Four hours in and I was ready to get up and walk out. I couldn't help but ask aloud with a laugh: "Why do I do this to myself?"
It was a balmy June night in Chicago a little over a week ago. I was flat on my back on the second floor of a beautifully renovated West Side house flourished by heavy drapes, portraits of dogs, and surfaces populated by countless unidentifiable trinkets. At the time all of these details were lost on me. I was preoccupied, staring at the ceiling drenched in sweat, dehydrated and delirious. I had been doing pretty well until this point -- as someone who hates the actual process of being tattooed, I was surprised by how calm I'd been. But now my tolerance was wearing thin and I was beginning to squirm. Crouching over me, a woman I had met mere hours before was working up a dedicated sweat of her own, pressing ink into me and rubbing vaseline over my increasingly tender skin. As Serena went over lines she had already tattooed near my elbow for a second time, I squeezed my eyes tight and bit my lower lip. Ouch, I thought. This really, really hurts. Why exactly was I doing this anyway?
This, my sixth tattoo, is the largest one yet, stretching nearly the full outer expanse of my gangly right arm. Winding around two already existing tattoos is now a fig tree. The fruits of the tree contain symbols from a select number of world religions; the Sikh khanda, the Muslim crescent moon and star, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David, and several others. Four and a half hours of pain is a lot to endure and, as the idiom goes, ink is forever. Getting a tattoo is a significant commitment to be sure. And so the question looms: why would an avowed secularist undergo hours of sharp and repeated needling to permanently alter his appearance with an arm full of religious symbols?
I have mixed feelings on "explaining" tattoos, particularly in writing. Part of me enjoys that they can be ambiguous; another likes to maintain them as an invitation for investigation. When someone approaches me to ask what my tattoos mean, it is an entree for dialogue. But though I hesitate to extrapolate, I'd like to take this opportunity to try to answer the aforementioned "why."
A number of years ago I was deeply impacted by Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar." In it there is a moment where the protagonist envisions herself perched in the split of a sizable fig tree, frozen by indecision; as someone who has struggled with making important choices, this sentiment resoundingly resonated. Below is said selection from the novel:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
I think this quote ably encapsulates the challenge of grappling with the age-old recognition that, to some degree, "every choice is a renunciation." After ceding my exclusivistic Christian identity, I felt for a time that I had to select an alternate religion in its place in order to move forward in my search for "truth." As I wrote in a column forThe New Gay, I thought that "choosing to follow one spiritual path meant that I had to forsake every other." Feeling trapped by the limitations of choice, I eventually chose none of them.
I stand by that decision today and remain steadfast in my assertion that there is (probably) no God. But my thinking on religion has evolved significantly since then. I may have selected my particular identity -- Secular Humanist -- but I advocate for respectful secular-religious engagement because I now understand that cutting myself off from the insights provided by the world's numerous faith traditions is fundamentally limiting. And it is, ultimately, an impossibility for the engaged global citizen: if I am to know others in a way that takes seriously their desires and commitments, I must know the history that precedes them. Likewise, I must acknowledge my own. I am where I am today because I have grappled with the world's wisdom traditions and the people that embody them -- and I continue to.
Four days after getting this tattoo I spoke at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference in Buffalo, New York. An attendee noticed the still dark, now scabbing piece of work and, pointing to the star of David, asked: "Are you Jewish?" I laughed and wondered to myself why it is that we assume that one who seriously entertains the stories and mores of a religious tradition must themselves be an adherent. It was a knowing laugh because I've maintained the same belief myself, and because it is inherent to the ideological shift I hope to facilitate. This new tattoo is a visual reminder of my aim for my secular community: that we find a way to respect and engage religion while maintaing our own identity. I have on many occasions acted as a public ambassador between these seemingly disparate communities (religious and secular) on behalf of the other. It is a position I stumbled into, but I've embraced it. To me this tattoo is a stake in the ground, a permanent nod to the public and personal gravity of this work. I hope people will continue to ask about the tattoo and that dialogue will, you know, blossom from it. (Get it? Because it's a fig tree? Okay, moving on.) "Why [did] I do this to myself?" For the same reason I challenge secular communities to rethink the way they approach religion: Intentions matter. Commitments matter.
The decision to get a tattoo is an intimidating commitment, but it becomes easier each time I do it. As I've continued to develop in my approach to religion, I have found myself more and more able to make such sizable commitments in other contexts. We all bear the mark of the history the precedes us -- I just made this mark literal.
I credit my history of engaging religion with equipping me to navigate the difficult choices of life; and like the religions I have encountered, this ink will always be a part of me. It is a visceral reminder that, when it comes to religion, I am now and forever -- if you will -- armed to engage.
(And Mom, if you're reading this -- and I'm assuming you are -- yes, I got another tattoo. I'm sorry. I love you. From now on, for every new tattoo I get, you'll get a grandchild. Deal?)