The New York Times Magazine has a short essay by Chris Adrian , a pediatrician and a divinity student from Boston. Chris recently visited New York as a mental escape from a recent breakup. Bummed and in spiritual need, Chris decided that a tattoo was the answer.
But somehow this great unpleasant change in my life made me feel as if it was the right time to get the tattoo done. You have all sorts of ideas for self-improvement at such times. And I had always had a particular self-improvement purpose in mind for my tattoo: that it should serve as a visible reminder to be a better person, a symbol that, every time I saw it, would remind me that I had made a commitment to myself to be good.
Uh oh. Now as a divinity student one might think that prayer would have occurred to him as a way to fill the spiritual void and as a reminder to be better person. Alas, Mr. Adrian decided that a tat was the way to go. But what kind of tat could fill such a deep void?
The tattoo was supposed to remind me of what I tended to forget every day, to be less selfish, or less insular, to remember promises, to try to think less of my own largely imaginary suffering and devote some time and energy to considering the suffering of others. I thought of words to this effect, but words seemed too obvious, and too public; I didn’t want just anybody to read about my failings. A picture seemed like a better idea.
I thought of John Calvin, because even though I think he’s a secret softie for the beauty of creation and the potential of mankind even in a fallen state, he seemed like the sort of figure who could issue the kind of reminder I was seeking — with just his face. But then I imagined people at the beach telling me how much they liked my tattoo of Professor Dumbledore. Calvin? they would ask. Like Calvin and Hobbes?
Calvin? Really? I am quite certain that the Calvin and Hobbes tattoo would have done much more to lift his spirits than the fatalistic John Calvin. Anyway, Chris dodged that bullet and ended up with a tattoo of a dragon. A dragon to “remind me that I had made a commitment to myself to be good.”? Hmmm…Ok? Again, Calvin and Hobbes would have been the smarter choice.
So after getting the tattoo, Chris Adrian was initially euphoric (for about 15 minutes) but soon realized that the void had not been filled.
Questions occurred to me like: Why did I get it on my back, where I won’t even see it? Why did it have to be so big? And why can’t I just look at the sun and the clouds and remember that someone wanted me to be good, or that someone thought I could be?
The great regret lasted no longer than the euphoria, and what settled in me was a combination of the two. But the experience made me more distrustful of making such a covenant with myself. A covenant is about security, but if I am good it is probably because I am spiritually insecure. Maybe instead of trying to quiet my unease, I should learn to live creatively with the fact that I am almost never sure about the right thing to do.
I feel for this guy, I really do. But a tattoo was never a good idea. Prayer is the answer. There are no quick fixes. Frequent prayer will put a lasting imprint on your soul that will remind you to be good. A tattoo is only skin deep and does not reach where it needs to go.
In the future, if anyone reading this is thinking about a tattoo to fill the spiritual void, remember Chris. Euphoria followed by regret. You don’t need a tattoo for that, a double fudge banana split will do just fine.