Is anything better after it’s been broken? Stupid question, right? Maybe not.
A concept as simple as the value attached to a broken object can speak volumes.
I recently broke a plate. It broke right in half. How did I react? I was angry, and in the heat of the moment I felt like taking that damned plate and smashing it to pieces. After gaining some control, I mixed the words “shit”, “damn it”, and other less-than-savory expletives in a string of senseless growls while I cleaned it up. What value did I place on that plate? It was worthless. In fact, it was worse than worthless. It was suddenly an object to be disposed of and forgotten – a sign of my clumsiness or lack of attention.
Am I alone in this kind of response? I’m pretty sure I’m not. A broken plate simply has no worth or value…… Or does it?
Maybe the worth of an object isn’t in its intrinsic value, but in its potential. But it’s still just a damned plate!
Let’s jump over to the other side of the globe. I have a healthy respect and admiration for many Far Eastern cultures, and this example is one of the many reasons why.
Kintsukuroi: The Japanese term that means “to repair with gold”. It is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer with the understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.
The mindset behind Kintsukuroi is profound. Broken does not mean worthless. Broken means a chance at improvement, a chance at becoming more than it was before.
I think the idea is foreign to most Western cultures. Are you telling me that if I break a cup, I should spend time and money on fixing it? Hell no! I’m going to run down to Wal*Mart and buy a 12-pack of cups, and maybe pick up a case of beer and some microwaveable nachos while I’m at it…..
But this isn’t just about broken plates or cups. That would be a pretty lame thing to spend my time writing about.
I believe the brilliant idea that is Kintsukuroi can and should be applied to how we view other broken things. Relationships. Families. Friendships. People in general. These things can all break, but the real question is what we do with them when they are broken. For the sake of cutting the size of this post down, let’s just talk about Kintsukuroi as it relates to self and others.
I remember a very bitter period of my life when I felt broken. My self-esteem was at dangerously low levels. Had it been up to me and my own devices, I might have thrown in the towel and given up, a destructive path that I’m sure would have led to a tragic end. But with the help of friends, family, and a fantastic therapist, I decided I had some value. It took years of work and struggle, but we all bound my broken self like a human Kintsukuroi. I am forever better off because of this.
Most of us experience this at some point. It’s too easy to view our broken selves as useless, worthless, and not worth the effort. But that’s not a fair assessment of our value and worth. If something as simple as a cup can be fixed and made into something more beautiful and valuable than it had been before, then something as uniquely precious and worthwhile as a human being can be changed from a broken person to an individual with limitless possibilities.
Now. How about others?
Do you know anybody that feels or acts like they are broken or lost? They could be as close as partners, children, parents and friends, or they could be the person on the street that we pretend we don’t see. People can feel broken, or have society look at them as broken, for various reasons, ranging from self-image to mental disorders. If we validate a person’s self-imposed thought of being broken, or if we perpetuate society’s stigma of an individual or group of individuals as being broken, we are condemning them to this false idea that they are not worthwhile. We are taking the already broken plate and smashing it to pieces.
I shouldn’t look at an individual that appears to be broken, or less-than-whole, and pronounce judgment on their value and potential. But how often do I do that? How often do we as a society do that? We need more human Kintsukuroi. There’s no need for gold or silver lacquer. It’s simply a matter of compassion, time, resolve, and the desire to help.
I’d like to finish this off by sharing a story that I’m ashamed of. A few years ago I was on my way to work. I had pulled some gear out of my vehicle and walked across the street to take it inside our building. As I crossed the street, I noticed a slightly disheveled man change his direction and start walk towards me. The man walked with a slight stumble as he visibly hurried to meet me at the side of the street. My immediate reaction was that this guy was drunk. A bum. I prepared myself to tell him that I didn’t have any cash so I could hurry into the building and not deal with the situation.
He approached. My hastily prepared response was on my tongue, ready to be delivered quickly so I could go about my “important” day. He spoke in a clear voice that was etched with humility.
“Excuse me sir, could you please help me? I can’t tie my shoes.”
The man wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t begging for change. He was disabled and physically unable to tie his shoes which had become undone on his way to work. I nearly choked on a lump in my throat. What an ass I was. How difficult must it have been for him to ask a complete stranger to do something like that? I said of course, put my gear on the sidewalk, and knelt down to tie his shoes. The laces were wet as I tied them. I noticed his shoes were wet and dirty – the difficulty he had with walking kept him from being able to lift his feet out of the puddles as he walked. I tied his shoes, stood up, and looked into his eyes. I will never forget the look in his eyes. Gratitude. His eyes were almost as wet as his shoe laces had been as he said thank you, and struggled with his stumble-walk as he continued down the sidewalk to his job.
This man didn’t need the Kintsukuroi. He wasn’t broken. I was the one that had been broken with my preconceptions and judging. I needed the Kintsukuroi, and this humble guy gave it to me.