According to legend, 15th century Japanese Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke a beloved ceramic bowl. His artisans attempted a repair which he rejected. He instead asked them to mend the bowl using gold. Thus was born the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is as much of a philosophy as an art — it views breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather than an imperfection.
A related Japanese concept is “wabi-sabi” which is a worldview of accepting and seeing the beauty in the passage of time and imperfections. Let’s break down the two words (which don’t have a direct translation in English);
- “Wabi describes a kind of simplicity, understatement, and serene beauty. It’s an elegance that comes not as the result of strain, effort, and calculation, but rather the opposite.” Source.
- “Sabi has a more direct meaning. It refers to that quality of a tough, storied charm that comes with age and the passage of time. It’s an embodiment of the well-established Eastern idea of impermanence and transience. Things are constantly changing and falling apart as a part of the natural cycle. Sabi might describe the patina on a piece of copper or bronze that comes as a result of weathering, daily use, and the natural influence of the elements through time. It goes hand-in-hand with imperfections and what we might call ‘damage from use.'” Source.
- These two concepts have merged together into a philosophy and an outlook on life. They are “a single description of an understated beauty revealed through time, endurance, and age.” Source.
As philosopher Mike Strum says, “In its most pared-down form, wabi-sabi is about two things: acceptance and appreciation.” Source.
Time and experience have their own beauty and the imperfections we’ve picked up are part of our story. Wabi-sabi asks us to view our lives as a work of art and to make peace with reality (which is hard). Recognize that as we age we give up our physical freshness but gain mental strength and wisdom.
Wabi-sabi is in sharp contrast to our western view of aging where youth and newness are worshipped. As a society, we spend a great amount of time and effort trying to re-capture lost youth.
I’ve been guilty of this myself, falling more in the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” camp (quoting the Dylan Thomas poem) than in the acceptance of the beauty of aging camp. Learning about wabi-sabi has nudged my mindset a bit. I’m happier with who I am as a person now at 51 than who I was at 21 or 31 and I’ve been focusing on that more. I’ve earned my wrinkles, scars, and aches and pains. I’ve also gained wisdom and equanimity with my years.
Dave Grohl was in the band Nirvana and is the founder and the front-man of the band Foo Fighters. I recently read Grohl’s autobiography, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, and below is the story of his view of aging. It’s very wabi-sabi:
Years ago, I was asked to perform at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy relief concert in New York City. Held at Madison Square Garden, it featured the Mount Rushmore of rock and roll lineups: McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Roger Waters, and countless other household names. At one point, I was approached by a promoter who asked if I would join some of these most iconic artists in the greenroom to take photos with some fans who had donated large sums of money to the cause. Honored to be involved, I happily obliged and made my way through the maze of backstage corridors, imagining a room full of rock and roll history, all standing in an elementary school photo formation, nothing but leather jackets and British accents. As I entered, I was surprised to find only two of the performers, standing at opposite ends of the space. One had the shiny appearance of a brand-new luxury car. Perfectly dyed hair, spray tan, and a recently refurbished smile that had the look of a fresh box of Chiclets (an obvious attempt at fending off the aging process, which ultimately had the adverse effect, giving the appearance of an old wall with too many layers of paint). The other had the appearance of a vintage, burned-out hot rod. Wiry gray hair, deep lines carved into a scowl, teeth that could have belonged to George Washington, and a black T-shirt that hugged a barrel-chested frame so tightly, you immediately knew that this was someone who did not give one flying fuck.
Epiphany may seem cliché, but in a flash I saw my future. I decided right then and there that I would become the latter. That I would celebrate the ensuing years by embracing the toll they’d take on me. That I would aspire to become the rusted-out hot rod, no matter how many jump-starts I might require along the way. Not everything needs a shine, after all. If you leave a Pelham Blue Gibson Trini Lopez guitar in the case for fifty years, it will look like it was just delivered from the factory. But if you take it in your hands, show it to the sun, let it breathe, sweat on it, and fucking PLAY it, over time the finish will turn a unique shade. And each instrument ages entirely differently. To me, that is beauty. Not the gleam of prefabricated perfection, but the road-worn beauty of individuality, time, and wisdom.
Grohl, Dave, “The Storyteller”. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Wabi-sabi seems very supportive of a view of purpose in life along the lines of, that a life is an opportunity for growth in consciousness of our selves to get experience and learn from feedback relating to the experience.
There *has* to be a bit of rage so you can stay around long enough to make it to that spot of patina.
Dave Grohl and japanese philosophy — what a fun post! thanks
PS — John. I am trying to figure out if you can combine rage (so you just dont let it all go) with acceptance (sometimes you just gotta let go) — maybe the struggle itself has some value?
Yes – there is probably a balance. Do what you can to stay healthy but also accept aging and the passage of time.