Rising Above the Scars

There was a jaw-dropping insight from Henry Rollins (who once fronted the band Black Flag) in an inspiring recent column by Gail Blanke. She quotes this bit of genuine wisdom from the occasionally outrageous Rollins: "Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength and move on . . ." Rollins was once a wild, larger-than-life personality. His high school yearbook photograph labeled him accurately as "Maniac Par Excellence." So a quote from Rollins seemed like a bit of a reach for Gail. Yet now in middle age, Rollins has become a sophisticated, intensely informed thinker with a varied career in entertainment and publishing. He is spot on when it comes to scar tissue. So is Gail.

Her point, and his, was that pain and struggle can be a crucible for great achievement. What wounds us can also wake us. What brings you down can also lift you up. Body builders know the secret: you break tissue order to force it to rebuild itself, and in the process, it grows a little more capable of bearing greater weight.

This, for me, is one of the central keys to a better life: to cheerfully persevere in the face of adversity. To welcome struggle and pain for the sake of something worthwhile. It was instinctively my attitude and modus operandi in the sewers of Romania, when I was a child. The Communists who assumed control of our country after World War II put me to work in them. They were trying to kill me, slowly and deliberately, because I was the child of a political enemy. I chose to ignore their malevolence. In an absurdly defiant way Mr. Rollins would appreciate, I fantasized that my forced labor was a career opportunity. If only I shoveled out those suffocating sewers with enough care, they would spot my admirable work ethic and promote me. Eventually, they did -- a good worker can be put to use in many ways -- even though they still weren't feeding me enough. I ended up getting to pass the hours in a bus garage, still a slave, but laboring in the Big House. I survived. I also got stronger, even as my body was still wasting away.

That superficial promotion, which meant so much to me at the time, isn't what made me who I am today; it was the stench and exhausting hours of my work underground that refined my character. You can't see the scars. They're on the inside. Yet they also aren't really scars anymore. They became emotional and spiritual sinews that made me who I became in the United States, when all the strength I'd developed was free to be applied to something valuable and lasting. That suffering in Romania gave me a fighting chance later on.

And that's where Gail takes her metaphor. We need to have fight for worthwhile causes -- not fighting by against each other, but with others for something greater than our own self-interest. That's where all the fear and risk come in, the chance of being wounded by betrayal and disappointment, when you really throw your heart into something with other people. Gail quotes a story of how, at the pearly gates, St. Peter will be looking to admit only those who bear the scars that count. I like that. St. Peter wants only those who can prove they fought for something worthwhile.

We live in hard times for so many, and it's always a risk to put hope into action, to attempt something that can end in failure, to do and say things that other people may hate or find ridiculous. But believing in the things that matter and building your life on them, regardless of whether you are hurt in the process--that's what counts. Rollins sang about it himself in one of those raucous Black Flag songs of his:

We are born with a chance
Rise above! We're gonna rise above!
I am gonna have my chance
Rise above! We're gonna rise above!

Keep fighting for what you believe, in concert with others, and we will rise above whatever is holding us back in these difficult times.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.