Better Living Through Meaninglessness
I've come to realize that my anxiety is more comfortable when I am involved in a contained drama, like a bad haircut.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Recently I got a fucked-up haircut. It was one of those haircuts so minor that no one would even notice, but to me it was totally devastating.
I have a history of being devastated by trivial hair-care issues. This might be because I lack a core sense of self. When you lack a core sense of self, you come to define your identity around your physicality. Any minor physical problem becomes a major problem and you feel like you are disintegrating.
Also, my mother placed a religious amount of emphasis on physical beauty when I was growing up. Innately, I fear that if I make one small alteration in the wrong direction, then I will lose all the love: her love and the love of the universe.
I've also come to realize that my anxiety is more comfortable when I am involved in a contained drama. On some level, I think I choose to identify with a fucked-up hair experience—even when it isn't noticeable to the naked eye—because it's a lot easier to manage my anxiety around hair than, say, death or powerlessness or personal freedom or the question of what we are all doing here.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes, "...as soon as man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death...then he is in trouble. Most men spare themselves this trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives...They 'tranquilize themselves with the trivial'—and so they can lead normal lives."
This is not to say I haven't had some legitimately awful hair experiences. When I hit puberty, I began having nightmares about the Holocaust and my wavy hair grew in like a giant crown of bristly pubes. One time I accidentally gave myself horizontal blonde tiger stripes and was forced to get a buzz cut. There may be some residual trauma from these situations, but not the kind of post-traumatic hair syndrome that would warrant the grandiose reactions of terror, dread and self-hatred that I experience whenever I get a haircut that is 'slightly off.'
In the case of this recent haircut, I had asked the hairdresser to thin out my Jewfro a little. The hairdresser was hot, disinterested, and not the type of person I felt OK telling to stop when he picked up a razor and swiped it 30-40 times throughout my entire head. By the time he was finished, what remained looked more to me like a giant head of split ends than a haircut. I told him it looked great. Then I went into emergency mode.
From the bathroom at the hair salon, I filmed a video of myself and asked into the phone, Do I look like Pete Wentz?! I sent it to five friends who all affirmed that I did not. They said my hair looked no different than usual. This assuaged me until the following morning, when I awoke at 4 AM and began compulsively googling: razor damage, razor cut nightmare, Ashlee Simpson. I texted a friend who cuts hair, then raced in to go see her first thing that morning. She trimmed the ends and it seemed to look better. I thought I could live with it. But, of course, I was wrong.
Later that day I got on a plane to New York for a work trip. Sandwiched between two elderly people, I began taking more pictures of the hair mid-flight, convinced that the trim had done nothing. I decided that it wasn't so much of a Wentz look, but a Bret Michaels. From the air, I sent out a pained tweet asking if there was a hairdresser in NYC who could come to my hotel when I landed late that night. I said I would pay in cash and retweets.
When I landed in New York, I realized it was a bad idea to entrust my hair to a stranger. The following day, I made an appointment with a person I used to see in NYC. He had been "the fixer" for me in many prior perceived hair emergencies and I knew that he could handle the situation. Until then, I prefaced every human interaction with, I'm having a hair emergency. I didn't want anyone passing judgment on my hair without knowing that I was already well aware of the situation. The thing was, no one noticed anything.
At no point during the freakout did I say to myself, This is not a true emergency. At no point did I say, It's hair and it will grow . I thought, Disaster. I thought, It's all over. I also remember thinking for a second, It kind of feels good to be worrying about my hair and not death. Like, I was a little conscious of what I was doing. I was trading an existential fear for a tangible one.
When "the fixer" fixed my hair, I finally allowed myself some peace. I felt calm for the first time in days. But then, some unexpected new feelings set in. I began to experience a sensation of loss or homesickness: as if I had suddenly lost my sense of purpose and didn't know what to do next. I maybe even felt disappointed. Like, I missed having the crisis to attend to. I missed the contained meaning it gave me.
It's no coincidence that all of this occurred while I was traveling. When I travel, I feel more existential anxiety than usual, because the signifiers and daily routines that I usually use to cobble together an identity—however false—are no longer available. Without the recognizable anchors, I start to feel like there is only nothingness. What would I be forced to feel if I was not obsessing about something?
The state of obsession provides me with a mission of sorts, a raison d'être that also staves off depression. If nothing else, there's a solid adrenaline jolt. I give myself missions like this all the time, simply by making the inane seem urgent. I wait for a text and feel that I will die if I do not receive it. I shop for a piece of clothing that I suddenly must have, or else I will not be a complete person. I weigh myself 12 different times in the morning until I get the number that stills my heart. If I don't get the number, I restrict my eating. Through each of these empty behaviors, a deeper emptiness is kept at bay.
There is something both painful and comforting about hitching my well-being to ephemeral concerns. I guess facing the transitory nature of existence is simply too sad. So instead I turn my fleeting obsessions into momentous occasions, seemingly earth-shattering, and it gives my life a point—at least for a while.
Becker writes, "The ironic thing about the narrowing-down of neurosis is that the person seeks to avoid death, but he does it by killing off so much of himself and so large a spectrum of his action-world that he is actually isolating and diminishing himself and becomes as though dead."
When I think of the feelings—both anxious and depressed—that I am running from in the height of these obsessions, they are best described as a state of Is that all there is? It's weird that I am able to escape my feelings about the banality of life by focusing on things that are, in themselves, vain and superficial. It's weird that it works.
Perhaps some day I will no longer need to affix myself to these obsessions. Perhaps I will sit comfortably in the depth of a moment, rather than running in circles. For now I am a girl who obscures the infinite. I look at my hair and think, This is all there is and take refuge in the insanity.
So Sad Today is a never-ending existential crisis played out in 140 characters or less. Its author has struggled with consciousness since long before the creation of the Twitter feed in 2012, and has finally decided the time has come to project her anxieties on a larger screen, in the form of a biweekly column on this website.
- Pete Wentz
- Bret Michaels
- Views My Own
- The Denial of Death
- haircut nightmare
- ernest becker
- ashlee simpson