Tattoos and the Illusion of Permanency

Doug McManaman
August 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Like many people, my favorite season of the year is the Fall, which is especially beautiful in Canada. At its best, the temperature is slightly cool, the sky a medium blue, and the sun glistens over the changing leaves of yellow, red, and silver that sway quietly in the noonday breeze. What often impresses me on such days is the thought that this beauty is passing away; for the earth is turning, and soon the sun will set and the temperature will drop. The season itself is also passing through, soon to give way to the chill of winter.

So what does this passing beauty suggest? Firstly, it calls attention to the heart's desire for permanency and rest. There have been moments in the Fall when I would have liked the earth to stop turning so that the sun would stay in its place. The human heart naturally desires unending rest, for no one desires a happiness that will come to an end. We naturally wish that the happiness we happen to be enjoying at the moment will continue indefinitely. So the experience of time should call our attention to the fact that the human heart has been created for a permanent and more enduring beauty, one that does not continually slip away from us, leaving us empty and searching for more. It has been created for God. The heart that seeks rest here, in the realm of what is passing away, is bound to suffer frustration and disappointment.

This is something that a person has to learn on his own, and this will happen if we listen to the message contained in the overall series of life's stages. For life is indeed a series of stages. I'm not quite sure how many are involved exactly, but if you glance back, you'll notice that things that you once thought you'd always delight in had suddenly lost their appeal, and you moved on to other things. This is something that parents who pay attention to their children are familiar with. This phenomenon continues until we are ready to die. Hopefully, by this time, our hearts will be entirely focused on what is eternal and does not pass away.

But adolescence is above all characterized by an intense desire to discover the self. We naturally want to know ourselves, and it is a painful experience not knowing our own identity. We discover ourselves in others, that is, in the way others relate to us, and above all we discover the gifts we've been given through the affirmation of other people. If they have failed us, that is, if we have not been affirmed enough, we will start out in adolescence not really knowing who we are. And if a person doesn't know his own identity, he will be inclined to create one for himself. And since we naturally demand that our uniqueness be recognized by others, a person who lacks an awareness of his own identity will inevitably create one that unequivocally separates him from others. And so, some kids will spike their hair and color it with pink, purple and green, or shave their heads, pierce their ears, noses, bellybuttons or eyebrows, or wear what appears to be a dog collar around their necks, or oversized pants just barely covering their buttocks.

Eventually these kids discover who they are, which is why their hair is grown back, and the earrings, nose rings and dog collars come off after a time. I have yet to meet a former student with spiked hair or pierced eyebrows. But what is typical of some kids -- by no means all of them -- during this particular stage is the illusion that what I want, what I delight in now, and who I am at this point in my life, will never change. And this is what is particularly sad when tattoos come into the picture. For all practical purposes, they are permanent. Those teens who get them seem to imagine that the tattoo will accurately define them for the rest of their lives, forgetting that this stage, along with the identity that the tattoo provides, is destined to recede into the past. When it does, the earring can be removed, hair grown in, spikes flattened and pants refitted, but the tattoo is there to stay. And the day will come when you will say: "This is no longer me." Your identity will have changed. I don't know anyone who does not look back to his younger days and not laugh at himself. We marvel at the way we dressed, at our hair, sideburns, our ideas, and at the way we identified ourselves. And a tattoo is precisely an artificial means of identifying and defining oneself. But if we continue to grow psychologically, the tattoo is a mark on our body that is destined to belong to another era of our lives that we are going to want to remember only occasionally, and often just for a laugh.

Imagine a toddler choosing a tattoo for him or herself. My daughter would choose a princess, and my nephew would have chosen a U.S. Navy Seal logo insignia. But what mother do you know gets excited about princess back packs, pens, or T-shirts? And my nephew has since moved on to other things. On what grounds do we assume that our world stops developing at adolescence?

The tattoo is destined to provide others with an impression of you that you will no longer want them to have. Why? Because it is no longer you. Thus, your tattoo will have become a mark of regret. The cost, the pain, and the time required to remove one will only be a source of further regret.