When I was growing up in the 70’s, body art was generally limited to bikers, hippies, and those in prison. Somewhere along the line that changed. Now, even Republicans (at least those not previously in prison – see “break in, Watergate”) are getting tattoos. I think this is an excellent phenomenon, one in which I just participated.
As an aside – and this does have something to do with this essay – I am continually amazed how many people find Jesus in prison. If they had found him before their particular crime, perhaps their ass wouldn’t have ended up in the can in the first place. The reasons for this, may end up the subject of another essay at some point.
This rather hairless and skinny left ankle is mine. I’m small boned. The symbol is the Mandarin character for “grace”, as in God’s grace or the grace and forgiveness we extend, all too rarely, to others. Philip Yancey has written it’s “the last, best word”. Fellow Oxford professors once asked CS Lewis what separated Christianity from other belief systems. He answered, “that’s easy; grace.” Grace means giving up your right to punish, to seek revenge, to become bitter. Grace, most assuredly, does not mean weakness. To the contrary, it requires amazing strength of character. I wish I had more of that strength.
When I decided to get my first ink, something over which I have been quietly ruminating for several years, I knew I wanted it to be something about grace. When I found this symbol, I knew it was the one. I looked for other options and kept coming back to this one. Like taking an exam, go with your first answer.
There is always a risk in tattooing a foreign word on your person. I attempted to verify online the authenticity of this character by checking multiple websites and it all checked out. Of course, there is always the nagging fear that it actually means “cashew chicken half off”. Should I travel to China, where a shitload of actual Chinese people live, I shall keep it covered. I could not stand the laughter if I am wrong.
People can tattoo whatever they wish, but the best ones seem to me to be those which are personal and carry deep meaning for the individual. My nineteen year old daughter, Livia, has “Blessed” tattooed inside her left forearm. She says it means she is blessed her birth parents gave her life back in Romania and to have been adopted by us. I love that girl.
Tattooing this message was my version of a “semi colon” tattoo, which I also considered. I also considered a tattoo on my penis. Part of the time it would read “Wendy”. At others it would be, “Welcome to Arizona. Have a nice day.”
Grace is indeed an amazing word and you need not accept the religious connotation to appreciate it. To appreciate grace, you need to consider “gracelessness”. Without grace for one another, we become ISIS, immolating our enemies, at least metaphorically. Too many followers of history’s leading purveyor of grace completely lack it, missing the essence of his message. Like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal, we reduce life and faith to a business arrangement, wherein we simply must keep up our end of the Contract, or else. That’s not love. That’s employment. No relationship can long survive under those conditions.
As difficult as it is to demonstrate grace for others, it is harder still to give grace to oneself. At least for me. I’ve never given myself “two thumbs up” for anything and my own sins and failings I find hard to let go. It’s not that I advocate ignoring one’s failings (how would we ever mature and grow?) It is more a matter of keeping things in proper perspective. My new tattoo reminds me to live my life consistently showing grace to others and treating myself the same. It reminds me Someone believes I am worthy of grace and who am I to argue? Of course, the phrase, “worthy of grace” is an oxymoron of global proportions. By definition, one can’t ever be “worthy” of grace, only retribution. Our whole criminal justice system is based upon that, with retribution supposedly proportional to the offense. Of course, if you’re Black, your offenses must be worse.
Grace…. The best word. It frees us to love. To hope. To have faith in the Ultimate Good. In a truly fucked up world, grace is the only hope for peace. Presidents and prime ministers, popes and princes can’t bring it. Admirals and armies can’t protect it. Only grace can. It’s what Gandhi preached. It’s what King learned from Gandhi and is the ultimate irony. Only with grace can we have justice. Only with grace can there be reconciliation. Someone has to be the first to say, “enough”. Without it, there is no justice; only law.
Thus, I chose grace as my first tattoo. It is pregnant with meaning and a reminder that if I am to be strong, if I am to be a lover, if I am to live in faith and hope, then it all starts with grace. Grace is a circle. Only by giving it away can it be fully received and only by receiving it can it be given away.