If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em or... Transformation at Fifty

My son is about to turn eighteen. For his eighteenth birthday he plans to get a tattoo. Although I like the image he’s chosen – of a rock climber silhouetted against a gorgeous setting sun – I don’t think getting a tattoo at eighteen is wise. I’ve told him so in every possible way. I’ve provided every reason I can think of to wait until he’s older. To no avail. All I’ve created is friction between us.

He was studying Spanish and living with a family in Uruguay for five weeks earlier this summer, and while he was gone, I had a change of heart. Others helped me to realize that getting a tattoo, especially of an image that my son (who’s been rock climbing since he was five) has loved for almost two years now, is a form of self-expression. While it’s true that some may judge him negatively because of it, I cannot know whether there might be others who judge him positively.

So I let go of my antipathy toward this inevitability, and I told my husband, and he said...

“Maybe I’ll get a tattoo.”

You would have to know my husband to know how shocking this comment was; but my response to him was even more shocking, even to me:

“Maybe I will, too.”

Maybe I will too?! I have always said that I would never get a tattoo. I’ve never much liked them; I don’t like pain, and I’m always changing, so I can’t imagine ever wanting a permanent mark on my body. I couldn’t believe I said this. It made no sense.

And then, as the days went on I found myself realizing that I would do this strange thing, so unlike me, so tremendously out of character.

When we next Skyped our son in Uruguay, I told him about my change of heart about his tattoo, and he said, “So you want me to get it?” I responded that I didn’t want him to get it, but that I no longer felt he shouldn’t, and that I accepted his getting it if he wanted to. And then my husband said that we were planning to get tattoos on his birthday, too, and he was so psyched to have his parents join him during this odd family bonding rite of passage for his eighteenth birthday.

I’m planning on getting a luna moth tattoo. The symbolism works for someone who believes she will always be changing, because nothing represents the capacity for transformation to me more than a caterpillar spinning a cocoon, dissolving into genetic goo, and then changing into a completely different being (one who flies!) out of the same DNA. Plus luna moths only live for a week, reminding me that all we have is the present moment. Life is fleeting. Make it beautiful and meaningful each day and don’t worry about what’s ahead that we have no control over. Plus, if ever there was a constant in my life it’s my love of animals. That’s not changing, so an animal tattoo is fitting.

And if nothing else, this tattoo is a reminder that even at 50, I can transform from a person who disliked tattoos and would have bet money I’d never, ever, EVER get one, into someone who is planning to go under the proverbial needle in a couple of weeks.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education

Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education

My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

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