The United States of Wabi-Sabi

I spent three days in Washington DC last week. It was only my second visit, and the first was so brief and condensed that it barely counts.

DC is a suitable capital city for the United States. It’s broad, diverse, beautiful, ugly, deeply symbolic, and crassly commercial. The parks and monuments around the national mall are a gorgeous natural oasis surrounded by an urban hellscape. As my wife and I walked from our hotel past luxury apartments and 5-star restaurants, we encountered more panhandlers that I see in a couple of weeks in NYC. Even the hellish traffic fits with the United States’ self-destructive love affair with the automobile.

It’s an interesting time to visit the nation’s capital. It’s hard to stand at the marble feet of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson without wondering what they would think of the “man” who holds their job now. Walking past images of World War II and the Great Depression after listening to a speech about the “victims” of the Affordable Care Act was almost physically painful.

And of course, none of today’s controversies are new. While #45 may represent the absolute nadir of personal and professional qualifications for Chief Executive, today’s political debates have been with us for generations.

I left the capital not really sure what to think. The inherent contradictions in our nation’s capital were not surprising, but they were more stark and startling than I expected, and the news that John McCain was the man who delivered what might have been the killing blow to ACA repeal only brought the contradictions into starker relief.

On my first full day back home I opened up my RSS Reader, sobbed quietly at the number of unread articles, and started my triage. What would I just mark as “read” and what did I have time to read?

I came across this video while separating the wheat from the chaff.

Wabi-sabi has several meanings, and its meanings have mutated over the centuries, but what stuck out to me was the concept of flawed beauty, the idea of acknowledging the beauty of something not just despite its flaws, but because of them.

This aspect of wabi-sabi isn’t just a way to appreciate the beauty of everyday objects but also gives us a reason for optimism. Our nation is flawed, and it always has been flawed, but there is still beauty here. We’re best served by focussing on that as we try to fix things.

Cheryl Hunter, in a TedTalk that’s actually worth sitting through (unicorns exist!), tells a story that teaches us about Wabi-Sabi with a very visceral story.


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