The Japanese tattoo

You may be tempted to take away from the following story this advice: “Don’t get a word from a language you don’t speak tattooed onto you.” By all means, please do take this advice. But also keep reading because I don’t plan to make my non-tattoo specific point until later in the piece.

I had a friend in college – a tall, good-looking fellow, who probably could be cast as the Norse god Thor in a future Marvel Comic film adaptation if he grew his hair out. Over the course of four years of college, this friend got half a dozen tattoos. The ink was spread across his body, and there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason to his choices. Like moles or scars, the tattoos appeared to be distributed randomly between his torso and various appendages. About once a semester, he would walk up to the lunch table, put down his tray, and grin until we realized he got a new tattoo.

This is my tattoo. Notice, it's not a foreign word. However, I don't think I'll ever fully understand its significance.
This is my tattoo. Notice, it's not a foreign word. However, I don't think I'll ever fully understand its significance.

On one such occasion, he rolled up his sleeve and showed us the fresh ink just below his left shoulder. Upon the skin, still red and raw from the thousand tiny stab wounds he suffered for this new art, a vertical line connected three horizontal ones. “It means ‘Life’ in Japanese,” he said through his grin. Thankfully, he was too enthralled with his own left arm to see my eyes go wide, like I had just realized I left the oven on. I looked down and started arranging the French fries on my plate into the same Japanese character, while my inner censor struggled to purge my speech of all the correctional thoughts racing through my mind.

Now, I took two years of Japanese in college, and that character was written in black Sharpie on my mental 3×5 cards. “It means ‘Life’ in Japanese,” he said, and my first wide-eyed thought was, “Well, sort of…” The character means, “to live” in the sense of “I live in West Virginia.” Literally, it means, “to inhabit.” Needless to say, I’m glad my inner censor won that day, because Thor could easily have pummeled me if I had educated him in the nuances of the Japanese language.

Ever since that tattoo-related event, I have distinguished living from inhabiting. Too often, I merely inhabit: I wake up, I take a shower, I microwave a bowl of oatmeal, I ignore Sportscenter until the Red Sox highlights come on, I make sure I have my keys before I lock the front door. I do everything…vaguely. I yawn my way through the bleary-eyed hours. I flip on the autopilot switch and read a magazine in the cockpit of my existence.

Surely, this “inhabiting” isn’t what Jesus meant when he used the word “life.” I am the way, the truth, and the life. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. When Jesus promises us abundant life, he is not talking about our existence. We do not “exist” abundantly. When we enter into Jesus’ life, we find this abundant living. But living doesn’t just happen. Living is deliberate. If we do not claim abundance, it will just sit there, like the pack of hot dogs that’s been in my fridge for six months.

The danger of “inhabiting” rather than living is (usually unbeknownst to us) lapsing into dronehood, into the drab cycle of shower/oatmeal/Sportscenter/keys. But God did not create us to be drones; indeed, God sent God’s only son to us because we had become drones – slaves to the poor imitations of life that we had cultivated to golden-calf-status.

Receiving the abundance that Jesus’ promised snaps us out of dronehood. When we choose to live rather than merely to inhabit, a new world of possibility opens up for us. The complete joy that is key to an abundant life paints our days with vibrancy and vitality. Even those things that established our routine get a new coat of joy.

I suspect Henry David Thoreau was struggling with dronehood when he decided to go Walden Pond in 1845. There he wrote these words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

It is my prayer that each one of us lives deep, that we live and not merely inhabit, that we suck out all the marrow of the abundant life that Jesus promises us.

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