My Tattoos (and the Meanings of Them) [Part 3]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: see below!)

Well, by the end of this post I’ll be caught up to my total tattoo count today (although I intend to get a fourth within the next year or two). If you missed the first two, you can find them here and here.

So let’s get started! On my left shoulder, I have a tattoo that represents a stylized wave, drawn in grayscale, over four lines of text written in plain cursive handwriting which say:

So fill your heart/with what’s important/and be done with/all the rest

I know, sappy and Californian, right? Well, the history of the tattoo isn’t so sappy. And get ready, because this is a long one – and my most important tattoo to date. If you’re close to me and you’d like to know something very core to my personality and struggles, please read on.

So the first thing you need to know about me is that I care. I consider it both my biggest flaw and my greatest strength – I care way too much about other people in my life. It’s all I’ve ever heard from people around me, how compassionate I am, how much empathy I have for others.

(I’m not bragging – as you’ll see later, I actually hate it when people tell me that.)

Up until college, specifically senior year of college, I’d held a lot of philosophies and views on life that were either outdated, naive, or stupid. I believed the world was black and white and people insisted on separating it into shades of gray because they couldn’t handle the ‘hard truths’ of things; I believed anyone who drank or used recreational drugs was a scumbag and moral degenerate; and I believed I was a good person for wanting to help people.

But it goes even deeper than that – I didn’t just want to help people, I couldn’t not help them. I felt deeply emotionally perturbed if a friend or family member or SO was going through something I couldn’t help them with, and I would trip over myself to do anything for them that would cause them ease of burden. It felt almost like a compulsion.

So, we’re fast forwarding to the summer after my senior year. I’m still on UCLA campus, holding a job as a New Student Advisor (aka orientation counselor), and I’m having some existential crisis on a bus ride from Las Vegas, where the orientation staff had a holiday weekend together. I’ve had this crisis before, but never so powerfully.

See, here’s the idea. My dad has kind of a “savior complex”, where he also feels like he has to help everyone around him. But for him, it’s kind of a power thing – I think he feels like other people can’t handle their own shit, and he has to help them. (Sorry, Dad.) When you take thinking like that and extend it to its deepest meaning, it comes across as I am better than others around me at dealing with life, and so I must help them, because they cannot help themselves.

Total condescension.

That’s what I’ve always been afraid of, every time someone tells me how ‘compassionate’ I am – am I really only compelled to help people because I can’t stand to see them screwing up their own lives? Is all of this just a way of inflating my own ego or refusing to deal with my own problems by pretending I’m superior to others?

The reason this came up again over the summer was because of a friend of mine. Imma call her Anna for her privacy.

Anna was dealing with some kind of intense shit at the moment – everything from mental illness issues to sexual and emotional abuse to poverty to family illness – you name it, she was probably dealing with it. As you could imagine, I gravitated towards her as a kind of older brother figure (she’s three years younger than me) and together we talked a lot about her issues, and I tried to help her. Standard me.

Something weirder happened in Las Vegas. We got into a fight, and it kind of ended with her telling me to fuck off and stop trying to help, that she didn’t need me to try to control her life. It gave me a lot of pause to think, and on that bus ride back from Vegas was when I began to piece things together.

Your parents, if they’re good parents, will always tell you what a good person you are. They’ll tell you you’re a wonderful human being. But what if they’re wrong? It’s not like they know your inner thoughts, your worst secrets. What if you’re a bad person, and no one even knows about it?

Or in my case, what if I really don’t care about people? What if I only help them for that feeling of superiority and personal gain? What kind of insecure piece of shit would I have to be in order to be compelled to help people who could absolutely handle their own lives on their own, thank you very much?

I voiced these opinions to Anna and several friends who were sitting nearby, watching me cry. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget what Anna said to me next.

She told me a story about her mother, who’d been woken up in the middle of the night to hear that her young son (who has had chronic health problems) was having an organ failure, and she needed to come in right then to give a transplant. And Anna watched as her poor, exhausted mother put on a brave face and left to go give a piece of her body to her son.

“Maybe,” Anna concluded, “we help people because we don’t know what else to do.”

The simplicity of that statement made me cry even more, but this time it was relief. Maybe we help each other for personal gain, or to help others, or to not feel insecure about ourselves. Maybe it is superiority. Maybe it’s all of those things or none of them. But mostly, we help people because when it comes down to it, when people we love are in crisis, we just don’t know what else to do.

From that moment I knew I needed to get a tattoo to represent this answer to myself. I had no idea what I wanted the actual tattoo to be until later in the summer, when I was having a late-night cryfest with my girlfriend Lindsay over the same crisis.

(Please keep reading, I know it’s long, but I need people to know this.)

Earlier that evening, Lindsay and I had been practicing one of our time-honored relationship traditions where she draws some cool or strange symbol on my hand. She’s an artist, I like being a canvas, and it was a way for us to flirt before we got together. (Yes, I’m a goddamn middle schooler, deal with it.)

This evening, Lindsay had drawn a stylized wave with an expo marker. It reminded me of my little brother, whom I’m calling Antelope, who always uses the expression “ride the wave” when he’s refusing to be stressed out by something. And as Lindsay and I were talking about things, and I was coming to another, greater realization about why I feel compelled to help people, I couldn’t meet her eye – and so I looked down at the wave on my hand.

I’m that douchebag who sees significance in everything. I knew I wanted that exact drawing tattooed on my shoulder permanently. And it was a few months later before I realized that wasn’t the complete design – I wanted text to go with it.

I settled on one of my favorite songs, The Last Lost Continent by La Dispute. In this 12-minute odyssey of a lyrical hardcore song, the artist explores the concepts of the shackles holding humanity down and how, by bonding together, we can shield each other from some of the horrible things in this horrible world.

The full quote from the song is, “We live amidst a violent storm/leaves us unsatisfied at best/so fill your heart with what’s important/and be done with all the rest”.

The tattoo is derived from the inputs of Lindsay, Antelope, and Anna – therefore, a piece of them is in it. I have Lindsay’s design, Antelope’s ‘ride the wave’ message, and I actually asked Anna for her handwriting for the quote.

It’s a reminder to me that being involved in people’s lives is a good thing, but controlling them is not. It reminds me to fill my heart with what’s important – the struggles of the people I love – and be done with all the rest – the compulsion to help them, the desire to intervene. I can be there for people, can empathize with them and help share their burden, and still let them walk their own path.

After all, I don’t know what else to do.

Yours, still working on it,

-R.R. Buck


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