The scars that make a self

September 03, 2021

The scars that make a self

Andrew Sloane

We’re not a culture that values scars. Not real scars, the traces in our flesh of costly love, of risk and loss. Of mastectomy or Caesarean section. Of burns received in fighting fires. A limb lost when putting our bodies on the line for another. Those scars, often profoundly disfiguring, things from which we tend to turn away, are nonetheless scars that identify us. They’re the traces of the loves and losses that make us who we are. But we’re not comfortable facing them, embracing them, claiming them as our own, as our self. Tattoos, sure. Perhaps because tattoos allow us to deceive ourselves that we write our own stories, we construct our own selves (well, most tattoos, as the gently searing cartoon illustrates). But scars? Not so much.

Image: https://xkcd.com/933/

Perhaps that’s because the ones that matter aren’t chosen. They are the imprint life leaves when we rub up against it—or smash into it—and have to live with the consequences. They are the reminder of our fragility and fallibility, our frailty and our failure. But also of the loves that shape a life.

We’re not comfortable with scars. Not physical ones. And certainly not psychological or emotional ones. We want to ‘get over it’, to ‘find closure’. We want to move on, and we expect others to do so. We don’t want to be reminded of the losses we’ve endured, the griefs we bear, the absences that lurk in our memories and our homes. We want to erase the reminders of plans that have failed, people we’ve loved who’ve died, or failed—or even betrayed—us, and of those we’ve failed—or even betrayed—and who are now absent from our lives. And for some of us who claim to be Christ followers, we swallow pop-psychobabble pabulum, a self-serving misreading of Philippians 3:13 (‘forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead’), and think that this self-protective amnesia is part of our calling in Christ.

But I want to suggest that this is a mistake. Not just a (hopelessly) mistaken reading of Paul, but a mistaken strategy for living with life after loss. And a profoundly dehumanising one. For these scars, too, are the traces of our costly loves, of our risks and losses. These, too, are the scars that identify us, for they are the fingerprints left on our souls of the ones we have lost. This, too, is what it means to be human.

Which brings me to two points of reflection. The first is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work on lament.[1] A lot of work has been done on lament, its role in Scripture and the need for its reincorporation in the life of the Church (and, perhaps, in our common life).[2] But I would like to join Wolterstorff in thinking about not only how lament helps us live with loss, but what it says about those losses and their role in our lives and our identity. Lament is not a therapeutic strategy aimed at helping us ‘move on’, to find closure. As I was reminded at a friend’s funeral a few weeks ago, lament is an expression of grief— often raw, and pain-filled, and angry, always honest—directed towards God. It’s an articulation of loss and longing, and one that for Christians acknowledges the brokenness of the world and of ourselves, and yearns for a future in which our tears are wiped away. But do note: our tears might be dried; but that doesn’t mean our scars are erased. For our scars, I would suggest, don’t disfigure, they are the traces of the stories that form who we are; they identify us.[3]

Which brings me to reflect on the scars of the risen Christ. These are scars borne for us for our redemption. But they are also profoundly human scars. They are the scars of loss, of betrayal, of suffering, of death. They are the scars of the one who lamented on the cross, joining with us in the common human experience of fragility and frailty and finitude. And they are the scars that identify him to his now not grief- but wonder-struck followers after his resurrection. Jesus does not forget the scarring past that  shapes him, but embraces it with us and for us. No repristination for Jesus. Sure, they are the wounds of the conquering Lamb who was slain and who now lives. But the traces of his past are borne on his flesh, the resurrection flesh of the sovereign Lord.

Now, let me be clear. Despite the claims of some disability theologians, the resurrected Jesus is not disabled by his wounds, nor is ours a disabled God.[4] Thomas’ (in)famous demand to put his fingers in the nail-prints and in his side, a demand met by the risen Lord (John 20:24, 27), proves to him that the one his friends saw is the self-same one they saw crucified, dead and buried, the self-same one he had followed in Judea and Galilee. They are marks of identity, not of disability.[5]

And if that is the case for Jesus, is it not also the case for us? The scars that our culture teaches us to see as impediments, as things to get over (or avoid) for the sake of a life well-lived, are the things that help define us. They are the marks precisely of a life well-lived.

So, as we all learn again to deal with life after loss, let’s not hide our scars, or seek to erase them. Sure, deal with disabling pain, allow the wounds to heal. But bear the scars bravely. Some, with regret: the marks of our failures and betrayals. Some, perhaps more than we might imagine, with pride. For these are the traces of love, mapped on our bodies and our hearts and our minds,
the contours of the complex landscape of a life well-lived. A life of love.

ENDNOTES

[1] See his classic Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987); and a recent interview with him done by the Centre for Public Christianity www.facebook.com/publicchristianity/ videos/nicholas-wolterstorff-on-grief/368647664392393/.

[2] See the classic piece by Walter Brueggemann, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament’. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Vol.11 no.36, 1986, pp57-71, or Tom Wright’s more popular reflections at www. ntwrightonline.org/five-things-to-know-about-lament/

[3] As reflected beautifully in Angie Andrews’ poem ‘Who of you will join me’ in Case Quarterly #60, 2021, p8.

[4] For which see the influential work of Nancy L. Eiesland in The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Abingdon, 1994).

[5] For more on this, see my pieces on dementia, identity and resurrection: Andrew Sloane, ‘The Dissolving Self? Dementia and Identity in Philosophical Theology’. Science & Christian Belief Vol.31, 2019, pp131–50; ‘Untangling the Cords of Sheol: Dementia and the Eschatology of the Physical Universe’. Science & Christian Belief Vol. 31, 2019, pp151–67.



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