There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in
— Leonard Cohen
Few have mastered information compression like the Japanese. They seem to have a word for almost everything — ideas, lifestyles, dilemmas. Complex concepts fraught with nuance and detail, all get boiled down to a simple, elegant word. Or at least that’s how it appears to an outsider.
One of these words is “wabi sabi”.
Some time ago I had written about platonic models and words being nothing more than stories reduced to short, action-packed, easy to communicate forms. In just two syllables, wabi sabi describes an entire lifestyle and way of being — a philosophical outlook on the world, if you will.
“Wabi” comes closest to “rustic simplicity”. While “Sabi” describes the pleasure in the imperfect.
Together they espouse a notion of embracing imperfections and finding joy in the mundane, hidden pleasures of daily life. And even that broad sentiment doesn’t do the term justice.
In reality, wabi sabi is an ideal. It’s an abstract concept to strive for, best espoused in three neat truisms:
- Nothing lasts
- Nothing is finished
- Nothing is perfect
For some this concept may induce panic — “Nothing is finished? What are you talking about?!”. Others may find it liberating.
To be fair, the act of aspiring for perfection while embracing imperfection is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around. It brings the definition of those two words into question, casting a harsh light over how the modern age tends to view the world.
Time has decimated the margin of allowable error in our day to day activities.
The stakes are higher. Most of us wouldn’t want to fly in a plane where the engineers “embraced their imperfections” and left a gaping hole in the fuselage. But if the first plane designers had waited till everything was perfect, they would never have gotten off the ground.
Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. Nothing is perfect.
That said, wabi sabi doesn’t provide an excuse for sloppy work, or work that doesn’t aspire to the highest levels of craftsmanship and effort. After all, this is Japan, where apprenticing at a sushi house can mean 20 years of cooking nothing more than rice. Or pruning a Bonsai tree can be a week-long activity.
Far from advocating for sloppiness, the principle allows for a more nuanced view of the world when compared to the black and white, perfect vs imperfect outlook.
A lot of nuance is lost when our world-view orients itself around either-or phenomena.
It seems our favorite pass time is to try and distill things down to their “good” and “bad”. Eradicate the bad. Overwhelm with the good. Whether the bad includes feelings, pathogens, your coffee getting cold. Or if the good is Vitamin B12, white teeth or “happiness”.
Give me more of the good, and don’t ever make me feel the bad has been the rallying cry of the modern lifestyle for as long as I can remember (which, granted, is not a very long time).
In a world rich with shades of grey, this dichotomous outlook caricatures reality and leads to all sorts of problems. The fundamental one being how do you know what black is without realizing white? The classic yin-yang problem back to haunt us again.
You don’t know you’re in darkness until you see the light. And to have any hope of seeing the light, we have to stop trying so damn hard to mask the cracks in our own armor or the armor in our work, life, relationships, etc.
Imperfections are not be be avoided, they are to be embraced.
They’re a foundational aspect of what makes us human. To make a cube look perfectly square you have to cut it’s angles by just a little less than 90 degrees. A perfectly mirrored face looks absurd, almost frightening. You’ll never find a straight line in nature.
Imperfection is fundamental.
To live, love, work and play while internalizing the idea that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect — to embrace imperfection — now that seems like an ideal worth aspiring for. Maybe, just maybe, by embracing the cracks instead of covering them up we’ll be able to let a little more light in.
And in a world that can seem all too dark at times, a little light sounds pretty damn good.
Till next time,