When I see this photo of myself, I see me at Woodstock; as a drummer, anti-war activist marching on Washington, and a 19-year-old kid making his way through college. My beard and long hair were important parts of my identity back in the day. Watching my buddies come home traumatized, with missing limbs, or in a pine box, I felt that standing up for what I believed in involved protesting, letting my “freak flag fly,” and performing the music I loved.
I slowly surrendered the beard and long hair over the years as I became a husband, father, and mental health professional. As my thick blond hair grew progressively thinner and grayer, I became the older, less conspicuous, more mainstream version of myself. The “Dr. Ken” image on my website over the past 20 years as I pioneered and reimagined the field of psychology, wrote books, and volunteered as a community leader reflected what I’d become in the eyes of the world.
As my sheltering-in-place, COVID-19 quarantine began, my father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For reasons I still can’t completely explain, I stopped shaving and getting haircuts. Canceling and postponing much of my speaking schedule, closing my office, and limiting coaching/consulting sessions to Zoom calls, I let myself go in a variety of ways—and grew shaggy.
Looking at myself in the mirror every day, I run my hand through my beard and have to brush my hair before tying it off with an elastic band. I enjoy seeing the wild-eyed, 19-year-old version of myself; and with the exception of my grayer, thinner hair, I look a lot like that young college student I once was. The still-youthful-feeling version of me at 70 jokes with buddies who’ve also grown beards about not having to shave every day and looks more the part of a free-spirited road warrior on my Harley than ever before.
Having not cut my hair or shaved in close to six months now, I’m unrecognizable to many of my clients, neighbors, and friends. At first, my beloved, Lisette, wasn’t sure about my new “hippie” identity. Smiling when my shoulder-length locks accidentally got into her face, or when my beard felt scruffy during a goodnight kiss, she has slowly accepted my new look and jokingly calls me “long hair.” Daughter Stefie not only loves her papa’s new look, but she thinks I now seem “more like yourself.” And my one-year-old twin grandsons, whom I treasure and get to see almost daily, would probably not recognize their grandpa without his beard.
I do wonder how long my COVID beard will last. At one point, it got so unwieldy that I broke down and bought a trimmer and started thinning it out every other week. Will I go back to the Dr.-Ken-sitting-at-his-desk image? How do I see myself? And how do I want to be seen? What do I want to project about who I am at this time in my life?
Right now, I’m just going to enjoy letting my hair grow out, trimming my beard every few weeks, and seeing that wild-eyed smile in the mirror . . . and not worry about any of it.
With the most important election of our lifetimes rapidly approaching, and a thousand people still dying of COVID every day in our nation, there are bigger fish to fry. Substance must always take precedence over image, and the clear-eyed man within me is committed to doing everything in my power to leave the world a better, safer place for my family, our nation and the world.