Mostly, I avoid mirrors. It’s not that I think I am horrible or particularly ugly or anything. I am simply ordinary. Not a thing/person worth looking at day after day.
But this morning I stopped and looked at myself as I gathered my clothes to get dressed. I am, I realized, a wonderland of scars, markers of mistakes, bad choices, doctor’s good work and here and there, just plain wonky stuff that happened along the way.
Pretty impressive, I thought, for a guy who never worked for the CIA.
And of course they are only the ones you can see. Like most people I carry the emotional scars of a lifetime. Can’t see those but they are impressive too. If they were visible… well let’s not think about that one. I am not a fan of horror movies.
The point I am getting to is that I have all these scars. And yet, I have had a pretty good life overall. Yes, the stuff that caused the scars was generally bad. At times the wounds stopped me in my tracks for weeks, months, even years. But all in all? I’ll take my life. It’s worth celebrating, even if it looks kinda wonky in the mirror.
As I age. As I have grown close to people through my work as a coach, pastor and spiritual counselor, I have noticed how we live with our scars. Some people continue to live in their wounds. And some people live beyond their wounds. Some grow bitter. Angry. Disappointed in life and themselves. Some celebrate their lives, resilience and whatever possibilities still lie before them.
I have heard so many life stories. It is an honor to be trusted with people’s stories. A deep deep honor. But it is a trust and so I cannot share them. But I can share the lessons. And there are lessons.
Childhood matters. I used to hate hearing how everything went back to childhood. It seemed like a cop-out. “Grow up!” I thought. But, I have learned, that is the point – part of us never do. Part of us is indelibly formed when we are young. Over and over again I hear people share their childhoods, good and bad. Healthy or destructive. Joyful or struggling. We are marked and made when we are young, and those marks run deep. We are made or broken (or some of both) as children.
If people really understood how true this is, I think many of us would fear having children. Or maybe they would make us take courses on raising a child when we are young. We would be more careful. We would treat child abuse, physical and mental, with more consistency and with a sense of urgency. “Kids are resilient.” we tell ourselves. And they are. Until they aren’t and the scars become permanent.
Listening matters. I wish I could tell you how many of the broken people I talk to are wounded most by never feeling heard. Never feeling seen. Never feeling like they mattered. It often begins in childhood and continues all our lives. We become so used to it we adopt behaviors that perpetuate it. We either become wallflowers or ass holes. (I know, preachers are not supposed to use such language, but sometimes it’s just the right word.). And people who are well adjusted and feel valued almost inevitably felt heard and seen as children. Dang, there’s that word again.
We never heal alone. This is a tough one in America where we celebrate the self made man, making it on our own. Here in New England, where I live, that ethos is particularly strong. It may be a great recipe for success stories but it is a terrible recipe for healing.
These scars are caused by our being isolated by the abuse, or neglect, or wounds or half a dozen things. Being hurt and feeling alone, afraid, reduced, All those things diminish us, deeply. Often indelibly.
But we can heal. No matter where we are in our lives. No matter how late we are in our journey. Maybe not completely, but significantly, and the key is being loved, listened to and accepted. I see it all the time, particularly with my hospice patients. How just in an hour or so each week, being listened to, cared for, supported, encouraged is transformative.
There’s two parts to the the “We never heal alone” mantra. If WE are the ones in need of healing, we need to get rid of this whole idea that society has lied to us with. (Yes, I said lied. A strong word. But also, I believe, I true one.) that getting help is a sign of weakness. It is not. It is a sign of wisdom and strength. Fight the urge towards isolation. Find supportive people. People who make you feel heard. People who make you feel you matter.
The second part is that we can be that person for someone else. It is one of the most important thing we can do for others, letting them know they matter. Making them feel listened to. Letting them know they are accepted for who and what they are, scars and all. I have seen it work in people’s lives again and again and again and again.
I am sure there are reasons for all this. A well educated therapist can probably recite the reasons to you in language that would make my eyes glaze over. But I don’t need to know the neurological reasons and psychological reasons to know what works. Being someone who is at his core a watcher and observer, with sixty six years of watching under his belt has shown me what I need to know.
It matters. You matter. Scars and all. But we all have to learn to believe we matter. AND, we can help others feel like they matter. If we would make it our mission, we could change the world.
Off my soapbox, I wonder if the CIA needs help.
Tom Atkins is a coach, consultant, pastor, painter and writer based in West Pawlet, VT.
Besides being heard, which may never happen, try to forgive. As the strong one in the family, I never felt understood, but I learned that forgiving others, heals you. I always thought that forgiving others their transgressions was letting people get away with things. Instead, it brings an inner peace. The others may never change, but you move on with a certain lightness and freedom. That was my life lesson.