My friend Sarah has moved house and consolidated households a few times in recent years. As a consequence, she has a box of broken items. Just recently she told me that she’s decided to try her hand at kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing broken items in such a way as both to recall the brokenness of the item and honor its beauty. Usually this is done with bowls and cups, but you can do it with just about anything that’s broken.
The practice of kintsugi is inspired by the philosophical aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which acknowledges that all things in the world are impermanent and imperfect, including beautiful things. Far from denigrating beauty, wabi-sabi finds beauty in places that many of us would overlook. Even in broken bowls and shattered cups.
Wabi-sabi has a special significance to people like Sarah and me. You see, my friend and I have both experienced the brokenness of serious mental illness among close friends and even family members. In my case, it’s a mother with schizoaffective disorder.
Serious mental illness is brutal. It’s ugly. It’s painful. Yet behind the outward displays of the illness, there is always a human being, someone’s child or parent or spouse or sibling or neighbor or friend. To a child, a mother is always beautiful; to a parent, a child is beautiful; and there’s nothing in the world more beautiful than a beloved friend. Even a friend with mental illness.
I often express pride in my home state of Iowa, but lately something unsettling has happened. Over the past couple of years, a number of important mental health facilities have closed down. Most recently it happened in Oskaloosa, though not long ago it was Mount Pleasant and Independence. My mother was absent from my high school graduation because ten days prior to the event she had been admitted, against her will, to the mental health facility at Independence, Iowa. I was sad at the time, but my mother got the help and care she needed in that moment and that’s something to be thankful for, maybe even something to celebrate.
Surely fiscal responsibility is important and necessary but every budget that’s slashed and every mental health facility that’s closed will bear consequence in the lives of actual, living human beings. There’s nothing theoretical, abstract, or impersonal about it.
The poor, the sick, the suffering, the rejected, the useless, the unloved, the aged, the mentally ill — these people are every bit as important as you and me. And they’re beautiful, too. If only we could see that.
March 23, 2017