Last night at the pub, sitting outside under strings of lights and canopies to catch the rain still falling from trees, my friend told me her conservative mother’s plan to get a tattoo.
“I know, I was surprised too.”
It’s simple, inconspicuous, and dedicated to her children. She’ll never regret her children (which was also a pretty permanent decision), so why would she regret a tattoo for them?
I’m not one to oppose tattoos ever, even if their appeal to me has dissipated since getting one myself. I had similar logic: I’ll never regret my religion, so how could I regret a tattoo dedicated to it? Fast forward five years — I no longer attend church, I openly oppose missionary evangelism (which I believed for years was “my calling” and brought about this tattoo), and I’m very sick of everyone asking if I’m Jewish when they see my Hebrew tattoo.
I don’t regret the tattoo or my faith, but I do dread explaining my hipster Christian phase. When I was sixteen and dreaming up potential tattoo designs with my friends (none of which we ever got), I believed a tattoo was a way to be publicly understood without having to explain. Not only is it naive to believe a questionable tattoo gotten at eighteen could accomplish this, but it’s naive to wish to be understood so easily. Or at all.
Sometimes I get worried when I realize how well I agree with Jack Kerouac (he never had steady employment, was constantly borrowing money from his family, and was more or less homeless much of his life), but his lament of being misunderstood and accepting that it should happen hit home in his 1948 letter to Allen Ginsberg:
“Realize, Allen, that if all the world were green, there would be no such thing as the color green. Similarly, men can’t know what it is to be together without otherwise knowing what it is to be apart. If all the world were love, then how could love exist!”
Essentially, if we were all understood, there would be no meaning to understanding. As though being misunderstood is the value in being understood, or the headache from skipping morning coffee makes the coffee more precious.
Ginsberg doesn’t buy this, however. Unfortunately for me, a sudden convert to Keroacism in misunderstanding, Ginsberg uses his next letter to expose this reason as merely an excuse for Kerouac to hold himself back and hide his vulnerability:
“Don’t you see that it is just the whole point of life not to be self conscious? That it must all be green? All love? Would the world seem incomprehensible? This is an error. The world would seem incomprehensible to the rational faculty which keeps trying to keep us from the living in green, which fragments and makes everything seem ambiguous and mysterious and many colors. The world and we are green.”
I know enough people with questionable tattoos to know they don’t make people more interesting. Almost anyone with a large amount regrets one, usually the first. “Tattoo fever” is supposedly the urge to get another tattoo quickly after the first, and how so many of my friends spent their refund checks in college. They’re addicted to the expression, to the feeling of being slightly more understood at first glance. I didn’t feel that way. I instantly felt like I was pretending to be something I was not, a devout Christian who agreed wholly with the church. Even then I was beginning to pull away, but like anyone in a sinking ship, I did what I thought would save me (or show I went down swinging): I permanently stamped my devotion on the back of my neck.
It’s “God is love” in Hebrew, a paraphrase of 1 John 4:12–16, “No one has ever seen God, but if we love, God lives in us . . . We have come to know and believe the love God has for us. God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God.”
I discussed my tattoo at the pub last night, and I read these words in Ginsberg’s letter this morning:
“We are inexistent until we make an absolute decision to close the circle of individual thought entirely and begin to exist in god with absolute unqualified and unconscious understanding of green, love and nothing but love, until car, money, people, work, things are love, motion is love, thought is love, sex is love. Everything is love. That is what the phrase ‘God is Love’ means.”
Ginsberg tries his best to deny his mysticism for new-age religion. A decade after writing this letter, he would convert to Buddhism. These early letters to Kerouac reference western religion countlessly as someone who respects the philosophy but struggles with the execution. I sought to distance myself from the church. I wore collared shirts and my hair down so no one could confuse me as evangelical. I don’t regret my faith, and I still have it, though it doesn’t leave me searching for that community like it once did.
All expression should come from a place of honesty. That way, there isn’t truly regret. In the end, I only regret the times I was false, and those are when I believed I knew things completely. Now I realize this is impossible. As Ginsberg wrote, “What the fuck do you actually care whether or not you know you are love in the false way that you seem to think you ‘know’ things now? Why are you afraid to submit to the annihilation of such stupid meaningless unreal knowledge.” Perhaps we are mostly misunderstood. Philosopher Alain de Botton believed this is the side effect of a creative mind, and puts us in the company of great artists. But, in a way, is that not understanding?
“Don’t say that it never becomes complete because what I am saying is that that is just the whole point, even of you, that it can be complete. All green. Abandon everything else.”
– Allen Ginsberg