The Tale of the Tail
July 04, 2015
For nearly twenty years, the most concise description of me was "the guy with the really long pony tail.” That’s no longer the case, and I am frequently asked why. I find it curious that there is such a widespread assumption that a person needs a reason to change their hairstyle, but as it happens, I do have one. This is the story of how it came to be, and why it is no more.
From 1989 to 1995 I was an active duty Marine, which meant that I wore my hair very short, and had it cut every single Friday. When I left the military, I found myself needing to make a decision about hair style for the first time in years. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Viking Sagas, and I was reminded of King Harald Finehair, who first united all the kingdoms of Norway. He received his epithet because he had sworn an oath not to cut his hair until he reigned over all of Norway, and he stuck by the oath for the ten long years it took him to achieve his goal. Being young and still somewhat foolish, I decided to make a similar romantic gesture. I would swear an oath not to cut my hair until….
In order to understand that oath, it might be helpful to understand my circumstances at the time. I was 25 years old, freshly discharged from the military after six years, two overseas deployments, and one war. My family was working class, with no assets to speak of, living from paycheck to paycheck, so there was really nothing for me to fall back on. The most important relationship of my life had just broken up. I was drifting, unsure where to go, or what job I should be looking for, or really just how to live in the world. I was working a dead-end job for well below the median income, and wondering if that was all I was worth. That high school I-can-do-anything confidence had now faded into the I-have-to-pay-the-rent real world, and the impedance mismatch was tearing at my soul. In short, I was miserable, lonely, lost, and broke.
And so I swore an oath. I would not cut my hair until I was satisfied with my life. And I would tell no one what the goal actually was until it was achieved. Because talking about it was my litmus test. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about how uncomfortable I was in my own skin, and in my own life. I knew as long as I felt that way, I would not have achieved my goal.
At the time I swore that oath, I had a very naive vision of what it meant to be satisfied with one’s life. I imagined myself independently wealthy, with washboard abs, thrilling women with my fabulous athletic body and intimidating men with my real estate portfolio and unshakeable self-confidence. I proceeded to work toward that vision with great vigor. And I became even more depressed.
I settled in to daily life, merely trying to get by, that oath and the hair it spawned always right behind me, at the back of my head. Slowly, over the years, I found opportunities to grasp the things I had told myself were the brass ring. I found a career that I loved. My income steadily increased. I bought property. I dated women far more attractive than I deserved. I fell in and then out of love. Every time one of these milestones passed, I would ask myself, is this it? Is this the magic line where I become satisfied with my life? Every time I found that, having crossed the goal line, I felt no different about my life than I had before. Eventually, I just resigned myself to the idea that I would never get there, ever. And I stopped talking about my oath.
Then came the crash. I lost my job. I lost my girlfriend. My favorite pet died tragically young. The world came crashing down around me, and I lost all hope. The despair of being unable to achieve, and of being unable to appreciate anything I did achieve, led to an emotional crisis. I even contemplated suicide. I broke in a spiritual and psychological sense.
And when I did, my eyes opened. I saw, somehow for the first time, that I was not alone. I had friends around me who actually cared. Not many (because frankly I had been an insufferable jerk in my self-involved despair), but enough to have someone to talk to, someone to lean on. With the help of these friends I learned to see life from other perspectives. I came to understand what my life looked like from their point of view, and how they looked at their own lives. I discovered that everyone was just as lost as I was.
One friend took me to church with her, and though I was not a Christian, I found solace and friendship there. Religion was not ultimately my path, but I gained immense insight by learning to see the world from their perspective. I learned to understand finally the concept of Faith, and the way God helps everyday people, not through miracles, but by helping to lift their emotional burdens.
I began to study the Buddha Dharma, because it promised relief from dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering” but really encompasses a fundamental dissatisfaction in all things, and I felt this was an apt description of my inner state. I learned that the inner core of soul one identifies as “self” is an illusion we create, and that is why, no matter how we try, we can never reconcile it with the reality of our lives. I learned that all things are impermanent, and that our illusory “self” becomes attached to impermanent things. When those things change, as they must, the self suffers from the attachment. That suffering is dukkha and it is a condition of life.
I also learned about Imposter Syndrome, and thereby discovered how very common it is for someone to achieve “success” yet be unable to feel successful. More and more I learned that my own experience was merely The Human Experience.
To turn a cheesy movie quote into deep philosophy, there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path. Although I was learning these new concepts and using them to understand my past failures, it was difficult to understand how to apply them to my daily life. I continued going through the motions of life, trying to understand my failure, trying, as I phrased it, to learn to live in this world as a human being.
I took the advice of the Dalai Lama and began to practice compassion intentionally. Everyone in the world was suffering the way I was, and if I could not cure my own suffering, perhaps I could help alleviate theirs. The fact that I often found it surprisingly difficult to feel compassion for certain others convinced me that this was the right path. I still struggle with it. I’m sure I always will.
Most of you who know me today never met that early Vince. Only a handful of friends managed to hang with me through that time (and thank you all, I love you). Those who met me afterward might not even recognize that angry, depressed, and confused young man. The crisis and transition I describe above is now fifteen years in my past.
This is what led, fifteen years later, to the resolution of my oath, and the cutting of my hair. The intentional practice of compassion allowed me to internalize that life is not about things, it is about people, and compassion is what holds people together. I steadily worked to replace attachments with relationships, impermanent though they may be. As I aged into mid-life crisis territory, I increasingly appreciated the people in my life. And I began to examine the things in my life with great scrutiny. Do I really need this thing? Does it provide me any value, any satisfaction, any joy? Thing after thing went on the rubbish heap as the answers kept coming back negative.
And so finally, this year (2015), I found myself asking of my oath, and the hair that represented it, do I really need this thing? Does it provide me any value? Any satisfaction? Any joy? I was frankly astonished to find myself answering in the negative. I don’t need it anymore. I am comfortable with myself, satisfied with my life, and in fact I have been for a few years now. I don’t need that hair anymore. I don’t need that oath anymore. I am, finally, comfortable with being me, and comfortable talking about being me.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have goals, and too many failings to count. There are many things in my life and in my self that I want to change, and I will keep working at them. It is a very long journey, and I am only in the middle. But I have achieved that young man’s goal, in a most unexpected way. Neither wealth nor status nor outward appearance brings satisfaction with one’s life. Through the practice of compassion for others, I have discovered that being satisfied with one’s life means having compassion for oneself.