I imagine Fred Phelps is one of those people, who, on or about his deathbed, claimed to be headed to the great beyond with no regrets, but he was an asshole.
I understand the sentiment of it, the idea that all your choices in life, good or bad, led you to this place in your life, and you look at your kids and grand kids and wife of fifty years or whatever and tell people just how happy you are in that moment, even though you’re going to die. But I think regret is a profoundly good thing. I also think that if you can’t look back on certain moments in your life realistically enough to say, ‘yes I would take that back if I could, I regret making someone else feel that way, I regret the outcomes of my decision in that instance’, well, then you’re pretty pathetically self-centered. And that’s just the way that it is.
There are only generally three responses people give when you ask them if they want to get a tattoo: 1) I already have x many tattoos (where x is greater than or equal to 1) 2) Some variation of I don’t know what I want slash I haven’t found the right guy/gal to tattoo me yet. 3) I would never do that to my body.
Let’s chat about these responses.
Numbers 1: Sick.
Number 2: Awesome. I love it. Take your time if you feel you need to. What do you have in mind if I could be so bold as to ask which I could be?
Number 3: I have seen your body! It’s not that fucking great. But more to the point, let’s get a Hunter S. Thompson quote to point you in the right direction:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
The thing is, people look at tattoos and ask themselves, ‘Will I like this forever?’ Almost certainly not. I didn’t like professional basketball on Monday because the NCAA was still in session but now that it’s the only thing on tv besides baseball it’s just about my favorite sport.
Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan anymore, but I was right about the time I graduated high school. If I had gotten, I don’t know, say, this Bruce tattoo:
I could definitely look at it and think, ‘Man, I have a poorly rendered image of Bruce Springsteen tattooed on my stomach.’ And that would probably suck. Or, I could look at it and remember that sweaty summer night in 2003 at Giants stadium with one of my best friends in the world and a girl I really liked screaming Dancing in the Dark at the top of our lungs with 50,000 people, how I was sure that I would live forever and how certain it was that these were the kind of defining life moments that people have consciousness specifically for. Despite whether or not I like him now, if I could let that tattoo take me back to that place in my memory it would make me happy, no matter how much the Boss actually looks like Adam Sandler in my Tattoo.
Tattoos are one of those things that unite humanity. They have been found in cultures across the globe for centuries- cultures that have had no contact with each other. It links us as a race, it links us despite our differences, despite the different meanings they hold- the great achievements of man and our lowest moments. The descendants of holocaust survivors have been getting their family member’s concentration camp numbers tattooed on themselves in recent years. It speaks to tattoos as tradition, what once was a mark of unspeakable horror and tragedy is being reborn into a symbol of pride and proof of humanity’s unyielding ability and willingness to survive in the face of even the most insurmountable of odds, of our nature to live, and remember. When you get yourself tattooed, whether you know it or not, it is a declaration of your utter humanity and participation in the human condition.
I associate tattoos with this idea I heard about the root of the word courage (from, I believe, a TED talk that fifteen seconds of looking didn’t find). It probably comes from the Latin word, Coeur, which means, ‘to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.’
You have the opportunity, with tattoos, to immortalize the things that made you, the moments that make you a person, that, when all strung together, equal a human life. The tough years when you felt like you had no future and that long night of drinking when you knew you had a friend for life with the guy who hung in there with you the whole time. That impulsive time on vacation with the girl you thought was the one. Maybe she was, maybe she was the one that broke your heart instead, but there, on your arm, on your calf, on your shoulder is the mark that says, ‘I lived through this!’ Your Marvin the Martian tattoo that screams to anyone who sees it, ‘Hey, he was a teenager in the 90’s, and most likely had a Jeep Wrangler, that car I always wanted.’ You should, after all, be reminded of the tough times so the good times seem extra sweet. And you should let yourself remember those great moments, the ones you live for, because you know that things aren’t always this bad, that the good times will come again. And you’ll maybe appreciate them more. Elbert Hubbard said, ‘God will not look you over for medals degrees or diplomas, but for scars.’ Tell the story of what made you your own way. What fire you walked through, what experience you had that it was just enough for you to proclaim that you lived through it for people to understand how difficult your journey? What moments do you hold close to your heart, that so impassioned you, that so inspired you? What music did you hear that made you want to dance in the street, sing out loud, cry to yourself? What do you hold sacred?
“When one has nothing left make ceremonies out of the air
and breathe upon them.”
Tell the story of who you are. Write it upon yourself. Decide what is sacred to you, decide what brings you joy and pain. Decide what you don’t want to forget, what stories you don’t mind being prompted to tell. Join those that came before and those that will follow and tell your story. Don’t fear regret, it keeps you human.