I was in the locker room at Sinsheimer Pool in San Luis Obispo, maybe 35 years ago, when I spotted an old guy in the corner whose body was covered in scars.
It appeared he’d been shot a couple of times, and there were remains of other wounds I surmised he’d received in combat.
He seemed happy. A pool regular, he always had a smile and kind word. I should have asked him about the stories behind those scars … but I didn’t, not wanting to intrude, to be impertinent.
The juxtaposition of this man’s bearing — his peacefulness — against the memories of violence and pain he must have borne has stayed with me since. The thought of it reminds me of the inherent imbalance between happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain, love and loss, how the negative often outweighs the positive.
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The old guy’s scars were a permanent, physical reminder of something bad that had happened. I wondered at the time how he held on to the good things — the best kiss he’d ever had, his most intense love, the most beautiful sunset he’d ever seen, the best meal he’d ever eaten.
To remember the good requires effort: You have to dredge it up, try to not forget. It’s hard. We all want to hold onto the good in our lives, but it’s not as easy as remembering the bad. There’s no scar on our bodies and souls from those good experiences, no daily reminder of one’s cherished memories.
It’s quite unfair. Bad experiences leave scars on our bodies and souls. Good ones don’t. Why do we remember a hurt someone has inflicted upon us more easily than a kindness bestowed? Why do the scars on our psyche seem to never go away? Why do we reflexively protect our souls from further insult by withdrawing from whatever left a mark, yet we can’t remember a flattering comment that made us feel good for one moment?
All this swirled through my mind upon returning home from a recent business trip to Malaysia and Singapore, my first visit to Asia. I’ve been to Europe many times, Central America and Egypt, but never Asia. This trip was interesting, but very different from my previous overseas trips, primarily because of how our American/Canadian entourage was received.
It wasn’t hostile — just not friendly. It was just business, with minimal effort by the locals to interact personally. This was a first for me, not just as an American business traveler, but as a Californian. I’d grown accustomed over the years to being asked about all things California by nearly everyone I’d encountered oversees. There’s an organic curiosity around the world about us — Californians —probably due to our prominent role in America’s global cultural hegemony.
Malaysia, a Muslim country, was different. No one was curious. Nearly everyone was eager to conclude business and be gone. They didn’t seem to want us there, but they had to deal with us due to existing business relationships. I’m told from more experienced business travelers to Malaysia this is a new phenomenon, a backlash to the anti-Muslim, anti-foreigner rhetoric and actions of the American president.
This nicked my soul, scarred it. I’ve been traveling the world for more than 30 years and always felt like a “good guy,” the dude from California there to spread goodwill, always greeted with a smile and warm thoughts. Those days are over.
My soul is covered with scars from the past 19 months of mayhem — the daily onslaught of effrontery and outrage emanating from the White House, its lying mouthpieces and its scattered dens of know-nothing Trumpism. Upon return, I’ve found it difficult to consume much news. There’s simply too little room left for more injury to my consciousness.
And yet our president continues concocting trade wars with our allies, creating needless drama at our borders, whipping up white nationalism, xenophobia and anti-press hysteria, attacking anyone who dares object to the mendacity and gangsterism.
Our collective soul is amassing too many scars. If you’re exhausted from it all, feel like quitting, be assured you’re not alone. It’s OK to take a break, to avoid more cuts to the scar tissue on your mind, adding scar upon scar.
But don’t quit. It’s what they want. Resist.
On Election Day, this November and in 2020, American voters can bring back balance between good and evil, happiness and despair, right and wrong.
That old swimmer was happy, despite his scars — inside and out. Let’s be that guy.
Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.