Western culture loves perfection. Anything that’s imperfect is rejected or at least offered at a steep discount. When someone asks about a newborn baby, you might hear the cliche, “He has all his fingers and toes.”
In our culture of mass production, we judge quality by how perfectly the widgets pressed out of industrial machinery match each other. It doesn’t matter how boring or soulless or poorly designed a thing is. It’s a quality item if it matches its specifications.
I grew up steeped in that culture of perfection, but the more of life that I experience, the more I’ve found beauty in a kind of imperfection that comes only from brokenness.
My little green-eyed Bessie is a 4.5-pound cat with three legs. (Click her picture for a bigger version.) She walks and jumps oddly to compensate, but it never crosses my mind to think she’s anything less than perfect. (Her sister, Molly, looks almost identical to her, but she has four legs.)
I have an old pica stick — which is a ruler made for the graphic arts industry — that I used when I worked as a newspaper editor years ago. It’s badly scratched and beaten up. It’s been bent over and over, because I used to carry it in my back pocket and I’d absentmindedly sit on it. For years, I’ve thought about buying a new one, but I eventually realized that the old one was worth more to me than a new one would be. The scars and imperfections of this one make it worth more, because it’s been with me since I was in college.
Even people can seem more valuable to me when they’ve been damaged.
For years, I’ve noticed that all of the women I’m attracted to have been through emotional trauma of some sort or other. I realized that women who have had too “normal” a life — in the emotional sense — don’t seem interesting to me.
When I first realized that, I assumed it was just because I felt broken myself and didn’t think I deserved anyone who was “perfect,” but I’ve slowly come to understand that it’s something very different.
The thing that attracts me is something the Japanese call wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi has influenced Japanese ideas of beauty in roughly the same was the Greek ideas of beauty have influenced western culture. It’s an idea that sees beauty as that which is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.”
Whereas western ideals place emphasis on perfection and they lead us discard a thing when it’s broken, the Japanese concept is almost the opposite. A beautiful item is one which has suffered or is otherwise imperfect — it’s been repaired or it bears the scars of its past. This is why the cups you see used in Japanese tea ceremonies look beaten and battered by our standards.
It was from business writer Seth Godin that I first heard of the concept of wabi-sabi. He says our culture is sick of boring and perfect products churned out of machines. He said people are longing for the experience of beautiful imperfection — for things which are authentic in a way that machines could never produce.
When I heard this, I finally understoodd why I was attracted to women who had been through trauma and had been made “flawed” by their experience.
There’s something different about people whose spirit has been broken. If you accept what’s happened to you — whether it’s failure or loss — it can change you profoundly.
Your brokenness can be a gift.
Before you were broken — or maybe before you realized you were broken — you thought you were perfect. We all see ourselves as bright and fresh and shiny and new when we’re young.
We will change the world. Everybody is going to love us. They’ll all be impressed by us.
And then — usually in a way that is sudden and blinding and painful — we realize that we have failed or we’ve been rejected or we’ve had something taken away from us.
Suddenly, we are broken.
There are two potential reactions to brokenness. One is to become bitter and angry — to refuse to think about what’s happened and how we can become healthier versions of ourselves. Most of all, this path is about denying — to ourselves and others — that we’re broken. On this path, we become worse and worse. We become bitter and then more bitter.
Understanding your brokenness gives you a chance to examine yourself and to know yourself — and then to rebuild yourself in healthier ways. It’s a way that develops humility and a deep willingness to change yourself.
A woman who appears to be perfect seems plastic and robotic. She’s uninteresting to me. She’s not looking to grow and change — because she already thinks she’s perfect.
A woman who’s broken and has started searching for how to put the pieces back together is interesting. She understands that she can be better and more beautiful as a person than what she was when she was “perfect.”
My Bessie is wabi-sabi.
My old pica stick is wabi-sabi.
A woman whose spirit has been broken — by her own choices and by life’s random events — also becomes wabi-sabi when she embraces her brokenness and grows in ways that transcend what she ever could have been when she was perfect.
It’s a paradox that the western concept of beauty and perfection has limits. There are no limits to the beauty and meaning that come through the imperfect beauty of wabi-sabi.