Ships, adulthood, and piña coladas

Words by John Sopar


“You’re an adult now.”

I remember my father speaking these words to me on my eighteenth birthday, the age at which I stepped into legal adulthood. The funny thing was, I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel any wiser, any more experienced in life, any more mature. I just felt like myself, as I had the day before, and the day before that. We went out to dinner to celebrate my ability to legally order myself a cocktail at our restaurant of choice. Of course I’d had alcohol before that night though, so that too didn’t feel any different. What was so special about this day, marking a transition from the previous nearly two decades of childhood into the rest of my ‘adult’ life?

Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, historian, and priest of Apollo, wrote a series of accounts of the lives of various Greek and Roman figures. Among them was the account of the Life of Theseus, the (sometimes) son of Poseidon, founder of Athens, and slayer of the Minotaur. The story goes that, after slaying the Minotaur and saving the day once again, as all Greek heroes do, he sailed back to Athens aboard his ship. The story continues that his ship was kept in the harbour of Athens for many years to preserve the accomplishments of Theseus.

Plutarch’s account started the philosophical discussion of the quandary known as the Ship of Theseus. “The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places…” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1). Philosophers looked at this account and raised the question if, by the time all its planks had been replaced, the ship could be considered the same ship? And if it could not, at which point did it stop being so? Was it the replacement of the last original plank that tipped the scale, or the first replacement?

The concept of identity is highly debated, from philosophers and theologians to politicians and the average person. What makes you you? For me, sitting at our usual table in the local Thai restaurant on the night of my 18th birthday, being an adult did not feel like it was a part of me. Most of the firsts associated with adulthood had already been done at that point. 

Alcohol? Drunk. Sex? Had. Drugs? Ingested. Taxes? Paid. The crippling weight of my own mortality? Most definitely felt.

What was supposed to be so special about that night then? The only difference was that I was legally an adult now, so would be called on to vote in the upcoming council elections. This didn’t feel like an adult occasion, however. Where was the sudden understanding of how the world worked? The wisdom and crows feet of adulthood? The desire to settle down and have a family? What even was a council election?

That period of my life was when I had the comforting rug of naivety pulled out from underneath me, and reality came crashing home. Adults were just as confused and lost as I was, sitting at that table drinking my piña colada. For so long I’d been waiting to magically wake up and have the world make sense; for everything to have changed overnight. I’d been waiting for that moment that I changed from Theseus’ ship to a new, shiny ship. But that change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens every day, bit by bit, plank by plank. 

There’s no such thing as the magical new start that I thought awaited me on the other side of my eighteenth birthday. At the end of the day I was still me. But I wasn’t the me I had been a year ago, or the me I’d been on my first day of high school, and certainly not the me that’d emerged wet and screaming from my mother’s womb. Adulthood, like any new ‘beginning’, doesn’t arrive all at once. It’s scattered across a hundred interactions, across a million moments. In the words of the British feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, “The beginning is always today”.

I’d been so focussed on the new beginning I imagined came with adulthood, so fixated on the future, that I’d very nearly missed my own development over the previous eighteen years of my life. Instead of celebrating every step along the journey to adulthood, I’d passed them by, emotionless and unmoved. But you can never arrive in the future. It’s in the very nature of the future to remain distant and dreamlike, sitting tantalisingly out of reach. By focusing on the thing I would never reach, this idea of the future where I would be a ‘real’ adult, I nearly missed living my life!

It’s not easy to focus on the now. The mind tends to latch on to the future in many ways, both good and bad, driving us ever toward or away from certain futures. But if this is all you do, you miss stopping to smell the roses. The journey is a larger part of the experience than the final destination. “The past is gone. The future never arrives. In truth, there is no life outside this moment!” (Leonard Jacobson)

I make no claim to have solved the human experience, nor to have summarised the human condition. Hell, my therapist would say I have a lot more to figure out about life than I think I know. But I feel like we can all use a reminder to appreciate the now though, no matter how put together we may think we are. Never lose sight of where you are.

John Sopar

The author John Sopar

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