If our scars don’t stop us, Jackie Summers writes, they’ll only make us stronger.
Six years old: I tell my mother I have mosquito bites. She informs me it’s the middle of winter and there are no mosquitoes; I’ve got chicken pox. There’s a particularly irritating itch on the bridge of my nose. I scratch myself until I bleed, and then pick the scab until I have a permanent pockmark next to my right eye.
Eight years old: I try to give a cousin a piggy back ride at a family reunion. I fall down a flight of stairs, with him on my back. 11 stitches, bottom lip.
12 years old: I’m trying to teach myself how to shoot a basketball the way I’ve seen NBA players do it on television. I’ve set up a mirror in my garage ,and I’m watching myself mimic their form. The mirror slips; I reach for it instinctively. It cleaves my right index finger as it breaks. Eighteen stitches, and two very pissed off parents.
17 years old: I’m in what I think is a fist-fight over graffiti, when we hear the sound of firecrackers; someone has drawn a gun. We run; I feel a bee sting in my back. When we finally stop running I realize my pants are cold. They’re cold because they’re wet; I’m bleeding. I’ve been shot in the back. The bullet, probably a twenty-two caliber, hit a rib and bounced off. Half an inch lower or higher and it would have gone through my rib cage and pierced my heart. We hit an all-night pharmacy and buy hydrogen peroxide, gauze, and tape.
23 years old: I’m rushing to feed my cats before I go play basketball with the boys. The can doesn’t open easily, so I brace it against the countertop and yank. The metal edge of the cat food lid rips a gash clear to the bone. I wrap my hand in gauze, and go play basketball for three hours. I notch a triple-double, and then drive myself to the emergency room. Twenty seven stitches, left hand.
27 years old: I hear my car alarm going off in the middle of the night. I get out of bed to investigate and discover the person who is trying to steal my car is still inside of it. Everything inside me goes red. I do the only logical thing; I chase him down the street in my underwear and bare feet, threatening death and screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs. I slip on the wet asphalt, and land on my arm, stripping off an inch of skin from my wrist to elbow.
Last spring my doctor discovered a golfball-sized tumor inside my spine. He couldn’t tell from the MRI if it was benign or malignant; resection was the only option. Six weeks later a neurosurgeon made a six inch incision in my back, spread my muscles apart, then used a drill to grind a bone in my spine into nonexistence. He then took my nerve sheath–the tube that runs the length of your spine down from your brain stem and protects the most delicate parts of your nervous system–and removed it from my spine. Once outside of my body, he sliced vertically, exposing my spinal cord and nerves like the strings of a violin bow come undone.
I find out in recovery the tumor is benign. Still under anesthesia, I flirt with my nurse, telling her I intend to tell anyone who sees my newest scar that “I got it in a monkey-knife fight.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the pride people take in their scars (as a disclaimer, I’m excluding cases of disfigurement). They mark the event that changes our lives, the way aboriginal tribes mark rites of passage by tattoo. There is something primordial in the way humans, male and female, regard the physical evidence of wounds now healed.
Throughout history, humans from every culture have brandished scars as medals of courage and badges of honor. Soldiers. Athletes. Martial artists. Mothers. Major accident and surgery survivors. Klutzes. Perhaps it dates back to ages past, when a scar gave silent tribute to your survival skills. If you faced a saber-toothed tiger and survived, a scar from tooth or claw gave wordless testament to your valor. In ancient Greece, scars anywhere on the front of your body were valued higher than scars on your back. A frontal scar was honorable, as it meant you confronted your adversary head on and were wounded.
Scars, and how you view them, will tell you a lot about a person. They are the physical history not just of your pain and injury, but of your regenerative capacity and ability to heal. Show someone a scar and watch them engage you in a game of “you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine.” They will recount in detail when and how their scars came to be, because scars declare “I suffered harm and loss, yet I live.” We learn to embrace our scars and display them with pride because behind every scar, there’s a story.
So why do we hide our emotional scars?
I’m not talking about open wounds. Whether physical or emotional, unattended cuts, contusions, and lacerations are prone to infection and re-injury. They need medication, protection from the elements, tenderness, and time. Depending on the severity, some wounds take longer to heal than others. Outside of morbid curiosity, fresh wounds are not meant for display.
The tendency once healed is to try and conceal the scars on our hearts. We shroud heart-scars in secrecy and buffer them with bravado. We build bulwarks and erect ramparts around our heartaches as a reactionary measure to try to ensure no one can ever hurt us again, as if such a thing were actually possible. We raise visages we know are false, in vain attempts to present the appearance of being shiny and new, because we’re ashamed. The stigma we attach to having lost at love makes us forget what a healing balm sharing our pain is. We don’t talk about our wounds because we’ve mistaken pride, that great millstone of human consciousness, for self esteem.
It is time to redefine what we are proud of.
I love my scars, both the ones you can see and the ones you can’t. Every bruise I’ve earned, body and soul, gives empirical evidence that I’ve lived, that I’ve loved. Some scars, I readily, admit are deserved; I’ve loved foolishly at times and been emotionally accident-prone. Sometimes I’ve been outright reckless with my heart, but my scars remind me that, even when I lost, I fought for what I desired.
I’m proud of the fact that being hurt hasn’t made me skittish, or bitter. Nothing great in life is accomplished by timidity. Loving and letting yourself be loved after you’ve been scarred takes real courage. Becoming emotionally inaccessible is a sure way to deflect some sorrows, but you will sacrifice an equal amount of joy in the process. It’s impossible for love to grow in the shadow cast by the fear of being hurt.
I love that I can now laugh at wounds I thought would never heal. This offers hope that still-open wounds might someday also become a source of amusement. My scars offer defiance, unwritten affidavits of the heart’s healing power. I’m learning to embrace the intractable honesty of my scars as the metaphysical narrative of my life—declarations that I’ve loved, I’ve lost, and I’ll love yet again. I’m trying to display them with pride, to recount in detail when and how they came to be. We all need to be reminded of our own regenerative capacity, and sharing stories engages a collective healing process. Everyone in the world has stories to tell.
And behind every story, there’s a scar.
—Photo milos milosevic/Flickr