A friend of mine has an amazing tattoo. Normally I’m not a big fan of tats, having no desire for one myself, but this one has remained in my memory over the years. It is a tree that covers his calf from ankle to knee with a large trunk and a plethora of empty branches. When I saw it the first time, it looked like the barren trees that we see in the winter, denuded of their leaves, waiting in quiet repose for spring.
The tat would have remained an interesting statement if he had left it just as it is. But he didn’t—and doesn’t. Each time he has a significant moment in his life, he has a leaf added to his tree. Changes in relationships, educational and work-related milestones, spiritual moments, all end up as leaves on his tree. As time has gone on, the tattoo has leafed out, showing the fullness that summer brings.
Each leaf, though, comes with pain. My friend described the getting of the tree trunk as an 8 of 10, with the branches being about a 6 or 7. Comparatively, the leaves are not nearly as painful, but it still hurts to receive them. Each time he has a moment he chooses to memorialize on his tree, he does so knowing there will be pain involved. That realization, though, doesn’t keep him either from experiencing his life or remembering those milestones. They are a part of him, inside and out. And someday, they will show a fully-leafed tree, a visible and artistic record of a life fully lived. In the tattoo, he will embody, literally, his own story.
We may not have a deliberately-chosen tattoo like my friend’s, but our bodies, too, tell our stories. We are born in pain and joy and experience both as we move through our lives, recording them on the leaves that appear on us—lines of laughter and sorrow, scars and stretch marks, hair that silvers or falls out entirely like the leaves of autumn. As we age, our bodies become more fragile, but the stories they tell only become more prominent. In my work as a nursing-home chaplain, I see these fragile, beautiful bodies every day. Perhaps they are not beautiful in the way the world perceives, but they are beautiful nonetheless. There are stories embodied in them, the experiences people have been through and survived throughout their lives. The tree of life grows in them.
The final piece of my friend’s tattoo is a ribbon. On one side of the tree it says, “Your life is not about you.” This seems shocking—until you see the other side: “You are about your life.” Remember this. Your life is uniquely yours. It is unlike anyone else’s. Embrace what you have seen, been, experienced. Share it. Some may not choose to listen. But the wise ones will, and may add knowing you as a leaf on their own tree of life.