In a world of Botox, little blue pills, and “living your best life,” we could all use more wabi sabi in our lives. Because imperfection, says Roger Housden, is what makes us human.
A few years ago a boy was born with abnormally large upper-arm muscles, and by the age of two he could lift weights that would be a stretch for a ten-year old. Curious scientists discovered he has a gene that most people don’t. Perhaps within a few short years that gene will be transferable to other newborns and a gym membership will begin to seem quaint. After all, if you can get the results without all the sweat, then why not pay up and have yourself biochemically and genetically tuned?
Welcome to the world of the enhanced human being.
Not that our urge to become an improved model is anything new. Young Greeks were working out two and a half thousand years ago, and in the seventeenth century French women apparently swallowed sand and ashes to deliberately ruin their stomachs so as to get paler complexions. Humans have always felt less than perfect in one way or another, and we probably always will. Even when we have developed the best body we could ever hope for; even when, a few years from now, we can buy a memory chip at Radio Shack, or have surgery for a math gene or some other enhancement, the feeling that we are incomplete will not go away.
It won’t go away because it comes with the package of being human. Something always seems to be missing, even if we can’t put our finger on it. We may succeed in ironing out one wrinkle, but then another pops up in its place. So we go into therapy or take pills. We take classes to improve our sex lives; we read books on how to follow our bliss; or we go for the ultimate perfection, enlightenment, as if it were something to get that we don’t already have. The sense that life is not as good as it could be— that we are not as good as we could be—seems built into our genetic code.
Over a lifetime, the obvious becomes inescapable: we will never achieve any ideal of perfection—either physical, mental, or spiritual—other than the realization of the perfection of who we already are, blemishes and all. And what is true for us is true for anyone, however glowing their life may seem to our eyes. We are, all of us, no more and no less than wonderfully ordinary, imperfect mortals. So why not give ourselves a break? Why not celebrate our blemishes, our imperfections, and dissatisfactions? After all, doesn’t Venus de Milo look better without her arms?
Not being perfect allows us to feel empathy and compassion, not just for ourselves but also, and especially, for others. We see our own frailties and shortcomings in our friends and lovers. Being imperfect joins us in our humanity. That’s a good feeling. We’re all in this impossible, crazy life together, which in large measure will take us where it wants to go. That may cause anxiety to our control needs, but it beats being lonely in a posture of having it all together when everyone around us seems to be less than capable.
Every spiritual tradition agrees that in the end we can only bow our heads to the fact of our limitations and to the mystery of existence. Those traditions would echo the words of T. S. Eliot when he said:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Humility brings us down to earth and lets us acknowledge our true condition, which is that we are flawed and were never meant to be otherwise. The perfection fantasy exists to shore up our illusion of having some control over a life that will never, in reality, conform to our plans. However sophisticated our spiritual practices, we shall never get to the bottom of who we are, never uncover all our fault lines and layers of subtle unrest. Like the puzzle of life and death, these are puzzles that will remain as ungraspable and nebulous as ever. That is their beauty, and our beauty too: we will always be just beyond our own grasp.
In Japan there is an entire worldview that appreciates the value of the imperfect, unfinished, and faulty. It’s called wabi sabi. The first term refers to something simple and unpretentious, and the second points to the beauty that comes with age. Wabi sabi is the aesthetic view that underlies Japanese art forms like tea ceremony and ceramics. It’s an aesthetic that sees beauty in the modest and humble, the irregular and earthy. It holds that beauty lies in the patina of age and in the changes that come with use. It’s in the cracks, the worn spot—in the green corrosion of bronze, the pattern of moss on a stone. The Japanese take pleasure in mistakes and imperfections.
In the West, no one more than Rembrandt took such pleasure in painting old people. He painted them from the time he was twenty until the month before he died. Young people didn’t interest him as models, probably because a young face, even if beautiful, does not have the mark of life upon it. Age spots, wrinkled hands, the lifetime you can see in an older person’s eyes—these fascinated him more than untested beauty. Rembrandt’s most riveting portraits were of himself in old age. He was able to look in the mirror with a transparent honesty, to reach into his own soul and reflect to us the human condition in such a way that, when we gaze at his self-portraits, we ourselves can feel our lives more honestly and also tenderly. The presence he conveys serves to bring us present too.
Day by day, tiny specks of us float away. No matter which exercise or diet regimen we follow, no matter which self-help guru or meditation practice we follow, nothing will dispel the reality that we are not built to last. Death is our supreme limitation, the final proof that perfection was never meant to be part of the human experience. A hundred years from now, there will be all new people. Sooner rather than later, we shall not be here: no eyes, no nose, no ears, no tongue, no mind. No you or me. Gone, and who knows where, if anywhere.
Yet knowing the extent of our limitation, feeling our soon-not-to-be-hereness in our bones, is the best condition we can have for waking up to the miracle that we are here now. That is the brilliance of the human design plan; the built-in “defect” is the very thing that can spur us to drink down the full draught as it comes to us. Better to taste this gritty, imperfect life we have than to defer it to some more perfect future that will never come.