A writing prompt was shared with me recently that every seven years all of the cells in our bodies shed and replace themselves, meaning that every seven years we essentially become a “new” person.
One of my high school teachers used to say there were two kinds of people in the world — “math and science” people and “liberal arts” people. Falling very much into the second category, my interest in numbers lies in the patterns and symbolism behind them, and seven is one of those mystic, culturally significant numbers that seem to contain secrets all its own.
There are seven days in a week, seven seas, seven continents, seven deadly sins, seven colors of the rainbow, seven wonders of the world, and “7 Rings” for Ariana Grande and six of her bitches — like I said, very culturally significant. Ironically enough, the seven classical liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy) included so much math. So would that mean that by my teacher’s standards the ancient world was full of only one kind of person? And what would happen if their cells changed?
You could argue that identity, the conceptualization of who we are (and whatever the hell that means), occurs at the messy convergence of the art of science and the science of art.
Grammatically speaking, we determine a person’s identity by their name, a collection of symbols and sounds to designate who they are. Or rhetorically, by the things they write and say – the Shakespeares, Dickens’ and Hemingways of the world are practically inseparable from their work. Logically, we create names for the schools of thought that define the “self”, an endless list of -isms. Geometrically, it comes down to a simple helix, or the arithmetic of billions of different cells. All that biology determines different physical attributes – things like our vocal chords and musical range. And astronomy inspires all of the different things we believe about ourselves because a horoscope tells us so.
Being a Sagittarius who loves to travel, if we take a trip back to that same ancient world, we’ll find the origin of my prompt in one of the oldest known thought experiments about identity – the ship of Theseus.
The premise of the experiment is this – to pay tribute to the Theseus of Greek mythology (think labyrinth, ball of yarn, Minotaur) his ship is kept in a harbor as a memorial. Over time the individual planks of wood begin to decompose and are replaced until at last the ship no longer contains of any of it’s original pieces. At this point can it still be considered the ship of Theseus?
In the 1600s, a slightly more modern philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, took the question a step further, asking us to imagine that as the parts of the ship had been replaced, the original pieces were stored in a warehouse, and later reconstructed into a second ship. Which, if any, of the ships could then be called the true ship of Theseus?
The answer is unclear because so many have been argued over time. Some say the restored ship, some say the reconstructed. Some say both, others neither. One theory proposes there is and never was a ship because a “ship” is only a human construction of the mind. Deep, right?
The answers are different because they all boil down to the ways we define and assess identity. What makes a thing what it is? Is it the sum of its parts which are subject to change? Or does identity rely on something more solid that endures? Is my writing prompt that same ancient question with just the parts replaced – cells for planks, a person for a ship? Is it a ship of Theseus of the ship of Theseus?
Essence n. the basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features.
Liberal Arts today addresses questions of identity in terms of essentialism (or rather the critique of it), which according to my handy, dandy Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism is “the belief that certain people or entities share some essential, unchanging ‘nature’ that secures their membership in a category”.
It’s those words – unchanging and invariable – that draw much of the criticism because identity is subject to change over time. It calls into question another thought experiment or paradox – “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”. A paradox is just another word for a trick question; something which contradicts itself. If there’s a thing that can’t be stopped, it’s not possible for there to be something else which can’t be moved, and vice versa. They can’t both exist. So if time is that unstoppable force in the question of identity, it’s not possible for there to be an essence that is immovable.
When we apply these same concepts to individual people or groups, we delve into the complex territory of identity politics –
In the 80s, essentialism played a huge role in feminist criticism, illustrating the ways that “generalizations about ‘woman’ inevitably exclude some women”. When it came to raising awareness about women in poverty and advocating for fair employment and wage practices, theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argued that “in some instances […] it was important strategically to make essentialist claims, even while one retained an awareness that those claims were, at best, crude political generalizations”. While not all women were in poverty, enough were affected by it for strategic essentialism to deem it a women’s issue.
We see similar discussions about women’s rights today regarding the “pussyhats” that became popular following the Women’s March. They fell under critique for excluding women who did not have the genital structure or pigmentation suggested by the hats, because as we saw in the ship of Theseus experiment, identity is not as simple as a sum of “parts”. But while the debate centered around bringing awareness to the problematic nature of the hats themselves, the implication that a women’s rights movement should address the many ways women are politicized for anatomical, biological, or reproductive reasons was still widely accepted, because it tapped into the strategic essentialism that Spivak called for.
And that’s about as deep as I want to get into identity politics here because this is Thought Catalog and not some grad school thesis I can’t even afford to write, but also because I like my writing to have a point, and I have no point to make about identity politics, just a lot of questions. And I think, to a certain extent, that’s the best we can do when it comes to identity – ask. Respectfully, and with the intention of understanding, we can ask someone and allow them to explain their own identity to us, letting them define whatever that means to them.
Which brings me back to a subject I feel very qualified to talk about; myself. Because these are the questions I enjoy, that I live for. By all means, reader, if we ever find ourselves sitting next to each other at a bar, do not ask me what I like to do, or how my week has been. Pose your own thought experiment to me, win me over like Elon Musk did Grimes (Google this at your own discretion; it is so creepy), ask me why people fall in love or what my thoughts on religion are; ask me why I’ve had the same dream about being a celebrity’s best friend for the past fifteen years of my life, and I’ll gladly expound while you buy me a beer (or three).
I turned 28 at the end of last year, which, to go full circle back to the original prompt, means that by the seven-year standard, I’m technically on the fifth iteration of “me”, whatever that means. There was 0 – 6-year-old me who loved Power Rangers and Oliver! and wanted to be a pick-pocket who did karate, and 7 – 13 year-old me who wanted to play coach pitch with the boys and later fumed with rage while the girls on her softball team would rather play with dirt in the outfield than pay attention to the fucking game, and 14 – 20 year-old me who wanted to be smart without anyone knowing it, and 21 – 27 year-old me who could legally drink, and boy did she need to.
But while I can divvy everything up into silly little periods to fit this equation, I know it’s nothing more than a joke for entertainment’s sake, because seven years is such an arbitrary marker of change.
I’ve seen my entire life change in the course of a single afternoon, and I’ve realized I had spent years not being myself, in a moment I finally felt like “myself” again. But if I wasn’t “me” during all that time, then who had I been?
And can I confidently say who I am at any given point in time when time itself is that unstoppable force? Is there anything concrete enough to call a “self” when it must be in a constant state of flux? If I have no essence, then who am I, what am I made up of? To say it’s just a compilation of experiences and memories and sensory perceptions that are ever-changing as time constantly shifts my perspective doesn’t seem to do it justice. Part of me can’t accept that identity is totally inconstant. There is something more solid, something recognizable and familiar. Something that lasts.
My dad sang to me the other day while I was sitting in bed between him and my mom because she’d been in the hospital and I had come to check on her. I had probably made a joke about us not having sat like that since I was an only child, and he started to sing this song they made up for me when I was a baby that makes absolutely no sense: “Ch ch the pots, ch ch the pans, ch ch the tupperware, yay, the tupperware.” And even though I hadn’t heard it in years, had completely forgotten about it, I remembered it immediately and started to sing along. I wondered where it had been hiding all this time, this song that was mine, was me.
They told me they had made up that song because they wanted to sing to me but didn’t know any baby songs, and I saw how much they had loved me then, how their singing was them loving me, but I wasn’t seeing it as their daughter this time, I was looking at them from a new perspective as a twenty-something now myself. I was seeing them as people.
And I wondered just how much it had taken to bring another “self” into the world, how much of your own identity you have to give up to do it, which is the reason I question whether I ever want to become a parent myself. And as I wondered when exactly a baby becomes a “person”, I also wondered when I became a person to my parents, and not just their daughter.
There are three distinct conversations with my mom that stand out to me — sitting on the edge of a bathtub, in a swimming pool, on a restaurant patio — that felt like they were really just between two people confiding in each other. When she didn’t give me advice as an authority figure or a role model, didn’t try to tell me what was right or wrong, but just listened to some things that were going on in my now adult life that were hard. And she responded in ways that acknowledged that life isn’t perfect or easy, that it is messy and complicated, and sympathized without judging, without casting anyone as a martyr or a villain or a hero, and told me some things weren’t fair, but the common theme in those conversations was that I deserved more. Not because my feelings were hurt and she was trying to console me or because I was her daughter, but because she meant it.
And as if that weren’t enough to make me lose it altogether, she told me she had known that something was bothering me. That sometimes she’d look at me and could see it on my face. That I’d suddenly be somewhere else, and she could tell that I was sad. She knew me.
My dad knows when I’m hurting in his own way too. Like when I called him the other morning, scared and uncertain if I needed to go the hospital after throwing my back out and trying to tough it out with ice and Advil, thinking I just needed a good night’s sleep, until that next morning when I could barely get out of bed, sit, or stand without fighting back tears. He came right over to give me a ride, and I remembered all the other times he had taken me to the ER growing up, thinking I had broken something, even though the x-ray always came back normal, realizing how patient he had always been. And as we sat there for hours, he noticed every time I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, and it felt good to let someone worry about me, even at 28. Because he knew me too.
We were back in another hospital a few weeks later, as his own mother’s health was declining, and I saw him simultaneously as a parent and a child while we looked through so many old photographs together, pictures of him at my age, pictures of my grandmother at my age, pictures of me as a young girl with both of them. And I realized that even though my parents knew me, how limited my knowledge of them would always be. How they had childhoods and adolescences, even the parts of their adulthood I was a part of but couldn’t comprehend at the time, all these different parts of their identity that had changed over time. They were ships of Theseus in and of themselves.
But there were stories. So many stories. Stories behind the photographs, behind the people in them, the friends and family and memories and love they shared. And there was so much happiness in remembering. And I realized that’s the solid part, the part that stays. Even if there is no essence, no immovable object. Because stories can change with time, can be passed down and told differently by every person who touches them, but the story itself remains.
Because at the end of the day who really gives a fuck about Theseus’s ship? It only matters because it’s his. Because it’s Theseus that matters. His story. And whether we imagine he was real and his adventures were passed down generation to generation, by the people who sailed on that ship and their friends and family and acquaintances, or as a work of fiction written long ago but well enough to be passed down just the same, it is the fact that it’s made its way to us that is incredible. Because it’s in stories that we learn about others and where we find ourselves.
I find myself in the real stories that are passed down from my family. When my dad says I make the fluffiest gnocchi, and I hope I got that from his mom. When I hear my mom’s mom loved to argue about politics even if she was the only liberal at the table, and I hope that’s why I do too. When I see how much they both care about each other and hope to find even half of that with someone one day.
I find myself in fictional stories too. In words on a page or a screen or a stage. In characters I can point at because something inside of me screams, “That’s me. I know how that feels”. In a scene I keep watching time and again because there’s something about that hug that gets me every time. In a very inconvenient monologue during a second date that was the last thing I needed to witness right then but also had me frozen to my chair because I knew every single word without ever hearing it before. In a book I haven’t read the last two chapters of because it’s everything I needed and I’m not ready for it to be over just yet. In songs I listen to again and again as I write stories of my own.
I put them into words to tell people who I am. To figure it out for myself. To figure out why I’m a liberal arts person and not a math and science person. I think it’s because at the end of the day, or seven years, I care much more for a sum of hearts than a sum of parts.