While on vacation some weeks back, Blythe and I visited the Gamble House in Pasadena, a great example of the American arts and crafts movement and featuring influence from Japanese architecture. During the docent’s tour, I was struck by her references to a principle in the Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi that formed a basis for the house’s design, and seemed to offer important lessons for this unsettled world in which we live.
Wabi-sabi is an artistic discipline that sees beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, in techniques that are modest and humble, in unconventional ideas. Further research led me to a helpful article where I learned that in its fullest expression, wabi-sabi can be a way of life, or maybe even a political movement. It reflects a worldview that can even “coax beauty out of ugliness.”
Introduced in the mid-15th century, when Japan was in a time of turmoil, wabi-sabi is the antithesis of the Classical Western idea of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental, contending that all things are impermanent. Planets, stars and even intangibles like family heritage and historical memory fade into oblivion. All things are imperfect: even the sharp edge of a razor blade, when magnified reveals microscopic pits and chips. And, all things—including the universe itself—are incomplete and in a constant state of becoming or dissolving.
I reflected back on the docent’s words during this week’s news. The results of the mid-term elections, while far from a perfect repudiation of our violent and hateful civic discourse, can be seen as an incomplete yet significant turning away from the politics of division and fear.
New voices—LGBT folks, people of color, first-time office seekers, and so many women—gained a voice at the table, shifting the status quo, perhaps for generations.
The swift reaction to the transparent ploy of replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Matthew Whitaker in order to curtail the Russia probe, drove tens of thousands into the streets. Though not determinative, the power of these protests will impact both law makers and those who marched in ways yet to be imagined.
And even, when viewed through the lens of wabi-sabi, the selfless response of Sgt. Ron Helus and other responders in Thousand Oaks, California, coaxes a glint of light out of the horrific ugliness of yet another mass shooting.
Impermanent. Imperfect. Incomplete. I am struck by the wisdom and serenity that such a frame can bring to moments of doubt and dread, a frame that can spark in us both the strength to carry on and the hope that a new and better day is evolving.
Next week, I will be traveling to Pakistan to be a keynote presenter at a conference hosted by the Center for Social Education and Development, a Pakistani NGO that emphasizes social cohesion and social entrepreneurship, especially among young people. Therefore, I will not post next week, but I invite you to look for a report on my visit the following week. Blessings, B