Yesterday we had Eva’s hair cut short. Really short. This was the first step toward losing all her hair. There’s no easy way for this to happen, but they say the shorter hair means less big clumps of hair on the pillow in the morning or in the drain after a shower. It’s supposed to make a hard thing easier.
A member of our congregation, Carmen, provided the haircut. Carmen is a stylist and a cancer survivor herself. She can relate to the emotional distress of a woman (or girl) losing her hair. Audra went alone with Eva to have the hair cut while I stayed home. I watched Eva closely before she left. She seemed eager to go to the salon, but not in the “I’m excited for this” sense, rather it was the “let’s get this over with” sense.
Normally a trip to the big chair at the fancy salon is a treat for a little girl. This time Eva just cried. Carmen had to gather her emotions before she could make the big snip on Eva’s long pony tail, the one braided so often into an “Elsa braid.” Audra choked back tears. Carmen made the cut. Eva screamed. Everyone cried for the rest of the haircut.
The haircut is an adorable little bob. It’s seriously cute, and it looks great on Eva. But it’s not how things are supposed to be. Within a few weeks we anticipate that all or most of her hair will be gone.
In a very real sense this haircut wasn’t really a haircut, it was another procedure, another poke—not to the skin but to Eva’s sense of identity.
Identity is a tough topic. Who we are, our “identity,” really matters. Now, most of the thinking about identity today uses the first person singular: “I identify as…” Then you fill in the blank. For the 21st century American, identity has become something you pick for yourself and image is something you preen before snapping a selfie. We’re curved in on ourselves—not only figuratively, but quite literally. Just check Instagram.
While today’s vocabulary about identity is something novel, there’s nothing really new to humanity about finding identity in one of your traits. “So, what do you do?” is our casual conversation starter because in our culture a person is defined by their career. We signal our status by the car we drive or the clothes we wear. Which school your kids attend says something about who you are and what you have accomplished. And, of course, men and women are also defined by their outward appearance (and it does seem that the pressure in our culture is greater on women).
So, what does that mean for Eva? Why does she keep asking, “What if kids make fun of me because of my hair?” She asks that question because mankind has fallen from its true identity and definition. She asks that question because ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin mankind has been consumed with finding identity in anything and everything but God. Now our altar is the mirror and our sacraments are in the makeup drawer; style is salvation and youthful looks are the closest thing we have to eternal life. Eva’s in-born religion is being weighed in the balance and found wanting.
She, like all of us, are are caught in a paradox—we are simultaneously told to identify ourselves by some trait inherent to us while also refusing to be defined by some trait inherent to us. One minute we’re told to embrace who we are—loud and proud, baby!—and the next we’re told to throw off the shackles of identity—stick it to the man!
What can we say to people caught in this trap? What can we do for people pulled back and forth in our culture’s schizoid philosophy of identity? Specifically, how can we teach Eva something important about who she is through her loss of hair?
Audra can say, “Your hair doesn’t make you who you are,” but Eva will still see Audra putting all sorts of time and energy into her hair morning—the very thing she said doesn’t make someone who they are. In the same way, just saying, “Don’t worry, it will grow back,” is nothing all that special—not really, anyway. Mere replacement of what’s lost doesn’t alleviate the emotional pain. (And, side note, pointing out that daddy is bald doesn’t help either. Eva just laughs and says, “That’s normal for boys.”) Ultimately, what needs replacing is not Eva’s head of hair, but her heart’s desire. She needs to remember that her identity isn’t something that comes from her, but from God. And that’s what we told her yesterday.
We told her about inner beauty, the kind that doesn’t come from “outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes” (1 Peter 3:3). But even more than that, we told her where that kind of perspective comes from. We reminded her of her baptism.
Jesus and his apostles taught something remarkable about baptism. Baptism is not just an outward sign of how committed you are to God, it’s an effective means by which God demonstrates how committed he is to you. The apostolic writings are quite clear: baptism “saves you by the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is, for the sacramental Christian, our very identity. It is at our baptism that God named us and claimed us, not the other way around. Baptism is how we live at all. The apostle Paul testifies, “We were therefore buried with Jesus through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).
That is Eva’s identity—she is in Christ, she is God’s own child. And even when Eva hardly had any hair (she was only a few days old) God adopted her as his own child through baptism. Eva the newly born became newly dead in Christ so that one day she will be newly resurrected to eternal life. God named Eva as his own that day and she has been precious in his sight ever since. And she always will be—hair or no hair. Her story is not really her own anymore. Her identity is not in her traits, but in God’s faithfulness. God curved her away from herself and toward him instead. She belongs to her Savior now, and her Savior shed his blood so this could be true. I have no fear that God would abandon anyone for whom he paid such a price.