Wabi-sabi

侘寂 |wabi sabi|
noun • Japanese

finding beauty in things that are imperfect, incomplete, or impermanent.


Perfection is a siren’s song. It calls to us across deep and treacherous waters, its mysteriously alluring melody tempting us to pursue it, promising us greatness when we reach it. But if we follow, allowing ourselves to become blinded by the music without knowing where it may lead us, it soon becomes dangerous. It becomes an endless search for something that never seems to grow any closer, something that’s always out of reach, stringing us along with empty promises. And if we stray too far off course, we may spend the rest of our lives lost at sea, never returning to the familiarity or comfort of land, wandering in search of the satisfaction that we find out too late was never really ours to achieve. The pursuit of this toxic ideal can come at the expense of our own happiness: our achievements and accomplishments, no matter how good they are, are always soured because they’re never good enough. We fall into the habit of telling ourselves, “This could be better” — but sometimes it can’t. Or even if it can, it’s already just fine, even beautiful, the way it is. This is the foundation of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi has its origins in Japanese aesthetics. A wonderful illustration of the concept is kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with golden lacquer — accentuating and even celebrating the breakage rather than hiding it. Another example is photographer Bing Wright’s gorgeous photos of sunsets in shattered mirrors, which — literally and figuratively — allow us to see new beauty in something that’s damaged. But sometimes the beauty of things is less manufactured, existing instead as part of their character. This can be harder to see, but wabi-sabi reminds us that it can still be found if we look for it. Think of the crack in the Liberty Bell, for instance, or the Chartres Cathedral in France, which is well-known for its two asymmetric spires: though both were originally built in the Romanesque style during the 12th century, one spire was destroyed by lightning in the 16th century and was rebuilt in the Gothic style characteristic of that era. The result is a delightfully lopsided facade and a beautiful visual representation of architectural history. To take the idea one step farther, wabi-sabi can exist in less tangible forms, too. Charles Dickens died before completing his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; although some adaptations supply their own endings, the original unfinished book is unintentionally profound as it leaves the true ending to the imagination of the audience, inviting over a century of speculation and theories — the kind of impact many writers today dream of having.

The list goes on, of course. There’s beauty in everything, because everything is imperfect.

As wabi-sabi has become more well-known, people have begun to adopt it as a lifestyle. The philosophy suggests that things are beautiful because they’re imperfect, incomplete, impermanent: perfection through imperfection. Life is much the same way. It’s best enjoyed by accepting and appreciating it for what it is, rather than wasting time wishing it was something it will never be. And it’s wonderful precisely because it doesn’t last forever. If we embrace its quirks and flaws — and our own — rather than avoiding them, we’ll make the most of the time we have to live. That’s not to say that there’s no room for improvement, of course, but nothing good will come of holding ourselves to impossible standards. The world is fascinating because it’s imperfect, as are all who live within it; we are who we are because we’re incomplete.

And that’s the beauty of it.

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