The Balding Stoic and the Power of Choice
What one of history's greatest philosophies can teach us about dealing with insecurity.
The other night, I was helping my daughter, Riley, get ready for bed. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her as she leaned forward, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other on top of my head to steady herself while I helped pull up her pajama pants. Suddenly, she stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “Daddy,” she said quizzically, “you have no hair right here” as she tapped with one finger on the growing bald spot in the back of my head.
I laughed, shrugging it off as I told her, “It’s just part of getting older, sweetie.” It was a precious and innocent moment that was barely a blip on her radar. But I found myself thinking about it afterward. Had I given her the right answer?
Lately, I’ve been reading up on Stoicism. By an unfortunate twist of linguistic fate, this term has today become pigeonholed as a synonym for “emotionless.” But that’s not what I’m referring to. Far from it. Instead, I’m referring to Stoicism with a capital “S”, an ancient Hellenistic philosophy founded by the great thinkers of Athens in the 3rd century BC.
While relatively little is known about Stoicism proper today, this “...vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of thinking...was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life,” as stated by bestselling author Ryan Holiday in his book, The Daily Stoic.
So, you might ask, what does any of this have to do with going bald? Good question. As anyone who’s been through it can attest, losing one’s hair can create all kinds of mental chatter, primarily of the negative variety. What will I look like with no hair? Will people think differently of me? Should I just go full Heisenberg and be done with it? The uncertainty alone is enough to fill me with self-doubt, to say nothing of the way our culture and media glamorize a full head of hair.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to staring at myself in the mirror at times, pondering these questions. As it turns out, no matter how many different angles I look at it from, my hair is still, in fact, falling out. And since I’m not willing to take medication, go through operations, nor endure the process of experimenting with creams, shampoos, or hats with built-in lasers (yes, that’s actually a thing), it is out of my control to stop it.
As it happens, my inexorable march toward baldness s consistent with one of the central tenets of Stoicism, the notion that there is precisely one thing we have full control over—our minds. Nothing else. Let that sink in. It means not even our own bodies are under our control. Which, incidentally, must be true. Otherwise, well, my hair wouldn’t be falling out to begin with. This pillar of Stoicism, it turns out, provides the perfect framework for not only coming to terms with my thinning hair but making something positive out of it.
As fatalistic as it may sound on the surface, the school Stoicism doesn’t tell me to abjectly surrender to my thinning hair. “Oh well, I’ll try and not think about it.” Nor is it about putting on rose-colored glasses. “Yay! I’m so happy to be losing my hair.” Yeah, right.
Instead, Stoics would simply argue that balding, and the emotional turmoil that comes with it are, in fact, out of my control. But that doesn’t mean I’m powerless. I am still free to choose how I perceive the situation and what actions I take as a result. I can choose to wallow in feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. Or, I can choose to see balding as an opportunity to strengthen my own sense of self-worth, to grow, to let go of vanity, to move beyond superficial concerns, and to get more in touch with what really matters in life.
We all battle with insecurity. We feel too fat. Too skinny. Too short. Too tall. Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not qualified enough. Not funny enough. And the list goes on, ad nauseam. Whether we like it or not, self-consciousness is as much part of the human condition as thinking itself.
Stoicism doesn’t change any of this. But it does help us deal with it. It may be one of the world’s most ancient philosophies but its lessons are timeless, based on universal truths as relevant today as they were in the third century BC. This profound way of thinking teaches us that we have an inalienable right to choose, no matter what we are faced with. You can elect to see your shortcomings as a bad joke by a universe determined to keep you down. Or, you can see opportunities for growth, a chance to dig in prove to yourself and everyone around you that you have what it takes to rise to the occasion.
So the next time my daughter asks me about going bald, I’ll still laugh, smile, and tell her it’s just part of getting older. But I’ll also take the opportunity to share a lesson that will help her grapple with whatever challenges her life will inevitably bring—no matter what we’re up against, we always have a choice.