In the Old Testament — the second Book of Kings, to be exact — there’s a curious story about the prophet Elisha. He is walking along a road, minding his own business, when suddenly some boys run up after him and mock him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they jeer. (That’s the New International version; the King James Bible has it “Go up, thou bald head.”) What does Elisha do? Does he ignore them? Does he make a profound comment about the wisdom that comes with age, or maybe a good-hearted baldness joke? No. “He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord,” the Bible says. “Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”
That’s right, kids: Mock a bald man, get mauled by bears. Rough justice.
According to tradition, the second Book of Kings was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who was not known for fun and games to begin with. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that he was also losing his hair. You see, baldness messes with your head more than just physically. Consider the findings of the 2014 survey-based study “The endocrinology of baldness” in the academic journal Hormones: “Particularly among men, the very manifest obviousness of baldness is often a source of major psychological anguish.” Further, baldness is “associated with loss of self-esteem, depression, introversion, neuroticism and the feeling of being unattractive.”
Even when researchers look on the bright side, the consequences of baldness sound depressing. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, “Balding men actively cope and generally retain the integrity of their personality functioning.” It is just so heartening to learn that, as a bald man, I might maintain a functioning personality.
What’s the problem with baldness? After all, head hair has little practical purpose beyond sunburn protection, and baldness is quite convenient: Washing my head is as complicated as washing my knee. The issue has everything to do with the negative perceptions by other people. Specifically, from an evolutionary perspective, the correlation between baldness and age means that male head hair is naturally perceived as a sign of youth and vitality, and thus attractiveness.
Sometimes people try to refute that view by bringing up Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson — who just happen to be famous, rich and ripped. Or they will refer to polling data, such as a widely cited 2017 study showing that 28 percent of women find bald men “very” or “somewhat” attractive. In response, I simply point to an Associated Press/Ipsos poll showing that 65 percent of Americans think it’s all right to lie “in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.” My wife says she likes me bald, but I know exactly what she would have told Associated Press/Ipsos.
Readers might be tempted to conclude that I am a bit bitter. I once was, but not anymore.
Some years ago, I became interested in the religious practice of “tonsure ,” or the shaving of one’s head. The Lord Buddha himself prescribed this practice for ordained followers. For centuries in the Catholic Church, tonsure was a sacred rite upon entering clerical orders. Tonsure was not just prescribed for men; Buddhist nuns and even some Catholic ones cut their hair short or shaved their heads.
Thousands of years ago, there were no doubt practical and sanitary reasons for tonsure. Over the millennia, however, the practice came to represent a strong form of worldly renunciation, which was thought necessary to refocus one’s mind on the transcendent.
Renunciation of what? Vanity, of course — the source of distraction from a life of contemplation and prayer for a monk or nun, and the source of unhappiness for all of us. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” says the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in explaining the miseries of the world. This is not just theological conjecture; there is hard evidence, including the 2018 study “Letting Go of Self” in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, showing that the more we focus on ourselves and on the things that feed our egos, the unhappier we will be.
It is a strange irony of life that instinct impels us to cultivate our vanity, as if this will finally give us deep satisfaction, when the opposite is true: The solution to the misery of vanity is a concerted effort to destroy it. For the committed, this means detaching forcibly from vanity’s object. Case in point: If I admire and fuss over lustrous locks I see in the mirror, as so many people do, detachment will come from shaving them off. Hence, tonsure.
Of course, to renounce hair means one has to have it in the first place and then voluntarily give it up. That was most certainly not my case. Every one of my fallen hairs was a source of regret, a lost friend. Hardly the result of a pious act of renunciation. Much later, though, when I contemplated the benefits of tonsure, I was able to renounce something even deeper: my resentment of going bald, a feeling that was a malign facsimile of youthful pride in my hair. My bitterness ceased, and I was finally free of my original attachment. It was a small but joyful inflection in my enlightenment.
Not long after attaining this insight, I met the Dalai Lama, someone for whom I have deep admiration and respect. Upon seeing me, he said, “My friend, you look like a monk!” I treasured his remark as a compliment. True, my tonsure came not from a razor but from genetics. But today, the detachment is the same. I’m the better for it.
So go ahead and call me Baldy. I will wish you peace and joy — and no bears.
Read more from Arthur C. Brooks’s archive.