I squeezed the massage table until my knuckles turned white. I gritted my teeth so hard I thought my back molars would shatter. Cold sweat poured down my face even though it was 32°C inside the small Mexican tattoo parlour.
I was six-and-a-half hours into a tattoo that still wasn’t complete but I was done. My ribs couldn’t take another poke, scratch, or cut.
“Luis, I’m done, man,” I said to my artist. “I can’t handle anymore.”
“You did well,” Luis reassured me. “We’ll continue in a couple days.”
I stood up from the table, took a deep breath, and tried to steady my wobbly legs. This was far from my first tattoo, but it was definitely the most painful. I always said I’d never get a tattoo on my ribs, yet here I was.
There was a voice in my head of a big, motorcycle-riding dude I’d met years earlier: “I’ve got tattoos on every part of my body, except the ribs,” he told me. “I tried one time but as soon as the needles hit my ribs I quit! Fuck that! It was WAY too painful!”
His words stayed with me. If a guy who was built like a grizzly bear couldn’t handle getting his ribs tattooed, how would I?
I was scared to deal with the pain, so I avoided it. There was plenty of room on the rest of my body for tattoos, right?
But this was my Year of Fear.
Sure, the self-inflicted pain of a tattoo might sound stupid and frivolous, but it was the principle.
We all avoid pain from time to time. Whether the pain we’re avoiding is physical or emotional, we all do it.
We avoid painful conversations with our romantic partners because we fear the reaction we’ll receive or the potential negative consequences.
So we do nothing.
We avoid going to the doctor to get something checked out because we fear the pain of knowing something might be wrong.
So we do nothing.
We avoid the pain of going to the gym and putting in the work to get in shape because we fear failure or embarrassment.
So we do nothing.
The pain and fear of getting a tattoo on my ribs was one thing. But I also wanted a tattoo to represent the year I’ve had. My tattoos tell a story and 2016 is a year worth remembering.
The sugar skull is a popular symbol in Mexican culture dating back to the Aztecs. During the Day of the Dead celebration on November 1st and 2nd, sugar skulls are placed on the graves of the deceased and it is believed that the souls of the dead come alive through the skulls.
Sugar skulls are a symbol of death and, more importantly, rebirth. For the Aztecs and modern-day Mexicans, the skull is a positive symbol; death is celebrated instead of mourned.
This resonated with me. My biggest fear is death. I always tell people I feel like I’m in the middle of an awesome movie and I’ll never see the ending. What is the meaning of life? Where did we really come from? Will the Toronto Maple Leafs ever win the Stanley Cup again?
I know I probably won’t live long enough to answer those questions and that’s OK. I’m choosing to look at death with new eyes. Instead of fearing it, I’m trying to embrace it.
During this past year, several parts of my identity died. I’m still in a state of transition.
Although things have died, new identities are taking shape. I feel reborn.
And I’m going to embrace the shit out of it.
Crows are intelligent, fearless, and cunning. They’re capable of using tools to solve problems. I think they’re amazing creatures.
Crows also remind me of a time when I was 13 years old.
My dad was annoyed with crows pecking at his lawn and he’d heard if you hang a dead crow in the yard all other crows will stay away.
One day, a crow wandered into our enclosed dog run in the back yard. The enclosure was about 20 feet long and the crow flapped around inside trying to find a way out.
I picked up a handful of stones. My dad opened the door to the dog run and I started throwing the stones at the crow.
I missed, again and again. The crow flailed around helplessly.
Then it turned. The crow saw the opening of the door behind me and started flying in my direction.
I had time for one more throw. I planted my right foot, cocked my arm back, and threw.
The rock hit the crow between the eyes and its limp body dropped to the ground.
My dad patted me on the back. I nodded, smiled, and walked straight into the house without saying a word. I went downstairs, locked myself in the bathroom, and cried.
I’d never killed anything bigger than an ant. I felt horrible and I never forgot that moment.
I hope the crow I killed was smiling somewhere and watching me twisting in pain for hours as its likeness was tattooed on my ribs.
And as I move forward in 2017 with my own business, I want to be an intelligent, fearless problem-solver—just like a crow.
Daffodils are a symbol of rebirth and I like flower tattoos.
I don’t have any repressed childhood memories of daffodils.
The New Year is upon us.
I’m not going to tell you how to make resolutions that stick or any of that other fluffy bull shit.
But I am going to say this:
If there’s something painful you’ve been avoiding—a difficult conversation with your partner/mother/best friend, a trip to the doctor, a new workout routine or change in diet, a confrontation with your boss, a visit to a sick relative, a closer look at your budget and finances—now is the time to take action.
It will be painful, but I can almost guarantee it won’t be as painful as you think.
After you do it, a weight will be lifted off your shoulders. You’ll wonder, “Why did it take me so long? This isn’t so bad!”
We avoid pain all the time. Instead of challenging our pain, we do anything possible to tip-toe around it and hope it doesn’t hear us sneaking past.
It’s time for us to look pain in the eye, lean in, and tell it, “I own you and I’m not afraid of you.”
Let’s make 2017 our best year yet.