The philosophy of facial hair
I let my beard grow back in last Fall, when the Confucianism unit of my Chinese philosophy course was coming to an end and Taoism was about to begin. I think the emergence of a beard is like the way Taoist sentiments grow on you. Little by little, you let go of your adherence to strict social norms, and before you know it people see you differently, even if you feel nothing has really changed. If you let yourself go long enough without a trim, you find people treating you in a markedly different way - as a bum, as a rabbi, as a wild man, as an elder of some sort.
I enjoy that sensation - I mean the sensation of change even more than the boost in venerability. My students of course noticed the new growth on my face, but I think few of them made the connection to Taoism and its uncomfortable relationship with society. To me, though, illustrating the ideas of that class in my own self is a way of keeping from getting bored with them, and the beard is especially good for that.
The beard got nice and raggedy and kept me warm in the wind, surprisingly harsh this winter here in the D.C. area. But this past Sunday I received a sudden phone call that made me pick up my beard trimmer and mow the thing coarsely off. Why coarsely? I suppose I am not ready for a Confucian clean shave just yet. Why shave at all? Well, my 98 year-old grandmother had been hospitalized again, and my mother needed me to help her (my mother) get from New York up to Providence to see my grandmother.
I saw my grandmother last not quite a year ago, and she did not recognize me, even after I told her my name. "Are you Henry?" (My cousin Henry is 84 years old and clean shaven.) She never liked my beard, and perhaps in her condition she can only remember me as a boy of five or ten, three or more decades ago. So this time I removed the beard to help her out a little.
She did know me, this time. The visit was not so pleasant overall because of her severe mental and physical decline, but I think she and I were happy that she saw and recognized me. That's certainly worth the trouble of shaving. Now, if I can just muster the motivation to keep it up regularly...
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