In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Tattoo….You?.”
This prompt from the Daily Post, caught my attention today – it says so much about our identity – how we label ourselves and whether we should. Some of you may already know where I’m headed, but before I get to the point – I need to give you some background information – just so you know where I’m coming from (literally and figuratively).
My grandmother’s brother had tattoos – lots of tattoos – apparently from time he spend in the Navy during WWII(?). My mother may have to correct me on that. I never could remember his name (she had two brothers that I never saw at the same time, and I couldn’t quite get it right), so I just referred to him as Uncle Tattooed Man. The family knew who I meant and considered it cute rather than disrespectful, so . . .it stuck. I’m sure his tattoos were wonderful souvenirs for him, but by the time I knew him (when I was three), they had faded to bluish-gray blobs that, to my childish eyes, made him look like he was some kind of plague survivor. And because of that – I was always somewhat disgusted by tattoos.
During the ensuing years, I had a variety of experiences that piled on my impression of tattoos and other types of self-labeling that people are prone to do. Having lived in various places, I witnessed all kinds of prejudices in action.
In one town, 85% Hispanic, which I was not, I became something of an oddity because of my red hair – that many of the other children had never seen. I remember feeling like crawling under a rock on the first day of school when they pointed at me and spoke about me to each other in a language I didn’t know. I remember one girl telling the other students in our advanced class that I was faking a southern accent and had dyed my hair because I didn’t want people to know that I was only pretending to be smart enough to be in “their” class. (Really?) How did she account for my extra-pale skin and green eyes? I also remember a child in my sister’s kindergarten class whose parents had named their bi-racial child Angel (accent on the end) and had moved to that town so that she could pass for Hispanic. I remember meeting the first “real” Jewish person I had ever known in that same town, and how he brought pictures of his grandmother’s arm – tattooed with a number at Auschwitz (or Out-with, if you like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) so that we could understand what we were learning about in history.
Moving back home to the deep south, I remember learning about the Civil War, and learning that some slaves had been branded on their faces so that if they ran away, they wouldn’t be able to hide. I remember learning about the civil rights movement and how prominently, and negatively, our state’s reputation had grown because of the acts of certain individuals who had committed atrocities against some of the college students who were involved in the movement. Wondering, in middle school, why people had ever felt that way – some of my best friends in middle school looked very different that I did and I didn’t even think much about it.
Moving again to a town in a “border” state (if by border you mean the Mason-Dixon line), that had supposedly been a Union state – but in which there was a definite monochromatic color scheme, I encountered another type of prejudice. The prejudice that told (some of) these people I would agree with them because of where I was from. They were so wrong – they never had the opportunity to meet anyone that was significantly different and had such horribly strange ideas about anyone that was different. I remember taking Civics as a senior and facing down our teacher in front of all the other students as he tried to spread more hatred toward my home state. He, a short white man with a Hitler mustache, was telling the class that the “south” still had segregated bathrooms and water fountains – still required students to attend different schools. Several of us in the class were transplants to that town and were trying to tell him that he was wrong. He asked one girl, who had been just as appalled as I was, where she was from and when she said, “Virginia” he said, “Well, I’m talking about the DEEP South.” At which statement, I stood up and said, “I’m from south Miss-iss-ippi! How much further south do you want to go?!?!?!” He sat down and didn’t say another word for the next week – just handed out worksheets for us to finish every day.
Now – what has that got to do with tattoos? I saw a picture of a young woman the other day with the word “Loyalty” tattooed across her very dark-skinned cheek. And I thought of how I defended my state against that teacher, trying to let everyone in that class know how “my south” didn’t do horrible things anymore. I thought about the lessons regarding branding slaves faces. I thought about my friend’s grandmother’s arm. And I wondered – does that girl even know? Now, if you want to tattoo a great huge word across your face – that’s your business, but it made me wonder if she knew how much her face resembled the pictures I had seen of horribly disfigured people from the Civil War era? What would they say when looking at her? Would they wonder why they fought so hard to escape oppression only to have their descendants choose to bear a mark so similar to the ones that were meant to label them forever as a piece of property? Surely, this young woman has never seen those pictures. I can’t imagine having seen those and choosing to label yourself in such a way.
But all of it – all of the pictures and the experiences – started to come together in my mind as I realized that we often label ourselves with words that were never meant to belong to us. We just don’t necessarily write those words in huge script across our faces. We take on the words that are given by the negative people in our lives. Words like useless, disappointment, mistake, loser, failure.
We tell ourselves that we aren’t worth anyone’s attention or time. We tell ourselves that it’s all our fault (and sometimes it really is – and we must take responsibility in those times). We tell ourselves that we will never get any better. We are our problem, we are our disease, we are our – whatever.
But what we tell ourselves – may have NOTHING to do with what we really are. With what God created us to be.
Part of my aversion to actual tattoos comes from some idea I got in childhood about not wanting to ever change my body in any way because that isn’t the body that God gave me. (My husband points out my pierced ears when that feeling pops up – and I have no real answer except that I wanted to fit in when I was eleven – and even though I have left my ears vacant to see if they would grow back together – they don’t, so I keep wearing my earrings rather than sport a naked hole there.)
But earrings aside, that feeling is how we are supposed to feel. We are not supposed to accept things in our life that He didn’t put there. We are supposed to rely on Him, not just for that great one-day-I’ll-fly-away feeling that we can get, but for every moment of every day. We are supposed to want His opinion to be the only one that matters. (I am not trying to dissuade anyone from getting a tattoo, or dying their hair, or wearing trendy clothes, or even getting cosmetic surgery here – I am speaking spiritually). There is not supposed to be anything in our spirit that wasn’t placed there for our good – and if we have allowed something to be there – then we have to turn to Him for our spiritual tattoo removal surgery. We shouldn’t label ourselves because of what the world tells us about ourselves – as believers, we have to let God label us according to our secret name that he will reveal to us in Heaven.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. Rev. 2:17
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Rev. 22:4
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; Isa. 49:16