The ship of Theseus is said to have been moored in the harbour at Athens for a thousand years. Over time, its wooden parts wore out (you couldn’t buy Ronseal in ancient Greece). One by one, the parts were replaced with identical-looking ones. Eventually, no part of the original ship remained. The question is, was it still the ship of Theseus?
What if, theoretically, a family had collected the original parts as they were removed and, over the years, used them to reconstruct a whole ship? Would that be the genuine ship of Theseus?
For a humorous take on this conundrum, have a look at this Only Fools and Horses clip: Trigger’s broom.
What is identity? Is it defined by physical factors, which change over time? Or is it more to do with an ‘essential’, or non-material, quality which persists?
The question can be asked in relation to human beings too. If I shave my beard and then it regrows, I’m still me. If I had a kidney transplant, most people would say that I’d continue to be ‘me’. So what is it that makes me who I am?
The ship of Theseus conundrum assumes the ship exists as a physical object. But what if the ship was merely a thought that someone had made up? The ship as it was when it first sailed, the 1000-year-old ship with all its panels replaced, and the ship reconstructed from the original’s retired parts would all be simply thoughts. In other words, the problem would be only in the mind.
A Course in Miracles says in its introduction "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God". (These are the words that Arkadiusz Kogut has displayed on the wall of his study in my novel Escape to Redemption.)
Theseus’ ship could be 'threatened' – so it fails the ACIM test for being 'real'. The same goes for Theseus himself. Or Brexit, or the endangered giant pandas, or pretty much any material thing.
What if all the things we perceive are images made by our mind? And what if, ultimately, there is only one Mind in which those thoughts have their being?
In this world, there will always be problems - whether personal or global challenges or philosophical conundrums which the rational mind may never be able to solve. But perhaps there is only one 'problem' that needs to be answered: "Who am I?"
If I identify with my physical body, my personality or my story, then I'm saying I’m a separate self. I'm affirming the reality of separation, and in doing so I'm denying Oneness. Whenever I experience any lack of peace, it’s because in that moment I’m believing in my separateness from God, from my neighbours and my environment. I feel I can be ‘threatened’. We might call this a state of exile from Love.
For that one problem there is but one solution: opening to the awareness of the One Reality which cannot be threatened and accepting It as the truth of Who we are.
Now, where can I buy a new handle for my broom?
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
My alarm clock sounds and I wake with a jolt. I reach for the clock. I've slept for, what, seven hours, but I feel I need another three. No time though for dozing. If I don't get up now I'll miss the train. I hear the rain beat against the window as I haul back the duvet and sit on the edge of my bed. Why am I doing this? It's on mornings like this that I think about quitting my job. But if I did that, how would I pay the bills? My body tenses as I think of the full day of meetings ahead. And that report I have to write that's already a week late. How on earth will I fit it all in?
So plays the familiar tape in my mind. It may not be until I'm sitting down to breakfast, or washing my teeth, or on the train on the way to London that I remember "there is another way of looking at the world" (A Course in Miracles Workbook, Lesson 33).
One of the best decisions I have ever made was to switch to working a four-day week. Having an extra day a week free from work commitments gives me more time to choose to study A Course in Miracles, to reflect, and to re-connect with Source.
Sometimes I wish I could spend even more of my time in that way. If my train home in the evening is delayed, I become impatient. I resent the minutes that are being 'stolen from me', minutes I might otherwise use to sit in my armchair with a cup of green tea and meditate on that day's Workbook lesson! By making my peace of mind dependent on external conditions, I'm missing a fundamental point.
A Course in Miracles is not intended simply to be studied behind closed doors. It is highly practical, to be applied in daily life. The next step is to take my theoretical understanding and apply it to the world. This means looking on all things with forgiveness, with the eyes of Christ.
At this time in my life, what better opportunity to do this than in the workplace?
"There is a way to look on everything that lets it be to you another step to Him, and to salvation of the world" (A Course in Miracles, Workbook, Lesson 193 13:1.)
Those days when I have to work I can view as 'practice days', a chance to take what I have learned and to carry it with me into the world, remembering my Self amid the hustle and bustle; making every encounter a holy one. I go into work as before (to begin with, at least, there is no change in outward circumstances), only now I hold in my awareness that this is a dream that I've made up.
With the lightness that comes with that awareness, I experience the day as like a game. The objective is to keep my peace, to respond with kindness and to recognise all that I see as either an expression of love or a call for love.
"Salvation ... asks you ... to overlook what is not there, and not to look upon the unreal as reality." (A Course in Miracles, Text, Chapter 30.IV.7:1,3.) When I allow myself to remember, in the words of the nursery rhyme, that 'life is but a dream', I no longer need to fight illusions. I can let go of the need to judge. More and more, I begin to live merrily and to flow with rather than against the current. Following my Inner Guide, I can row my boat gently down the stream.
What is more, within the dream I even get paid for these practice times. How can I resent work if I see it as a game, as a dream I'm having, and as an opportunity to practice forgiveness and express the Love that I Am?
I always sleep with a pen and note-pad by my bedside table. They were called into action in the small hours of last night as I woke with these thoughts, prompted by my study of Chapter 14, Section III of A Course in Miracles the previous evening… (I had to get up half way through, as my biro ran out of ink. Note to self: In future, keep two pens by my bedside table!)
Though we wear masks of innocence and see our occasional transgressions as justified, at an unconscious level, we feel guilty for the seeming act of choosing, through separation, to cut ourselves off from God. Our sense of guilt is reinforced each time we look at another with even a hint of judgment or condemnation, and do not see them as a Child of God. Every day, even before the cock crows, we deny the Son of God in our thoughts, seeing him or her as a body and not as part of our Self. But our errors - be they unkind (untrue) thoughts, or words or deeds - cannot harm the other person and do not affect the truth of Who they are. Our ‘crime’ is therefore an imagined one that takes place only in this dream of forms.
Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time I was writing the novel, Escape to Redemption is an exploration of these same ideas. Josie inadvertently shoots someone. Initially, she tries to justify what she did. Soon, though, she is overwhelmed by guilt. Kogut (a student of A Course in Miracles who himself has a shady past) attempts to reassure her that, since “nothing real can be threatened”, even her serious crime does not alter the truth of Who she is.
Can a part of God be guilty? Is there anything that is not a part of God?
If the answer to both of these questions is ‘no’ then, as a part of God, I (that of God in me, my True Self) cannot be guilty. I must be innocent.
How will I come to accept this? By seeing my brothers and sisters as innocent too. By looking past their mistakes (which are simply calls for love) and seeing only the Christ in them. In other words, it is through forgiveness - over-looking others’ seeming errors and beholding only the eternal truth of Who they are - that I can set aside my own feelings of guilt.
“There is nothing to forgive. No one can hurt the Son of God. His guilt is wholly without cause, and being without cause, cannot exist.” (A Course in Miracles, Text, Chapter 14.III.5-7.)
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer, A Course in Miracles student and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)