Letting Go of Guilt and Shame

So I had a pretty transformative experience recently, and felt like I needed to mark it with a post here. It has to do with guilt, shame, Spider-Man, The Matrix…and tattoos.

Over the last two to three years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the many ways I’ve carried guilt and shame about a variety of things throughout my life. Guilt and shame for not doing enough, for having too much, for not trying enough, for wanting more than I need, for getting more than I feel I deserve, for choosing this over that, for ignoring my own needs, for not caring about the right things, for not ignoring my own needs enough, cultural baggage, religious baggage, inter-generational baggage, etc. You get it, guilt and shame are a double whammy with no winning scenarios. 

One of the things I’ve carried for a while is a kind of shame/guilt for finding otherwise “trivial” things meaningful. I went through a bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree focusing on film and media, but throughout it all, whenever I talked to people about it, I would often find myself undercutting my own interests. Something along the lines of “yeah I know it’s just movies and that’s pretty trivial, but I’m enjoying it.” As though there was some force or thought telling me that I shouldn’t care about things like movies, video games, and comics so much because there were clearly ALL THESE OTHER THINGS that needed and deserved my attention so much more. I don’t necessarily want to go too deep into the why of these feelings here though, because I want to focus instead on how I recently found a way to let go of a good deal of that weight. 

During this same timeline, and especially over the last few months, I’d been thinking more and more seriously about getting a tattoo. As I considered what I wanted to get and what I’d want it to mean, two images almost immediately came to mind: Spider-Man and The Matrix — especially the line “there is no spoon.” Just as quickly as I had these thoughts, the guilt and shame shut them down. Why would I get something permanent about something as trivial as a superhero and a movie? There are more important things. Or so my brain would have wanted me to believe. 

But I kept coming back to these two images, trying to better verbalize why they meant so much to me. And one of the first things I noticed was that part of the reason I was struggling to put it into words was because I’d never really given myself a chance to do so before. It was the first time. But here’s what I realized. 

Spider-Man has, for as long as I can remember, been my superhero. I never related to the whole “he’s totally covered head to toe so it can be anyone, even you!” idea of why he’s so popular. For me, it always went back to those fateful and sadly cliched words more recently attributed to Uncle Ben: “with great power, comes great responsibility.” The first appearance in the original 1962 comic is below:

This, for me, is at the heart of who Spider-Man is. A regular kid who’s been given a much bigger burden than he should be able to carry. A kid who loves the people in his life so deeply, that even though he may feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, he refuses to drop his responsibility to care for them. And somehow, through humor, through creative ingenuity, through perseverance, through his intellect, and his kindness, he finds a way. Or at least gives it his genuine best. That’s who Spider-Man is to me. And that’s the part I can relate to and strive to uphold.

The Matrix is another story with some similar elements. A dude who’s been burdened with incredible power and responsibility, and who’s just trying his best. At one point in the film, a young boy who seems to bend spoons with his mind attempts to teach Neo how to do the same thing by reminding him that “there is no spoon.” That is, in the simulated world of the matrix, the spoon doesn’t even exist. It’s not real. Therefore, as the boy says “it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” It’s a phrase that turned into a bit of a mantra for me.

The first few years after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease back in 2005 were filled with many many many nights of intense pains and digestive issues. Night after night of being kept awake by the flare ups, and wanting nothing more than to have enough of a break from the physical struggle to get a few minutes of sleep. In those moments, “there is no spoon” became my go-to mantra as a way to get myself out of my own head. Out of my own body. To try and push my perspective away from my physical pain. I knew that my mind could transcend my physical senses, and repeating this phrase to myself helped me get there. 

Once I was able to verbalize these feelings, it was settled: I wanted a tattoo that combined Spider-Man with The Matrix, or at least a spoon in some way. So my wife helps me come up with a design that I love, I schedule an appointment, and go to the tattoo parlor. It also turns out that my appointment ended up on a Friday night after an especially rough week at work. I was feeling tense. So he gets started, and the pain is simultaneously more and less intense than I expected. At one point, without even realizing it, I find myself repeating “there is no spoon” in my head as I breathe through some of the more intense pains. 

As he goes on with his work, I make a conscious effort to visualize the pain as all of the guilt and shame in my life leaving my body. That’s all it was. The tattoo artist was just clearing my whole self of all those years’ worth of negative energies. Twenty, thirty, forty minutes go by. Endorphins are kicking in. I’m starting to sweat. And then it was done. And I’m telling you, I don’t remember the last time I’d felt so light and free. I felt like I’d somehow unburdened myself, and in the process proudly laid claim to things that are meaningful to me in a way that I can’t hide from or undercut in any way moving forward. Because now it’s on my freakin arm! Here’s the tattoo:

“there is no spoon”

The fact is, except for a handful of people, I’ve never shared any of the above with anyone before. And even most of that sharing has happened in the days since I got the tattoo! But it feels good. And it has already served as a good reminder a number of times to relax, to have fun, to be silly, and most of all, to be as authentic as I can be. Because it seems like over the years, the guilt and shame were contributing to me gradually closing myself off emotionally from the people I love.

So yeah. Now I have a tattoo. A constant reminder to do better while being as authentic as possible to who I am. Plus, I just think it looks awesome.  And I absolutely love it. 

Ps. Big shout-out to Theo Laurent over at Only You Tattoo in Grant Park, Atlanta for making this experience such an awesome one!

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