Wearing All the Hats
Once upon a memorable time, somewhere circa scrunchies and white Keds tennis shoes, there existed a little girl who loved reading in all of its glories and forms. That little girl was me, and picture books were always a hit. Oddly enough, one of the more impressionable books of my early reading years was a brightly colored children’s storybook titled Go, Dog, Go! I remember this work as featuring a vast and eccentric array of dogs racing in cars toward a mysterious location. They encountered all manner of obstacles – including an iconic stoplight – along the frenzied way. The book was a visual and verbal thrill from beginning to treetop-party end.
One of the more memorable characters of this story was an elegant, cheery pink poodle. Page after page and scene after scene, this poodle wore a different, eye-catching hat. An adventure separate from the excitement of the story was gleefully discovering a new hat perched atop the pink poodle in every dog-dominated scenario. From a kinked snow cap to hats with flowers or feathers to a bowler boasting the questionable likes of a spider and mouse, the pink poodle donned each one proudly and self-assuredly. Confident of who she was underneath the tantalizing toppers, her character somehow magnetized me and remained unforgettable.
This book and character invaded my scattered thoughts last week as I sat in my car, lost in a sunny day. I was waiting for a green light, just as the dogs in the story. A man crossed on foot in front of me with an exaggerated forward strut, arms swinging in a dramatically carefree manner. He wore a brown T-shirt and bright floral board shorts with worn flip-flops on this winter-ish day. He looked obviously happy, if not a tad oblivious, and I became instantaneously fascinated by him. In a flash, this stranger became someone to me. He quickly went from crossing the street to now being a figment of my world. He came complete with a personality, a story, and a conveniently filled-in character. That quickly, in my mind, I had given the board-shorts man a ‘hat’ to wear.
We do that with everyone, don’t we? From our grocery-aisle companions to our morning gym-routine regulars, we put a hat on those around us. We do this based upon all of the pieces we have at the given moment – sometimes based on one single interaction. We give them a personality, maybe a back-story, sometimes even a moral compass or a mental rating.
I momentarily puzzled. What if board-shorts man would not prefer the ‘hat’ I added to his frame? What if it didn’t fit? Given the option, he would probably prefer to choose which topper displays above his noggin for all to see. The conclusions continued to unravel even as the ten-second encounter with the crosswalk stranger was far behind me. We all wear them. Every person we come into contact with claps a cap upon our unsuspecting skull with reckless and random abandon. How much time have I spent trying to control which chapeau people choose? And how much have I boxed myself in or missed out on real-life by attempting to do so?
The man at the crosswalk drew me in because of the version of him that I had created in my mind because of his’ hat.’ It wasn’t really him, and at that moment, it didn’t need to be. I saw in him what I needed or chose to see for the time being, just as he was doing with those around him. The flamboyant pink poodle might have been just another character had she clung staunchly to her one daisy, embellished sunhat. Had she stopped to make sure everyone noticed exactly what shade of pink she was, she may have been left behind. Instead, she was confident, cheerful, adventurous, and assured—not in spite of, but in addition to—any hat she was wearing. And that’s what made her really stand out, even if those around her commented on the hat before they noticed who was underneath it. She didn’t have to control the narrative. She owned each one.
That brief moment with the board-shorts man and the following memories of the pink poodle gave me something important to grapple with within the coming weeks. Maybe sometimes the only way to give ourselves a chance to really be free in who we are is to let go of trying to influence other people’s perceptions of us. Maybe we miss out on enjoying the crosswalks and the stoplights as long as we allow ourselves to be infiltrated with all of the assumptions others might be placing on us—all of the elements outside of our control. If we spend all of our time clinging to or adjusting our hats, we may very well be missing out on all of the life continuing to move around us. It’s possible to put too much pressure on ourselves and others. It’s possible to overemphasize which hat we are wearing as we make our way in the world. And as we work to arrive at our unknown locations, as we encounter the obstacles and arrive at the surprises, we may as well wear all of the perceptions as proudly and as loudly as possible.
We will often have time enough to tell our story when it’s right, to adjust or take off our hats with the people who are meant to know who is underneath. In the meantime, we may as well enjoy the shade.