Wabi Sabi and Writing Straight with Crooked Lines

“A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your masters house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts.” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”

As people, we are wired to make order out of the world. There are studies that indicate our brains are receiving 400 billion bits of information every second, even though we may be aware of only a couple thousand. Our brain is doing its best to process and collate the almost infinite amount of data that saturate us at every moment. This is why we can read those sentences where the letters of words are mixed up almost as easily as when the letters are properly.

Just focus on our sight for instance. At every moment, our eyes are gathering this field of data from the surrounding reality which is sent to our brain, and our brain is processing it, translating it, and carving it up into parts such as chair, door, and cranky daughter so that we can interact with them in helpful and productive ways (with the potential exception of the crabby girl). Then stack the data from our other senses – the smell of car exhaust, the feel of a slight breeze on the back of our neck, the sounds of a nearby conversation – and it’s amazing to me that we aren’t overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information. What keeps us from being paralyzed by all this – in varying degrees of success – is our ability to make sense of this chaos. Our aptitude at carving up our perceptions the world in ways that are practically helpful is what keeps us from being overwhelmed.

We also do this when it comes to trying to understand why people act in particular ways. We tend to assume that people have some cohesive narrative that is guiding the intentions behind their actions. We functionally assume that by and large, people will act rationally and consistently. However, this is pretty far from the case. We are nowhere near as rational and consistent as what we’d hope. Intentions are a swirling dance of many different things at once, some merely appearing for short time and then vanishing.

Much of our experience is like this; it doesn’t fit into the narratives and stories that we use to understand the world and our place in it. When we face the sharp teeth of suffering in our lives, especially the kind where it seems like it’s no one’s fault, how does that impact our understanding of God’s benevolence, activity, or even existence? One answer would be to say that there isn’t a God, and at first glance this would create a clean and simple narrative. It does it well enough that many people find this convincing, and I think we need to recognize this. However, I think this choice of denying God bypasses the tough crux of the struggle. If we are to fully walk into what it means to be a human, then we have to acknowledge this tension. We are continually confronted by the chaos, transience, and seeming brokenness of the world around us.

We also encounter these signs of entropy and disintegration in our own lives. We notice the mixed integrity behind our intentions. We realize that we may not be as skilled at something as we feel like we should be, or that we are no longer able to do what we once able to do with ease.

One thing that quickly emerges is a sense of shame. Since these mental boogeymen and accusers can easily impact our sense of skill and worth, we try to avoid these aspects of ourselves and instead attempt to compensate through posturing or some other kind of psychological leveraging. However, this is like trying to hold a basketball underwater; it will continue to surface, and the more we try to hide, the more wonky things will get. So then, where does this leave us? How do we process experiences that are confusing, disorienting, and don’t fit into some kind of neat box that we have set up? What if there is some way to create space in our maps and narratives for these aspects that don’t seem to fit in too easily? What if we could accept the tough, imperfect, and fragile in a way that acknowledges what we are going through, while also seeking to make some kind of sense?

Through my study, I recently came across the idea of Wabi-Sabi. A Japanese term, Wabi-Sabi refers to a perspective that focuses on the reception of impermanence and deficiency.

The first term wabi, loosely means pastoral and simple. Think small town charm. The second term sabi refers to a quality of maturation or wear that comes with time, such as the particular color of your favorite faded T-shirt. You really can’t buy that color; it’s earned with mileage.

When combined, it refers to a way of appreciating beauty that refrains from creating clear pictures of clean lines, symmetry, and balance. It instead allows the knobby, crooked, and messy to become the dominant motifs. Ranging from pottery that is far from balanced, to carpentry that is filled with holes and jagged edges, Wabi-Sabi creates space for the unsightly and graceless to be what it is.

The unforeseen consequence however is this new vision of beauty that emerges is stunning in it’s intricacy and elegance (at least I think so; feel free to disagree with me).

Now I don’t know about you, but this perspective sounds a lot more like how I experience my life, than some kind of clear and straightforward narrative. It captures the transience, untidiness, and struggle that stand out through many of my days. it resonates more with the human experience.

It also reminds me of the Psalms; that sweeping collection of poetry in the Old Testament. Many people are caught off guard by how the Psalmist speaks with so much honesty, anger, and confusion. It’s as if we think that these sentiments have no place in a book that is held to be infallible and divinely inspired, so we read those Psalms with a kind of cringe as if we were witnessing a disorderly drunk on public transit. However, the joke is on us because one of the great things about the Psalms is that it presents the human heart in all its raw and unfiltered reality.

Wabi-Sabi and the Psalms offer us the invitation to create space in our lives for the mess. They give us the freedom to not try and collapse everything into some succinct and clean perspective. While this does not mean we should become masochistic and lazy, we can freely acknowledge when things are confusing, discouraging, and cluttered. It allows us to find some kind of way forward in the mess.

Within Wabi-Sabi, there is a kind of pottery called Kintsugi. In true Wabi-Sabi form, the practice of Kintsugi is where pottery is broken, and then put back together with gold at the joints. This is a profoundly moving metaphor. We’re not limited to just acknowledging the cracks, holes, and general brokenness in our lives. Additionally, these places of perceived deficiency, clumsiness, and fragility could instead become the exact places where the glory stands out the most. As Leonard Cohen said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get in.” I think we could go further and say that the crack is also the place where the light shines out.
Let’s return to the water bearer and the pot:

“The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pots side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my masters table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

The rough edges and cracks of our lives do not need to be forced into the shadows in order to make sense of our lives. Instead, if we acknowledge and embrace them – and just choosing to take a deep breath in that tension – then we are creating space where we can be freed from the paralysis of shame and be surprised by the mysterious and frequently obscured action of God who “writes straight with crooked lines”.

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