Theseus’ Paradox


Lately I have been overwhelmed by the enigma that is the Self. I wrote a piece this summer about introversion and extroversion and the idea of having an innate self. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about constantly over this year because I find my own self consistently changing.

People write about growing up, getting new jobs, and learning to love yourself but no one ever writes about how you are supposed to learn to get along with all of the old selves you’re shedding and all of the new selves that you are perpetually morphing and shifting and snapping into.

It’s not so much the changes themselves but rather the sheer insanity of the rate of change. Some days I am so keenly aware of the changes that I get a pulsing feeling of longing in my stomach and I realize that it is a homesickness for a place that housed who I once was and a mourning for a person that I used to be intimately acquainted with but no longer speak to.

It’s weird too because I am forever trying to pinpoint the exact moment that I shift into a new collection of identities. Maybe this comes from my evangelical upbringing. There was often a pressure to share our “testimonies,” to focus on the moment of conversion, the “Come to Jesus Moment,” the point at which one is forever transformed. 

At what point? At what point?

I understand of course that it is not really about—what point. It’s more about slowly coming into your fullest self, piece by piece falling into place. But these pieces snap into place in such drastic ways that it feels like every few months or so, every new job, every new skill, every book, every personal epiphany makes me feel as though I’ve taken on a completely new identity.

And the thing about all of these new selves is that you can’t just say, “OK, I’m different now. Cool,” and then hurtle forward as your new self. You’re constantly affronted with things that remind you of this old self.

Candle scents. Old friends. Books. Journal entries. Songs. Places. Memories of course. Old text messages. Pictures. A constant bombardment of reminders that scream, “Hey! You’ve changed a lot! Who was this old person who burned this candle in her very first apartment? How do you feel about her?”

On each square inch of the farm where I grew up I see a younger version of myself and my siblings–riding bikes in the graveyard, playing summer dark tag in the garden, getting scratchy legs from climbing hay bales, and the distinctly fishy smelling me on a float trip in the James. The old memories accost me with a nauseating force. It’s effortless to feel the conglomeration of emotions that seeing these scenes evokes but harder to pick out which specific emotions run parallel with each of my selves.

Television and books and family members all tell me that these old memories should be warm and sweet since the content is idyllic. But I no longer recognize the protagonist of these old stories nor can I even attempt to feel the childlike joy that she felt at the freedom of reading books atop trees. These two facts make the memories as frightening and surreal as Salvador Dali painting. 

It is difficult to feel comfortable and not sick and strange when thinking about how much I have changed and am changing.

And when will it end? This perpetual shifting of selves? Do people in their 30’s experience this? In their 40’s? If I stop changing so much will that be good? Or bad? Or is it neither bad nor good?

Joan Didion is one of the few writers who seems to understand this distinctly horrifying feeling of losing one’s selves. And she seems to view this changing of selves as normal. The visceral sense of relief that overcame me to the point of tears the first time I read this passage is still near to me every time I reread it.

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.

Since this summer, I’ve also been emotionally wrangling myself over one particular question—it’s a riddle by the philosopher Plutarch. The riddle is often called Theseus’ Paradox and it goes something like this: if a ship needs new parts and those parts are replaced gradually over time until all of the parts have been replaced, is it still the same ship?

I, myself, am Theseus’ ship. If I keep changing and shifting and growing and losing, am I still fundamentally the same person even though I don’t feel like the same person? Even biologically, every second, thousands of my cells are replicating. I want to feel grounded and less terrified by the ever morphing identities that I’m gaining and losing like atoms gain and lose their protons and electrons. 




  1. Oh my god, Hannah this is great. The self is one of my favorite subjects at the moment. I cannot wait to see you next because I have a lot of thoughts on this rooted in my yogic training and dabbling in Zen Buddhism. The way eastern philosophy portrays the self is the view that resonates with me most. I can’t wait to chat in person. Listen to this little excerpt from an Alan Watts lecture. He touches on this briefly and poses some really great questions.


  2. This sounds eerily similar.. Recently, I have been able to attribute these “new parts” to the changes in my life. However, the more time passes, the more I come to realize that those changes are simply the easiest reason to accept without asking further questions. The “sheer insanity of the rate of change” is like memories you bring up on occasion just to realize that it happened earlier that day. The self is hard to understand because.. it is never, quite, who you thought it was.

    I wanted to thank you for the honesty and tell you that I do very much miss you. Hope all is well!


  3. Interesting thoughts. I think as a whole, one does not change into a completely different person. We are constantly evolving, changing into the person we were meant to be. Like a caterpillar. The butterfly, I doubt, can little relate to the caterpillar it once was. Also like a lump of clay, daily, monthly, yearly, being molded into the beautiful vase we are meant to be. Always changing, from our experiences, our acquaintances, our surroundings..while the core of who we are remains. I’ve loved seeing you ever evolve, undergo lots of changes. Yet…your heart, your mind, the core of who you are has not changed, only emerged. Embrace the constant change. Love the person you were created to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So well said. Yes the core is “you” and you have a mission. that is why we are here. No child is a mistake. We just peel back like onions revealing a new skin until we are done and given all that we have.


  4. Hannah, I love this. You express so beautifully a lot of the same fears and struggles I have had in the last few years. I think this was especially painful for me in the year that followed my brother’s death, when everything about me and my environment seemed to be going through an entire upheaval and there were so many days I didn’t even recognize myself and so many days when I missed the old me and my old life. Even the happy changes in my life really intimidate me and challenge my personal identity and security.

    My faith and hope in Jesus Christ ultimately helped me come to grips with this struggle because unlike the singular “come to Jesus” moment that is so prevalent in the evangelical Christian community, I always have had the understanding that salvation is not the final transformation. Salvation is the beginning of a life-long transformation, the process we call sanctification. This process is a constant series of small transformations that constantly shape us and mold us through pain, pressure, and fire, into the likeness of our Savior. Until the end we reach glory and the final perfected version of ourselves. When salvation starts and when it ends…we don’t necessarily know the answer to this. We can only witness and take hope in the fruit that comes from the work of the Holy Spirit.

    This was so comforting for me because it didn’t make me afraid of all the “old selves” I kept and continue to keep shedding. It also reminded me that while I miss the old versions of myself and my life, what is ahead is far far better than anything I have ever left behind. I don’t know what the final transformation will look like, what this ship will be once all the parts have been deconstructed, replaced, and reassembled to perfection…but I take heart in the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

    “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body…I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
    “Death is swallowed up in victory.
    “O death, where is your victory?
    “O death, where is your sting?”
    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 50-58

    Liked by 1 person

  5. interesting piece. On the flip side what if nothing changed and we always stayed the same? How would that be? Reliable, routine, there are probably many adjectives more… If we believe we continue in another form after death, why not consider that we may have multiple forms before death. When bad things happen to people they need the ability to regenerate otherwise you stagnate. Sometimes that means changing yourself and hopefully for the better. thanks


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