On cut hair (or a meditation on identity)

For a while, I told myself that I would cut my hair to express mourning. I liked the idea of physically showing inner turmoil after the death of a family member, an outside change to reflect the inside like the ancient Greeks or Prince Zuko. Removing choice from the equation felt simpler: if someone dies, then I cut my hair. No decision to be made and no discussion or feedback to elicit.

It felt odd to wait for one of my ailing grandmothers to pass before I allowed myself this physical change. An air of “At last! … and too soon.” So, I decided to cut my hair on a whim, shave down to the scalp on my own terms, and save a lock of my hair for my parents during their mourning process.

The change feels right. Less hair to manage during these crazy second year times. My head dissipates heat much faster. I look in the mirror and see college-aged Eugene, with a few more miles.

I love the shocked reactions of my peers and friends because it gives me a sense of control over my external identity, of how others see me. I know why folks around me react so strongly I walked into medical school with long hair, I developed the relationship with my partner with long hair, and I have loved my long hair. Whether I asked for this identity or not, the community around me has determined it to be linked to my hair, like Sampson.

Perhaps I needed this physical change to mirror how I feel my self identity changing: I do not feel like the same Eugene that entered medical school one year ago. He had a more social demeanor, he could strike up a conversation with most folks, and he could coach the hell out of a crossfit class.

The Eugene now feels more anxious, more often. He hides away from social situations because he doesn’t feel like talking to people, or maybe it’s the attention that makes him uncomfortable. The same attention that used to energize then Eugene gives now Eugene significant social anxiety. I wonder how much is due to stress, knowing that I must perform on the upcoming exam, C5T2, or risk failing the entire course block and perhaps retaking MS2 entirely. I wonder how much of this comes from my more limited social interactions most of my time is spent alone with my partner in our small apartment, instead of larger social gatherings or in the loud environment of a crossfit gym.

Like a muscle that loses strength and size after disuse, is my social-ability losing its muster? Can I spare the energy to maintain this skill, like the ability to run long distances or lift heavy barbells, in the setting of high academic stakes? Do I want this part of myself or do I want to leave it behind like the kegs and red cups of parties past?

I wonder how much I should actively shape Eugene, the identity, versus allow the environment to shape him. The former requires effort to maintain and sustain like proper posture. The latter needs no input beyond the surroundings. Would that yield a Eugene, a future physician, that I would be proud to call my own? Can I afford the energy to make Eugene a unique addition to the field of medicine? Can I afford not to?

The ability to change my identity with the cut of scissors humbles me. It reminds me of how my identity changes whether I will it or not and how it happens insidiously until one day I feel something different in the air. One day I am a coach, the next I am not. One day I am a weightlifter, the next I am a Jiu-Jitsero. One day I am an athlete, the next I am a medical student.

Is it appropriate to have my identity tied to activities? What does it say about my interactions with the world when I cut my hair and everyone is surprised? The easy answers feels false. The hard answers are just more questions.

I just want to pass this course, but if I do so at the cost of my overall identity, at the cost of recognizing the Eugene at the end of the tunnel, is it worth it?

Long Form Sundays

On Death Podcast

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