“I believe in imperfection.”
Have you ever received a handmade gift? A drawing from a friend, perhaps, or a knitted sweater from your grandmother. If you were to look closely, you’d notice faults, a certain roughness in the creation. Maybe your friend coloured outside the lines. The sweater had a few loose ends. Gifts of that sort are far from perfect — they are unrefined, blemished, cracked, and rudimentary. And yet, it is the handmade gifts that we treasure the most. For one thing, that drawing would be the only one like it in the entire world. The sweater? You’d know your grandmother put hours of effort into it, proof of her love for you. And any other creation crafted by human hands; when broken down to its bare essence, becomes a beacon of humanity — evidence of connection, authenticity, and admiration.
This is Wabi-Sabi.
I was eleven when I was first introduced to the concept of Wabi-Sabi. A speaker was invited to make a presentation in our class, and she was unlike anyone I had seen before in both the way she dressed and the way she carried herself. (At the time, I attended an art school. I was exposed to unique, creative, and weird people everyday, so her (the speaker) being unlike anyone I’d seen before meant that she was, in fact, very strange.) “Wabi-Sabi,” she said, and we laughed, because it was a funny word, “is the beauty of imperfection.” She proceeded to explain the origins of Wabi-Sabi, (Buddhist belief, originated in Japan), and its significance in art specifically. I listened. I took notes, asked questions. But I didn’t understand. I thought my art was supposed to be as perfect as could be.
Wabi-Sabi slipped away from my mind — I simply could not comprehend it.
In seventh grade, I transferred schools. I felt obligated to work harder, and be academically successful. An innocent target. And it got results too. From an objective point of view, I was successful.
But over time, my seemingly short-lived goal of achieving academic excellence integrated into the mindset that carried me throughout school for another three years… I lost track of what I was trying to accomplish. Suddenly, I wanted to be everything. I simply aimed to be perfect.
My idea of perfection varied each year, but the image was always there, in the back of my mind. Being a perfect artist. A perfect musician. A perfect student, a perfect daughter. A perfect friend. truly believed I could eventually achieve all of that, and more. None of those things are bad, really. But there was a downside, one that only revealed itself after I stopped actively choosing to have a mindset that longed for perfection, after that mentality became engraved in my very being, whether it was a conscious effort or not.
That downside was in the mindset itself. Although sometimes motivating, it brought along a slew of insecurities. And I was burdened by the expectations I put upon myself. I slowly came to the realization that no matter how hard I tried, how desperate I was to achieve my dreams, I would always fall short. I was imperfect. I had faults, some of which I couldn’t even control. Flawlessness always required more of me, and of my external circumstances, than could be achieved — even if I devoted my entire existence to reach that level of satisfaction.
The reality of perfection is this: It is nothing but a lie.
The dream of excellence is only good for temporarily distracting me from my hidden insecurities. It is also entirely subjective — one person’s broken life could be another’s fantasy. Sometimes, it is even dangerous. (If I can’t do it perfectly, why should I try at all?) The illusion of perfection acts as a brick wall separating me from the things that really matter, leading to stress, confusion, and a certain kind of hopelessness that can only be felt when I convince myself I will never be enough.
Wabi-Sabi is the alternative. Being able to embrace the beauty in the way that everything is, not as it should be, is a skill that has had a great positive impact on my daily life. Wabi-Sabi encourages me to reside in the moment, and to love everything about it, because everything is temporary. Instead of being swept away by the relentless pursuit of perfection — in relationships, achievements, or possessions — it invites me to step back and take in the truth of the present. And if I were to look closely, the present is always more beautiful than it seems at first glance.
Sixth grade me had no capacity to understand Wabi Sabi, but now I do. My art can never be perfect, just like every other aspect of my life.
And that’s okay.
Because I give myself permission to be myself, and to live a human life. I will build on what is already in existence, instead of remaking myself entirely to fit an imagined ideal.
I’ll live in the moment.
Featured Image Reference:
Spirited Away. (2001).
Directed by H. Miyazaki. Japan: Ghibli.