A Lesson in Wabi-Sabi
The other day, while neglecting the roughly fifty-seven baskets of laundry that needed to be folded, I found this wonderful list of words that have beautiful meanings but not clear English definitions. It’s from 2014 and features the work of Ella Frances Sanders from her book, Lost in Translation. The illustrations are as beautiful as the words, each showcasing the pulchritude that we feel inside, but can’t quite describe.
The one that struck me the most was the Japanese word wabi-sabi.
Wabi-Sabi centers on accepting that life is fleeting and that its imperfections are beautiful. If you remember my post here I am a proud agent of imperfection. It’s in my nature to have things that are chipped and broken, missing parts but still functioning. So I immediately connected with a worldview that pretty much says my acceptance of imperfection is not just the laziness I’ve been lead to believe.
So what is wabi-sabi really? Probably one of the best explanations of the idea comes from Richard Powell: ““[w]abi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” While this might sound nihilistic as shit, it really isn’t. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard something so freeing and inspiring. Let me break down why:
A roaring summer thunderstorm, your first kiss, the first time a baby says “Mama”, the jar of Nutella you hide in the cupboard to eat by the spoonful because said baby is now 9 years old and never stops saying “MAMA!”. All these things are fleeting. They exist and then they are gone. Their purpose is to be experienced. The thunderstorm inspires and connects you to the Earth. The kiss fills your heart and mind with oxytocin dripped love. The baby brings joy and purpose. The Nutella releases the stress that joy and purpose brings. The emotions they bring to you are beautiful because they are ephemeral. To experience the magic that is in a beginning, you have to accept that there will be an end. It’s a bittersweet compromise. Being mindful enough to understand that all things have a finality helps you understand how important they truly are. It’s true for people too. Every person and every relationship in your life will eventually end, including yourself. Experience and love them now, in this moment because that is really all we have.
NOTHING IS FINISHED
Life is kind of like road construction here in South Carolina, it’s never finished. All things are a work in progress. Even if it looks complete, there are still pieces changing, ideas morphing, decay and regeneration happening. Nothing, not a building, an idea, an emotion or even a person is impervious to the changes in the world. So every decision we make, every storm we face changes who and what we are. Its uplifting to know that this is not our final form. No matter how bad things are currently, it is not the end of the story. The converse is also true. No matter how good things are, it is not the end of the story. With the burden of a final goal lifted we are free to continue learning, growing, and striving for better for our entire lives. We no longer have to worry about having to accomplish certain things by a certain time. I often struggle with feeling that the time I have to do certain things has run out. One of my deepest secrets is that I want to learn to dance and perform burlesque. For so long I’ve thought that since my age and station in life has meant I’ve missed my chance. But, if nothing is finished, then my chance is still on the table. And that fills me with hope.
NOTHING IS PERFECT
As much as I tout my love of imperfections, there was a time when I was forced to be perfect. In my young formative years, my mentally ill helicopter mother’s focus was on the perfection of my school work. But being the messy, head in the clouds, overly anxious and possibly ADD kid I was, that was never going to happen. I had too many ideas and too few chances to take them to get all the A’s she felt I should. I’m still trying to replace what was lost due to the price I paid for her expectations not being met. During this time, however, I did have one parent in my corner. , When I was bummed out and upset over not having everything come up aces, my dad would say “There was only one perfect person on the Earth, and they crucified him.” I took solace in those words then even if I didn’t quite understand them. Now, I totally understand what he was saying. Perfect is unattainable. Nothing, except for God himself, is perfect. And being perfect wasn’t even enough to save Him. (Sidenote: The Christian faith of my father obviously isn’t my jam these days. I do respect those that choose that path. You do you, fam. Just be nice and I’ll support ya)
If you accept that nothing in this world is perfect, its like life instantly becomes easier. The freedom in knowing that the world is going to be full of fuck ups no matter what you do lifts that blanket of stress clean off. It erases that compulsion to do things with only the end in mind and allows you to now enjoy the process.
And while we’re at it, I’d like to share this: Perfect is an illusion. Its a thing of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It’s a way to keep us plugging away without enjoying our life, hoping to achieve some magical happy ending. It keeps us unhappy, unsatisfied, and forever wanting more. If we banish the idea of perfection from our lives, we would be able to enjoy the beauty that is the mess and chaos that is life.
Fun fact: Wabi-Sabi is actually two words. Originally the word wabi referred to the loneliness of living in nature, away from society. Sabi embodied meanings that included “chill”, “lean”, and “weathered”. (Unnessaccary sidenote: The meanings of “chill” and “lean” back then are nowhere near the definitions of them now. That “lean” Soulja Boy talks about is not the same type of “lean” ) Around the 14th century (and you thought this was new age hubbub didn’t you?) the words shifted and started having more positive connotations. The philosophy can be found in art, design, engineering and even the practice of the Japanese tea ceremony.
It’s not just a thought process, it’s a way of life.
One that I think is beautiful.