Wabi-sabi, our bodies, and the constant drive to buy new things.
What drives shoppers to replace perfectly useful things? Why do we prefer the untested bodies of our youth? In today's post, we touch on a Japanese philosophy that speaks to both of these questions.
Our drive to buy: When and how we shop.
Hosting a yard sale gives you a chance to do a lot of people watching. More specifically, it gives you an inside look into the shopping habits and product preferences of others. I'm not a hardcore shopper and I've never worked in retail, so this experience was eye opening for me.
When you host a yard sale, you are the shop-keep. This means that you get to do a lot more than just passively observe people's shopping preferences, you also get to hear their (very) direct feedback on things.
One of the first things we noticed was how strongly people felt the need to tell us that a set of four soup mugs were mislabeled as coffee mugs. (Duly noted, shoppers, duly noted.) The next thing they felt compelled to point out was that there were chips in two of the four mugs. They did not do this to negotiate a better price, and they never made a lower offer. In fact, any item with a chip was automatically ruled out as worthless by every shopper who offered their opinion.
If there was a caste system for yard sale items, chipped china would be at the very bottom. I sold three rusted barrel rings for a few bucks within the first hour of opening. There was no barrel included and no questions asked, but a chipped mug? Heck no. This aversion to chips was true even of shoppers who appeared to have very limited means. This begged the question: Why did a small chip (on an otherwise functional item) make a mug entirely worthless?
An abrupt drop in the perceived value of a useful item isn't just true when browsing chipped dinnerware. Last summer, we worked with a neighbor to replace some wiggling fence posts, making our backyard secure before adding a dog to our family. The fence is older. It had been there for some time when we bought our home a decade ago. No matter its age, a few new fence posts made it right as rain. It's a sound, sturdy fence now and serves it's purpose very well. Except our neighbor's longtime boyfriend doesn't think so.
As we made casual conversation recently about the incredibly handy person that we'd hired to replace the fence posts, he remarked offhandedly that the whole fence needed replacing. He doesn't live at the neighboring property or make decisions about its upkeep, so I didn't argue... But I'm not convinced that the weathered appearance of a completely sound fence necessitates a costly replacement. (If you'd like to judge for yourself, you can see a picture that includes some of this ancient fence in my article on Buy Nothing.)
If the look of the fence offended me, I would gladly clean it up and apply some stain or paint. But it doesn't. In fact, I like the natural coloring the fence has taken on with time. Based on the number of products and tutorials that exist for creating weathered-looking wood, I think others appreciate the appearance of time-tested planks as well.
While a change in appearance, a chip or a weather-worn patina, can dramatically reduce the value of a serviceable item in our neighborhood, not all cultures feel this way. This might be particularly true in Japan, where the concepts of Kintsugi and Wabi-sabi originated.
As a philosophy, Kintsugi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in broken things. Literally, it means "golden repair." In fact, Kintsugi is the practical art of rejoining broken pieces of pottery with gold, "highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage."
Wabi-sabi is a very similar philosophy. I'll let Wikipedia define the two halves of the word: "Wabi... connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs."
Together, these philosophies can help us to see a worn fence or a chipped mug a little differently. They are not objects to be thrown out or replaced, but rather objects we can admire for having weathered the tests of time.
Wabi-sabi & our bodies.
If the brokenness, wear, and patina that come with age can add character to an object, then could this not be true of our bodies as well?
Earlier this week, my son and I were comparing our scars and the stories that went with them. These marks had a rich history to tell! A pale scuff on my left knee is a souvenir of the flying leap I made between boulders in Montana a few years back. There's the surgical line left behind when part of my thyroid was removed. Parallel scars run vertical on the face of my right knee from running and rough housing with the little boys after church when I was small.
Wabi-sabi means the human body can carry reminders of our adventures. The "patina" of our age can also tell stories of love. The softly loosening skin of our partner's elbow, their gray hair, an emerging age spot -- these things can remind us of the years we've lived hand-in-hand together. Similarly, the many changes of pregnancy can be a proud tribute to parenthood.
Wabi-sabi in America:
Changing our mindset.
The Japanese aren't the only ones to embrace these philosophies. In fact, you might be very familiar with a childhood tale tells a beautiful story about the value of things that are a bit banged up and worn:
““Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
We are becoming. Our skin softens and wrinkles, tattoos fade, our hair grays, and we become.
Society generally values the preservation of youthfulness, particularly in women. We read about celebrities spending so much on surgeries and other artificial ways to keep appearing young, but a youthful look is not something we can maintain indefinitely. Our appearance, like so many things in the world, is in a constant state of change. There is huge peace in accepting that our forehead might crease and our thighs might dimple in time. This type of peace requires us to find value in something other than our looks.
As physical changes take place, we can choose to pursue experiences and personal growth that add to our value as humans. We can cultivate relationships with greater depth.
No matter how tight our grip, we cannot cling to youth forever, but we can keep our bodies strong, nourished, and ready to be marked up by more adventures. (I do not, however, recommend jumping between giant rocks! #Danger)
While we're accepting ourselves and the people we love as things that will most definitely age, let's do the same for the practical things in our lives. Let's spend less time and money on replacing chipped mugs and instead focus on filling them with tea (or soup!) to sip with a friend. Let's have the patience to watch the useful things in our lives take on the character and patina of age instead of rushing out to buy and apply "weathered wood accelerator" to the latest and greatest thing.
Our possessions and our bodies both change over time, but applying a little Wabi-sabi to our lives can give us a deep peace that new objects and age-defying wrinkle cream cannot.
(Author's Note: The post photo features a coffee mug, not to be confused with a soup mug.)