Monday, August 29, 2005


I had my hair hacked off yesterday, giving my freshly shorn scalp an even shorter appearance than my usual Michael-J.-Fox-in-Casualties-of-War cut. Part Lance Armstrong, part Dalai Lama, is how I look at it. A few of the folks around town who recognized me from before -- shop clerks, street kids -- gave a little giggle when catching sight of my awesome new fro. This is the shortest they've ever seen my hair, and, hell, it's the shortest I've ever seen my hair, outside of baby pictures; not to laugh would almost be an insult, I suppose. Besides, as a foreigner in a foreign land, you get used to the laughter of strangers. You better, anyways, because you're going to get a lot of it.

Living abroad, you hear that laughter (or its kinder, more subdued counterparts) quite often; it's part of the deal. Not only expected, but necessary. Necessary because it reminds you that you are not one of them. I could learn as much Japanese or Cambodian as a native speaker, marry a native, dress and walk and talk like a native, perfecting even the accent, but I would never, ever belong. Period. Plain and simple.

But isn't that what we all want? To belong? The older I get, the more I realize that so much of humanity's acts of empathy and aggression are designed to show that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, or long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and will whatever it takes to acheive those goals. We are all too often on the outside of those concentric rings, and we desperately want the people inhabiting those rings to notice us. To accept us. To crave us. And if that acceptance does not come forth, well, welcome to the wonderful world of neuroses, ladies and gentleman. Check your sanity at the door and make yourself comfortable. There's plenty of space, and plenty of company.

Not that it has to be like that. For some reason or another I've stumbled across the work of Albert Ellis, a 94 year old psychoanalyst trained in the Freudian tradition and now about as far away from Freud as one can possibly imagine. Put simply, he believes that most of man's problems arise from the fact that we are thinking creatures who dwell on what we think about. Who ponder and obsess over problems, so that the problems we have are not the actual problems themselves, but our own problematic and perpetual investigation of that initial problem. (Got that?)

Ellis believes that, based on our own values and belief-systems, we've developed a number of erroneous ideas about ourselves and our own interior lives, which can bascially be boiled down to: We need acceptance and love from others in order to have value; we need to achieve to attain inner peace; and the world is an unfair place, and this is not right.

Ellis's solution? Get over it. Accept yourself (and others) unconditionally, regardless of any outside accolades you may or not may not receive. In other words, what matters is what you love, not what loves you (to quote Nicolas Cage in Adaptation). The world is an unfair place? Why, yes. So it is. To think otherwise is to see ourselves at the centre of the world's whims and plans, and that is folly indeed, so far better to accept that life is all too often cruel and unfair, and adjust your own expectations accordingly.

Sounds simple, his philosophy does, but I prefer the word pragmatic. So much of our lives -- whether it be through relationships or work -- seems to centre upon how we want others to perceive us. It's an odd game of inverted mirrors that leads to a measurement of self-worth entirely reliant upon other people's views of ourselves. It's like we're all constestants on Trump's The Apprentice, eager and anxious and striving to show that we are smarter, more beautiful, more on-the-ball than anyone else, and for what? The great prize on The Apprentice is that you get the soul-enhancing award of helping Trump design apartments for rich people who don't need another apartment anyways. The great prize in life? We get to spend our days and our years constantly trying to assert our own individuality and ambition to strangers who aren't even thinking about us at all in the first place, because they're too busy trying to assert their own individuality and ambition to the stranger that is us, who isn't worried about them, either. It's like we're a people obsessed with the accolades and awards rather than the achievements themselves; we'd rather have the Academy Award than the work that won it.

The answer?

Not sure.

But Ellis is cool, that man is, 94 and going strong. Unconditional love and respect for yourself. Understanding that so many of our problems have to do with our own embellishment of the original problem. Realizing that life is harsh and unfair, but we can deal with that by altering how we encounter and asses this cruel and indifferent world.

Now I'm starting to see why this haircut of mine works for Lance Armstrong and the Dalai Lama. When you're on the bike, nobody gives a shit about your hair; it's the performance that counts (which is why cyclists keep short hair in the first place, to gain windspeed.) When you're the Dalai Lama, you know that people aren't flocking to your talks to check out your mane; it's the words that count.


Simple is good. Life is so hard, so complex, that perhaps it's better that we keep ourselves (and our hair) as simple as possible.


Muktuk said...

It's so interesting about this haircut and your post today, because there has been a clear correlation in history, mythology, religion and whatnot between men chopping off their hair to become closer to holiness.

It is a way of abandoning things that inhibit you.

It's also funny because the philosophy of Ellis that you've mentioned is one that's been said throughout the years hundreds of ways. One that comes to mind is Buddhism (in particular Zen). We're self-delusional. All of our thoughts only make us dislike ourselves. Life is suffering, but we should just have clear hearts and minds and love everything. That's the key to peace.

I won't say I'm surprised that you lopped all your hair off at all:)

Scott said...

Good points, Jen. There's definitely a correlation between Ellis' philosophy and Buddhism.

And there's probably a correlation between my decision to cut my hair and the fact that I've seen monks walking around town and wandering around my classrooms with such short haircuts for the past two years. Just one of those 'aw, fuck it, why not' moments. I look either like a wise, contented, spiritual seeker of the truth, or a near-skinhead British football hooligan. (Come to think of it, it doesn't help that I'm reading a biography of Hitler right now. Maybe I should switch to one of the Lama's texts?!?)

Anonymous said...

You are incredibly prolific. Where do you find the time to come up with this stuff? I've linked you to my blog so I can read you when I need inspiration to write more. I don't know if I could link a haircut to Ellis philosophy and the Dalai Lama but you did it beautifully.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comments, 'le will'. As to how I find the time, well, let's just say that Phnom Penh is the kind of place that forces you inward. (Both literally and, um, metaphorically.)

Lana said...

For me, Phnom Penh was the kind of place that forces you to drink and smoke! (to cope with the horror of poverty and a dark history juxtaposed with unbelievable beauty....but I was only there a week...)

So kudos to you for writing -- and thinking -- so well. Great blog.

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