For months after his surgery, my six-year-old son Ben’s predictable request during bedtime prayers was for his scar to go away. With eyes squeezed shut, snuggled next to us on the overstuffed couch, he reminded God anew each evening in his tiny voice while I breathed in the fresh scent of shampoo in his hair. His matter-of-fact tone conveyed his belief that its disappearance would finally make him “all better.” The red line on his wrist was a constant reminder of the pain he’d endured due to fall during recess.
When he got off the school bus that afternoon, the only proof of his injury was a miniscule cut. I put a band-aid on it to appease him but his misery grew. Within a few hours, the skin from his wrist to his mid-forearm had swollen and darkened to a purplish hue. My husband and I feared a bone fracture and took him to the orthopedist. The X-rays were clear; nothing was broken. The doctor diagnosed a benign-sounding splinter to be the source of an angry infection. He attempted to remove it with tweezers and prescribed round-the-clock antibiotics. But after a few weeks, the site remained painful to the touch and redness remained. He wasn’t getting better.
An ultrasound revealed the offending objects: two half-inch slivers of mulch were embedded deep beneath the skin’s surface. They would have to be removed. An ordinary childhood boo-boo escalated into outpatient surgery. A purple fiberglass cast protected the area from further injury or irritation as he healed. He wore his badge of courage with pride and was a trooper throughout the whole fiasco. But the scar may never completely fade.
As a mother, it broke my heart to watch my child suffer. I wished I could have prevented his pain. I wished we’d been quicker to realize how to best treat his wound. I wished we could have avoided subjecting him to anesthesia and a visit to the sterile surgery center. But life is inherently dangerous; no amount of bubble-wrap or hovering supervision can protect him. This was his first of what will be many scars in a lifetime.
Pain is invisible. It demands a response from the wounded. Its presence must be admitted and communicated for the afflicted to find relief. Skin regrows to cover and seal cuts, thickened and tougher in the form of scar tissue. Our intricately designed bodies repair themselves millions of times over the course of our lives. Yet scars remain: evidence that we’ve lived, played, risked, failed, been through trauma and come out on the other side. As we age, our largest, most visible organ becomes a topographical scrapbook. Scars serve as souvenirs of past hurts as well as evidence of healing.
Every scar is a story, an identifying mark that reveals part of who we are. We wear them both on the outside and within. Some are obvious while others lie hidden beneath our clothes, our makeup, our laughter, or our lies. Empathy begins when we notice one another’s scars, and listen to the stories behind them. It is then that we can begin to believe in the reality of another person’s pain. Intimacy requires us to invite others to see, to touch and to witness the miracle of these ordinary resurrections. To be in the presence of one who’s been healed can be life-changing.
The disciple Thomas is famous for his doubt. Deep grief and disappointment clouded his mind, making it impossible for him to believe the rumored good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But then Jesus invited him to see and to touch the scars on His body. He responded with joy and worship. Even after conquering death, Jesus still bears the scars: proof of His story, marks of His suffering. Those identifying marks allowed those who loved Him to recognize Him.
I had the privilege of hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber give the closing keynote speech at a conference this past spring. As she shared a painful experience of having misjudged someone, her wise words stuck with me. “You can’t really know someone until you know what hurts them.” It struck me that we can’t even know ourselves until we admit the things that have hurt us and accept the ways we’ve been marked as a result. None of us get through this life unscathed. When we acknowledge our own and one another’s pain, we find connection.
Ben’s playground war wound has now faded to a lighter shade of pink. Nine months later, it’s still there and it’s probably as good as it’s going to get. But he looks at it differently now; he’s used to its presence. He realized that it doesn’t need to go away. It no longer hurts; the healing is done. Now it’s part of his story. He’ll tell you that it’s how he tells his right from his left hand; the scar is on the left.
Now it serves a purpose.