With any tattoo comes a number of inevitable reactions from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. From thoughtful, sweet and appreciated comments/questions, to downright irritating, out of line nonsense (and everywhere in between).
The most common and understandable reaction is curiosity as to what the tattoo means. Why on earth did I choose to get this particular thing inked onto my body forever?
Well, my friends, I finally got my second tattoo, so here is the answer to that question. [Also, excuse the bit of blood in the photo. The tattoo is in the healing stage, so this pic from immediately after is the best I’ve got at the moment.]
Since most people want a response no longer than a sentence or two, the tl;dr version is this: It comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and it’s meant to remind me that hope is the most powerful thing there is.
Still here? Good. Here’s the longer version:
Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece comic book epic, the bulk of which ran from 1989 to 1996. It’s dark, weird, and literate. It’s shaped by Gaiman’s ability to create tremendous depth in his storytelling and worldbuilding by placing his protagonists within a context of myth, history, and literary references and allusions. Norman Mailer even called Sandman “a comic strip for intellectuals.”
I love it, as I do most everything Neil Gaiman does.
It’s the saga of Morpheus, aka Dream, one of the seven endless along with Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction. They don’t rule the world as gods, but each is the personification and source of the things that make life what it is.
The story opens as Dream is taken captive by occult practitioners. They were trying to capture Death for predictably nefarious purposes, but they accidentally got Morpheus instead. They take away his three objects of power — his pouch, his ruby, and his helm — and keep him prisoner for 70 years, hoping to leverage his freedom for power and favor.
He inevitably escapes and returns to the Dreaming, the epicenter of all dreams and stories. In his absence, it has collapsed, broken down by entropy and disrepair. In order to restore it and regain his full power, Dream must reclaim his lost three objects.
His helm has come into the possession of a demon, Choronzon. To get it back, Dream must journey to hell, where he is challenged by the demon to a contest. If Dream wins, the helm will be returned to him. If Choronzon wins, Dream will become a slave of hell forever.
The rules are that each takes turns projecting a form, and one must top the other until either of the contestants fails to imagine something more powerful than the last.
Choronzon takes the first move. He imagines a vicious dire wolf. Predictably for a demon, the power of predatory violence is his style of play. Initially, Dream plays in kind, imagining forms that can kill and destroy whatever Choronzon imagines. Yet, he soon realizes the futility in letting Choronzon frame the game and shifts tactics to a more positive, life-affirming strategy.
Rather than explaining it to you, here is what comes next. It’s one of my favorite moments in anything I’ve ever read, and is meaningful enough to me that I, you know, tattooed on my body.
Choronzon, High Duke of the Eighth Circle, Captain of the Horde of Beelzebub, can imagine nothing that is more powerful than hope.
As soon as I read this the first time, I wanted this tattoo. This moment is the epitome of why I love Neil Gaiman’s work more than any other writer. It’s the hallmark of my favorite sorts of stories.
Part of the alchemy of my depression is that I can never forget “the darkness at the end of everything.” Even in my best and happiest moments, that shadow is always in my field of vision. So, hope that pretends the darkness isn’t there has nothing to offer me. The very existence of that sort of false hope leaves me feeling empty and defeated. But here, the demon reminds us of that darkness, flaunts it in Dream’s face believing it to be his trump card, and hope still wins!
Dream’s victory plants the thought in my mind that hope isn’t the most powerful thing in spite of the darkness, or if we ignore the darkness. It is the most powerful thing because of the darkness, because nothing is more beautiful or remarkable than when we stand up, look into the darkness that waits at the end of the universe, and still choose hope and life. That is the most powerful thing.
Hope isn’t logical. It’s to believe foolishly, not just when it makes sense, (and I’m far too enamored with things making sense). We all know how our stories end, but to simply lay down and give in to how often death wins — even though it is the inevitable end of our stories — is the coward’s way out. I want hope instead.
Hope is choosing to see the world as beautiful, to see meaning in the details and minutia of our lives, and to believe that meaning somehow transcends us. Even though that meaning is probably just a dream. It’s choosing to believe there is beauty in the darkness and mystery around us instead of just angry things with teeth and claws, or worse, a vacuum.
The only way I want to live the one short life I get is by holding fast to hope. That’s not easy for me. Often I don’t believe, foolishly or otherwise — but I want to. Maybe all of life is ultimately meaningless. Hell, I think that’s by far the smarter bet. But if that’s the case, then I want to make the stupid bet. I want to act like it all matters, because who knows, maybe it does? Maybe there is more than what we know for sure. Even though darkness does wait at the end of the universe, maybe that’s not all there is. I want to live and make my choices in the mystery of that maybe, because it beats the fucking alternative.
And so now my body is marked for the rest of my life to remind me to choose hope, because that’s how I want to live. I want to look into the darkness at the end of everything with my eyes wide open and say, “I am hope.”