Wisdom//

How Embracing the Japanese Value of “Wabi-Sabi” Can Help Change Our Outlook

It's the traditional concept that Montecito, Greece, and now the entire world have in common.

Ilona Titova/ Shutterstock
Ilona Titova/ Shutterstock

Before I moved to the stunning Dolomites of Italy, I lived on the “American Riviera,” in Santa Barbara, California. Shortly after I left, following a seven year drought, there began a summer of horrific forest fires, the kinds that have now swept the entire planet. Hundreds and hundreds of wooded acres were completely wiped out, only barren land and scorched earth remained. Hundreds lost their homes, many were injured or died. Montecito, much of California, as so many other places now, was left very badly wounded. 

Finally, everyone’s prayers were answered and the rains came. And they came. And they came. And they came. Unfortunately, the chemicals dropped from planes to quench the fires formed a hard crust over the land that prevented the absorption of the rains. Flash flooding occurred everywhere. Then mudslides began, and finally, as the relentless rains continued to pound the once parched earth, the mudslides became debris flows, carrying boulders the size of automobiles down the mountain sides. Residential neighborhoods lied in wait in innocent vulnerability during the dark of night. Once lovely bubbling creeks turned into highways of death as boulders bore down on houses, creating cavities inside them, instantly filling with thick, cement-like mud, suffocating any life that had been soundly, securely asleep. Mature trees were lifted from their roots and propelled like battering rams into and through homes, again snuffing out any forms of human, plant or animal life. The small, idyllic enclave of Montecito, that had managed to recover from the shock and danger of the wildfires with no lives lost, became a mass grave of 23 people, all in a matter of a few hours. 

I visited the area months afterwards. It looked like a war zone. Vestiges of destruction were everywhere. At the same time, one could see what it looks like when a town picks itself up, shakes off the shock and begins to rebuild, yet with pain and trauma in the collective heart. 

But there was something else that struck me even more upon that visit: there was a palpable difference in the interactions among people. I felt it so clearly. It was as if several layers of “cordial distance” had also been swept away with the 

debris. I felt a greater sense of connection, or perhaps it was familiarity, as if the distance between two people had shrunk somehow, the gap between worlds now bridged by a common humanity. That’s the beauty of great levelers like illness or catastrophe, they are democratic and affect everyone equally. No one is immune. No amount of material, positional or geographic “protection” counts under those circumstances. Crisis is an equal opportunity employer, everyone is fair game. 

What I felt in Montecito was something I’d never experienced before. Certainly it’s always been a place of civility. Most of its inhabitants, after all, live lives of great ease and privilege so one would hope civility would be a baseline for all behavior. But this new sensation was deeper than civility, deeper than mere good breeding. I would say that I experienced a level of softness in my interactions that I’d not known before. It struck me. It was something beautiful. It was as if enough shock and grief had sucker-punched the community in a one-two blow, that the residents were left tenderized, like good Kobe beef. Airs were stripped away and one could see that people were ultimately just people, after all. No amount of meticulously landscaped, walled-in acreage, nor safe deposit contents really count for anything when boulders bigger than your first car come pummeling down a hillside beating a path to (and through) your door. 

Fast forward a couple of months when I found myself in Athens, Greece participating in preliminary meetings for the annual GlobalWIN Conference. I had not spent nearly enough time in the land of my ancestors but with my return, my immense nationalistic pride made my heart swell. However, after a few days, my heart felt something else. I was touched, deeply touched, by the omnipresent kindness, warm smiles, philosophical perspectives and complete generosity of the Greeks. It is not an accident that one of the traditional hallmarks of Greek culture has long been what is called “Philoxenia,” literally, “love of strangers.” OK, not every single encounter was so, but more than enough were and I detected a pattern. 

One has only to look at the response of the Greek islanders to the tsunami of immigrants who, quite literally washed up upon its shores, to see what true generosity of spirit looks like. Now, what I felt after just a few days in Athens, was again a kind of softness that I’d not experienced, maybe ever, in a city of several million. And that softness repeated itself in multiple encounters. 

Over the last decade, I’d watched along with the rest of the world, as the people of Greece were forced by the EU to adopt austerity measures not one, not two, not three, but four times. Four times the average citizen was expected to endure 

heavier and heavier taxation, along with a drop in what the Euro could buy them. I watched as shock turned into insult, insult into anger, anger into resentment, resentment>despair, despair>resignation, resignation>depression, depression into broken spirit….and finally (for the lucky ones), broken spirit into complete surrender. And it was from exactly this point of surrender, that I sensed the Phoenix rising. 

“What was left? What more could they take? My dreams are broken. My future security pulled out from under my feet. My hard work and prudent living…for what?” This is where, from a collective pain so great, a nation arose with a softened heart. This is where the answer to the question, “What’s left?” becomes an awakening to “What matters?” And ultimately to the question “What’s next?” 

The answer to that question, as in Montecito, California, when all else has been stripped away by exogenous forces, becomes a resounding: Life is left! Love is left! Kindness is left! Friends, Family, Community is left! 

And now, with a global pandemic upon us and heinous public homicides visible to all in real time, the entire world shares an unprecedented opportunity to emerge from our collective experience of trauma with the same softened heart, IF we choose to stay out of fear, while taking smart measures, and to stay connected while distanced and masked. In two back to back experiences followed now by our global pandemic and a global movement for justice and humanity, I see not only the resilience of the great human spirit, but it’s ability to rebirth itself with a higher and more profound set of values, priorities, compassion and dignity. Hearts were broken, and hearts have cracked open. As Leonard Cohen famously sang, “…cracks are where the Light comes in.” I feel hopeful. I say Congratulations to us all, “Synharityria” in Greek. It’s a word that literally means “Shared Grace.” May we all, all of us worldwide, share in this Grace, and may we let it shine through us, displaying all the beauty of our worn out, cracked and broken parts.

A beauty the Japanese call “wabi-sabi,” a patched up, caretakingly mended beauty that can only be obtained through strife and conscious survival. A beauty transformed by Life into something imperfect, perhaps incomplete, definitely impermanent and, yet a beauty that the ancient Greeks named “Axios,” worthy, right, just, true…and yes, beautiful.

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