Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Jack Ryan is shirtless in my living room, again.
I’m currently binge watching Season 1 of Jack Ryan, the Amazon series about the titular CIA agent and his attempt to save the world from terrorist destruction. Jack (played by John Krasinski or Jim from The Office), manages to remove his shirt in almost every episode and the camera voyeuristically traces the deep blue scars that pattern his muscular back.
Harry Potter has a scar. So does John Maclane. So does the Joker.
Though these may be fictional characters, scars are real world marks. Childbirth. Heart surgery. A playground accident. Late night college shenanigans. Scars do not discriminate. Scars tattoo the bodies of both the young and old. Scars humble us. Blemish our clean skin. And announce that we survived our earthly, often unwanted, rites of passage of conflict and pain.
A few years ago, a student handed me a personal story and said, “I swear I’m not crazy. Also, don’t call the police. They already know.”
The story was about the physical abuse she endured, a failed suicide attempt, and her emotional and physiological recovery, and how after college she aspires to be a social worker and help girls like her.
A few days later she approached my desk and asked, “Mr. Armstrong, did you get a chance to read my story?”
“I did. I really don’t know what to say. Is this real?”
Without saying anything, she pulled up her shirt sleeves and showed white scars mapping both wrists, “You’re always telling us to write about our scars. So I did. And yes, it’s true.”
This week, when our dryer stopped working, I entered the laundry room, flicked on the light, stared at the dyer and the dyer stared back at me. I suspect in that moment I looked like I knew what I was doing. The way Jack Ryan looks when he aims a gun at a terrorist. I know, more or less, how to use a dryer. You plug in the power cord, turn the knobs, clean the lint filter, toss wet clothes in the hole, and rescue dry clothes from the hole when the dryer beeps. But beyond that, I have no idea how a dryer works.
So I did what most self-respecting men would do and wiggled the dryer from the wall and look behind it. Why? What was I looking for? I’m still not sure. It seemed like the right thing to do. Like I gave it the old “college try” or something. I tilt my head and lower it behind the dryer and my brain rocks into a swimming sensation and I lose my balance and bounce my face off a sheet metal screw head.
“What, are you trying to look tough?” Cindy asked.
“I heard chicks dig scars,” as I dab blood with a napkin.
Jack Ryan has scars and still wants to save the world. Because he believes the world is worth saving. My former student has scars and wants to save abused girls. Because she believes those girls are worth saving. And I now have a scar on my face because I want my dryer to work again and I believe clothes should be warm and fluffy.
We’re often guilty of trying to make sense of everything bad that happens in our lives. Sometimes we believe if we had made better choices or if we had done something differently, that somehow our life would be better. That we might be scarless.
But our scars remind us that our life, our conflicts have meaning. Those scars, both faded and fresh, smooth and texture, are personal timelines. They communicate our personal mythology. They mark our struggle. They initiate us into an ancient human fraternity of struggle that every soul, who has ever lived, must endure. So we may discover our identity. Discover what we believe in.
To be alive at all is to have scars.
John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
Currently, I have 9 scars on my body. Some were etched by accident. Like the scar on my left index finger when I tried to “even out” the trunk of our first Christmas tree and put a saw blade clear through my finger. Since then Cindy has forbidden me from buying a real Christmas tree.
And some scars are results of necessity. Like the three inch blue scar I have on my left thigh where doctors performed a muscle biopsy that revealed my autoimmune disorder, sarcoidosis, which some doctors hypothesize caused the hole in my brain.
I’ve learned only when you begin to accept your scars you begin to heal. And I’ve learned that this declaration is a lot easier to preach than practice.
I’m not a sadist. I’m a writer.
I believe in the power of stories. I believe everyone has the right, to not just tell their story, but the right to understand how their story has forged their identity, perspective, and personal history.
And to tell those stories, sometimes, we have to be courageous enough to run our fingers over our imperfect flesh and understand the power of our scars.
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