What kinds of beauty are durable and powerful enough for difficult times?
As I carried that question around in my heart all last month, I remembered the Japanese philosophy of beauty called wabi sabi. Like so many spiritual practices, wabi sabi can be felt far better than it can be explained. We could say it's the touch and energy of hand-made pottery rather than mass-produced dishware. It's the wobble and grace of the real and imperfect moment more than a glossy and perfected performance. It's the odd-shaped and natural petals on this flower rather than an exact symmetry or calculation.
Perfection and exactness do have their place in beauty, definitely. But in my heart and my experience, wabi sabi is more inhabitable and long-lasting... and wabi sabi is where I want to hang out. My life and my shape are welcome in a wabi sabi world. Musician Peter Mayer sings one of my favorite songs about this, called Japanese Bowl. And Thomas Oppong said in a lovely article, the wabi sabi philosophy "encourages us to focus on the blessings hiding in our daily lives, celebrating the way things are rather than how they should be."
I am joyfully celebrating the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as leaders with integrity, dignity, and honor. (Deep thanks to every organizer and volunteer who got out the vote while facing so many obstacles. Shout out to Seed The Vote and United We Dream!) Yet so much of American community is nowhere near what it could be. So much has never lived up to our ideals and values. Right now our life together asks for a re-orientation deeper than politics. We all need to leave our sleeves rolled up, to keep working toward liberty and justice for all. How does beauty or blessing help us engage the dangers, injustices, and grieving in our country and our world?
Two weeks ago, my wife Hol caught sight of the rising moon out her window. She called me over, and we just breathed for a bit and took it in. Awful news about the COVID virus was still playing in the kitchen, but we let ourselves be captured by beauty for a minute. I can still feel it and not really explain: it helped. It filled me up enough to come back to my prayers and my work.
I will admit, however, that it's sometimes really, really hard to trust the process and include the ugly with the beautiful. We’ve just lived through a wild, contentious election process, for example, and now we'll be co-creating our transition here in the US. We can't look away from racism/white supremacy, inequity, and trauma, even as we look toward living together in peace. It seems that democracy is a hand-made, wobbly miracle that holds all of this.
While I made this flower art, it felt powerful to create weirdly shaped petals in vivid colors to convey the complexity of life. Somehow it's wabi sabi beautiful in its wholeness. But it sure looked weird and disjointed as it was underway! I had to keep faith that this wild jumble of colors would actually look like a flower in the end. Did you see the poop-colored petals? The fire and smoke? Or the deep purple of grief? They are part of this life and beauty... right along with the gold of generosity and peach of tenderness. Red and blue are here too, each as a part of this living, flowering whole.
Let's keep going, friends, carrying something beautiful. Let's focus on growing what's life-giving, compassionate, and joyous. Let's keep shaping our days and service with love and the wabi sabi imprint of our beautiful imperfection.
As Senator Cory Booker said this week, "May we rise to lead, may we rise to heal, may we rise to help, may we rise to love. May we rise together."
I believe that we are rising to bloom yet again, even now.