Last week, I nearly had a melt down when the formatting in my 286 blog postings unexpectedly disappeared. This relatively trivial problem triggered something that kept me up all night questioning the meaning of life. What am I doing here? Why? Who cares? This is not my usual thing. Even while it was happening, I knew my existential angst was not about formatting.
After I calmed down, I remembered “kintsugi,” one of my favorite Japanese traditions. Kintsugi is a an ancient method of repairing broken bowls with gold. Like most things in Japan, however, kintsugi is not just about bowl repair. It’s a metaphor for repairing ourselves in ways that make us better than the original.
Most of us are at least a little broken by the events of 2020 — the pandemic, the natural disasters, the demonstrations and economic hardship, the attacks on vulnerable people and our democracy. Kintsugi tells us to create beauty from the damage.
So then I thought about some of the ways we can practice kintsugi even as troubles surround us:
Gratitude — Albert Einstein said “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” My friend Robby expresses gratitude in practically every sentence, no matter how many challenges are in front of her. She reminds me of the miracles.
Celebrating imperfections — Native Americans believe we should not even strive for perfection because only god is perfect. In that spirit, their handmade rugs always include a “mistake.” Dents in cars, a bad day at work, something I said that was really insensitive — evidence of our humanity. Imperfections invite us to consider our priorities, and to be forgiving and forgiven.
Helping Others — The pandemic has brought some of us closer to family and friends. But the ways we connect with people outside our close circles also contribute to powerful feelings of a bigger belonging. My sister recently gave her neighborhood UPS driver $100 to acknowledge the risks he is taking to provide service. My friends in Mexico talk about how connected they feel when they help their Mexican neighbors get through this difficult time. I keep seeing, “we are all in this together.” “This” is everything and “we” is everyone.
Focusing on something bigger than ourselves — Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning to describe the transformation he experienced as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Among his many profound observations is that “…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself…” The cause might be community service, science, grandchildren, teaching, art — anything, as long as it’s not, you know, you.
And I thought about the things in my life that help me feel kintsugi:
Art. Art is a universal language that helps us identify with struggles and joys of all humans. Here is a painting by Marc Chagall that combines Christian and Jewish motifs to express the idea of redemption and the vindication of the world’s evils. I especially love the references to music and animals.
Nature. My friend, Kathy, recently invited me to spend a few days at her house in the Sierras. During my visit, our hikes reminded me of the power of the wilderness to help us escape monkey mind and feel connected to something bigger.
Music. Scientists don’t know why music so profoundly affects our minds and our spirits. Leonard Cohen is one of my favorites when I want to hear a deeper, more complicated story.
Ultimately, my formatting problem was a good thing. I realized how I have become too attached to something I have been doing for six years, and how doing something new could be liberating. After that, my friend John fixed the formatting, but I am still thinking about trying something new.