Are Scars Evidence of Our Wounds or Our Healing?

We choose whether to define ourselves by what has hurt us, or what we survived.

Posted Jan 08, 2021

I had a philosophy professor my freshman year of college who made a comment that to an 18-year-old seemed odd—but that makes perfect sense to the now 62-year-old man I became. He said he was fascinated by people’s scars because they showed where they had been in their lives.

I have accumulated a few physical scars myself since that long-ago time. Only a few years after my professor made that remark I acquired a rather large scar, about 8 to 10 inches long, along the bottom of my ribs on the right side, when my gallbladder ruptured my senior year of college.

My parents rushed me to the emergency room the first time I had an attack. The doctors dismissed my mom’s question as to whether it could be my gallbladder causing the excruciating pain in my abdomen. She had just had her own gallbladder removed two years earlier. No, they claimed, gallbladder problems don’t happen to young, slender males.

Within two years, and after several more attacks, my roommates rushed me to the hospital one night during finals week of the winter quarter. Within hours, I underwent emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder and spent 16 days in the hospital. Laparoscopic surgery wasn’t available in 1980, and, besides, the surgery was more complicated than simply going in and snipping out the diseased organ since it had ruptured and spewed its toxins.

Four months after the surgery, and against daunting odds given the coursework I’d missed while recuperating in the hospital, I graduated from college—and took off for Dallas to train as a flight attendant for American Airlines. I wanted to travel but didn’t come from a family that could send me on a grand tour, so I figured the best way to travel would be to work for an airline.

One day during my five weeks of training at the AA Learning Center, there was a pool party for everyone at the center. Working flight attendants, pilots, and trainees were all there. During the party, there was a men’s and women’s swimsuit competition. After I went inside the building to find one of my female fellow trainees, we went back to the pool. As it turned out, she won the women’s competition and I won the men’s competition.

I recall this story because that swimsuit competition 40 years ago gave me an important lesson on living with my scars. It taught me that although I felt self-conscious about that big new scar, other people weren’t focused on the scar. They were looking at the whole package. They didn’t reduce me to just that scar.

How often we reduce ourselves to our scars!

I’m not talking only about the scars from surgeries or physical tumbles. They have their own stories and we have ours about them: The darkened scar on my left shin from the time I fell in the near-darkness trying to speed-hike out of the woods after realizing I’d stayed too late in the shortened autumn daylight. The surgical scar from the medical trauma became the catalyst for testing my determination and resilience like nothing had done before.

What about our emotional scars, invisible to the naked eye? They have their stories, too, of course. They’re usually painful stories of events that hurt us, stories of grief, heartache, and loss.

Like the scars on our bodies, the ones on our hearts and in our minds are only part of our stories, souvenirs of past events. Those events overshadow and obscure the full picture of our present lives only if we let them, only if we reduce ourselves to our scars.

Of course, there are folks who seem to believe they are nothing more than masses of psychological scar tissue, stuck as they still are in the pain of the events that caused the scars. Instead of telling the stories behind their emotional scars as lessons in life, tough experiences they survived, they offer up their scars as “proof” of their woundedness and victimhood.

They haven’t yet learned to put those difficult experiences into perspective in the bigger picture of their lives. They haven’t learned how to reframe the story of those experiences in a way that lets them move on, scarred but still here.

As usual with resilience, it’s a matter of how we think and talk about our difficult experiences. We all have scars, on our bodies, and on our hearts. But we don’t have to tell the stories of our scars as evidence of our wounds—but can instead see them as proof of our healing.