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The Language of Love: Who Will Cut My Hair?

July 22, 2013

I started cutting hair in college. We were all poor, and it didn’t seem like it could be that hard, right? I figured it was mostly geometry — angles and proportions and length. (Well, I learned quickly the shortcomings of my theory.) Often I would find myself, on a Saturday afternoon, with (mostly) guys lined up, cutting hair in the athletic dorm of my college. Luckily, they weren’t the most discriminating of clients. Over time practice, more than geometry, gave me a decent skill set, and it was only when I went to graduate school in California that I found my first real challenge. His name was Ian, and he had the most beautiful mane of thick, curly, long hair. No matter what I did, no matter how properly I analyzed the angles and cut appropriately, his hair would go crazy. In order to end up where he wanted his hair to be, I had to cut all out of proportion, trying to guess the way his waves would wander. In the end, success. But it took a little thinking outside my hair cutting box to get there.

Fast forward to marriage, and a husband who took to cutting his own hair in college. He accepted my offer to help smooth out the edges, so to speak, and before I knew it, I was his hairdresser. It was fun, and we would laugh. When our sons came along, I naturally cut their hair — didn’t make much sense to pay for haircuts, especially when we had no income to speak of. The challenges of cutting children’s hair, I learned, often involved squirming toddlers and sharp scissors, which don’t mix well. Nipped skin and tears ensued on more than one occassion. And my threat — if one of them just wouldn’t hold still — was that I was going to take them to a barber, the prospect of which apparently seemed much worse than the risk with me.

And so it goes. I still cut their hair, except my oldest son who now mostly cuts his own. Once in a while, he’ll ask for a little assistance. But he does just fine.

I’ve noticed, though, that everyone tends to ask for haircuts at the worst times — when I’m especially busy or stressed or dressed up (haircutting tends to ruin one’s outfit and demands a change afterward) or sleepy and, in all honesty, have little time or inclination to cut hair. My youngest son seems to be the most frequent offender at this. He often asks for haircuts when he doesn’t really need them — not long after I have already cut it and it hasn’t really grown that much. Only recently did I have a realization: subconsciously, I think, he asks for haircuts especially when I seem distant or unavailable, those times when I’m least able to be present to him. Something about cutting his hair brings me closer to him; haircuts equal love in some way. When I do cut his hair, he fusses and fidgets, but he does it with a smile and always, at the end, with a hug. Maybe haircuts a signal to me, to be present, to participate in his young life in a very physical, tangible way.

Once, many years ago, when my husband and I were in a really difficult place in our marriage, I was frustrated and talked about separating. He was quiet for a long while, because unlike me, who sometimes throws something out before thinking through the implications thoroughly, he weighs his words and doesn’t speak them without deep reflection. (I’ve gotten much better about this, by the way, mainly through his influence and a lot of time on my knees.) When he finally spoke, he didn’t ask why, or beg me to reconsider, or logically explain that separation would be a bad thing. He asked me with teary eyes, “Who would cut my hair?” Somehow, that broke through to me in a way that I don’t think anything else could have.

What is the language of love? I believe in the power of words, and I never get tired of being told that I am loved, whatever words may be used to say it. Yet over time, I’ve come to see that the truest language of love is complex and layered — words alone without the backbone of actions and intention are ultimately flat. Like haircuts and the demands thereof, love language involves being present, in the moment. Love equals intention; love requires that I think outside the box of words alone and delve into the messy business of risking myself, of being there and even delighting in the life of the Beloved. Love asks me, who will cut my hair? Who will take this role in my life, the action that no one else can do quite the same way. Of course, any number of people can cut my husband’s hair. But none can do it out of love as I can. Love’s that way — personal, showing up in the daily round of life, being a part of the fabric of another’s being.

I’m always irritated by that vacuous phrase ‘You complete me’. That’s not love, to me. That’s needy dependence, a failture to actually have one’s own life, always looking to another to do what I should seek to find within myself, within God. Like my favorite theologians U2 say, We’re one but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other. Love’s language allows for the complex interplay of being one with those we love yet not being the same. Only God can bring me to life, bring a kind of wholeness to me that otherwise is missing.

And I’m equally dismayed by the common notion in the Christian world that we only truly love, the deepest love, someone we marry.  At least in this heart, love wears many faces.  Marriage, indeed, carries certain specific parts of love that other relationships don’t — sex comes to mind, and a specific kind of fidelity.  Marriage, it seems to me, is a commitment based on love but is not in itself love. It would be cruel of me to expect one person to meet all the needs I have; I truly don’t believe that is how we are built, if we are created in God’s image. The Triune God, after all, lives in an eternal dance of persons, Three in One and One in Three. Here is the fullness of love — always moving, open, seeing the Other for all their unique beauty.

Love’s language is, for me, best expressed when both my being and my bearing are open to another, in thought, word, and deed. Love, then, must listen for the little daily reminders that always come my way, calling me to listen, to respond, to slow down, to risk the messyness of haircuts and those other reminders of love coming near in the everyday.

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