Words of wisdom, from my late friend Gwen.
“You have green hair.”
Of course, I’ll explain.
Gwen was part of our life in North Carolina. Back then, we lived “in the buckle of the Bible Belt,” as my spouse Charles likes to say. Our neighborhood was built on the old Billy Graham farm. There was a church across the road, down the street, and around the block, too. In fact, all social life revolved around religious community. So, Charles and I adapted. We joined a havurah, a small do-it-yourself Jewish community.
The women of the havurah became a collective of mothers. We were hands-on: cooking, driving, childminding as needed. But we were minds-on, too. We had lots of wisdom to share. So, we had a special custom when our girls became bat-mitzvah.
We—the women and girls—would gather for a wisdom circle. Each of us would offer the bat mitzvah a gift of wisdom. Usually, these were words of encouragement and advice. But someone might bring a song, a drawing, or a card, too.
Gwen gave every girl the exact same gift. A post-it note with the words “you have green hair.” Then she would explain. Sometimes people say negative things about you. And then you feel bad. But often what they say isn’t true. So, when that happens, just imagine they said, “You have green hair.” You wouldn’t feel bad, because you know it’s not true.
Gwen worked as a corporate trainer. So, it was her job to package wisdom in small sound bites. But I worked as a professor. So, I distrusted sound bites. Too simple, too superficial.
And yet. I keep learning from this one simple sound bite.
My life is filled with people. Sometimes we disagree. We might even clash. An angry person might criticize me. They might even insult me. So, I’ll think about the criticism. Try to understand it. And, if I do, I’ll apologize and improve. But I don’t know how to handle the insults. So I just re-play them in my mind. And I hurt my own feelings again and again.
But, what’s the insult, really? Usually it’s something ridiculous. A variation on “you have green hair.”
Now, this aphorism of Gwen’s is a metaphor. So, it depends on a shared understanding of green hair. Twenty years ago, green hair was not in style. So, if someone said, “you have green hair,” they meant “you are a misfit.” And we all knew that. But today, bright hair dye is everywhere. So, if someone says “you have green hair,” it’s probably a compliment.
But, for me, Gwen’s metaphor still works. Because meanings do change. And, if I dared to think objectively about old slurs, I would understand them differently, too. They might seem irrelevant. Or obvious expressions of the speaker’s own flaws. Untrue, and not worth feeling bad about anymore. As insubstantial as…green hair.
Gwen, your memory is a blessing.