My body is scarred.
A thirty-eight bullet blotch on my left knee. A twenty-five-cent, quarter-sized, raised, keloid on the back of my left shoulder from falling out of a tree when I was a pre-teen and a piece of cut branch pierced deep into my flesh. An eight-inch-long appendectomy line diagonally crosses my lower abdomen. Plus, there are other scarifications I’ve picked up along the sixty-three-year life-way I’ve traveled.
And, of course, a series of stories accompanies each mark. I could narrate my autobiography just by relating the tales of how each wound came to be.
For example, there is a cut on my left hand. I was fighting with my brother when we were both young. If I remember correctly we were in junior high school. The two of us were tussling over one knife. He grabbed the handle, I ended up with the blade. You can guess what happened. You know the skin between your thumb and your pointing finger, that elastic part? That’s where I was sliced. I remember I could see the flesh inside my hand. Although it hurt, I was really fascinated by examining the inner workings.
That altercation happened over fifty-some years ago. Although the physical scar is still there, the slicing did not produce any psychological scars. I am not afraid of knives or fights. I don’t hate my brother, nor did I hold a grudge against him.
Although my body reveals the violence I have encountered, my deepest scars are not visible. Indeed, one of those invisible markings runs the length of my mental and will never disappear. I will never forget how seriously I stabbed myself, severing my budding self-esteem.
I was standing in the Manhattan street holding down a parking spot. A car came up. The horn blew. I ignored the sound. The driver blew again. I remained steadfast. The driver lowered his window and shouted for me to move. I didn’t respond nor did I move.
This was in the seventies, four or five of us were headed to The Beacon Theatre to experience a double-bill of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group and Pharaoh Sanders. As we drove around looking for parking spots, the brother who was driving spotted one on the other side of the street. He told me to get out and go stand in the spot until he could turn the corner and double back. I did as I was requested but I didn’t feel good about doing so.
I had tried to assuage my guilt by rationalizing: maybe that was the way they did things up in New York. I hoped no one would come along before my friend got back. The night was warm. New York City. Anything could happen. How would I handle it if the police came along? Suppose someone jumped out and wanted to fight—not that I was afraid—but as I stood guard the myriad of possible scenarios playing on the screen of my consciousness was interrupted when that young black man drove up.
After I ignored him, he pulled up next to where I was standing and talked to me through his window. It wasn’t a long speech, nor was he cursing at me or even shouting. He was calm and accurate with his words, “Alright, brother, but you know you wrong.”
Those words scalpeled deeply. He was right. I was wrong; so wrong that I could barely enjoy the music because I continually questioned myself: why had I done something I knew was wrong?
That happened close to forty years ago but it indelibly mottled my memory, resulting in a sort of psychic scar. Ever since, whenever I’m asked to do something I know is wrong I don’t just go along with the situation just because it’s a good friend making a seemingly innocuous request, nor do I swallow my moral sense and do a jig because the outcome would be of some immediate benefit to me.
With me, the outcome really doesn’t matter as much as does the process. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Especially, why am I committing an action I know is wrong?
Sure, we enjoy pleasure. We like getting things, consuming things. Let me be specific: we men like sex, crave power, being in charge, in control, but I constantly ask myself: at what price? Can I—my sense of being a man, an honorable human being—can I afford to be the boss if the cost of attaining power is knowingly doing wrong?
Physical pain rarely deters me but the psychic pain of doing wrong terrifies me. That is the pain I learn from; not just on a Manhattan street blocking a parking space but every day of my life, I do my best to avoid the pain of doing wrong.
So, although I have a high tolerance for pain, I have a low threshold when it comes to my personal behavior. Regardless of what anyone else may think of what I do or don’t do, what I think of myself is my compass. What’s ok for them, may be anathema for me.
The scars on my body, hey, that’s life. Life is a knife. Or a gun. An accident, a fall. Hot grease burning the skin in a cooking accident. The unanticipated pain of a hand slammed in a car door. The tooth chipped by a baseball unintentionally thrown in your face. The residue of childhood chickenpox or an allergy to a food you didn’t know would cause severe rashes. Life, in all its complexities. Life, the myriad of petite disasters that challenge our personal morality and leave behind indelible indications of each encounter.
While we cannot avoid the inevitable markings of life, we don’t need to tattoo our souls with self-inflicted graffiti. My body may be scarred, but I try to keep my soul unblemished.
Regardless of the scars you may or may not see when you look at me, what you don’t and can’t see: my internal moral wall—that is where is posted the most important lessons of my life. Inside of me is all that I have learned. And I guess you can say that I’ve studied myself deeply and tried my best to take note of and respond to both the pleasures and pains of my life.
That New Yorker taught me a key lesson when he told me, brother, you know you wrong. Even after over 350,000 hours of living, that wound remains tender.
Knowingly doing wrong is one pain I just can’t stand.
—kalamu ya salaam