A philosophy professor once told me the truly adult decisions are the ones we make in the face of an unforeseen future. Maybe this is why for some a tattoo is a rite of passage. It marks a significant event, an obstacle overcome, a new beginning or a personal commitment. It marks a memory to be remade daily.
Your memories change. According to a 2012 Northwestern University study, every time you remember an event, your brain may be changing the way you recall it. As Walker Percy has written, “Small disconnected facts, if you take note of them, have a way of becoming connected.” It’s like when you get a marriage or a divorce: every part of your past takes on the tint of your present. Everything you’ve known gets readjusted by what you can hope for or despair of in your future.
A few years ago, in a PLS seminar, I read about “the wise man” Solon. Solon refuses to tell the ancient Greek king Croesus whether he is happy. Solon says, “I cannot answer the question you asked me until I know the manner of your death. Count no man happy until the end is known.” Likewise, Socrates teaches that “death may be the greatest of all human blessings” and that “of all men, death is least alarming” to philosophers, who have prepared for it.
I remember hearing a business owner ask: “How can we know who we are as a company, if we don’t know what we want to be when we grow up?” This question also applies to people. And a tattoo, as a mark we bear until death, should say something about who we’ve been, who we are and who we long to be. This last part is particularly significant, and we’re unprepared for a tattoo if we don’t have an answer to it.
At the same time, a tattoo, as a lifelong commitment, creates answers. Like all commitments, it aids our journey through life by creating a path that has been marked off by decision. It’s like the decision to become Catholic — or to stop being Catholic. You can only make a journey if you’ve chosen a road. But, as Socrates and Solon point out, you won’t truly understand the significance of the road until you’ve reached your destination. This isn’t to say that you can’t take the nearest exit and travel down a different highway. Just make sure you take the exit when it’s available and that you don’t just let your life pass you by. And if you find a better route or destination, be sure to tell your friends.
I took a friend with me when I got my tattoo. She held my hand on the drive home. I told her she didn’t have to hold my hand. But she said that she had seen I was in pain when I got it, and she wanted to hold onto me.
Percy writes, “The Self since the time of Descartes has been stranded, split off from everything else in the Cosmos. … It therefore needs to exercise every option in order to reassure itself that it is not a ghost but is rather a self among other selves. One such option is a sexual encounter. Another is war.”
For some, a tattoo is a war upon your body that strikes at the heart of modern consciousness. It’s the infliction of a wound that remains. Under your skin, the ink of the tattoo always stays liquid. It’s a grotesque violence that many people undergo so that they will constantly be reminded of who they are. But it also makes you wonder whether you need to suffer to get someone to hold your hand, or whether suffering is what makes your hand worthy of being held. And then there’s the intimacy of laying in bed with another and explaining the meaning behind the marks on your body, as Jackie does in “House of Cards”: “I killed a lot of people in the Army. The pain [of getting the tattoos]… It helped.”
Regardless, a tattoo is a way of discovering yourself, precisely because it’s a way of deciding who you are and who you’re going to be. And though it will fade, shift and change with age, there’s an unsettling reassurance in knowing that it will always remain. When you want to forget who you are and the things you’ve done and the commitments you’ve made, it’ll be there, staring at you, at times defiantly.
People ask me what my tattoo means. I think I’ll really find out at my death. Ask me then.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, October 1, 2015.