When I get older, losing my hair

Child with punk haircutWe, the living, share the world with those who have lived, those who will live, and those who have never lived. Their voices interrupt us, cajole us, and attempt to guide us. Their subtle and not-so-subtle interventions lead to flash points amongst us.

When I was a teenager, the usual battle took place between the young and old. It was no less intense a battle at that time then it is now – but, now older, I feel I have some perspective on it. Here was the trivial subject of our battle: hair. Boys grew their hair long, and it enraged the older generation. As intended. My hair rested on my shoulders throughout high school, as did the hair of my friends. This scandalized our parents, teachers, potential employers, and so forth. In hindsight, as I said, it looks like a pretty silly battle. Indeed, I have pictures to confirm that it looks at least somewhat silly.

There was a serious argument taking place on this trivial battleground. Yes, long hair was a proxy for openness about sex, sexual orientation, and equality of opportunity for all genders: a revolution in a hairband, for the good of the future. Yes, the anger was from rejection, the evident lack of respect for the contributions from the past. But the fundamental battle remains an ongoing one: the voices of those who will live were raised against those who have lived. Winners and losers were and are decided as in a siege or a football game: by running out the clock, as those on the field change. The result: the young win – then, becoming old, and despite their experience and resources, they throw the game, again and again, to the young – that is, to the future. The reason why they do this I will get to soon.

I was thinking about this recently when another hair-related outrage was identified, this time involving women: scarves on heads. To my surprise, it is being suggested that the powers of the state be marshaled against this outrage. In the midst of the many arguments advanced in favor of this, I hear that old argument again, respect the past, where we are cajoled by the voices of those who have lived.

One of my recent graduate students wore a scarf on her head. She received her PhD earlier this year (you can find a couple of papers based on her PhD work modeling biological dynamical systems here and here.) I will not draw out the whole thing for you, but of course she is a bit of a pioneer, a role model for the future. The proposed intervention of the state would imply she would not have been able to work as a teaching assistant while doing her graduate research, and hence possibly not finish a PhD, due to lack of financial support. Because she wears a scarf on her head.

It is an ongoing battle, but as I said, the young always win as the old throw the game to them. The old, in the end, are convinced by the voices of those who have never lived: by the people we wish we were, fair, thoughtful, accepting, and happy for other people’s successes. It is hard enough to run one’s own life without trying to run everyone else’s.

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