Many days we are bombarded on social media with 100 ways to improve ourselves – how to be happy, lose weight, succeed at this or that, reach this goal, smash this target, be all the things. Life can feel like a contact sport! Change, improve, develop, progress – the culture of self-improvement is all-pervasive. Of course, this motivational culture can support us to reach for the stars – believe anything is possible. However, the flip side of this constant striving for perfection is an existential dissatisfaction – exhaustion, overwhelm – eating away at our self-esteem.
Now, I have nothing against a desire to learn and grow, but when it involves too much focus on what we feel is wrong with us, we risk rejecting parts of ourselves – what we perceive as our imperfections.
I have John Legend’s All of Me on repeat right now. Every time I hear – I love all your curves and edges/All your perfect imperfections – it reminds me that so often it is our quirkiness and weirdness, those things that we may even be ashamed of, that we see as imperfect. In fact, they make us unique. They also make us human, and enable us to connect and feel compassion and love for the imperfections in others. The utopian land of flawless skin, perfect bodies, stellar achievement – a la Stepford Wives – leaves little room for the different, nuanced, off-centre differences that can, in fact, be utterly exquisitely beautiful in their unexpectedness.
“Beware trying to iron out all your quirks, perceived flaws and doubts. It’s often these things that help you find strength, compassion, empathy for others and heart.” ― Rasheed Ogunlaru
There is a Japanese term wabi-sabi. Wabi, roughly translated means ‘the elegant beauty of humble simplicity,’ and sabi, ‘the passing of time and subsequent deterioration.’ Defining it precisely is not easy but, broadly speaking, it’s the aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection and transience: in chipped broken pottery, in rustic earthy objects, in the asymmetrical, off-kilter irregular. “It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” writes Leonard Koren, in Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Rather than seeing dents or uneven shapes as mistakes, in Japan they are viewed as a creation of nature – an acceptance of the power of nature and transition of time.
Leonard Cohen, in his inimitable way, says: Forget your perfect offering/There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.
Photo credit: http://tsugi.de/
And in fact, again looking to the Japanese, Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) is the art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. This way of repairing celebrates the object’s history by highlighting the fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them – often making the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, bringing new life. The golden lacquer shines in the broken crevices like an inner light.
Visiting a friend recently I complimented her on a beautiful black flower near the hem of her yellow gilet I had never noticed before. She smiled and said a friend’s mother had patched the gilet with the flower when it had torn years ago. When I explained about Kintsugi she laughed and pointed to the scar in her otherwise perfect head, where more than 3 years ago she had life-saving emergency surgery following a severe brain haemorrhage. Blessed to be alive, but with the outer scars a hint at the inner imperfections she bears with immense courage. The remedy itself deepens the beauty. The cracks let the light in and out – and allow vulnerability and intimacy.
Faced with our own imperfections, when we ‘mess up’ in life or when life’s slings and arrows leave their mark, we can try to hide them or wear them with grace. If we can embrace and celebrate our broken bits and lean into our imperfections, we can find that our nervous systems can settle and hearts open as we feel safe to reveal ourselves fully. And let the light shine through the cracks.
Not long ago someone broke a mirror in my bedroom. Not only was it a favourite piece I had bought decades ago, but also, according to folklore, a break equals 7 years bad luck. But, ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘I can channel Kintsugi and fill the crack with golden lacquer.’ It will feel beautifully symbolic to look in a mirror in its golden brokenness – reflecting my own imperfections.
This isn’t just “accepting” imperfection or brokenness – these blemishes and imperfections are the point – like the beauty of our scars and wrinkles mark our passage through time. So we can love our perfect imperfections as others do.