Mike Wright contemplates: The Physical Impossibility of Combing a Hairy Ball Flat in the Mind of Someone Living Intolerably

I recently received this image (right) in an e-mail. And after affording myself the appropriate level of chuckling time over the quality of content and the craft of delivery, I was prepared to move mentally along with my day, perhaps diverting my attention to some other procrastination-worthy material… but an idea got stuck in my head. My attention was suddenly held hostage by the thought that, ‘You can’t comb a hairy ball flat.’

Don’t worry, the image had not created some sort of irony-fuelled vortex, sucking all sense and meaning out of my mind. If you bear with me for a moment, I will try to explain…

I had once heard it said that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. It seems that whoever made this grandiose statement had evidently never tried to comb a hairy ball flat! My skepticism towards the claim derives from my awareness of the ‘Hairy Ball Theorem’ of algebraic topology (where else, I hear you cry), which Wikipedia informs me ‘states that there is no nonvanishing continuous tangent vector field on even-dimensional n-spheres’… or in English, ‘whenever one attempts to comb a hairy ball flat, there will always be at least one tuft of hair at one point of the ball’. (See image, left (Wikipedia).)

But how is this (or anything) relevant to the first image, you ask? Well, it seems to me that whenever we are compelled, whether through intolerance towards the existing paradigm, circumstance or opinion, to effect some external form of change we are (figuratively) attempting to comb a hairy ball flat.

We are attempting to achieve the unachievable, that is to say, in willing outer/external circumstances to universally correspond to a harmonic ideal, itself motivated by inner disharmony and dissatisfaction.

It appears that there will always remain a resistant ‘tuft’ (hairy ball-like) if action itself is compelled through resistance and force.
This is not to suggest that we should never seek to effect any form of change. It is to suggest that we must first start with ourselves. This insight is far from being original: the mystic poet Rumi observed in the 13th century that, ‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.’ It’s a thought echoed much later by Mahatma Gandhi, who famously advised, ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’

If we act from a standpoint of intolerance, then we project that intolerant attitude, perpetuating a climate of intolerance completely non-conducive to creating or sustaining any harmony, be that internally or externally. The ‘vandalism, irony, and lists’ image above helps to convey (humorously) the inherent irony and hypocrisy that ensues from adopting such a position. To act in this manner actually supports and maintains an attitude that, in itself, is directly opposed to peace, as Pierre Bayle expressed when he stated, ‘It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling.’

So what are we to do if the comb of intolerance is laid down? How are we to accept what we find to be unendurable? Eckhart Tolle counsels that, ‘If you find your life situation unsatisfactory or even intolerable, it is only by surrendering first that you can break the unconscious resistance pattern that perpetuates the situation… It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it. Nor does it mean to cease making plans or initiating positive action. Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life.’

It seems that firstly we must accept that our external circumstances are continually changing; that by their very nature are impermanent. To effect lasting positive change, it also therefore seems that we must adopt within ourselves a positive standpoint of tolerance and kindness.

Too simple? It makes sense, surely, that if intolerance begets more intolerance, then by becoming more tolerant ourselves we effect positive change as an active agent of that virtue.

We may occasionally choose to surrender to, or in other words accept, what ‘is’ in our present situation to avoid resisting or opposing the natural flow of life and to free ourselves from inner conflict. And if resistance is indicative of conflict, then freedom and flow must surely be the expressive movement of harmony and peace.

Therefore, to prevent ourselves becoming stuck up in a hairy ball ‘tuft’ of our own, we must accept that the hairs may move this way or that – and rather than forcefully comb them in a fixed direction, we should perhaps embrace and join in with this merry dance of change.

Above all, let’s not forget the important fact that ‘you can’t comb a hairy ball flat’… except, of course, in the case whereby a laboured metaphor which serves to justify its own tenuous use as an angle for a blog theme, can be deemed to be an acceptable application of force towards the reader!

I am grateful for the tolerance and compassion displayed by any reader who has borne with me until this point.