potential lost; substance gained

I got another scar on Monday. This one was hernia repair surgery. Before that, mole removal. Before that, knee surgery. They are all pretty minor. And, yet, I can’t help treating them like tally marks counting off the days of my youth…

This new one is by far the biggest. It’s an inch and a half long gash on my groin. It’s narrow, though, and it seems poised to heal quite nicely (the surgeon placed it strategically and used dermabond instead of stitches). It’s nothing that people will see, even when I’m wearing a swimsuit. It’s just there for me to see and know that entropy is indeed increasing.

Part of me is genuinely proud of my scars. They are badges of experience. They are unique stories about my body, just like my genome and the facts of my development. The surgeries they represent are triumphs of human ingenuity and cooperation that I am honored to commemorate. But another part of me is horrified by what my scars represent. I’ve been branded by time and contingency, and soon I will belong to them entirely. Worst of all, I feel like I let this happen.

I have the same confused feelings about scars that I do about aging itself. I have philosophical views on one level that I can’t quite grok at my core. In the abstract, I realize that I will only ever be inhabiting one moment along a trajectory of so many years. I just turned 25, which is a pretty prime position on that number line. If I got dealt this moment at random, I would probably be pretty pleased. I’m young and (minor surgery notwithstanding) healthy but not a dependent child. It would be a horrible loss if I hadn’t gotten to experience this moment eventually.

So why am I not enjoying this choice moment when it comes up in a stepwise fashion? Because I’m not ready. I’m worried about how this moment will look from the prospective of all of those future moments. There’s a part of me that would rather have life up my sleeve than ever really experience it. I cling to the half-belief that time needs my permission to pass over me, as if I can stop it through denial.

This is, of course, absurd. The bad thing about dying is not getting to live, right? Never living out my adulthood would be the same as dying young. Future life is not life at all unless it is ultimately felt in a present. Yet I know I’m not alone in this paradoxical thinking. People mourn lost potential as if potential has a life of its own, separate from the person it was attached to. Even the best outcomes displace unimaginably better potential outcomes, and so we easily feel that something ineffable has been lost whenever a tangible thing is gained.

The truth is that potential has to die in order for people to live. Each moment that is pinned down and made real is snatched from the ether of potential, and every time you capture a moment, dozens more escape into outer darkness. My “potential” is leaching away my life as surely as time and age. “Potential” is trying to swap my real life for an unblemished hypothetical.

Part of me fears that the scars are diminishing me, making me old and vulnerable– exhausting my potential. The part of me that likes my scars (and which is emboldened by thinking the matter through) likes their assertion that I am not my potential. I am my reality. My scars are salient markers of some of the myriad solid, irreversible moments that make up my life. They are not potential lost; they are substance gained.


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