The Paradox Of American Identity

Change I find, when it comes, comes stealthily, quietly. It first appears in your dreams, and then it is you, and you it.

With change, comes new people, new ways of looking at things, new ways of being. Yet, for me anyways, it always comes at a cost. And so I believed that the constant was me.

So when I was reading a couple of weeks back about the Ship of Theseus’s, the founder King of Athens, which had been preserved and honoured for years after, kept for centuries upon centuries, being lovingly restored over the years, so that some thousand or so years later can it still be said to be the same ship? This is the paradox of Theseus and seeks to explore the persistence of identity.

Are we the same, exactly the same, as we were even yesterday? Nope. Hair follicles have grown, the skin has been shed, sweat dried on our brow from the day’s hard slog, washed away by a long hot shower.

It is that essence of identity, and what we are, who we are, and even perhaps our actions that gradually, imperceptibly change us.

I suppose it is no wonder that there is so many today that crave sameness. Crave the things they know, things they think are solid and real. Technology has changed us. Our infinite choices we see all around us change us. Smartphones change us. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, change us. Whether you use any of those or not (most of which I don’t), their existence has changed us. That instantaneous communication with people all the way on the other side of the planet, change us.

It is also no wonder that so many are so susceptible to those who promise a return to the way it used to be, back when everyone looked like you, spoke like you, worshiped the same God, ate the same food and it was believed as well desired the same things.

The paradox is that that sameness that is craved can never be. It is an illusion of sameness that is on offer, and that is all. The ship itself was what Athenians identified with, and whether the ship can be said to be the same, the citizens themselves were different people identifying with the same structure, century after century.

The ship becomes a focus of Athenian identity, as it honours their founder Theseus, and over time becomes more important, in and of itself, then the actual physical ship ever really was. Which, of course over time, becomes a tradition.

What is missed though is the fact that as each board is exchanged out for a new,  to strengthen the structure, and hence, change is what gives us strength one could say. Staying the same, year after year eventually rots the core of the vessel, and without change, the vessel itself disintegrates.

So it is with humanity. When we stubbornly cling to the same things, it weakens us over time. When change doesn’t happen, the very core of who we are eventually disintegrating weakens and becomes susceptible to the environment that surrounds us.

And maybe its not that we need to so much embrace change, but rather to recognize its significance, and acknowledge it’s existence.

Now I don’t know when the Athenians stopped honouring the Ship Of Theseus, or rather more accurately the vessel itself disappeared, or maybe never actually existed, to begin with. Yet if it a truthful tale of actual events, or a mythology created to illustrate the paradox of identity, either way, the ship is gone.

Much the same way that many Americans see this glorified time and place as being gone. A time and place that some puppet on a string told them he could bring back. But can he? Of course not. He can bring back an illusion of that mythical time and place, because that time, those places, are gone forever. I think one could even argue that those promises serve to merely weaken America as a whole, as internationally everyone can see that the Emperor is naked, even if the populace who support him do not.

And still, there is the paradox of identity, of how some American’s perceive America, and how it really is. The Ship of Theseus is perceived to be great, and a ship of superiority over others, because it was Theseus’s ship. In more modern takes on the paradox I’ve read the ship is replaced with “grandfather’s ax”, that has had both the handle and the head replaced. Thereby, the ax is perceived to be superior, but is it? Or, is it just the tradition of the ax that is significant? And, to what purpose? Identity? Tradition? But how do these things strengthen us if the very object itself has completely changed?

It would seem as though at its core it serves merely to manipulate our emotions, to convince us that this constant is superior to anything today. That the past is superior to the present. But is that true? And how can it be true when it’s very components are new? So, in fact, it’s an illusion, and illusions are sometimes just lies disguised as truth.

Or, put another way, it is our memory of the thing that remains the same. The same paradox has been illustrated with knives, to illustrate the paradox of identity, yet the illusions remain constant.

Like the river that flows past the Homestead in Dodge is the same riverbank I played on as a child, is the same one my Mom played on, and my Grandmother; yet, it is completely different.

Change. Even to say my memory of that riverbank in Dodge is the same as when I was young would be an illusion.

So by embracing change, by acknowledging its existence, we strengthen our connection to ourselves, and eventually hopefully, that what the object represents to us is superior, and not the object itself. Recognizing that the long ago is in fact no better, but elements of the long ago, and our perception of the object, the time, the place, is what we crave.

It just now struck me how the visions of America I see bubbling up are almost facsimile’s of America, not the real thing; like it was someone else’s vision, and not their own.

For then you have to ask yourself, what is America? Or, maybe that’s what someone should be asking themselves, because allowing someone else to replace the very key components of a thing with their own, and hand it back as the same, well that is the greater lie.

Yet, still, embracing change is difficult since it cuts right to the quick of our identity, and who we believe ourselves to be. But who we are today is not who we were yesterday, and perhaps a recognition of that is important.

In fact, all things under the sun change. A river over time changes course, a beaver builds a dam and maybe creates a pond, a forest fire destroys a patch and creates a meadow. That’s actually what is called disturbance theory and is the key part of how we humans have always been. Much like the beaver, we must change our environment in order to live within it, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. in fact, it is that very change that strengthens our connection to our environment.

Oh, now this has become a rambling brook of a post, and I do apologize for that. What prompted this was a TedTalk I watched last night by Seth Shostak, a SETI scientist. A man who has spent hours upon hours, years upon years, listening for these infinitesimal blips that may, emphasis on may one day lead us to other beings who may lay out beyond the constellations that we see with the naked eye. Out towards places we could never go, least not today.

So he has sat and listened, and over the years technology has marched forward, and he believes that more than ever we are on the brink of discovery, and with that will come great change. So why do it? Is not change scary? How could someone sit there for so many years listening to nothing and still believe? And, yet, that is the very essence of belief, is our hope for change, ironically.

And at the core of it, is the paradox of identity, and belief, and that to support something one must change it, otherwise, it disappears completely.

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