Tabula Rasa: Transcendence and shaven head

Father George Plathottam, sdb, sans hair in photo dated Q4 2020

It is little over a month since I shaved my head and gave myself a new look. Friends look at me with wonder and surprise. Some dare to say nothing while some others pass a positive comment. Some others want to know if it is a response to COVID-19 pandemic and the fear of going to a haircutting saloon or some form of vow or protest or frustration. I look at them and smile as if to say, “none of the above.”

By and large most friends, without trying to extract a confession from me, have been kind and gave me positive comments. Maybe they can’t see my adrenaline rush that begins at my bald head.

I remember the late 1970s and early 80s when I studied philosophy. We were taught the phrase ‘tabula rasa’ that in Latin means “scraped tablet” or a “clean slate”.

Tabula rasa is an epistemological theory which states that individuals are born without built-in mental content, and, therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception.

Proponents of “tabula rasa” disagree with the doctrine of “innatism,” which holds that the mind is born already in possession of certain knowledge.

Well, my friends nor I were convinced of the theory.

We didn’t believe that we were born stupid. But we were mischievous enough to apply the theory to our main philosophy professor who was bald. He had a good sense of humour and enjoyed the name given to him and enlivened his classes in good measure using the expression sometimes to refer to himself.

At that time I also came across the saying God has given some people wisdom and others hair. That sounded fair.

But more interesting was the findings of a scholarly research study by a prestigious university which stated that all men are bald; only that some scalps are covered with hair!

In my twenties then, I had lots of hair. Lushy, black hair. There was little inkling that one day my own head would resemble that of my philosophy professor.

Many others too who meticulously attended to their hair found them fall off over the years.

Now in hindsight I remember the words of the Bible:

“Youth, the age of black hair is vanity” (Proverbs 11:10).

I don’t know if vanity also reduced in me along with the disappearance of the lushy hair over the years. 

How do I look now with a clean-shaven head? I won’t be able to take that question and give an accurate answer.

Of course, it is others who see me more clearly now. Every time I want to see how I look like, I have to look in a mirror. One thing is obvious. The difference between my face and head seems to have disappeared, I have problem to know where the face ends and head begins.

I now have a bigger face to wash.

That apart, there are many distinct advantages: no need of hair oils, shampoos, comb, no visits to the barber, no fallen hairs in the bathtub, washing basin and in my food or on my pillow.

Advertisements continues to haunt me: grow hair in 30 days. Did google or someone discover me and posted my picture somewhere? If you decline the offer they might even shame you as if to make you think that being bald is worse than being naked. Someone might shout like the lad, “the emperor has no clothes” so you look for cover.

More important. No one can any longer tell me a hair-raising story! I guess God will be pleased too as He does not need to count the hairs on my head.

But of course, I don’t want him to stop other promises Jesus assured, especially his care and watchfulness over me. Jesus wanted to assure us that our lives matter to God, that they are of value (Matt 10:28-31).

Shaven head is a symbol of renunciation in many religions. The Acts of the Apostles says,

“Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair shaved off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken (Acts 18:18).

Buddhist monks and Hindu sannyasis, pilgrims to venerated shrines and temples, Muslims going to Mecca, shave their heads. In some traditions, the pilgrims even make an offering of their hair to the deity as a symbol of renunciation.

In the Catholic Church’s tradition, the ministries leading to priestly ordination contained tonsure. The nuns used to shave off their heads before they take the vows and put on the veil.

These external signs expressed renunciation of worldliness, wealth and attachment to material things.

The Scripture constantly calls attention to concentrate on the beauty of the soul and shun show. Inner beauty is akin to holiness and is to be much desired while outward show is vanity and hypocrisy, and to be shunned.

Search for transcendence and striving for holiness demands greater focus on a person’s inner being. The Invisible God cannot be discovered in the glitz and glamour of the busy world but in the inner recesses of one’s soul and the silence of the heart.

Prophets and saints, mystics and monks, holy men and women of God throughout centuries have been wise to discern and choose that which is perennial and of lasting value.

St. Peter cautions:

“Do not let your adornment be merely outward, arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel, rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” (1 Peter 3:3-4)

Father George Plathottam SDB, PhD, is the executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences Office of Social Communication (FABC-OSC) and is based in Manila, Philippines.