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