Some college friends were in town, so I joined them to watch Michigan clobber Iowa for the Big-Ten championship. Like most good friendships, we picked up where we left off. We caught up on events from our post-grad lives—jobs, places lived, and partners come and gone. Despite this effortless connection, I couldn’t help but think I was talking to strangers. Over six years had passed since our last interaction—six years with no visits, no calls, no messages, not even a Facebook comment. Almost every cell in our bodies regenerated (with some exceptions) in those near seven years. When we hugged in welcome and parting, we hugged new bodies.
In Greek philosophy, the Ship of Theseus ponders this. Each ship board is replaced one at a time, and after months of tedious effort, not a single plank of the original ship remains. The question follows: Is this the same ship? Yes, the ship’s composition remains—the same length, width, height, and design—but all components are new. Likewise, our regenerated bodies follow genetic blueprints—same eye color, bone structure, facial shape—but the material is different.
The Ship of Theseus sailed turbulent waters in many seas, just as a person might have traveled and spent significant time with others. Could those memories make up for our changed bodies? It’s weird to think of old friends as strangers. We have a shared history—the same fossils—but that history lies beneath different sediment. Over time, new experiences reshape those fossils. What I remember as a T-Rex could be a wholly mammoth to my friend. Memory is notoriously faulty, so maybe a shared history isn’t the bedrock of friendship we think it is.
When a person’s mind, body, and history constantly shift, we might latch onto superficialities to attain a sense of permanence. My college friends and I define ourselves as Michigan Wolverines, so we sport blue and an arrogant shade of yellow to cheer for a football team. It’s easy to adopt other equally superficial things— “I’m a runner” or “I love coffee” or “I’m an ardent advocate for the Oxford comma”—but they’re flimsy self-representations.
To augment these superficial interests, we have an insatiable thirst for self-knowledge. Consider all the personality tests available—Meyer-Briggs, Enneagrams, Hogwarts Houses, Love Languages, Big Five, Four Tendencies, Strength-Finder 2.0, and a myriad of Buzzfeed quizzes. We might like someone for their outgoing character, humor, kindness, or—simply—how they make us feel. Do we latch onto personality for a sense of identity permanence?
Between the multiple touchdowns Michigan made on Iowa, we started to talk about personality tests. Someone was an ENTJ on Meyer-Briggs. Someone else a 3 Enneagram. Another a Hufflepuff. I agonized over these assessments. I worried that my answers would vary day-to-day and further my sense of baselessness. My friend had been an ETNJ for years. That sense of conviction was admirable, even desirable, for me. I felt that my personality had shifted with my cells. My friends might have liked me for my personality six years ago, but would they still want the person that sat before them now? Was I always an INFJ, Enneagram 1, and reluctant Gryffindor?
I recall my favorite scene in Harry Potter, where the Sorting Hat evaluates Harry’s strengths and weaknesses and ponders how to sort him, like a personality test. He could be Slytherin, or he could be Ravenclaw. He has the talents to make him great in any house. But Harry’s fate is not deterministic. Although the Hat will declare his fate, he is not entirely at the mercy of this lice-ridden cap. Harry has a choice, and he chooses Gryffindor. Six years later, after many life-altering experiences with the Dark Arts, Harry still chose Gryffindor.
We, too, have a choice. Our bodies, memories, situations, and even personalities are subject to change. We might not be the same person in six years, but that doesn’t mean we lose autonomy over our essence. The question is not “who am I?” but “who do I want to be?”
As my friends and I left the bar and parted ways, I chose a new plank for my future ship: Someone who doesn’t go silent for six years.