You'll find this article on page 23 of the magazine.
In a world of Botox, little blue pills, and “living your best life,” we could all use more wabi sabi in our lives. Because imperfection, says ROGER HOUSDEN, is what makes us human.
few years ago a boy was born with abnormally large upper-arm muscles,
and by the age of two he could lift weights that would be a stretch for a
ten-year old. Curious scientists discovered he has a gene that most
people don’t. Perhaps within a few short years that gene will be
transferable to other newborns and a gym membership will begin to seem
quaint. After all, if you can get the results without all the sweat,
then why not pay up and have yourself biochemically and genetically
Welcome to the world of the enhanced human being.
Not that our urge to become an improved model is anything new.
Young Greeks were working out two and a half thousand years ago, and in
the seventeenth century French women apparently swallowed sand and ashes
to deliberately ruin their stomachs so as to get paler complexions.
Humans have always felt less than perfect in one way or another, and we
probably always will. Even when we have developed the best body we could
ever hope for; even when, a few years from now, we can buy a memory
chip at Radio Shack, or have surgery for a math gene or some other
enhancement, the feeling that we are incomplete will not go away.
It won’t go away because it comes with the package of being human.
Something always seems to be missing, even if we can’t put our finger
on it. We may succeed in ironing out one wrinkle, but then another pops
up in its place. So we go into therapy or take pills. We take classes to
improve our sex lives; we read books on how to follow our bliss; or we
go for the ultimate perfection, enlightenment, as if it were something
to get that we don’t already have. The sense that life is not as good as
it could be— that we are not as good as we could be—seems built into
our genetic code.
Over a lifetime, the obvious becomes inescapable: we will never
achieve any ideal of perfection—either physical, mental, or
spiritual—other than the realization of the perfection of who we already
are, blemishes and all. And what is true for us is true for anyone,
however glowing their life may seem to our eyes. We are, all of us, no
more and no less than wonderfully ordinary, imperfect mortals. So why
not give ourselves a break? Why not celebrate our blemishes, our
imperfections, and dissatisfactions? After all, doesn’t Venus de Milo
look better without her arms?
Not being perfect allows us to feel empathy and compassion, not
just for ourselves but also, and especially, for others. We see our own
frailties and shortcomings in our friends and lovers. Being imperfect
joins us in our humanity. That’s a good feeling. We’re all in this
impossible, crazy life together, which in large measure will take us
where it wants to go. That may cause anxiety to our control needs, but
it beats being lonely in a posture of having it all together when
everyone around us seems to be less than capable.
Every spiritual tradition agrees that in the end we can only bow
our heads to the fact of our limitations and to the mystery of
existence. Those traditions would echo the words of T. S. Eliot when he
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Humility brings us down to earth and lets us acknowledge our true
condition, which is that we are flawed and were never meant to be
otherwise. The perfection fantasy exists to shore up our illusion of
having some control over a life that will never, in reality, conform to
our plans. However sophisticated our spiritual practices, we shall never
get to the bottom of who we are, never uncover all our fault lines and
layers of subtle unrest. Like the puzzle of life and death, these are
puzzles that will remain as ungraspable and nebulous as ever. That is
their beauty, and our beauty too: we will always be just beyond our own
In Japan there is an entire worldview that appreciates the value of the imperfect, unfinished, and faulty. It’s called wabi sabi.
The first term refers to something simple and unpretentious, and the
second points to the beauty that comes with age. Wabi sabi is the
aesthetic view that underlies Japanese art forms like tea ceremony and
ceramics. It’s an aesthetic that sees beauty in the modest and humble,
the irregular and earthy. It holds that beauty lies in the patina of age
and in the changes that come with use. It’s in the cracks, the worn
spot—in the green corrosion of bronze, the pattern of moss on a stone.
The Japanese take pleasure in mistakes and imperfections.
In the West, no one more than Rembrandt took such pleasure in
painting old people. He painted them from the time he was twenty until
the month before he died. Young people didn’t interest him as models,
probably because a young face, even if beautiful, does not have the mark
of life upon it. Age spots, wrinkled hands, the lifetime you can see in
an older person’s eyes—these fascinated him more than untested beauty.
Rembrandt’s most riveting portraits were of himself in old age. He was
able to look in the mirror with a transparent honesty, to reach into his
own soul and reflect to us the human condition in such a way that, when
we gaze at his self-portraits, we ourselves can feel our lives more
honestly and also tenderly. The presence he conveys serves to bring us
Day by day, tiny specks of us float away. No matter which exercise
or diet regimen we follow, no matter which self-help guru or meditation
practice we follow, nothing will dispel the reality that we are not
built to last. Death is our supreme limitation, the final proof that
perfection was never meant to be part of the human experience. A hundred
years from now, there will be all new people. Sooner rather than later,
we shall not be here: no eyes, no nose, no ears, no tongue, no mind. No
you or me. Gone, and who knows where, if anywhere.
Yet knowing the extent of our limitation, feeling our
soon-not-to-be-hereness in our bones, is the best condition we can have
for waking up to the miracle that we are here now. That is the
brilliance of the human design plan; the built-in “defect” is the very
thing that can spur us to drink down the full draught as it comes to us.
Better to taste this gritty, imperfect life we have than to defer it to
some more perfect future that will never come.
Roger Housden grew up on the edge of Bath, England, and—living in the shadow of an ancient stone circle—always felt humans were creatures with one foot in this world and one in another, less visible one. Housden is the author of some twenty books, including the bestselling Ten Poems series, three travel books, and the novella Chasing Rumi. He’s also a writing coach and leads literary and art appreciation journeys.