Tuesday, January 18, 2011

By the way, this is not my tattoo!
Tattoos and the Art of Accepting the Choices We've Made

At dinner last week with my sister, we were talking about her marriage, and about how she'd recently come to a place of acceptance of both the bad and the good things about her husband, her family, and her life in general. She reflected that though things weren't perfect, things were the way they were, and she was much happier and more relaxed having come to that conclusion than when she had been consumed with anxiety about all the flaws in her life and relationships.

I'm in the process of getting a new tattoo. I approved the design the artist drew for me, and in a matter of less than a week, my body will be permanently altered. It's the largest tattoo I've ever gotten. When I got my first tattoo ( a small and innocuous one) at age 30, I only had one very brief moment of regret. I don't know why, maybe I was depressed in general at the time, but for a brief minute I wondered what the hell I had done to myself. It didn't take me long to realize that, first of all, it was too late to waste time with regrets, and, second of all, I had chosen that path. I never regretted the tattoo again. Later, I compared my tattoos to the scars on my face and body from 30 years of chronic acne. I reasoned that, at least with tattoos, I get to choose them, as I never had been able to do with my acne scars. Now, a tattoo for me is not about gaining perfection or avoiding regret. It's about showing my soul on my skin. A tattoo shows us something about the person we were when we made that choice; I may be a different person now than I was when I got my first tattoo, but I that tattoo is a reminder of who I was then, and what I wanted my life to mean.

I've been reflected recently on how tattoos are very much like most of the decisions we make. They're permanent, they mark us, and they reflect who we were at the time, though not necessarily who we become. The jobs we have, the relationships we're in, the cars we buy and the places we live are all based on choices we make. Even if we leave the job, the relationship, get rid of the car, and move, those decisions have affected our entire lives; in this sense, they are permanent. At the very least, they live on in memory.

A lot of us spend a lot of time regretting the decisions we've made. "Why did I marry that jerk?" we ask, "Why did I ever accept this crap job?" "I should never have moved across the country, spent my money on this stupid car, said what I said to my kid/partner/friend/dog" We spend a lot of time trying to fix decisions we now regret. But regret, though a normal and natural human emotion, is almost never helpful in the long run. 

 That one moment of regret for my tattoo taught me a lot. It taught me that after we've made a decision, regret is useless. It taught me what my sister has also learned: that things are the way they are. It taught me that the best way not to be tortured with regret is to try to make a wise decision in the first place, but that there is no such thing as a perfect decision, or even a right one. Each decision takes us down a fork in the road; each decision has ten million other decisions attached to it. Agonizing over each decision eventually is just a waste of time, as is regretting them once we've made them. I've always had the rule of thumb that if you want a tattoo, sit on it for at least 6 months to a year before actually getting it done. If you still want it later, then get it. The same is true - though maybe not literally - for each decision we make. Study your options, get outside opinions if they would help, and listen to your gut. But when you've made the decision, let go. Things will be what they will be.

On the other hand....

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