When things come apart, embrace the scars of healing, says Charles Handy
A visitor to the house recently presented me with a beautiful book – very heavy and obviously very special. It was titled Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend.
I had no idea what that meant, and when I opened it I saw photographs of beautiful Japanese ceramics – bowls, plates and vases.
But as I turned the pages, I noticed that the items had obviously been broken and then mended. Only, they hadn’t been mended so as to be “good as new”. They were different.
They’d been repaired using the Japanese technique of kintsugi.
In kintsugi, the glue that is used to hold the broken pieces together is made from lacquer mixed with gold dust (or sometimes silver or platinum dust).
When it dries, the mended item – a bowl, say – is stronger than the original and has visible gold streaks where the breakage points were. Like golden scars.
It isn’t the same as the old bowl, but it is beautiful in its own way – often more beautiful than the original. Certainly, the items in the book, with their gold streaks across them, looked very beautiful.
There is a message here for us, say the Japanese. Breakages – events in life that “break” us – once mended can actually make us stronger and more interesting because they’re part of our history.
My late wife was a wonderfully talented portrait photographer. She loved taking photos of the faces of old people, particularly I suppose, old women.
She said, “They’re so beautiful, they tell you so much. They’re like a tapestry, a story of a life revealed on a face.”
Well, I thought that was a bit of an exaggeration, so this morning before I had a shave, I looked at my face. And suddenly I thought, “Oh my God, what a pitiful thing a man is – and particularly the man I’m looking at. Me. Old, wrinkled and wizened.”
For the first time, I knew what a furrowed brow really looked like. All those parallel lines across my forehead, like a ploughed field – a testament to the endless books I’ve read and written, my life’s work.
What a shame I can’t mark the ridges with gold. Then at least I’d be interesting, if not beautiful.
But there it is: a furrowed brow, and bald except for bunches of white hair atop each ear. With other bits of my body failing rapidly too. Soon I’ll be like Shakespeare’s old man – “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Luckily the mirror doesn’t show my failing legs and failing arms. Just my now interesting face.
And as I look at it again, yes, there are tears in my eyes. My long lost wife, dead now for three years, still missing from my life, and God how I miss her, though she’s there in my mind and in my heart, every morning and every night. And the evidence is in my weepy eyes.
My eyes are also weak from looking at too many computer screens for too long. Part of my work.
So yes, I am a repaired face, a kintsugi face, full of history.
I always say that wisdom is experience understood in tranquillity. And I’ve got lots of tranquillity at the moment, sentenced to a less active life because of my stroke a couple of years ago.
And I rather enjoy reflecting on my long life, with its ups and downs and what I’ve learned from it. Which I’m bold enough to call my wisdom. Which I hope might sometime be of use to others, if I can interpret it properly.
So yes, my face is a sort of tapestry of my life, as is yours, interesting and beautiful in its way. Particularly if you can get someone to photograph it as well as my wife used to.
Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
That is very much the kintsugi philosophy – if you fall, pick yourself up and you’ll be the stronger for it, mature from the experience, and your face might show it with a cut or a bruise – but that’s what makes it interesting.
If you’re a beautiful young creature aged 13 and your face is flawless, it is also, I’m afraid to say, without much history and without a lot of character.
Get old and worn and you’ll be more interesting, particularly if you can reflect on your life in tranquillity. I would go as far as to say that the blessing of old age is kintsugi, the chance to reflect on your breakages and turn them into wisdom.
To be interesting is, in a way, to be beautiful. And I now no longer flinch when I see my face in the mirror each morning. I just say to myself, “Well old friend, you’ve been through it, haven’t you? Lucky you to still be alive.”
This is Charles Handy wishing you a happy look in the mirror tomorrow morning.
Published by William Heinemann, Myself and Other More Important Matters by Charles Handy explores the issues and dilemmas – both moral and creative – raised by the turning points of his long and successful life. Buy a copy below:
Watch author Bonnie Kemske talking about her book Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend here.