Sunday, July 18, 2021

Hand Calamity, Wabi-Sabi, Against Gratitude

I’ve been dealing all week with a horrific infected cut on the back of my hand, which finally necessitated a visit to the Emergency Department when it started rapidly blistering in the middle of a Skype meeting with my boss. The wound is in the worse place possible for healing—the back of my dominant hand close to the webbing of my thumb, which makes it impossible keep the skin from constantly moving and flexing. As I have watched this wound bubble and swell and calm and ever-so-slowly heal like a living being with a will of its own, I have been thinking a lot about the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of mending broken pottery with lacquer that has been dusted in gold, silver or platinum. The philosophy of Kintsugi is that breakage is a part of the history of ceramic ware and its repair should be illuminated rather than disguised and hidden. It is in alignment with the concept of wabi-sabi which is an embracing of the flawed and imperfect. To quote Christy Bartlett Flickwerk in The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics: “The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject.” When this injury is healed, there will be a definitely be a scar. It will be part of the story of my human fragility and the resilience of my body. Perhaps I will dust it in gold powder so it will light up and glow for all the world to marvel at.

I have also been thinking this week about gratitude. I’m beginning to realize that used wrongly, the concept of gratitude can be both a self-trap and a method of controlling people. Gratitude has become a corporate buzzword and a publishing boon for shallow self-help books that proliferate in what I call the Bliss Ninny section of chain bookstores. I think it’s cruel to ask people to remember to be grateful when they are in the middle of dealing with, for example, a prolonged pandemic or a medical or financial crisis. Contrary to popular opinion, gratitude itself is not a spiritual practice and trying to force it onto yourself or other people is to negate and distract from what is not okay in your life or the lives of others. It can be a way to avoid action, to tell yourself that you don’t need or deserve more, or that you should ignore your dissatisfaction and ennui because you “have more than others” or “it could always be worse.” I especially dislike the proliferation of “gratitude journals” and calendars and painted rocks and wall hangings that are everywhere now. There is a moral scolding underlying the whole phenomenon and it smells to me of a thought-stopping exercise. We don’t have to “practice” gratitude. It lives within us as a natural part of our being. Like forgiveness, you can’t force it into being by thinking about it or meditating on it or journaling about it. To quote the commercial, “That’s not how any of this works.”

I hereby resolve to be a little less grateful and a little more self-centered, a little less agreeable and a little more difficult, a little less forgiving and a little more judgemental. We will see what it brings to my life.

Enjoy this beautiful and sage video on the philosophy of Kintsugi:

 --Kristen McHenry


Sabina Howell said...

Informative video, Kristen. Thanks for sharing that as well as your journey. May your scar be interesting. said...

Domo arigato!