A tattoo can serve any number of purposes between paying homage and looking sweet, but it is most remarkable in its potential to be emblematic of change.
It was Monday, March 11, 2013. I had an Organic Chemistry test that evening so I woke up early to head to work and study. Finding my ambitions taxed by the ordeal of lengthening my day by half an hour, I arrived and turned on my office computer to check Facebook. After two clicks of searching, I learned that Luke Stalker, a fraternity brother of mine studying abroad, had died the previous evening. He stepped out onto the balcony of his hotel room for a cigarette and something happened.
To rise and prepare for a Monday like any other and find that one of your fraternity brothers fell out of a building in Paris to his death. When my last fraternity brother passed before the start of my Senior year, I was able to shelter myself in the arms of the college community. Everyone knew, everyone cared, and we had seen it coming. When Luke passed a year and half later, I was blind on a medical campus amongst tens of thousands of strangers. No one knew him or that he was gone. If they would ever hear about Luke, he would only be another sad story of an unlucky kid who died too young.
As I sat before the tired glow of my office computer, a single thought found me. How the fuck was I supposed to do my job? I left my building and walked across campus to the biggest cafeteria and seated myself amongst unfamiliar people, living their lives oblivious of my loss.
It was nearly Spring outside. A few feet away, an older man sat with a younger woman, laughing and eating like it was any Monday. A ray of sun streamed through the glass panel windows and fell on his face. Although the lines of his eyes smiled, they looked tired, too, and worn deeply.
A new thought found me: as tragic as my day was, it was not the only tragedy. This man might have been up all night holding the hand of his wife, dying slowly of bone cancer. This woman might have just buried her son. As I sat aside, selfish with sadness, any one of the thousands around me could be experiencing a loss much greater than my own. The world was not going to stop turning because I was suffering.
The egoist’s burden: how can the universe be so inconsiderate to me?
That afternoon, I did the job that I am paid to do, and then I got into my car and drove off to take my test. I put on my game face and I did the best that you can expect to do after being hit by the death of a friend. I drove home slowly, heavy with thought.
As I rode in my car, selfish with sadness, I suddenly thought of Luke’s parents and I began to cry. Their child had been studying in another country and it might have been months since they’d last seen him. I thought of them turning on their office computers and booking tickets on a plane that would fly them overseas to a body that they would identify as their child’s and then returning to a world without him. The night was warm, so I drove to a baseball field near my house and sat in the outfield. Under the naked stars, how I spilt.
There is a Commencement speech by the author David Foster Wallace that I came across after graduating. The speech is built around the following parable: there are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
I did not understand what Wallace was saying until that moment. Of course, the younger fish do not know water because they are in it. They fail to question their perspective, so they miss something that has been all around them since the day they started swimming. Yet as I sat and cried for Luke’s parents, I saw, very abruptly, that the key to the parable is recognizing that it is about you. Weeping before the night, I saw my own passing, and I was afraid. The world was no more likely to stop turning because my friend died than it would be if I died. My view of the stars from the outfield of a baseball park was only a drop in the evening sky.
This is water.
Life flows on. The sadness would linger for a while, sure, but eventually things would return to a state of normalcy. It would have been frighteningly easy to drag myself to my feet, dust myself off, and continue. I do not want easy. From my seat, I saw something that took me twenty-three years to discover, something that I wish I could share with the enchanted kid lying awake late at night, feeling like there is something so much greater beyond the four walls of his bedroom as he listens to the sleepless cars roll by, and waiting for his real life to begin.
I must not forget.
The following morning, I woke up and decided to get a tattoo. It is here, now, angled upwards on the inside of my left forearm. In the blue ink of my pen, there are three words followed by a small Φ to honor the two brothers I have lost. Always in sight, I may gaze upon it whenever I need to center myself.
Have you ever been walking somewhere and found that five blocks have passed without you realizing it? Held a conversation you can’t remember the last ten minutes of? What scares me most in this life is that someone could pass years this way, buried so deeply in the trenches of workweek living that existence becomes a matter of simply surviving from one weekend to the next, of waiting for that distant summer vacation that always seems to slip away just as easily as it came.
My tattoo is not just a symbol. It is a philosophy. A lens for consciousness; a window that any moment I may look through and view the world through its perspective. It is about not feeling like I could be so much more, but realizing it one day at a time. I have a duty to myself and those who helped me get here to not wake up one day, decades down the road, and think: I blew it.
Life is happening. Now. Will I awaken for it?
Somewhere in America, there is an elementary school cafeteria with a poster that proclaims, “Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking!” Character is what you do when YOU aren’t looking, when you are three-quarters engaged in activity and behavior is habit. Thought is automatic because the mind is most efficient when responses are practiced. You choose how to think and how to live every second of your life but we are automated! To live deliberately is to break from pattern of thought, to know cognition as a choice, because consciously or not, the decisions we are making are the ones that will kill us.
Someday, you may be deeply engaged in conversation, responding to a question the way you’ve responded countless times before, and know suddenly that you might say anything.