I’m not sure why I was avoiding it.
More often than not, I tend to feel an inordinate amount of pride and joy crossing items off my To Do list.
And yet this one task has been there for months, carrying over from week to week.
Namely, filling out my personal page for my next college reunion, set in the far off future of 2025.
It’s not like the form was hard.
In fact, there were only a handful of the most general fill-in-the-blank questions.
Completing the “What I’m up to now” category was mildly challenging, making me slightly envious of anyone who could simply list their law firm or tenured academic position.
And yet I realize I was avoiding creating that page mostly because it requires reaffirming one’s personal identity via the past, and that identity itself might just be the greatest paradox of all.
If you’ve been reading along recently, you’ll know I’ve been exploring various aspects of paradox including within this month’s meditation HERE.
In this final week, I’ve saved for last one that particularly intrigues me, The Ship of Theseus.
It’s several thousand years old, named after the Greek hero who founded Athens after slaying the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull.
The Minotaur lived at the center of a labyrinth where he routinely received human sacrifices from the king.
Ariadne, the king’s daughter, gave Theseus a sword and a ball of yarn so he could kill the monster and then find his way out of the labyrinth, sailing triumphantly off to nearby Delos.
The Paradox of Theseus’ Ship originates from the annual reenactment of that victorious trip, one recreated by Athenians grateful to be rescued from any monster lurking in the labyrinth.
(In your own way, perhaps you can relate…)
This paradox is essentially a thought experiment.
Here it is:
If each year a new component is replaced on Theseus’ ship, until ultimately nothing original remains, when does it cease being the same craft?
Does the slightest change create an entirely new vessel…?
Or, if after a hundred years all the wooden parts are gradually replaced with metal, does it nonetheless still remain the same ship?
Ultimately, the Paradox of the Ship of Theseus asks us to question the persistence of personal identity.
Are we really the same person we were in college…or frankly even yesterday?
Since you can, in fact, change so much about yourself––from gender to hair color, political views to dessert preferences––what original components must remain for “you to be you?”
Speaking of riddles….
I’ve drawn The Riddle card (above) from the Kim Krans’ Wild Unknown Archetype Deck an uncanny number of times this month.
I’ve found it particularly insightful.
The spirit of The Riddle (which often walks hand-in-hand with Paradox) invokes the subtle and slippery world of Zen enlightenment.
As Krans’ writes;
“When the Riddle is present,
one must stop searching for ‘the right answer.’
It cannot be found, and ultimately it is not important.”
Instead, she tells us that our perspective needs to shift “from the literal to the metaphorical, from logic to mythic” cautioning that we “are thinking too small and literally about the situation.”
I’m always a big fan of expansive thinking but how exactly should we then approach The Riddle or the mysteries of a Paradox ?
I love her very wise advice:
“Time, surrender, and humor are your only allies.”
Somehow, I find having just those three allies on my side––time, surrender, and humor––deeply comforting.
In the same spirit of The Riddle, there are many famous Zen Koans––short paradoxical statements, enlightenment TikToks if you will––given during meditation training.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
“The coin that’s lost in the river is found in the river.”
“If you meet the Buddha, kill the buddha.”
The job of the Koan is to jar us into that meditative place of being truly present, something also captured by the great Thich Nhat Hahn in his Zen poem Drink Your Tea.
“Drink your tea slowlyand reverently,
as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves
– slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future;
Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.”
Or, if you want a jazzier version of the concept, rather than focusing on your tea, consider J.D. Salinger’s lines in his short story A Girl I Knew.
“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see,
except standing there leaning on the balcony railing,
holding the universe together.”
Like Blake, even if we can’t solve The Riddle, we may then “See a World in a Grain of Sand” and “Eternity in an hour” by being fully present.
Back to my reunion page.
This week, I bit the bullet and uploaded a photo of me (with Vlad, of course.)
Next, I filled out my location.
Then, heading into a zoom call, I left the other few questions blank, figuring I’d return to it later.
(The reunion is in two years, after all.)
Even so, when I returned to it the next day,although my screen said “Your Page is Incomplete; Click Here to Edit,” clicking on that tab just returned me to the Home Page again and again.
Like the rings on The Riddle card, it was a strange and endless loop, a corrective reminder that my online identity (in this context) was very incomplete…and a simultaneous taunting of my ability to edit it.
In a way, it’s its own Zen Koan, one I’ve just been inspired to write:
When trying to describe myself,
I must remain silent.
I’m sure some admin person can solve this loop pretty easily but truthfully, I’m enjoying the minimalist biography.
Paradoxically, I feel both deeply connected to my college self and at the same time almost as though that was an entirely different person.
So much of my ship has been replaced––I like to think “upgraded” actually––that, despite having the same social security number, I really do question if it’s an entirely different vessel.
Fortunately, it’s a mystery I can live with, an ongoing inquiry by an ever-evolving detective.
In fact, despite some complicated solutions coming from philosophers and cognitive scientists, no one has yet figured out the Paradox of Identity.
Thus, I’m actually fine if everything remains empty on my reunion page except my name and location.
That’s just enough to ground me in time and space (and print on a name tag.)
In the end, the paradoxes and riddles are mysteries, but I’ve learned with my allies––Time, Surrender, and a Sense of Humor––I have everything I need to let them enrich me, while remaining eternally unsolved.
Namaste for Now,