Part of Me

I know this is the time of year we are all making (or maybe already breaking?) resolutions. Resolutions about what we want to do, who we want to be, what we want to change. It’s interesting how we go about this, often times making big decisions or plans, spending lots of money, working to accomplish something grand through the momentum of the New Year. Well, I’m not immune to the idea of personal change. The desire to spark something new. But I am tired of the notion that we have to do something enormous to make a difference in how we see ourselves or how we relate to others. So I conducted a little experiment. A few years back, when we were driving on our annual vacation to Colorado, my husband and I were listening to a podcast of an NPR show called “Radiolab” in which they told the story of a young man named John Walter. Walter was a bullied child who never seemed to fit in. And one day, during the course of a job interview as a young man, he had photos of himself taken—and he was shocked to see how these photos presented him. He didn’t think he looked like that at all. What struck him as the most odd was something tiny: the part of his hair. So he decided to change the side he parted his hair on. You can imagine what happened next. Everything seemed to change for him. He became more socially accepted, school got better, work improved—his entire life flipped. He believed (and still believes) this is because of the side of his part. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you listen to this show, you’ll hear some pretty amazing stories about hair parts and how they affect our perception of people. Not just because of how we see others, but because of how others perceive themselves. What we see when we look in the mirror is not, in fact, what others see when they look at us. It’s the flip side. John Walter went on to develop what he calls the Hair Part Theory, which you can read about if you’ve got some time. He also invented the True Mirror, which is a mirror configured in such a way that when you see it, you’re really looking at what others see when they look at you. If you haven’t guessed by now, I decided one morning while blowdrying my hair that I was going to change my part. I was going to see what would happen if I made just this simple, little change. It sounds a bit easier than it actually was. First of all, my hair falls completely naturally into the part I’ve always had, which has been on the right side of my head, not exactly straight, but not entirely crooked. It’s been like that most of my life (I did have a period of “butt cut” hair in my early grade school years, but I’m betting most girls in the 80s did—so we could feather our bangs!). Anyway, it took some concerted effort to get my hair properly dried and styled in reverse. And it felt weird. REALLY weird. It’s odd, but I realized that I actually hold my head a certain way to accommodate the fall of my hair. I had to learn to hold my head differently. And walking in the wind—ugh. Any woman with long hair and lip gloss on knows the difficulty of trying to keep your hair from getting stuck to your mouth and covering your eyes when it’s windy outside. Now imagine doing it backwards. Holding your head funny. We had some really blustery days at the beginning of my experiment, and I think I spent a portion of time walking between my car and various buildings at the Town Square entirely covered by my hair. Think Cousin It with lipstick and sunglasses. Not pretty. Over the course of many washings, dryings, days and then weeks, however, I found that I would wake up in the morning and not instinctively toss my hair to the usual side. And I started to look in the mirror and forget, just for a few moments, which side my hair was supposed to be on. Then it began to feel weird to think about putting it back the other way. I looked at pictures of myself before my part change, and after. It was odd, but I felt like I now looked in pictures the way I thought I had looked in the mirror. It seemed kinda, sorta right to me, that I should now part on the left. Of course, the biggest part of my experiment wasn’t about what I saw. It was about what would happen in my life, to me, for me, around me, because I changed my part. Would I be seen differently? Would good things start happening? Would people somehow naturally change their relationships with me and not be able to figure out why? Well, at the risk of disappointing you all, the answer was a resounding no. And this was, perhaps, the biggest surprise to me. Not one single person realized what I had done. Not even my husband. One of my friends, during a Christmas gift exchange, did ask me if I’d had a haircut. She noticed I had grown-out bangs—seemingly for the first time, though I’ve had them growing out for a year now. But she didn’t see the part change, and I didn’t tell her what the difference was. This became part of my experiment. I wondered how long I could go on having changed this portion of my appearance and have absolutely no one figure it out. It started as me making a small change, but it turned into something I felt was monumental. I thought I was practically wearing a disguise! I looked TOTALLY different to myself, and it felt so bizarre at first. Seriously, no one saw this?! Not even my children?! How was that possible? It’s true. The funny thing is that I still haven’t told anyone. Writing this is the first mention of it that I’ve made anywhere. So. There it is, folks. I changed the side of my hair part. And I’m bringing this all up in the context of New Year’s resolutions because I came to realize something during my little experiment. I thought I had resolved to make a small change and see how it would affect my life and relationships. But I ended up realizing that this was really about perception and attention. People didn’t look at me any differently, not that I could tell. And to some extent that bothered me. I felt like they weren’t paying attention. True, I only made a small change, and maybe it was just about my hair, and maybe my hair wasn’t that important to how they saw me. But it made a difference to me, and they missed that. My resolution, then, is simple. I want to pay closer attention to the people around me. Because it stands to reason that I’m probably missing something minor but important about them as well. Imagine that. Imagine all the everyday nuances that regularly change within the people we love. They make quiet decisions after great introspection. They give themselves internal pep talks to get through a hard day. Maybe they accomplish something at work. Or they stand up for themselves at school. And unless we ask and take the time to perceive these things—things that are small but that make an impact—we just miss them. They are absorbed. The other day, my kids and I watched a show on National Geographic called “Brain Games.” We learned about how our brains process our environments in order to focus and pay attention. We have to weed out so much extraneous stimuli in order to catch what matters, or what we think matters, but in so doing, we don’t see a huge portion of what’s actually going on around us. Sometimes that’s good—we need to hone in on important tasks occasionally, like when driving a car. But sometimes, we don’t know that we need to shift attention elsewhere. That we might see something small but special. So that’s my plan. I’m going to practice looking around more often. I’m going to practice noticing things. And I think, in case you were wondering, that I’m going to leave my hair on the flip side for a while longer. Just in case it helps me win the lottery or something. You never know, right? Happy New Year to you all!