Scars Don’t Make Us Failures: They’re Proof That We Lived

“The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.”

– Cicero

A while back, I was visiting Lenscrafters to buy a new pair of glasses.  I was quickly assigned to a salesman that was a few feet taller than me, with a heavy build, a buzz cut, and weatherworn eyes.

As the salesman led me to all the different display cases, I noticed he walked awkwardly, as if he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin. Still, he was an amiable man and I felt very comfortable with him.

When I had finally picked a pair of new glasses, we sat down across from each other and he began processing my purchase.  As he did this, he mentioned, off-handedly, that he had recently returned from serving in The Iraq War.  Then, to my surprise, he quickly pointed out all of his battle scars:

First, he pointed to the left side of his forehead, where he said a bullet had grazed him.  He placed his finger on a bullet wound right above his right knee (he pulled up his shorts to show this to me). Then, he showed me several bullet wounds across the bottom of his right arm.  His finger slid across thick scars that looked like blots on an abstract painting. The scars were pink and were slightly protruding from the skin, like frozen honey.

Then, without flinching, the salesman thanked me for my purchase and told me that my new glasses would be ready for pick up within a week. Finally, he shook my hand.

“So, how’d I do?” he asked.

“You did great,” I said.  “Actually, you’re one of the best salesmen I’ve ever had at this place.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“This was my first sale,” he said with a knowing smirk.

The salesman thanked me again, said goodbye and then went on to help another customer.

I left the store, puzzled. First of all, I was shocked that I had been the salesman’s very first client. (He was that good.) Second of all, as I was leaving the store, it occurred to me that I should have said something more—I should have made it clear that I understood and acknowledged the sacrifice he had made. But I had been so caught off guard by his frankness that I really was at a loss for words.

Moreover, the encounter was so natural and fluid, that it never seemed as if the salesman was looking for any kind of acknowledgement from me. In fact, I think what he wanted was something simpler than my acknowledgement: he just wanted to show me his battle scars.

What Writers Can Learn From Athletes

I don’t know much about sports, but what I do know is that getting a scar is seen as a rite of passage in the sports world.  Scars and broken bones are honored, and sometimes displayed like trophies.

It’s always shocking to learn about the list of injuries a star athlete has had to endure over the course of their career:  broken ribs, concussions, torn ligaments, broken jawbones, bruised body parts, back injuries, and the list goes on and on.

Battle scars are expected in the sports world because athletes are constantly on the court—or in the field, or in the rink—playing the game. And even when they’re not playing the game, they’re practicing for the game so that they’re ready and prepared for a shot at the next title.

The very best athletes dedicate their entire life to the game, and often have to endure dozens—if not hundreds—of failures, set backs, injuries, career slumps, defeats, and even, sometimes, close brushes with death.

But it’s interesting to note that this kind of bold dedication, often admired and praised in athletes, is often seen as “insane” or “irresponsible” in artists.

I wonder why that is.

The Double Standard

When it comes to athletes, we understand that “regular” human beings have limits. One of the goals of an athlete is to stretch those very limits—sometimes to the point of insanity. We respect and understand that athletes have to endure a whole lot of battle scars in order to be able overcome those limits.

We, the spectators, want athletes to stretch human limits because it inspires us, it entertains us, it exhilarates us.  But we also understand and respect that there are consequences to stretching the limits of what is humanly possible.  We understand that in trying to be the best they can be, athletes may (and often do) get hurt.

This is why the athlete who “goes the extra mile” is seen as admirable.

So, why is the artist who “goes the extra mile” seen as either searching for an ego boost—or is just plain crazy?

In the sports world, scars and wounds are nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, those who have the most scars are usually the legends of sport.  (The best athletes have fallen more than most.)

For writers, however, scars are either kept hidden, mined for artistic inspiration, or used as black mail—against ourselves.

When we try to move forward and a take a new artistic risk, for example, we might tell ourselves:

“Remember that big, ugly emotional scar we got from trying something like this the last time? Remember how much it hurt? That scar is proof that we should avoid playing this game all together.”

Writers and other artists often use their scars as proof of their failures—proof that risks hurt, and that they should quit the game completely because of it.

But athletes are smarter in this regard: they know that if you don’t have battle scars, you’re not playing the game. Athletes know that you can’t win a world title unless you are ready to withstand damage—heavy damage—all along the way.

What We Can Learn From Athletes and Soldiers

I wonder if writers can’t be more like athletes and soldiers. I wonder if we can’t share our battle scars with each other, as if they are a rite of passage, and not as if they’re marks of shame or embarrassment.

Because battle scars are undeniable proof that we played the game. We tried.

You see, I used to think I was only successful if I could coast easily through life, unscathed—like a surfer riding a gorgeous blue wave.  But I’m discovering that the exact opposite is true: probably the best proof that someone has truly lived is when they come away a little bit more broken than most.

Most people lament their scars and hide them because they fear the world will discover their dirty little secret: that they’re less than perfect.

But I’m learning that true legends honor their scars, and instead of hiding them, they use their scars to help them grow and succeed.

Scars Don’t Make Us Failures:  They’re Proof That We Lived

If we’ve come away from life scarred, instead of taking it as a bad sign, we should see it as proof that we’ve lived—and that we’ve given life our best shot.

After we’ve been scarred, we always have the option to either give up, or keep playing the game until we win that world title we always dreamed about. So, instead of giving up the game completely, why not be proud of yourself and the fact that you tried?

Don’t be ashamed of your battle scars. Honor them. Don’t hide them. Instead, point them out to complete strangers, like that Iraq War veteran did, and say:

“Sure, these battle scars were once open wounds that hurt. But they healed. They almost killed me—but hey, without these scars I wouldn’t be here today, making you this sale. I wouldn’t be here today helping you to see more clearly. Without these scars, I wouldn’t be here to finally send you on your way, impressed and delightfully surprised.”

much love,

Ollin

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40 comments on “Scars Don’t Make Us Failures: They’re Proof That We Lived

  1. Christina says:

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED this post!

    I loved your scene at the beginning (showing not telling;)) and I loved the sports analogies and I loved your message.

    Maybe artists are supposed to be scar-free because many people think that if you’re talented enough, and truly deserve to succeed, the talent alone will let you go through everything unscathed, without failures.

    But again in sports we see that’s not true. Talent has to be built upon. It’s not easy. It’s not a free pass. We have a lot to learn.

    You gave me another reason for being truly crazy about baseball and for what I can learn from it to apply elsewhere:))

  2. “Should” is a word we get caught in; when we was perfectly fine being ourselves in the moment….. your right his bullet scars was his way to assure you he was a straight shooter in sell you your glasses, nothing more not less!!!!

  3. Outstanding post, Ollin. I heard Seth Godin say recently, “If I fail more than you, I win,” and it couldn’t be more true for artists and writers.

  4. This is brilliant, and well-told. I’ve been trying to figure out my own scars, or issues, trying to find a way to share them in a way that’s of service to my readers.

    I’ve struggled with how to think about my ‘challenges’. This new perspective – the scars I’ve earned in my creative trenches – is a good one to explore.

    Thanks for this!

    • Ollin says:

      Dude, Cynthia. I promise you: as soon as you share those scars with your readers they will appreciate it. They’ll actual respect you and love you more because they realize that your’e not a robot. They’ll let go of that need to have a “perfect” journey and instead embrace the scrapes and bruises all along the way.

  5. Well said Ollin. True as well, I used to do a lot of outdoorsy things which taught me how to get past pain, and push past another level, but I still forget to apply those lessons to my writing path most of the time…

    • Ollin says:

      Athletes have been good teachers to me lately. This particular post was inspired by a famous surfer who was talking about how many injuries he had throughout his life. It was very humbling, and a big relief to me. It’s okay to have scars! I was very happy to realize that.

  6. sarahj says:

    Hey Ollin, love this post — just tweeted it🙂

    I also really love finding well-crafted pieces on blogs. I know my posts always show the lack of an editor!

  7. Great story Ollin. While I feel I’ve overcome many “challenges,” I’m still not ready for the big reveal. But I see your point.

  8. Sirdalmi says:

    Great post Ollin. Thank you.

  9. O.M. Typing says:

    I’m reminded of E.J. Holub, a football player for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs who played from 1961 through 1970. He had twenty knee surgeries over that period, nine of them during the season. He started in 127 games, which was pretty close to all of them. And we complain about our writer’s block?

    This post is your best work, Olin. Thank you.

  10. Ollin, This was a really inspiring post. I really believe that our scars help shape our characters into our better selves. You illustrated this beautifully. Thanks!

    • Ollin says:

      “I really believe that our scars help shape our characters into our better selves. ”

      What a beautiful sentiment. I agree wholeheartedly.

  11. RD Meyer says:

    Can we be both Soldiers and writers? 😉

  12. Ollin,

    Our recent wars like Iraq have had the highest rates of PTSD ever. So I’m not so certain this salesman was showing his scars to simply show his scars. It could be more complex than that.

    And, maybe I’m wrong here, but physical scars seem quite different than emotional scars. But in either case, wisdom comes from meeting challenges and I do relate to the fundamental point of your post.

    • I think with any kind of trauma or “scar,” everybody needs a witness. Sometimes we just need someone else to see our pain, so that we don’t feel alone.

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Sandra,

      The intro was a story and I was a character in the story and as a character I can’t be objective. I was trying to express that I took it to mean what I thought it meant. But I hoped that by saying “I think” it was clear that I did not in fact know what the salesman really meant by it. When its a story its different. I think the subjective is made obvious and its the readers job to take the objective view. If that makes sense.

  13. This was inspiring. I’ll keep it bookmarked for those days when my best just doesn’t feel like good enough.

  14. This post really inspired me to persevere in any field Ollins. Not only to writing or blogging but this can also concern relationships (friendship, family, couple…). It’s not because we’ve been hurt in the past that we’re doomed to remain single/lonely in life. We’ve tried, we failed, then we need to try harder, as we are now more prepared. We might have lost the battle, but the war isn’t yet over.

    • Ollin says:

      I don’t think it means we have to try harder, but it certainly means that getting broken is just part of playing the game. So if you’re broken, then that means you’ve been playing the game. You haven’t failed.

  15. becca puglisi says:

    Hi, Ollin! This is my first visit, and already I’m a fan. Great post.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  16. Really inspiring post, Ollin. And what I needed to hear right now. Great stuff🙂

  17. When you make the sports versus art analogy, that really pounds things home. Thanks, Ollin. This year I’m trying very hard to look at what being more courageous means, and this is one more step to completeing that challenge: http://www.elisestephens.com/2012/01/09/a-year-of-love-and-courage/

  18. Dana Bennett says:

    After reading this brilliant post, I stood up and felt quite a bit prouder of my scars through life. Keep collecting them and I hope they soon are rejections for my writing – so I can send out more!
    Dana

  19. Tammy says:

    Ahh, writing battle scars. What a brilliant analogy Ollin. Yes, I think we are stronger due to them.

  20. krpooler says:

    What a great post,Ollin! When we share our battle scars ,we are sharing our hearts and connecting on a universal and human level. We are showing how our wounds serve a greater purpose and that”sometimes our greatest obstacles can yield our greatest blessings.”(author unknown) We are all enriched, enlightened and inspired when we do share our war stories! Thanks for sharing.

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