Making Friends With My Grey Hair
My big sister’s hair went grey in her 30s
My little brother Eddie also went grey early
I was lucky that didn’t happen to me
My hair was brown I was 43
But a few years later my hairdresser stared at my head
I’ll never forget those words he said
‘You’ve got to accept you’ve come to the day
Where you’ve got to admit your hair’s going grey’
— Christine Lavin
A few days ago I came across a series of pictures from an old college friend on Facebook who was attending our 20th reunion. The background looked awfully familiar and in fact turned out to be the quad where I spent my freshman year. It looked pretty much the same and brought on that odd nostalgic sense where on the one hand, you feel as though you could just waltz back into your dorm room and expect your friends to still be hanging out there, and on the other, the surreal realization that this experience was actually a very long time ago. My friend looked good, but different — more along the lines of what I think my parents friends should look like. The face was familiar, but as though he had just stepped through a time-warp, he had a shock of grey hair. “Wow,” I thought, “how did this happen?”
It’s no secret that few people seem to enjoy the aging process and that we’re willing to pony up vast amounts of time and treasure to pretend that we don’t look the way we actually do. We seem to harbor a special disdain for the process that causes the loss of pigmentation on our heads. Consider the staggering resources we spend waging a futile struggle with our aging hair. Coloring can run anywhere between $60-$200 at a salon and needs to be touched up every six weeks or so. Over the course of a few decades, that’s tens of thousands of dollars worth of chemicals to make us look a few years younger. (Coloring is obviously just part of a mélange of expensive body alterations including: botox, liposuction, face-lifts, breast implants, eyelid surgery and the like.) Unfortunately, like getting a nice new couch that makes the rest of your living room look shabby, changing one feature can often emphasize that which has remained the same, with new lines and roundness offsetting the luxurious young locks. Eventually, it’s akin to a one-hit wonder band that continues to milk its success from 1973: at a certain point, we just have to let certain things go. If we don’t, we run the risk of never absorbing one of life’s most critical messages — one for which the body is an excellent teacher: That our time is limited, that there is very little “then” or “later” and if we’re going to live life well with intention and meaning, now is an excellent time.
But when the body is not able to “speak” to us properly, issues develop.
For instance, when disease causes nerve damage and numbness in the limbs, it’s easier for harmful mishaps to occur. Similarly, when we refuse to acknowledge (or cannot recognize) the messages our body sends us, we may find ourselves in trouble.
So, too, even with the seemingly benign graying process. It’s part of the body’s communication with us — as if it wants us to get a particular message. Again, from a Jewish perspective, it’s something like this: “Remember, you will not be here forever, so focus on what really matters.”
King Solomon once wrote that it’s better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting. This seems morose, even macabre, but it’s not at all. Many people instinctively leave a funeral acutely conscious that their time is limited. Though the sentiment might only last for a few days or hours, it’s ultimately a much more productive state of mind than the blissful (though fleeting) satisfaction that comes from time spent indulging.
To deny our aging, therefore, is to deprive ourselves of critical information that can focus our attention and yield deeper, lasting satisfactions. True perspective — and, I’d argue true peace of mind — can only come from an open and full embrace of reality. Otherwise, we wastefully expend energy in an elaborate ruse to keep our minds off of what that really is. Though it might not seem so, it’s a difficult and painful way to live.
Most spiritual traditions teach that there is a soul, a non-corporeal consciousness, that is associated with our physical selves. Many of these traditions, Judaism included, also teach that the soul is not all that excited about coming into this word or having anything to do with the crude and lowly materialism of our plane of existence. Nonetheless, over time, it gets used to things and may even come to view itself as only a body and nothing more. Such souls have a hard time moving on. The Talmud teaches that there are 903 types of death. The worst is likened to pulling a thick string with a knot through a tiny hole, while the best is like scooping a hair out of some milk. The more attached we become to our bodies (an approach that one of my teachers described as “like investing in a stock you know will go down”) the tougher it is for the soul to take its inevitable, ultimate journey. In this light, the aging process is actually a great kindness — it loosens our attachment to the physical world, and in so doing assists in preparing us for the inevitable day of separation.
Start making friends with your grey hair
Don’t be frightened don’t be scared
It’s here to stay it’s not going anywhere
Start making friends with your grey hair…