no planks at all.

The second rule of rebuilding your ship at sea is to make sure the waters are calm before you plan large scale replacement of any planks. If you want your ship to make it to the time of Demetrius Phalereus [I know this has already passed] then you have to play the long game.

So much of my life has been me trying to radically rebuild my ship at sea in a storm that it isn’t really a surprise that I have nearly sunk it uncountable times. Sometimes I forget that because I can imagine the perfect ship right now that I need a plan to get there as soon as possible, but this thing is not a sprint. Part of the reason I am here on this blog is to cultivate a practice of steadily and dutifully rebuilding the ship instead of always reacting to something that is broken and then noticing all the other things that are also broken. That feeling is overwhelming.

I’m here for the (w)holistic understanding that many parts of my ship need to be replaced and that in the fullness of time every plank is going to be replaced [even some of the ones I have already replaced or ones I really, really am attached to right now]. This isn’t an argument for the virtues of incrementalism. Not all gradual change is useful or swift enough to make a difference. This is more about triage. Sure there might be a decking plank that squeaks, but it should never be the thing you fix before the plank that leaks.

The third rule of rebuilding your ship at sea is that when you are planning to make changes to your ship, change the stuff that affects seaworthiness the most first. Eventually you get out of being only reactive and you get to be proactive, but you can’t start by being proactive [but like make a list of that proactive stuff for later].

The fourth rule of rebuilding your sea at ship is to not send this post to a friend of yours who is having a tough time because you think it is going to make her feel better about the struggles of her life. “See, it is all a metaphor! You can do this!” Life is not a metaphor. You are not a ship. What works for me is not going to work for you. Do not believe people who tell you that you can change your life out of sheer force of will.

Sometimes people crash into your F’ing ship and they trick you into thinking that it broke because of some structural problem you failed to foresee. No, it was because they crashed into you. No matter how many homeschooling articles my grandmother sends me I will not become good at this terrible situation. Working full time while providing digital learning support is not something I consent to be good at: it’s a catastrophe. Sometimes life is a catastrophe.

Despite the catastrophe, I retain the luxury to intentionally work on my self and my life. It isn’t because I am amazing and it isn’t because other people not like me are pieces of shit. It’s because we have different life circumstances [probably I have more money and/or education and/or less melanin than them].

The fifth rule of rebuilding your ship at sea is understanding that everybody wants to be able to do it, but not everyone can. So help people out [when they make it clear they want that]. Give them some timbers, but watch yourself [see rules 1-4].

If you’re still here, just remember that rebuilding is a process. I am thankful for the process because it means I am still here. There are millions [billions?] of self-help blogs out there who can tell you all about how to be the best you, and this is not that sort of blog. I am the sort of person who can read 10,000 of those articles about mindfulness and self-care and self-improvement and not get it. The thing that gets me through is the Ship of Theseus. I don’t know why. Find the thing that is your Ship of Theseus and you’ll get through.

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