At the end of the film The Edge there's a deeply moving scene where, upon being rescued from the Alaskan wilderness after a disastrous plane crash, an exhausted, battered Anthony Hopkins faces the press. In facing them, he is asked to explain what has happened to the two friends who were with him. The friends who did not survive.
Hopkins' response is heartbreaking:
My friends died saving my life.
He has been scarred, and this scar will remain with him, forever.
You have at least a few of these scars yourself. We all do.
I feel my scars throughout my body. The scars of the disability and health conditions that influence everything I do, every single day.
The scars of those I have lost, whom I don't get to bring back to me.
The scars of the memories lost inside of my mind, aching to be manifested in reality.
They're right here. Inside of me. All the time.
Your scars are as well.
Every time you lose something—every time you give your all to something in service—you suffer a scar. You're not left with a happy ending or a paid vacation or a box of chocolates, but a scar.
Some of these scars are visible. Some of them are invisible. Yet they are scars nonetheless.
These scars are purveyors of our loss. They are testaments to that which we must carry forward in our lives when loss destroys us.
Scars are signs. They tell a story. And they are indicative of that which will take refuge inside of our hearts, forever.
Scars also provide an opportunity: they can serve as catalysts by which we challenge some of the unbelievably destructive narratives we have been fed surrounding loss.
OUR INSANE RELATIONSHIP WITH LOSS
The reality is that our culture has such an insane, pathetic relationship with loss we've had to turn to delusions to mask the horrific damage we've done to those who've been damaged.
We fail to realize that loss always breaks a part of our heart, and leaves a scar. Your scars cannot be numbed away, fucked away, binged away, or thought away with happy affirmations. No matter how hard you try to avoid them, they will always be there.
This running, avoiding, and shaming are responsible for so much suffering it's unbelievable. It's one of the great scandals of our age, though we treat it as if it's perfectly normal. We've allowed ourselves to be co-opted into believing an utterly ridiculous set of lies: that loss is something to be ashamed of, that it's negative, that it's curable, that it should be let go, that it has to happen to "teach" us, and on and on.
All of this is bullshit. All of it.
At the same time, we're conditioned from a young age to absorb an idiotic ethos of materialism, to obsess over pleasurable pursuits, to destroy others (and ourselves) in the pursuit of status and prestige, and, of course, to relentlessly chase happiness at all costs, even though doing so has the paradoxical effect of making us more miserable and lonelier than ever.
We're happy to acknowledge our mindless pleasures, but we're terrified to acknowledge the pains that every single person on earth will eventually experience. This is insane.
In other words, we're conditioned to believe everything except the truth about loss:
Loss is a fundamental part of being alive.
This really is quite incredible if you think about it. One of the most universal of all human experiences is also one of the most ridiculed and ignored. This is madness, and it carves the knife of indifference into millions of people every single day.
HOW SCARS CAN TEACH YOU
Many people speak about scars as if they're badges of honor; vestibules of what you’ve endured and indicators of what you’re capable of. Some have suggested that if you don’t leave this earth with scars, you haven’t fought the good fight. You’ve died soft and afraid.
There is some truth in these claims. Everything I've fought for, suffered for, put myself on the line for—has resulted in a scar. These scars have served as witnesses to my resilience, endurance, and my willingness to keep going, no matter what.
With that said, acting as if scars are only badges of honor fails to understand two crucial points:
First, there's a significant difference between scars engendered as a result of our individual efforts, and those that come about as a result of tragic events that we would never, ever ask for.
Some scars are byproducts of horrific circumstances. The scars left behind by sudden death or rape or paralysis are not the result of losses that need to happen, ever. They aren't tests or gifts or lessons. They simply are.
It's incredibly important to acknowledge this as so many survivors of tragedy feel overwhelmingly intense pressure to turn their scars into "positives" and often end up buried in shame and humiliation in the process. The scars left behind by tragedy can indeed be used for good, but that is a deeply personal pilgrimage that the sufferer of the scar must nurture in her own way.
Second, it's easy to fail to acknowledge that scars are inevitable; no matter how much you've "really lived."
One of the craziest things about life is that loss is irreversible, and loss is inexorable.
In other words, whenever you suffer your first great loss—the death of a loved one, a failed relationship, a devastating injury, you can never go back. Ever. Once one of these losses occurs, there will only be more. It’s never the reverse. The older you get, the more loss you will endure. This is a fact we desperately try to ignore, but which we avoid at our own peril.
When I had my first tragic encounter with death in high school, something my mom told me hit me like a ton of bricks:
This is how it’s going to be for the rest of your life.
She was right. Once one friend died, there would only be more. Further losses would occur. There was no way around this.
Although it would be another decade before I began to come to terms with this reality—with the reality that life's movements march us inexorably towards more loss, not less, I did eventually find a way to use my scars to radically shift my relationship with loss.
This didn't happen by "transforming" my scars or pretending they were gifts or any of that bullshit. This happened by participating in the only human, sane, and natural response to loss available to me:
I had to learn to grieve, and grieve fully, achingly, in an immersion of horror and beauty and fear and love and grace. All of it.
The primary mechanism by which I learned to do this was in the process of acknowledgment. Scars have been my greatest teachers in learning to acknowledge my wounds, as well as the wounds of others. This can be true for you as well.
Scars are so powerful in the act of grieving because whether they're visible or invisible, they're felt.
Take yourself to the memory of a lost loved one. When you meditate on their life, you feel something. I'm not talking about some pseudo-spiritual "presence," I'm talking about the very real, tangible connection you feel inside your body. You have a physical reaction to them. Sometimes this response seems to come from the recesses of your heart, while other times it protrudes from your gut, calling attention to the love you experienced with one who was an intrinsic, beautiful part of your life's story.
Although this response can be incredibly painful, it contains a clue and a calling: the call to acknowledge your loss. Not because it will make everything feel better, but because it will allow you to stand inside of your pain and grasp the love that's found on the other side of that pain.
One of the chief ways I’ve learned to do this is via my scars.
I used to do the reverse—I used to avoid my scars—and it almost ruined me.
For years I hid my cerebral palsy and epilepsy as much as I could based upon the manifestations of my scars. The more symptomatic I felt or awkward I looked, the more I tried to bury them.
But now the opposite is true. If I wake up and my right side is numb or my brain just isn’t fucking working, I always acknowledge my scars, and plan accordingly.
If my mind shoots to the memory of a dear friend I've lost, no fake smiles follow. I stand with my loss. I breathe the memories in. I proceed with the confidence of knowing that I've not lied to myself and that I've honored my friends in my acknowledgment of them.
So I ask you to ponder the following: what stories do your scars tell? What aches and longings do they bring out of your heart? How can you hold them, and allow them to teach you? What do they mean to you?
How will you choose to live in the wake of them, knowing that they will never go away?
Remember: you don’t “transform” your scars by turning them into something “good,” you love them in your acknowledgment that your life will never be the same, and that the pain they represent is the manifestation of every wail you have ever unleashed.
It all hurts. It is insane to buy in to the myth that it shouldn't hurt, or that it should only hurt under strict parameters, or that if it does hurt, it should be expressed privately and alone.
This is bullshit. You don't have to believe any of it. Ever.
SCARS AND THE REBELLION OF GRIEF
Given the preposterous cultural narratives we've been fed about loss, the fact of the matter is that openly grieving has become an act of rebellion.
It is a refusal to conform, and an insistence upon honoring that which has been lost. This honoring must occur in a way that honors you.
In the end, you don’t need to do what people tell you to or believe what people insist is "acceptable." The acknowledgment of loss and the support of the grieving will only improve when we admit that we've utterly failed the grieving. Because we have.
Grief is not a linear process. Grief often creeps up on you and whispers,
I’m still here. Don’t forget about me. Acknowledge me. I am the pain of your love.
We would do well to remember that grief is the expression of pain and love that arises in response to any form of loss: a failed relationship. The loss of financial security. Even the loss of a dream unrealized. We grieve all of this, and in a sense, most people are in a state of grief of one form or another throughout their lives.
Coming to terms with this reality is the work of life, and the act of doing so is a process of incredible bravery.
Scars can help us to see the way.
At the end of the day, your scars are yours. No one gets to take them away from you. Ever.
When you go to sleep for the final time, your scars will sleep with you for eternity.
In the time you have left, please allow them to inform you. Never shame them, despite the magnificent pressure you will probably feel to do so.
Instead, listen to your scars and caress them, saying,
Stay with me. I will not forsake you. I'm so sorry you're here, but let's choose to live, together.