”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
– Roberto Clemente
First of all, let me say I am someone who has, for over thirty years, dealt with the anguish and shame of a hair transplant gone wrong. But before I elaborate on that decades long experience, I must share the other part of me.
I have traveled around the world for years and talked with people like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham about the meaning of life and written three books about it. I couldn’t help but learn a few things, and the main thing I learned is that benefiting others changes the world for the better. Just imagine what kind of world we would live in if instead of trying to get as much as we each could from each other, we instead spent our time trying to benefit others?
Another truth that I’ve learned about being human is that we each have two hearts. I recently read a short book about Mother Teresa titled, “I Loved Jesus in the Night.” In it she talks about her decade’s long struggle with her two hearts: one that is divine and filled with spiritual joy, and the other, her very human heart that was often filled with darkness and emptiness. Besides having to live with both these experiences, Mother Teresa felt the hypocrisy of outwardly being a role model to many who lived in a spiritual darkness and saw her (Mother Teresa) as a joyful, shining example of spiritual attainment, while within her own heart she often felt dark and void of happiness. I recount Mother Teresa’s struggle because her struggle has very much been my own as perhaps it has been yours. I, like Mother Teresa (and perhaps yourself), had developed some spiritual and religious progress throughout my life while much to my surprise, still retaining some of my very human desires, fears and frailties.
To make a long story short, both my parents died when I was twelve years old. They died six months apart and I had the unfortunate (or fortunate depending on where you’re standing) of being present when they unexpectedly died. Of course it threw me into a psychological and spiritual turmoil, and as I moved through my teenage years I craved attention and acceptance from the world and the people around me. Television became my teacher and it taught me a “fake truth.” I call it “fake” and a “truth” because it is true and yet it’s ultimately fake or at best limited. Television tells us that if we look and act like the people on tv, we will be happy. So like many others of my generation, I grew up imitating those people on tv. I tried to look and act perfect in order for people to love me. The truth of this is that many people will love or accept us more if we look perfect, but it’s a fake truth because ultimately our real happiness is going to come from what is within us and not from without.
Now let’s fast forward to my being eighteen years old and my hair is falling out faster than you can say, “androgenic alopecia.” Since my self esteem was based mainly on being accepted by the world, I got depressed (especially when all the bald jokes started coming my way). I went to a psychologist who had worked in Hollywood for years, “I saw many movie stars as clients,” she told me, “and when they started losing their looks—they became depressed because they were afraid of losing their fans. You’re like that, you see people as fans.”
But she (my psychologist) immediately suggested a hair transplant, and so at the age of twenty years old, I started my hair transplant journey. And this fact together with the dark, painful and comedic disasters that followed that decision also bring up another truth I’ve learned about life: whenever you’ve done something that may have been stupid and ended up causing you endless amounts of pain—you must make use of it! And the way to use it, to transform it from a stupid, shameful and regrettably selfish and wasteful time of your life into something life giving and divinely inspired is to share it; to offer it to those around you so that they may avoid the mistake you made, and if they can’t avoid the mistake you made—at least by sharing your experience you have a chance to help others not feel alone in their time of struggle while possibly providing them with the information that will help them find their way out.
In my book “Tying Rocks to Clouds” I wrote about my hair transplant experience in the chapter titled, “My Greatest Teacher.”
“It seems like a lifetime since I returned the hat, but it was only seven years ago. I returned it to Dave, who had taken it from a lost and found box at school.
It was a common plaid English cap, but for me, it was a special hat. I hid behind that hat for three years. It hid my pain. During the three years I wore that hat, I never took it off when there was another person in the room. Even now, I remember the agony, the pain, the self-hate,the isolation.
I wore the hat because of a bad hair transplant I got when I was twenty years old. A hair transplant was a lengthy process thirty years ago. Over the course of a year, I visited a plastic surgeon once a month. At each visit, he transplanted hair from one region of my scalp to another, which is a nice way of saying he drilled holes in my head the size of pencil erasers and replaced the empty pits with hair grafts taken from other parts of my head.
“Before you know it,” the Doctor said, “the hair will be hanging in your eyes.” I clung desperately to that hope, which supported me until it slowly dissolved, leaving me alone with a self I hated.
Even now, it is hard for me to believe how far gone I was. I was “done,” as I sometimes say. I was like one of those clowns who has painted himself into a corner— I had nowhere to turn.
Day and night I walked around with that hat on, afraid to let people see me without it. I remember the absolute loneliness I felt while sitting in the plastic surgeon’s office after he had drilled holes in my head. I could feel the drill against my head, hear and feel the tendons and skin ripping. I smelled the skin burning from the drill. I even felt the drill against my skull—when it would move no longer.
Once, the doctor left the room after the drilling and cutting. The blood trickled down my cheek. The office door was ajar, and a couple walked by and poked their heads into the office to ask for directions. They saw me. I was humiliated, yet I sat there and managed to smile through my wincing and tense face. Afterward, I left his office wishing I were invisible, that I didn’t exist. But I did exist, and I hated myself for it. I hated existence.
I lived alone while the plastic surgery was being done. I was fortunate to have saved enough money so I didn’t have to work. I spent a lot of time thinking. I figured that after the hair transplant was done, I’d go back to being who I was, as though nothing had happened, probably without telling my friends about what had happened.
Gradually I realized that the hair transplant wasn’t working the way I thought it would. And now, at the age of twenty I didn’t just have my baldness to be ashamed of, but I had a mangled hairline that looked like tufts of doll’s hair sticking out together with scars that were scattered around the back of my head. My poetry spoke of my deepest despair:
Its walls are woven of darkness and oak,
the floors of loneliness and mire.
The roof is a rhyme, lulling to sleep;
the door is but a liar.
Born of songs that eternally weep;
its veins are poisons that claw and seep.
Come lie within me;
hide from tomorrow today.
Feel my darkness within your soul,
and never wander astray.
I began to have fantasies about dying because I never thought I could be happy again. I didn’t want to commit suicide, but each night when I went to bed, I prayed that my life would end. Sometimes I lay in bed wishing I were dead. I even imagined myself as a corpse, leaving the world and its troubles behind. I thought it might be possible to die by letting go of my connection to the body, emotions, and thoughts. Detachment from my body, emotions, and thoughts was made even easier when I saw I had suffered because of possessing those three things. Maybe without attachment to them, I would stop breathing and disperse, and there would be nothing left of me.
I had that fantasy many times. Sometimes, the room grew dark, even though my eyes were open. There was always a hope of dying. I started to enjoy the feeling of well-being the fantasy gave me. I felt light and ecstatic. After the fantasy was over, however, I was distraught at finding my problems hadn’t gone away.
One day, while experiencing the fantasy, I found myself in a deep place. My sense of body or self had faded away. There was darkness all around, and I felt as though I barely existed. Suddenly, a golden light enveloped me. A Presence was there in the darkness with me and it was unconditionally loving. I recognized that this Presence was connected with God and then I asked my first question of what was to be the beginning of a new life.
“God, why the hell are you screwing me over in life? I’ve tried to do everything right, and here I am at the age of twenty and I just want to die!”
“If you sincerely try,” the voice said, “we will show you.”
After that experience, I started to come out of my depression. Each time I encountered a fear, I just remembered that loving Presence and then I was filled with the courage to walk through the fear. After three years, however, I still wore my hat.
Even now, I often wonder how I avoided the insanity I wrote about.
Death without dying,
hurting without pain.
Art thou crazed,
In the summer heat, I wore the hat to hide my head, and since I thought a hat looked weird with a T-shirt, I wore a jacket. I thought my head would be less noticeable with a hat on it and the hat less noticeable with a jacket. I smoked a lot of marijuana in order to forget why I wore the jacket. One deception after another, designed to hide from myself.
I used to lift weights a lot at a local gym. Since I couldn’t work out with my hat on, I wore a bandanna. One day a guy said, “I wish I was more like you.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you dress any way you want. You don’t care what people think about you. I would be afraid to wear a bandanna like the one you wear. People might make fun of me.”
I was filled with a kind of horror at the pitiful irony of what he had said. After three years, I knew it was time to stop wearing my hat. I began to go for walks at night without my hat. In the darkness, no one could see me, and I could gradually learn to feel comfortable without it. Feeling the night breeze on my head was a new sensation. I felt elated and scared at the same time. I felt I was alive again.
I had recently moved into a house I shared with five friends. One day, I decided to let them see me without my hat. I gathered my courage at the bottom of the basement stairs and climbed the stairs after remembering the Presence I had experienced years before. I was afraid, but I was tired of being afraid, and it was time for it to end.
There were no stares. I don’t think they really noticed. After all this time, it was no big deal. Then I began to wonder . . . How many things are like that? Before we do them, they seem impossible. Afterward, it’s no big deal. How can anyone really understand the personal hells we must each go through? Perhaps the inner experience of shame and suffering is common to all, even though it appears in many guises and forms.”
Now I wish I could say everything was fine after those profound experiences thirty years ago, but it wasn’t. And that’s why I recounted the story about Mother Teresa having two hearts because I had had a life changing spiritual experience which had dramatically increased my “spiritual esteem,” but not necessarily my self esteem and every once in a while “the bad hair transplant thing” would still bother me. For the next three decades, I had to learn to ignore and let go of the stares or comments that people made about my doll’s hair hairline. There was the Nepali waiter twenty-five years ago who asked me about my hair transplant on my first date with a beautiful French woman when I lived in Nepal.
“Excuse me sir,” he said, “I see that you have a hair transplant. I was thinking of getting one. As you can see, “ he said while pointing to his head, “I am going bald and wonder how much does it cost?”
And there was the Kmart cashier from just five years ago who was ringing up my two sticks of deodorant, pack of Juicy Fruit and box of Q-tips when she said (loud enough for the other people in line to hear), “You gonna get anymore of those plugs?” There were three people in line behind me and I tried not to look at them as she continued talking, “because my boyfriend—he’s bald—and he was thinking about getting some plugs, but he’s got a nice round head, so he shaves it. So it looks good. So are you gonna get anymore?” I mumbled something, grabbed my bag and as I walked away she called to me, “Don’t you worry honey—you look fine anyway.”
And not that long ago, I took a class at the university, and a classmate told me that the two young women sitting behind me were pointing at the scars on the back of my head during class and sticking their fingers down their throats as though they were going to gag.
So for the last thirty years I’ve had to grin and bear it when it came to my hair. I’ve learned the fine art of caring less of what people think of me, even when they are talking to me and simultaneously staring at the top of my head. I could never fix or normalize the way my hair looked because all the donor hair from the sides and back of my head had been destroyed by the first hair transplant I had thirty years ago— back in the dark ages of hair transplants.
Years ago, a friend took me to a psychic. “Why did I have to go bald?” I asked her.
She went into a trance and smiled, “We have a saying here in the higher spiritual realm,” she said. “And it goes like this: sometimes God comes knocking at the front door and no one answers, so God goes to the back door and knocks and again no one answers. So God has to go in through the roof and when God does, God knocks off a few shingles.”
I had to laugh because as much as my bad hair transplant caused me angst, it was instrumental in changing my life for the better. It was the place where my life cracked open and I couldn’t be a fake person anymore. I became a better person, concerned with other’s well being and not just my own. Suffering will do that to a person—it develops compassion.
Then a couple years ago, a friend sent me a link to a website about new developments in hair transplantation. It turned out that there are several doctors in the world who are using body and beard hair to repair previously irreparable hair transplants. These new techniques are not just an antidote to baldness; they can dramatically change the appearance of those disfigured by accidental trauma.
So why am I telling you all this? Recounting my hair transplant roller coaster ride—especially when it is so personal, and a bit embarrassing?
Because as Roberto Clemente said, “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
I offer you this story because I hope to make a difference through my story, and in six months I will offer an update because Dr Umar, a member of the Hair Peace Foundation, is also someone who wants to make a difference in the world. He has offered to repair my previously irreparable hair transplant. This brings me to the last of the things that I’ve learned that I will share with you today. We each have a unique way to benefit the world: it may be through offering our story, it may be through offering our surgical skills or it may be through offering something as simple, but as life changing as our kindness. What is most important is that we offer when the opportunity arises—and the opportunity is always arising right now.