When I was in my early twenties, I got a tattoo. I was with some family and friends who had planned to get inked and I decided to join them. Although, the timing was a bit of a surprise, it was not a spur of the moment decision. Months earlier, I had bumped into a phrase that I read in a book by the author E. Lynn Harris. It said, “Where there is fear, faith cannot exist.” Although at the time, my experience with the intricate dance between fear and faith was fairly elementary, the idea resonated with me and I wanted a permanent reminder.
The woman who designed my tattoo was named Lynn. She was a hefty Caucasian woman with a medium length blonde bob teased and frozen with hairspray. She walked around the crowded parlor with slow deliberate movements that exuded self-awareness, reverence, and authority. The other employees, and regular customers showered her with respect. I gathered that she had earned it with a nurturing brand of tough love that carried many of them through challenging times. I called her Mama Lynn when it was all said and done.
The concept Mama Lynn created for my tattoo was beautiful to me. We chose my right ankle as the location and the letters were in a cursive font that was traditional, easy to read, but had a dash of flair. She drew a winding vine with leaves around the letters and placed a cross at the beginning and end of the sentence. The design drew attention and before I knew it, most of the parlor was talking about the tattoo. When it was time to start, I lay in a dentist-like chair in the middle of a room filled with the group I came with and another employee. I was truly excited. I got a lot of opinions and characterizations on how it would feel. They ranged from “it doesn’t hurt at all” to “it hurts a bit, like a little sting.” Lynn told me she would draw one side of a leaf so that I would see how it would feel for myself.
When the needle hit the skin, I believe I saw stars. It would take others to describe my reaction because I felt like I came out of my body. All I know is that there were tears and panic and I changed my mind. It hurt. It more than hurt and there was no way in hell I was going to continue. I think at first everyone started to coach me, but I got lost in the advice and became insistent that I could not keep going. Pretty much, I acted a fool.
I don’t know how long it took, but Mama Lynn proceeded to kick everyone out of the room. When they left she handed me a box of tissue and told me to stop crying. Like a toddler, at the end of a startling fall, I started to deep breathe and the tears slowed a bit. She coached me through some intentional breathing before we started to talk.
“It hurts.” she said knowingly.
“It feels different for everyone, that’s why I told you the leaf would be a test. Why do you want to stop?”
“I’m scared, and it hurts.” I answered. It was simple.
She nodded in agreement. “Well yes, it will sting, hurt, there may be a little bleeding, you will cry some more, and you are going to have to let it heal. But, look at this quote, do you believe this, or not? If you believe it I know you can get through it. If you don’t, well I’m not sure why you started in the first place.”
That is when the panic started to fade. She also showed me the side of the leaf she had started to draw. She hinted that as a professional, it would be nearly impossible to allow me to leave the building with half of a leaf on my ankle. Not to mention, fairly ridiculous. I knew then, I would make it.
A few years ago I was searching for quotes about faith and ran into a twin-like quote of the one I have on my ankle. The author, Radhanath Swami wrote in his autobiography that, “Where there is faith, fear cannot exist.” Whether it is fear or faith first, the outcome is the same and the sentiment is as true to me today as it was when I first heard it. As adults, we will continuously find moments in our life where we must focus so deeply on faith, that there is no room for fear to exist. However, almost twenty years later, I know that the simplicity of those words cap a deeper and more complicated truth. Those moments, where faith is all encompassing, are often preceded by an intimate experience with fear.
And I guess that’s where for me, I’ve tried to be more honest with myself, and hopefully with others about the landscape of my faith and how much fear takes root sometimes before I find a faithful space. In many cases, my fears were and are a reasonable response to life circumstances. In some instances anxiety stemmed and continues to stem from imagined poor outcomes. Either way, what I’ve learned is that for me, the cornerstone in terms of the work of finding and sustaining faith in any situation is to truly examine my fear and to trust a higher power. This process I’ve found sometimes feels peaceful and beautiful, and sometimes it feels like I am caught up in the aftermath of a battle. But I find that the result tends to be the same, a deeper commitment to living a magnificent life. This lesson certainly has been reinforced by navigating crisis over the last few years. But I realize that the kernels of the lesson of fear and faith were planted in that room with Mama Lynn. She told me after she finished that sometimes I would look at my ankle as a reminder to keep pressing on in life. She was absolutely right.