This essay can be found in the book Impossible is an Illusion published by Wipf and Stock and available here.
My son came home from college, and in a discussion with me brought up a Japanese word, Kintsugi, that immediately opened up my mind to many thoughts.
It’s wonderful to find new words, new ideas, and new ways of thinking.
And, just for the record, kintsugi is now my new favorite word.
Let’s walk through a scenario together.
You have a porcelain bowl on a shelf in your home. You love that bowl. It was given to you from your dear grandmother. One day, while dusting, you accidentally drop the bowl. Fortunately, it lands on the carpet and is not shattered, but it is broken into three uneven pieces. The breaks seem clean. If you repair them just right you might not even be able to see the cracks.
You invest in the best repair tool possible. (You may have found this item at a hardware store or purchased it from one of the many television commercials for products that repair items in seconds without any noticeable lines or blemishes.) You work diligently and carefully. You think you did it. But, you didn’t. Despite all your efforts, the cracks are still noticeable. Very noticeable.
You now have a few choices:
- Put the bowl back on the shelf, even though it is now a flawed piece with very visible defects.
- Put the bowl in a cabinet. It is too precious to throw out, but you can’t have a broken thing on display.
- Throw the bowl away. “You can’t keep everything,” you say. Grandma would understand.
- Repair the item with a lacquer that makes the breaks absolutely noticeable and then put the item back on display for all to see.
Which will you choose?
I would think most people would choose either #2 or #3. It would be rare for someone to choose #1. The final selection, #4, is unheard of.
In America, we try to hide our mistakes. We cover them up. We run from them. Often times, even when confronted with them, we fail to admit them.
We make excuses.
We find scapegoats.
We say, “It was just a misunderstanding.”
Sometimes we even lie.
We do this because we do not want to admit that we made a mistake. We don’t like admitting mistakes. We strive too hard to be perfect.
All of the time.
Kintsugi – (noun) To repair with gold; The art of repairing with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the original piece is more beautiful for having been broken.
With kintsugi, the mistake isn’t run away from, the mistake is embraced. It is highlighted.
The spirit of kintsugi states that it is permissible to make a mistake with the understanding that mistakes are part of life and that we can learn and grow from them.
It’s a whole different way of thinking.
It’s a paradigm changer.
Take a walk with me, please, into the home of a six year old child. Let’s visit the child’s bedroom. On a shelf are some items. Some are pristine. One might be the special music box the child isn’t allowed to touch. In the corner, in a large container are assorted stuffed animals. There is a very cute brown teddy bear in that bin that seems to have come right from the store.
Now we look down on the floor. Laying on the floor is a stuffed bunny and a stuffed dog, we might name them Ears and Pup. Their special stuffed softness has been worn away. One can tell that these toys have spent more than their fair share of time on a spin cycle with the dirty clothes. The dog’s nose is pushed in from being held closely night after night. The bunny seems to have once been torn on a seam and sewn back together.
Which of those stuffed animals are the ones most loved by the child?
I dare say it isn’t that cute bear in the stuffed animal bin.
In America, we have a fascination with items in mint condition.
Old toys are worth more if they are in their original packaging. No one ever seems to ask about the fun of having a toy that is still in a box or plastic shell. Is it fun to have toys that one can’t play with?
Baseball cards are now graded. Every flaw is detected and noticed. We even define different levels of perfection. A card in gem mint condition is much more desirable (and expensive) than a card that is just in mint condition. The more valuable the card, the thicker the harder plastic container it is kept in. No one seems to ask if it is fun to have baseball cards embossed in hard plastic shells.
A valuable comic book is placed in a plastic sleeve and never exposed to sunlight. What good is a comic book that no one can see or read?
Cars by their very nature are left outside in the elements. Even cars that are garaged at night are exposed to rain and sun and snow and wind, to say nothing of shopping carts, stray balls, sticks, pot holes, suitcases, and the like. Yet, even with our cars, we have this ideal that they must be flawless and without any bumps, dents, or scratches.
We are obsessed with this goal of striving for perfection.
People today fill their garages and store rooms with the original boxes (please don’t damage the corners) from their “collectibles” in case those items ever need to be sold.
Some people even put their valuable possessions in storage units that they pay hundreds of dollars a year to maintain. They keep their best items away from their home, and in order to see them, they need to schedule a visit.
And then there is this idea of kintsugi… “The original piece is more beautiful for having been broken.”
There is a big point here – We are more beautiful when we are not perfect. It is our flaws that give us our character.
It is in admitting and recognizing our flaws – and fixing them – that gives us our beauty.
Imagine that broken porcelain bowl proudly on display with the cracks and blemishes very visible. What statement would that bowl make?
Imagine serving the guests you most wish to impress with plates that have chips and scratches.
Do you ever use your best china for breakfast? Why not?
I have shared before that I started enjoying collecting baseball cards less when I cared more about their value than enjoying them as the cards themselves. One can’t constantly sort cards when they are tucked away in plastic.
Kintsugi reminds us of what is truly valuable. When we consider kintsugi, we are able to differentiate between items of worth and items of value. When we consider kintsugi, we can understand and know what we truly cherish.
Some people say that items with blemishes have character. I agree. Each item tells a story. A pristine toy has no story to tell. On the other hand, those loved stuffed animals we met above, Ears and Pup, they tell stories about the child that cherishes them.
We talk, a lot, about failure.
If we are going to embrace that failure is an essential part of learning, we have to also let our failures be noticed. We can’t hide from them. We can’t run from them. We can’t make excuses when we err.
We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to be honest with our friends, our loved ones, our colleagues, and even the students and the parents.
It is of special note that some of the times when parents have understood me the most were when I began a difficult conversation with two simple words, “I’m sorry.”
When we make a mistake, we need to recognize that mistake and find a way to grow from it. When we fix the mistake, we are practicing kintsugi.
More, when we embrace our mistakes, when we make them visible, and share them, and ask for help on how to correct them…that is true personal kintsugi.
When we stop trying to be perfect, we can discover where we need to grow. It is only then that we can begin to stop and repair the errors we make. But when we repair them, we must not do that in silence but out in the open with transparency. You see, with kintsugi, there is one more important aspect.
The blemishes, the errors, the breaks are not just remedied; they are made visible with most precious of materials – gold or silver.
When we fix our mistakes, when we truly repair them, and we do so as to use our best resources as part of the process, then that is true kintsugi.
This is the critical part about kintsugi – in making the repair, we acknowledge that the piece (or in our case, the person) is more beautiful for having been broken.
When we make a mistake, and repair it with gold, we grow as people.
When we do this as individuals, we grow as individuals.
When people do this as part of a staff, the organization grows with us.
When an organization grows, all the people benefit. If that organization is a school, the ones who benefit the most are the most precious items there are… the students.
Let’s all practice kintsugi together. Today…and every day.
(This essay can be found in the book Impossible is an Illusion published by Wipf and Stock and available here.)