Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and the so-called “father of existentialism” was born today, May 5 in 1813. To celebrate, I drink a bottle of champagne and share this essay which, recently, was published in the Wild Roof Journal.

A man in his late fifties enters a tattoo shop in Barcelona. He shows up unannounced with his new girlfriend. They are both a little bit drunk.

“Can you write her name on my arm?” he asks the young female tattoo artist who was busy tattooing me. 

Before waiting for an answer, he rolls up the sleeves of his grayish sweatshirt. “Here,” he says, pointing to a vacant spot of bare skin close to his wrist. I notice that his arm already carries four other female names. Three of them are crossed out. 

“I need you to cross out the last one and add her name,” he says, as he points to his partner. Her. 

The tattooist looks at the man’s arm, looks at the lady, and says, “Lucky you!” 

Is she being ironic? 

She observes, “Before he didn’t have room for you; now he does.”

Love and Freedom Are Bound Together 

This episode makes me think of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who once wrote in a letter to his fiancée, Regine Olsen, “Freedom is the element of love.” This statement encapsulates the two most important features of a life worth living: freedom and love. 

You’re free to do almost whatever you want as long as you’re willing to take all the consequences. It goes without saying that you’re never free to violate or harm anyone, deliberately, which also has nothing to do with love. Love is edifying, as Kierkegaard writes wrote in Works of Love (1847). 

For Kierkegaard, love is the metaphysical foundation of life; it is what is. Yet, combined with freedom, love can take many forms: friendships, parents, lovers, etc. 

Regardless of one’s gender or sexual orientation, what is important when it comes to love is there; it exists. We are all free to experience the possibilities of love, but doing so in our own way. Looking at Kierkegaard through the recollection of this episode, I believe it illustrates—or at least encourages me to reflect on—something more general about society than whether a few people like ink or not. 

For example, many people in today’s achievement-oriented society who suffer from insecurity, anxiety, stress, or burnout do so because they feel alone. They basically lack the experience of real and honest contact with other people. Often even with themselves, as when Wittgenstein defines a philosophical problem with being lost. 

Isn’t showing a new acquaintance, a potential lover, that your arm already carries the names of four other women a way of showing honesty? A way of trying to facilitate real contact? Create a space where love can flourish, despite it all?

If I am right, then there was nothing sad about it for him or her. Quite the contrary, being unconnected with other lives leads to sadness. Unfortunately, many people live behind what resembles a firewall that falsely protects our vulnerability or fear of losing face while, at the same time, prevents us from connecting with other people. It’s like a veil between the world, you, and me. 

Are we being too  polite to be honest?

Many, would probably feel embarrassed if they had to cross out a name on their arm, especially if they hadn’t learned from their first, second, and third mistakes, but just kept on adding name after name. Still, they would only be embarrassed because they would look at themselves through the ideals or norms of others, especially those people with whom they might hope to be identified. This, I believe, illustrates how the existential and political tend to become indistinguishable. For instance, in today’s identity-political sphere, many tend to criticize or oppose other people, thoughts, or forms of life, not because of critical thinking but due to prejudices. Knowing how easy it is to fall outside in a society where people tend to shoot before they ask, or even think (if they think at all), firewalls eventually emerge. 

Freedom, therefore, also becomes a question of power. As Byung-Chul Han has shown in What Is Philosophy? (2019), “Violence and freedom are the two end points on the scale of power.” Although there is a tendency among philosophers to leave power to political scientists and organizational theorists, power addresses existential questions. 

For instance, whether those subjected to power follow their own desire while doing so, or whether they follow the desire of the powerful as if it were their own, or whether they even anticipate the desire of the other. Thus, regardless of how trite this may sound, I believe that many people lack the courage and creativity to live the life they want (again, I am thinking of any kind of life that doesn’t deliberately harm anyone). If we are afraid of losing our good standing among people who don’t actually tolerate any diversion from their own ideals, we are not free, and therefore—following Kierkegaard—not capable of loving. The kind of firewall that I refer to is mainly constituted by powerful norms and ideals of our current achievement-focused society that constantly forces us to live in a particular way. 

For example, many young people today feel a pressure to attain an unrealistic body image, often only achieved through plastic surgery or synthetic enhancement. Or how we may feel forced to develop certain competences or express warranted opinions (typically only those that already fit into or enhance our “human capital”). The result of this capitalization of life is that we drain ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. We not only fail to live up to all the ideals but also to forgive ourselves for not being able to do so. We have lost our direction in life playing the power-game of others.

To Become Free 

Returning to the opening episode, we must understand that instead of one true love, some people might experience several. Similarly, instead of claiming that there only exists one right way of living a life worth living, there are several. If Western philosophy teaches us anything, it is that we are always placed in the middle, trying to do our best, exploring and testing life. That is testing our freedom and desires, like asking whether our desire to do this or that really is our desire, or whether we’re just being seduced, forced, or manipulated.

According to Kierkegaard in his letter, love and freedom cannot be separated. Feeling loved and being capable of love make a person free. A simple example could be how most people feel free when they are together with their loved ones. Together with friends, we can turn off our protective firewall. 

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau opens The Social Contract (1762) with the claim: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Despite the power of this sentence I don’t believe we are born free; on the contrary, as a father of three, I have noticed that we are all born helpless and impotent. Still, to some extent, I agree with Rousseau. Instead of cultivating a capacity for critical thinking and compassion in our children, most future citizens are institutionalized in a way that chains them mentally. For the same reason, I agree with Rousseau when he goes on to say: “Those who think themselves masters of others are instead greater slaves than they.” They, the masters, maintain a self-constraining system, yet they do so because they seduce themselves into believing that the systematic status and prestige they have reflects how good they are at living a life worth living. But it doesn’t. 

To become free in an existential sense requires more than stripes on the shoulder, a high salary, or being born in a privileged part of the world. It requires first of all an acknowledgement and respect towards the world we are born into, its norms and ideals, but also an empathic yet critical capacity to question these norms and ideals, the structure behind them, perhaps even to change them. In my book A Philosophy of Mindfulness (2018), I defined freedom as a combination of having the courage to stand against all that which limits, controls, or even destroys our lives, combined with the imagination to create space for alternative lives. It’s a mixture of resistance and inventiveness. Or, to put it even more simply, a mixture of saying both “no” and “yes.” The reason why I don’t believe that we are born free is related to the fact that in order to know what is important, we will have to have tested, explored, or experimented with life. With age, most people know when to say “no”; however, they only know so because they become conscious of what to affirm or say “yes” to. 

Love All People as Equals 

Reflecting on the couple entering the tattoo parlor, I propose that we might see them as a couple that, despite their setbacks, imagines a world where love is still possible. They still know what is important, what to affirm: love.

Another way of confirming that freedom and love are the main ingredients of a life worth living could be by postulating that egocentrism is the exact opposite of freedom. I say so because I only believe we can become free together. Saying this, I am aware that some may suggest that the man entering the tattoo parlor is being egocentric in the act of getting a tattoo of each woman’s name. However, such an assumption would require that we see the tattoo as a symbol of more than it is, for example, a kind of ownership or possession which is a part of our habitual capitalist mindset. On the other hand, the tattoo might be nothing more than a faithful confirmation of the strength of love. Of course, the tattoo—-especially in this situation with so many names—-can make us think of the person as naive, romantic, or too spontaneous, and yet, it is also an affirmation that emphasizes what connects those names on his arm: love. 

Love is everywhere the same, although it always expresses itself differently. 

Kierkegaard illustrated this strength in Works of Love (1847)where he elaborated on the biblical sentence “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” stressing that “thy neighbor” does not refer to your people, nation, gender or sexual orientation, but all people. We should love all people as equals.

Now this is something that very few of us are capable of, but even more sadly, loving everyone as equals (not equally) is something that many of us don’t even strive to accomplish. Capitalism has made us lazy in a comfortable way, either by avoiding any kind critical scrutinization of our own pre-existing biases, or by assuming that all problems can be overcome through consumption. On the contrary, love teaches us to become worthy of what happens. It’s hard work but nothing is more enriching and liberating. 

Kierkegaard, in my opinion, doesn’t present us with an abstract ideal of love; rather, he confronts our confusion and limitations, which can be extremely powerful in a time where many are so self-conscious of their own way of thinking (often anchored solely in their race, gender or sexuality) that they become resistant to alternative perspectives. 

Perhaps this more humble approach to life could lead to a more caring educational mission: How can we teach people today what makes them capable of loving all people tomorrow? 

Love is all inclusive

This reflection of love, freedom, and tattoos has become more political than intended. However, and perhaps I am being too romantic or naive as well, I do believe that love belongs in a political context as well. The power of love transforms not only our lives but also societies by overturning the cultures of domination and repression because they have nothing to do with love. For example, when we are dominated or dominate someone, we are never free. Violence and coercion are lifeless. In other words, those who misuse power (not those in power per se) do so because they are not free. A parent hitting his or her child might claim that he or she did so “out of love”, although it is just an act of violence. 

Love is all inclusive. Or as Kierkegaard said, we should love everyone as equals, not favoring our own gender or religion. Our human history is full of violence, discrimination and killing of women for being women, killing and discriminations of different races, religions or thoughts solely for being different. Human history is one where far too many only like the stranger as long as he or she thinks exactly like them. Thus, there are many reasons to be angry, and anger often comes with a clearer vision, just as there is a lot of needed fuel in it, and yet in order to build or construct a better future, only love can do the work. Love cares for everyone and everything. It was there before we were born, and it will be here once we are gone. Love is what links each name together, not just the one on the man’s arm, but all names in human history. 

Love is not hierarchical, nor does it moralize. The tattooist illustrated this. She didn’t moralize as if she represented a higher and more lucrative position of unquestionable “good”. Instead she was open, not just because they were potential paying customers, but due to her capacity to empathize with them. 

The couple in the tattoo parlor shared a belief in love. Not in the sense that life is without difficulties and suffering. It is; but rather that it’s love that helps us overcome these setbacks, never revenge or hate. 

Love, therefore, is not an abstract ideal but something we all experience and notice if we pay attention. It is like pointing out what all football fans share regardless of their favorite team, which is a love of the game; what all languages share, which is the ability to communicate, make connections, and dialogue; what all people share regardless of national origin, which is that they live on this planet; or what all of us share regardless of gender, race, and sexual preference, which is that we need sunlight to live and that we all breathe the same air. 

If we can love all people as equals, then we would also be capable of seeing why all people should be treated with the same respect, trust, care, and justice. There is no love without mutual respect and equality. However, and this is why I have been using this little episode about the man and women as my point of departure; if I cannot encounter two drunk people in a tattoo parlor without feeling better than them, pitying them or any other kind of sad behavior that would illustrate my embedded prejudices, how should I then make myself available for those who live lives far more different.

Is love bulletproof then? Without answering directly, I would claim that the mistakes we make in love can be crossed out. We can go on living because they initially emerged from a free, honest, and nondiscriminating relationship to and with life. It’s an honest mistake. The man in the tattoo parlor doesn’t hide his previous relationships. On the contrary, he brings (or she brings him) to make another affirmation of love. It is like an ethical confirmation; despite all the discrimination, greed, and violence in today’s world, we must “go on” affirming what matters. Daily.

You know when you’re in love. Or to put it differently: if you’re doubting, you’re not in love.

The last thing I heard the tattooist ask the man as I left the store was, “Are you sure?”

“Do I look like I am doubting?”

 It was her saying those last words.