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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Heart of imperfect enoughness

Wabi-sabi — the beauty in our brokenness and impermanence — is a tribute to a life well-lived

Written by Shelja Sen |
August 29, 2021 6:30:08 am
Welcome Back: Our clothes might be a little frayed, our homes messy, but we would be enough, our lives easier and our hearts lighter as we welcome people into our scruffy lives again. (Getty Images)

The last one-and-a-half years have come down quite hard on most of us, and we are dragging ourselves out of it, quite frayed at the edges. As we open our metaphorical doors to welcome people into our homes, we wonder if we are really prepared to step out or let people in. Our homes have weathered the storm along with us, and the effects are showing. The threadbare sofas, faded walls and chipped cutlery telling stories of pain, tears, love and meaningful conversations. The spruced-up nooks and crannies once hosted conferences, workshops, meetings, home-schooling and college presentations. Humans and animals cohabiting adding to the joyful messiness of living. Each corner a witness to our struggles, hope, loss and survival.

As I look around my rundown and much-loved home, I think of the Japanese sentiment or philosophy of wabi-sabi that is more of an experience and almost impossible to put into words. It speaks of the beauty of imperfectness, grace in accepting impermanence and exquisiteness of earthly life. Imagine running your hand on an old desk or chest of drawers in your grandparents’ room, feeling the grain of the aged wood, simple lines, little cracks, crevices formed over the years. You notice how, over the generations, different people have left their little etchings here and there. It stands there in the corner, decrepit, a little rickety but full of rare beauty. A tribute to a life lived with zest, a testimony to what we hold on to in the face of all adversity.

As we start to put the broken pieces together, our journey of recovery is not going to be easy. For me, wabi-sabi is embracing the “full catastrophe” (a nod to the 1964 film Zorba the Greek) of this messy and imperfect life. What would it be like if we could start appreciating these imperfections rather than finding quick fixes? Let me share three main threads that have come out of my conversations with many young people over the years: maybe, it is good for our mental health; maybe, it is good for our planet; maybe, it will give us space and time to explore what really matters to us? Let me expand on these:

Good for mental health: Our capitalist culture demands certain “standards of living” which we are obliged to comply with — how our homes look, what we wear, what money we make. Our worth and value is measured against these standards. We are pushed to compare ourselves with others constantly (social media plays a huge role there), leading us to internalise these judgements, which can have damaging effects as they undermine us, inviting experiences of unworthiness and labels of being “unsuccessful”, “failure”, and not worthy enough. Mall culture, online stores and credit card companies have convinced us that happiness is a click away, and we have let ourselves be lulled by this fake propaganda. Every occasion and celebration is being co-opted, packaged and sold to us, and we think we need it. But we do not realise that it is taking us away from the elusive happiness that we are seeking, and thus leaving us feeling more wretched and miserable. We are trying to buy our way out of misery, but paradoxically, getting more stuck than ever.

Good for our planet: What if we started cherishing the old, threadbare, rusty, chipped, stained stuff we own? Will that help us be comfortable with our own selves and not constantly seek a shinier, glossier illusion of joy (like on Pinterest)? Capitalism bulldozes us into the commodification of happiness, and we are getting lured into a lifestyle that’s cramming our cupboards, landfills and oceans and choking the ecosystem that nourishes us. The industries are thriving, but the cost to our carbonised earth is too much to ignore. Now there is even a name for this malaise — “affluenza”, a concept introduced to me by a young man I worked with many years ago and popularised by the book Affluenza, The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001, Berrett-Koehler Publishers) where the authors describe it as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

A compass for what truly matters: Many people I met in the past year have talked about how the pandemic has taught them what matters to them and what does not. I have had rich conversations with children, young people and families and some of the things I get to hear often are “simplicity”, “community”, “connections”, “being healthy”, “doing something meaningful”, “nature”, “sustainability”, “spirituality”, “finding joy in little things”, “contributing to society in some way or the other”, “digital minimalism”. Repeated themes of what they want to distance themselves from have been of “cluttered, crazy, hectic lives”, “rabbit holes of social media”, “meaningless consumption”. As we find our way out of the pandemic maze, maybe we need to pause and reflect on what path we want to take. When was the last time we experienced an expansive sense of joy, exhilaration? What were we doing? What does it tell us about what we hold precious? What possibilities could there be for our future if we moved forward in this direction?

It’s wonderful to see how people across the world are taking to minimalism, stoicism and downshifting. “Less is more” is becoming a mantra for many, thrift stores a way of life and decluttering a religion. What if we believed in our “enoughness” rather than lack? Our clothes might be a little frayed, our homes messy, but we would be enough, our lives easier and our hearts lighter as we welcome people into our scruffy lives again.

(Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, writer, co-founder, Children First. In this column, she curates the know-how of the children and the youth she works with. She can be reached at

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